May 1, 2010
Mao’s Last Dancer, based on the Chinese ballet dancer Li Cunxin’s autobiography of the same name, follows Cunxin’s transition from a peasant boy in rural China to one of the world’s most acclaimed ballet dancers. Film editor Mark Warner has worked with Bruce Beresford on five films, including the Oscarwinning Driving Miss Daisy, for which Warner and Beresford also won best director and best in film editing respectively. In a phone interview from Sydney, where he is currently working on a 3D film, he talks about editing Mao’s Last Dancer and shares some of his influences in filmmaking. Asia Image: What’s it like working with Bruce Berensford for the fifth time? Mark Warner: He’s certainly my favorite director to work with. He’s a wonderfully inspiring human being, not just as a director but [also as] a great friend. Having worked with him in so many different genres in such a long period of time, we have created a kind of ‘lack of language’ – not having to talk a lot about what you’re going to do – since there are certain instincts that we share in common like the rhythm of film editing, how a film should come together, and how to make things potent. AI: Do you usually go on location? Warner: I usually try to go on location as much as possible, but it depends on the budget of the film. On the first film I worked on with Bruce, Driving Miss Daisy, the budget was so low they didn’t have the money to take me on location so I stayed in Los Angeles while he shot the film. AI: Do you start your editing while you’re on location? Warner: Yes, but there are exceptions to it. Most films are edited as they are shot – there’s no time to wait until the entire film has been shot and finished. As films are usually out of sequence, out of order, I do my best to try to make sense of the film, put them together out of order. I follow as closely as as I can right behind production and put them together assembling them into some sort of form as they go so within a couple of weeks of fi nishing the production period we have an assemblage of the film we can look at. Also, during the production process, if there are any problems with the shot, or something that’s meant to work a particular way but didn’t come out as planned, when you’re on location they can be dealt with at the time. You change reshoot or add an additional shot – basically anything you need to correct a particular problem. AI: Can you talk a bit more on the editing system you used for Mao’s Last Dancer? Warner: That was edited on Avid, which is a fairly common editing software package which people use professionally worldwide. We were on the Avid Nitrus, but we were editing Mao’s in standard definition, and we did that all throughout with PAL, but now we try to edit as much as possible on high definition, it has become cheaper than it used to be, and it has become pretty much become the norm now that you can do things in HD. [For Mao] we couldn’t do it in HD for a number of reasons. Mainly, the telecine facility in Beijing at the time didn’t have the capability of creating HD transfers of our dailies. Mao’s Last Dancer was shot on film negative and then transfered to tape and then we ingest that into Avid and then cut the digital files that were created on those tapes. AI: Was there a particularly difficult scene to edit? Warner: The most difficult scenes were probably the dances, but nothing was too horribly difficult in Mao’s. That’s because the dancing and the choreography were so extraordinarily good. What made it difficult were the choices of how to realise editorially a dance and a particular choreography, or dance and music, so you are really getting the most emotional impact from it. So in that sense it was difficult and challenging but not daunting – not so difficult in the sense of trying to make it work, which some films can be. Also, since it’s ballet, [I had to know] what were the best moves, the best dance bits from different takes that were shot on particular dancers. At one point we brought in Graeme Murphy, who is an Australian choreographer, who did a wonderful job, and had him look at our edit of the dance sequences, specifi cally to see if we had the best [shots] not only from a poetic standpoint but from a technical standpoint as well. AI: Where was the bulk of editing done? Warner: While we were on location, we did some of the editing at the facility that was doing our transfers from film to tape in Beijing. And when we came back to Australia, we edited at Fox Studios in Sydney in a post facility called Spectrum. The final prints were done at a different post finishing facility. Sound Firm on the same Fox lot did our mixing and produced our final soundtrack. The DI was done in Sydney, at a facility owned by Deluxe. AI: If you could edit the film again what would you do differently? Warner: I guess it depends on who’s involved. Because films a lot of times have their own political life in a sense that we dont work in a vacuum – there are investors, producers, and other people, and they all have a vested interest in it, and because of that want to have a say. Fortunately with Bruce, most people allow him to make the film that he wants to make because of his directing capabilities and track record. But there were a few compromises made on this fi lm that I would love to have seen changed back to what Bruce and I were trying to realise originally, but that would mean that we would have to get to this position where we wouldn’t have to compromise, wouldn’t have to have other people involved in this film, which isn’t