The last two of years have been rich for film audiences interested in the lives of rock legends. Rocketman was this year’s stylized biography about Elton John. Helmed by British actor/director Dexter Fletcher and starring Taron Egerton of the Kingsman film series, Rocketman tells John’s life through his songs. Astute film buffs also know that Fletcher was the uncredited, additional director who completed Bohemian Rhapsody through the end of principal photography and post, which will invite obvious comparisons between the two rock biopics.
Shepherding Rocketman through the cut was seasoned film editor, Chris Dickens. With experience cutting comedies, dramas, and musicals, it’s impossible to pin Dickens down to any particular film genre. I had recently interviewed him for Mary Queen of Scots, which was a good place to pick up this conversation about editing Rocketman.
[OP] Our last conversation was about Mary Queen of Scots. I presume you were in the middle of cutting Rocketman at that time. Those are two very different films, so what brought you to edit Rocketman?
[CD] I made a quick shift onto Rocketman after Mary Queen of Scots. It was a fast production with eight or nine months filming and editing. The project had been in the cards a year before and I had met with Dexter to discuss doing the film. But, it didn’t happen, so I had forgotten about it until it got greenlit. I like musicals and have done one before – Les Miserables. This one was more ambitious creatively. Right from the beginning I liked the treatment of it. Rocketman was a classic kind of musical, but it was different in that the themes were adult and had a strong visual sense. Also the treatment using Elton John’s songs and illustrating his life with those was interesting.
[OP] The director had a connection with both Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody. Both films are about rock legends, so audiences may draw an obvious comparison. What’s your feeling about the contrast between these two films?
[CD] Obviously, there are a lot of similarities. Both films are essentially rock biopics about a musical figure. Both Freddie and Elton were gay. So that theme is similar, but that’s where it ends. Bohemian Rhapsody was aimed at a wider audience, i.e. less adult material – sex and drug-taking – things like that. And secondly, it’s about music, but it’s not a musical. It’s always grounded in reality. Characters don’t get up and sing to the camera. It’s about Freddie Mercury and Queen and their music. So the treatment of it is very different. Another fundamental difference is that Elton John is still alive and Freddie Mercury is not, so that was right at the film’s core. From the start you know that, so it has a different kind of power.
[OP] Whenever a film deals with popular music – especially when the rights-owners are still alive and active – the treatment and use of that music can be a sticking point. Were Elton John or Bernie Taupin actively involved in the production of Rocketman?
[CD] Yes, they were. Bernie less so – mainly Elton. He didn’t come in the edit room that much, but his husband, David Furnish, was a bit more involved. Elton is not someone who goes out in public that much, except to perform. He’s such a massive star. But, he did watch cuts of the film and had notes – not at every stage – but, David Furnish was the conduit between us and him. Naturally, Elton sanctioned all of the music tracks that were used. But the film was not made by them, i.e. we were making the film and they were giving us notes.
[OP] How were the tracks handled? Was the music remixed from the original studio masters with Taron lip-syncing to Elton’s voice – or was it different?
[CD] The music was radically changed in some cases from the original – the arrangements, the scoring. The music was completely re-recorded and sung by Taron, the actor playing Elton. We evolved the choices made at the beginning during the edit. So alongside of the picture edit was a music edit and a music mix going on constantly. In some cases Taron was singing on-set and we used that for about a quarter of the tracks. These were going in and out of scenes that had natural dialogue. Taron would start singing and we would play the track underneath. Then at that point perhaps, he would start lip-syncing, so it was a combination. On some tracks he was completely lip-syncing to what he had recorded before. This set the tempo for those scenes, but the arrangements evolved during the edit.
Even when he was lip-syncing, it was to his own voice. The whole idea was that the singing would not be Elton, except at the end where we have a track with both singing in the credits roll. So it’s a key thing that these were new recordings. Giles Martin, son of the legendary George Martin, was the music producer who took care of everything and put up with our constant changes. We had a team of two music editors who worked alongside us and a score as well, written by Matt Margeson, which we were rolling into the film in places. It was a real team process of building the film slowly.
[OP] Please expand on the structure of a film musical and what it takes to edit one.
[CD] The editing process was challenging, because of the complex structure. It was fundamentally a musical, with fifteen or sixteen tracks – meaning songs or music numbers – that were initially planned to be shot. Some of these were choreographed song-and-dance sequences. Combined with that was a sort of kitchen sink drama about Elton’s life, his childhood, his teenage years, and then into manhood. And then becoming a superstar. The script has the songs and then long sequences of more classic storytelling. What I found – slowly, as we were putting the film together, even during the shoot – was that we needed to unify those two things within the edit.
For instance, the first song number in the movie is “The Bitch is Back.” It’s a dance sequence with Elton as a boy walking down the street while people are singing and dancing around him. Then his adult self is chasing him around. It’s a very stylized sequence, which then went into about an eight minute sequence of storytelling about his childhood. We needed to give the film the same tone all the way through, i.e. that slightly fantastical feel of a musical. We screened it a few times for some of the core people and it became clear that we wanted to go with the fantastical elements of the film, not the more down-to-earth, realistic elements. Obviously, you could have made the choice to cut back on the music, but that seemed counter-intuitive. So we had to make some deep cuts in the sections between the musical pieces to get the story to flow and have that same kind of tone.
There was also a flashback structure. The film starts with Elton later on as an adult in rehab, after having fallen into drug and alcohol addiction. We framed the film with this device, so it was another element that we had to make work in the edit to get it to feel as an organic part of the story. We found that we didn’t have enough of these rehab sequences and had to shoot a few more of them during the edit to knit the film together in this way in order to remind you that he was telling this story – looking back on his past.
Cutting back sections between the musical numbers wasn’t our only solution to get the right tone. We had to work out how to get in and out of the musical sequences and that’s where the score comes in. I played with this quite a lot with the composer and Giles to have themes from Elton’s song coming throughout the film. For example, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” had some musical themes in it that we started using as the theme that went with his rehab. The theme of the film is that Elton lost any sense of where he came from as a person, because of his stardom and “Goodby Yellow Brick Road” – the song – is about that. It’s actually about going back to the farm and your roots. The song isn’t actually in the film until the very end when he performs it. So we found that using this musical theme as a motif throughout the film is very powerful and helped to combine the classical storytelling scenes with the musical scenes.
[OP] Was this process of figuring out the right balance something that happened at the beginning and then became a type of template for the rest of the film? Or was is a constant adjustment process throughout the cutting of Rocketman?
[CD] It was a constant thing trying to make the film work as a whole so people wouldn’t be confused about the tone. At one point we had far too much music and had to take some out. It became very minimal in some areas. In others, it led you more. It was about getting that balance right all the way through. I’m primarily a picture editor, but on this film you couldn’t just concentrate on the picture and then leave the music to the music editors and composer, because it was absolutely a fundamental part of the film. It was about music and so how you were using music was very key within the edit. Sometimes we had to cut longer songs down. Very few are at their original length. Some are half their recorded length.
[OP] This process sounds intriguing, since the scenes use a song as the underlying building block. Elton John’s songs tend to be pop songs – or at least they received a lot of radio airplay – so did those recorded lengths tend to drive the film?
[CD] No. At first I thought we’d have to be very faithful, but as we started cutting, the producers -and particularly Elton John’s side of it – didn’t care whether we cut things down or made them longer or added bits. They weren’t precious about it. In fact, they wanted us to be creative. The producers would say, “Don’t worry about cutting that down, Giles will deal with it.” