Glass – Editing an Unconventional Trilogy

Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has become synonymous with films about the supernatural that end with a twist. He first gained broad attention with The Sixth Sense and in the two decades since, has written, produced, and directed a range of large and small films. In recent years, he has taken a more independent route to filmmaking, working with lower budgets and keeping close control of production and post.

His latest endeavor, Glass, also becomes the third film in what is now an unconventional trilogy, starting first with Unbreakable, released 19 years ago. 2017’s Split was the second in this series. Glass combines the three principal characters from the previous two films – David Dunn/The Overseer (Bruce Willis), Elijah Price/Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), and Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), who has 23 multiple personalities.

Shyamalan likes to stay close to his northeastern home base for production and post, which has afforded an interesting opportunity to young talent. One of those is Luke Ciarrocchi, who edited the final two installments of the trilogy, Split and Glass. This is only his third film in the editor’s chair. 2015’s The Visit was his first. Working with Shyamalan has provided him with a unique opportunity, but also a master class in filmmaking. I recently spoke with Luke Ciarrocchi about his experience editing Glass.

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[OP] You’ve had the enviable opportunity to start your editing career at a pretty high level. Please tell me a bit about the road to this point.

[LC] I live in a suburb of Philadelphia and studied film at Temple University. My first job after college was as a production assistant to the editing team on The Happening with editor Conrad Buff (The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Last Airbender) and his first assistant Carole Kenneally. When the production ended, I got a job cutting local market commercials. It wasn’t glamorous stuff, but it is where I got my first experience working on Avid [Media Composer] and really started to develop my technical knowledge. I was doing that for about seven months when The Last Airbender came to town.

I was hired as an apprentice editor by the same editing crew that I had worked with on The Happening. It was on that film that I started to get onto Night’s radar. I was probably the first Philly local to break into his editing team. There’s a very solid and talented group of local production crew in Philly, but I think I was the first local to join the Editors Guild and work in post on one of his films. Before that, all of the editing crew would come from LA or New York. So that was a big ‘foot in the door’ moment, getting that opportunity from Conrad and Carole.  I learned a lot on Airbender. It was a big studio visual effects film, so it was a great experience to see that up close – just a really exciting time for me.

During development of After Earth, even before preproduction began, Night asked me to build a type of pre-vis animatic from the storyboards for all the action sequences. I would take these drawings into After Effects and cut them up into moveable pieces, animate them, then cut them together into a scene in Avid. I was putting in music and sound effects, subtitles for the dialogue, and really taking them to a pretty serious and informative level. I remember animating the pupils on one of the drawings at one point to convey fear (laughs). We did this for a few months. I would do a cut, Night would give me notes, maybe the storyboard artist would create a new shot, and I would do a recut. That was my first back-and-forth creative experience with him.

Once the film began to shoot, I joined the editing team as an assistant editor. At the end of post – during crunch time – I got the opportunity to jump in and cut some actual scenes with Night. It was surreal. I remember sitting in the editing room auditioning cuts for him and him giving notes and all the while I’m just repeating in my head, ‘Don’t mess this up, don’t mess this up.’ I feel like we had a very natural rapport though, besides the obvious nervousness that would come from a situation like that. We really worked well together from the start. We both had a strong desire to dig deep and really analyze things, to not leave anything on the table. But at the same time we also had the ability to laugh at things and break the seriousness when we needed to. We have a similar sense of humor that to this day I think helps us navigate the more stressful days in the editing room. Personality plays a big roll in the editing room. Maybe more so then experience. I may owe my career to my immature sense of humor. I’m not sure.     

After that, I assisted on some other films passing through Philly and just kept myself busy. Then I got a call from Night’s assistant to come by to talk about his next film, The Visit. I got there and he handed me a script and told me he wanted me to be the sole editor on it. Looking back it seems crazy, because he was self-financing the film. He had lot on the line and he could have gotten any editor, but he saw something. So that was the first of the three films I would cut for him. The odds have to be one-in-a-million for that to pan out the way that it did in the suburbs of Philly. Right place, right time, right people. It’s a lot of luck, but when you find yourself in that situation, you just have to keep telling yourself, ‘Don’t mess this up.’

[OP] These three films, including Glass, are being considered a trilogy, even though they span about two decades. How do they tie together, not just in story, but also style?

[LC] I think it’s fair to call Glass the final installment of a trilogy – but definitely an untraditional one. First Unbreakable, then 19 years later Split, and now Glass. They’re all in the same universe and hopefully it feels like a satisfying philosophical arc through the three. The tone of the films is ingrained in the scripts and footage. Glass is sort of a mash-up of what Unbreakable was and what Split was. Unbreakable was a drama that then revealed itself as a comic book origin story. Split was more of a thriller – even horror at times – that then revealed itself as part of this Unbreakable comic book universe. Glass is definitely a hybrid of tone and genre representing the first two films. 

[OP] Did you do research into Unbreakable to study its style?

[LC] I didn’t have to, because Unbreakable has been one of my favorite films since I was 18. It’s just a beautiful film. I loved that in the end it wasn’t just about David Dunn accepting who he was, but also Elijah finding his place in the world only by committing these terrible crimes to discover his opposite. He had to become a villain to find the hero. It’s such a cool idea and for me, very rewatchable. The end never gets old to me. So I knew that film very, very well. 

[OP] Please walk me through your schedule for post-production.

[LC] We started shooting in October of 2017 and shot for about two month. I was doing my assembly during that time and the first week of December. Then Night joined me and we started the director’s cut. The way that Night has set up these last three films is with a very light post crew. It’s just my first assistant, Kathryn Cates, and me set up at Night’s offices here in the suburbs of Philadelphia with two Avids. We had a schedule that we were aiming for, but the release date was over a year out, so there was wiggle room if it was needed. 