the reality. Also, because you have a group of people – choregraphers, dancers, Bruce, myself – with potentially differing opinions, a lot of times you have to do something the entire group would approve. [But as to the finished product] there’s nothing in that film I would change. AI: What is your favourite film? Warner: Probably the most infl uential film to me, because I was a kid living in Los Angeles, was when the film Dr Zhivago was released for the first time, in 70mm film release and I went to see that at the old Cinerama Dome in Hollywood. It was a very romantic story. Watching it at that young age, the f lm made me want to be involved with filmmaking and storytelling and really transported me to another world. I think for me it was one of those seminal films, and because of that, one of my favourite films of all time. AI: When you joined the film business did you start out in editing? Warner: I grew up in the film industry in Los Angeles. My father was a sound designer and I went to university for a while and did not study film. But I would have odd jobs in high school that were involved with filmmaking, as part of the crew, as a sound recordist or a camera assistant. Because I grew up around it I didn’t neccessarily feel that was something I wanted to do. I was more interest in studying psychology and engineering. But as I saw more films and took some film classes in university just for the fun of it, I started to realise how much I did want to do it. And when I was looking at the various aspects I was attracted to editing mainly because of its immediate impact on the storytelling of the film. AI: Where did you learn film editing ? Warner: I basically learned it through apprenticeships. Particularly in Los Angeles Don Zimmerman was the most influential person – in giving me my first picture assisting job, my first editing job helping him as a co-editor. I worked on two films with him as an assitant – Coming Home and Being There, both directed by Hal Ashby. Early in my career we were cutting 35 mm films, and everything was cut on a German flatbed machine called the KEM. And in working that way as an assistant you were in the room with the editor and director because you had to help them physically handle the film. So there was a lot more physical participation, and you learn by osmosis, just by being there during the conversation and actually watching the process. Physical editing was much slower and more laborious than editing now is digitally on computers. But what that allowed you to do was talk about what you were doing and follow the process of what we’re trying to get at and look at it and see if it was effective because it wasn’t just lighting fast as it is today with computers. Consequently for assistant editors trying to learn the editing craft it has become a much harder thing because most editors don’t need anybody in the room – there’s nothing to keep things sorted since there’s no physical film anymore. So now editors to show their work to an assistant, have them look at it, show them why they’ve done things or invite them into the room to see how they’re editing. With digital editing editors can allow the assistants to edit scenes since there’s no physical film involved and you can always easily retrieve a scene. AI: Which one of the films you’ve worked on is your favourite? Warner: Probably Driving Miss Daisy. AI: When you start editing, do you stick to the script or do you start interpreting right away? Warner: I try to initially stay to the structure and intent of the script. A lot of themes in the course of being shot are reinterpreted by the director and the actors, and could be nothing like the script because something doesn’t not work and they devise something else. My first assemblage of the film is to try to follow the script and structure of the script as closely as possible. I try not to really do much censorship as far as deleting lines of dialogue. I don’t delete scenes unless there’s a major problem with the scene and I have conversations with the director and there’s a mutual agreement in the beginning that we won’t put that scene in the assemblage. There’s a blueprint everyone’s trying to follow. Usually there’s some merit to why it’s written the way it was, and it’s a good starting point because you can see the entire palette of what was shot, and there’s a merit to looking at all the scenes in the order they were intended to be in because you can immediately identify the things that work and don’t work. It’s also important to see everything and hear all the dialogue at least once. It just gives you more facility to work on and modify the film when you understand how everything was intended to be. Sometimes a scene that you think is completely inconsequential in the move might become pivotal – it just needed bridging. AI: What is the most difficult part of a film editor’s job? Warner: Getting stuck between political factions in the movie. If there’s a problem between investors and producers or with somebody who has influential power in the film – writer, director – if there’s a conflict and you become the center of that because there’s nowhere else the go. Once the film is done shooting, everything comes back to the editing room. AI: What are you working on right now? Warner: A film called Sanctum that’s being shot in 3D. It’s the first large-scale 3D film to be shot in Australia. They shot it on location in Queensland and Victoria and on the Warner Studios lot. People trapped in a cave trying to survive, the story on how they cope and try to get out.