Casino Jack

One of this year’s documentary films with legitimate Sundance buzz is Casino Jack and the United States of Money. The work of award-winning director Alex Gibney, Casino Jack chronicles the rise and fall of notorious Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Gibney picked up a Best Documentary Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side in 2008. I had a chance to chat with the editor of Casino Jack, Alison Ellwood, who also shares producing credits on this film. Ellwood is a New York and Massachusetts-based editor who frequently works in conjunction with Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions. Gibney and Ellwood have collaborated on a number of uniquely American films over the past decade, including Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.

Like most documentary film editors, Alison Ellwood, has travelled that road from the start. According to Ellwood, “I’ve largely worked on documentary productions my entire career as an editor. In fact, Tanner ’88 [the Robert Altman TV series] was my primary experience as an editor on dramas. I like working on documentaries, because I wanted to be a photojournalist when I was in school. Documentary filmmaking is just an extension of that goal.”

Given that Jack Abramoff has become so vilified in the media, I first asked how she felt he was represented in Casino Jack. Ellwood replied, “Our story was really about ‘who is he?’ Jack Abramoff is very present in this film and appears many times in archival interviews. In fact, Alex interviewed him a number of times in prison, but in the end, he declined to do a current interview on-camera for this film. What he did was elevate ‘business as usual’ in Washington to a new level. I think in certain ways, the film treats him somewhat sympathetically. It’s less about ‘here’s this rotten apple’ and more about the whole barrel being rotten. Jack is actually quite charming and funny in many of the clips we have and some of that humor shows on screen. I think he actually comes across better in this film than many would have expected.”

Casino Jack was a three-and-one-half year long project, with hundreds of hours of archival and original footage in a range of formats, like DVCPro, Betacam-SP, HDCAM, DVCAM, DVD and QuickTime movies.  I discussed with Alison how she was able to wrap her head around this much material and develop the story arc. She answered, “This project took several years and during that time Jigsaw was also working on other projects. As a rough estimate, I would say that the actual editing took about fourteen months. I had my first, four-hour-long rough cut at about seven months. The biggest challenge was finding a way to make the story understandable and to humanize it. This was a complex story to tell, just like Enron, but it was bigger in scope. It involved many different countries and government leaders, both here and around the world. Enron was a financial story. We were trying to explain some of the arcane mark-to-market accounting practices in ways that the audiences could quickly grasp. In Casino Jack, the challenge was to present the complex world of politics and lobbying.”

As always, the challenge is deciding what to leave on the cutting room floor. Alison continued, “One big part of the first rough cut was Abramoff’s involvement with the [Commonwealth of the Northern] Mariana Islands.” Abramoff represented the government of the islands, which is a U. S. Commonwealth. He was involved in efforts to affect Congressional action regarding the islands and businesses in the capital of Saipan.

“This was a very important story that involved serious worker abuse on the islands. It was an hour-and-a-half of the original cut and made a very good standalone story in its own right, but it was too long. We spent three months to get that down to forty minutes, but in the final cut, it’s only seventeen minutes of the film. That was tough to let go. This is such an intellectual film anyway. That part had real emotion, which helps give a film like Casino Jack impact. Ultimately we decided that we weren’t telling the Mariana Islands story, but rather that it was only a part of the whole story. Plus, it had already been well-documented by other programs.”

Another surprising editorial challenge you normally don’t associate with a documentary is comedic timing. Alison explained, “A lot of the clips are actually comical, but it’s dark humor. We thought these were funny, but were surprised when the audiences in our test screenings didn’t laugh in certain areas. That was, of course, because in the context of the story, these were quite shocking and the audience was stunned. So we made some adjustments to have these play out with the desired impact.”

The logistics of the variety and amount of footage raised its own challenges. The footage was all dubbed or downconverted to DVCAM and then ingested at the Avid 15:1 draft-quality resolution. Jigsaw uses Avid Media Composers and Unity LANshare storage, but there were multiple projects going through the shop during this time. To ease the load, Ellwood did most of her cutting during the last five or six months of the project on a MacBook Pro at her Massachusetts home. All of the 15:1 media fit onto a 1TB FireWire drive and both Jigsaw and Ellwood had duplicate copies of the media. When a cut was ready for screening, she would e-mail an Avid bin to her assistant editor at Jigsaw, who in turn would relink that to their copy of the media files.

Ellwood is firmly committed to Avid Media Composer as the editing tool of choice. In fact the inevitable Final Cut versus Media Composer question elicited this response, “I used Final Cut Pro on one project, but didn’t like it at all. I really think Media Composer is a better tool for storytelling. One big problem I had was with the behavior of locators. When I cut, I need the locators to stay linked to the clips. As I cut from a clip to a sequence or one sequence to another, I need the locators to be able to follow along, so that I have access to the notes and comments that I’ve made. Final Cut didn’t do this in the same way as I’m used to with Media Composer.”

One software feature – unique to Avid – that came into play on Casino Jack is ScriptSync. A script or transcript can be loaded as a text file into a Media Composer bin. Script Sync will align media clips to lines of text by matching phonetics between the text lines and the audio tracks of the media files. Using ScriptSync, an editor can click on a line of text in the bin and have instance access to any and all available matching clips at that precise point within the clip. This becomes very handy when trying to find one particular answer in hours of recorded interviews.

A new feature that Ellwood would have liked to have had is Frame Rate Mix & Match. She was cutting on version 3.5 of the software and this is a feature that was introduced in Media Composer 4.0. Mix & Match lets the editor combine all the different film and video frame rates within the same sequence. The software takes care of properly adding or adjusting cadences to make the clips play correctly according to the sequence’s timebase.

Alison explained, “We had many different formats at different frame rates, so to make the offline editing easiest, I was working in a 30i [Avid Media Composer] project. Some of our footage was in PAL, which is 25fps. In order to quickly integrate those clips into the edit, the footage was literally shot off of a monitor that was displaying the playback from a PAL deck, using a 30fps NTSC camcorder. This is what I cut into the sequence. Once our offline was locked, we took the PAL tapes and did a slow-scan transfer and upconversion to HD.  This new master material (along with all other archival masters) was then overcut into the offline sequence before handing over our online HD finishing to Postworks in New York.”

“A feature like Mix & Match would have been very helpful and I plan to use it in the future. We haven’t upgraded the Media Composer software yet, because we also need to upgrade the LANshare software. There are three projects on that storage, so we can’t upgrade it yet. When those are completed, then all the systems and software will be done at one time.”

Casino Jack was presented at Sundance and will be distributed through Magnolia Pictures and Participant Productions. Once a theatrical deal has been nailed down, a DI will be done on the HD master for release prints. Like most documentary editors, Alison Ellwood has been integral in shaping the story of all of these films – in essence, helping to ‘write’ the film through pictures and sound. Her next project is another Jigsaw film, which she co-directs with Gibney. This one will be a look at ‘60s pop icon Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and his “Merry Pranksters”, as told through his own words and films.

Written for Videography magazine and NewBay Media LLC.

©2010 Oliver Peters