Night’s doing this in a very unconventional way. He’s self-financing, so we didn’t need to go into a phase of a studio cut. After his director’s cut, we would go into a screening phase – first just for close crew, then more of a friends-and-family situation. Eventually we get to a general audience screening. We’re working and addressing notes from these screenings, and there isn’t an unbearable amount of pressure to lock it up before we’re happy. 

[OP] I understand that your first cut was about 3 1/2 hours long. It must take a lot of trimming and tweaking to get down to the release length of 129 minutes. What sort of things did you do to cut down the running time from that initial cut?

[LC] One of our obstacles throughout post was that initial length. You’re trying to get to the length that the film wants to be without gutting it in the process. You don’t want to overcut as much as you don’t want to undercut. We had a similar situation on Split, which was a long assembly as well. The good news is that there’s a lot of great stuff to work with and choose from.

We approach it very delicately. After each screening we trimmed a little and carefully pulled things out, so each screening was incrementally shorter, but never dramatically so. Sometimes you will learn from a screenings that you pulled the wrong thing out and it needed to go back in. Ultimately no major storyline was cut out of Glass. It was really just finding where we are saying the same thing twice, but differently – diagnosing which one of those versions is the more impactful one – then cutting the others. And so, we just go like that. Pass after pass. Reel by reel.

An interesting thing I’ve found is that when you are repeating things, you will often feel that the second time is the offensive moment of that information and the one to remove, because you’ve heard it once before. But the truth is that the first telling of that information is more often what you want to get rid of. By taking away the first one, you are saving something for later. Once you remove something earlier, it becomes an elevated scene, because you are aren’t giving away so much up front. 

[OP] What is your approach to getting started when you are first confronted with the production footage? What is your editing workflow like?

[LC] I’m pretty much paper-based. I have all of the script supervisor’s notes. Night is very vocal on set about what he likes and doesn’t like, and Charlie Rowe, our script supervisor, is very good at catching those thoughts. On top of that, Night still does dailies each day – either at lunch or the end of the day. As a crew, we get together wherever we are and screen all of the previous day’s footage, including B-roll. I will sit next to Night with a sheet that has all of the takes and set-ups with descriptions and I’ll take notes both on Night’s reactions, as well as my own feelings towards the footage. 

With that information, I’ll start an assembly to construct the scene in a very rough fashion without getting caught up in the small details of every edit. It starts to bring the shape of the scene out for me. I can see where the peaks and valleys are. Once I have a clearer picture of the scene and its intention, I’ll go back through my detailed notes – there’s a great look for this, there’s a great reading for that – and I find where those can fit in and whether they serve the edit. You might have a great reaction to something, but the scene might not want that to be on-camera. So first I find the bones of the scene and then I dress it up. 

Night gets a lot range from the actors from the first take to the last take. It is sometimes so vast that if you built a film out of only the last takes, it would be a dramatically different movie than if you only used take one. With each take he just pushes the performances further. So he provides you with a lot of control over how animated the scene is going to be. In Glass, Elijah is an eccentric driven by a strong ideology, so in the first take you get the subdued, calculated villain version of him, but by the last take it’s the carnival barker version. The madman. 

[OP] Do you get a sense when screening the dailies of which way Night wants to go with a scene?

[LC] Yes, he’ll definitely indicate a leaning and we can boil it down to a couple of selects. I’ll initially cut a scene with the takes that spoke to him the most during the dailies and never cut anything out ahead of time. He’ll see the first cuts as they were scripted, storyboarded, and shot. I’ll also experiment with a different take or approach if it seems valid and have that in my back pocket. He’s pretty quick to acknowledge that he might have liked a raw take on set and in dailies, but it doesn’t work as well when cut together into a scene. So then we’ll address that. 

[OP] As an Avid editor, have you used Media Composer’s script integration features, like ScriptSync?

[LC] I just had my first experience with it on a Netflix show. I came on later in their post, so the show had already been set up for ScriptSync. It was very cool and helpful to be able to jump in and quickly compare the different takes for the reading of a line. It’s a great ‘late in the game’ tool. Maybe you have a great take, but just one word is bobbled and you’d like to find a replacement for just that word. Or the emotion of a key word isn’t exactly what you want. It could be a time-saver for a lot of that kind of polishing work.

[OP] What takeaways can you share from your experiences working with M. Night Shyamalan?

[LC] Night works in the room with you everyday. He doesn’t just check in once a week or something like that. It’s really nice to have that other person there. I feel like often times the best stuff comes from discussing it and talking it through. He loves to deconstruct things and figure out the ‘why’. Why does this work and this doesn’t? I enjoy that as well. After three films of doing that, you learn a lot. You’re not aware of it, but you’re building a toolkit. These tools and choices start to become second nature. 

On the Netflix show that I just did, there were times where I didn’t have anyone else in the room for long stretches and I started to hear those things that have become inherent in my process clearer. I started to take notice of what had become my second nature – what the last decade had produced. Editing is something you just have to do to learn. You can’t just read about it or study a great film. You have to do it, do it again, and struggle with it. You need to mess it up to get it right.

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This interview is going online after Glass has scored its third consecutive weekend in the number one box office slot. Split was also number one for three weeks in a row. That’s a pretty impressive feat and fitting for the final installment of a trilogy.

Be sure to also check out Steve Hullfish’s AOTC interview with Luke Ciarrocchi here.

©2019 Oliver Peters

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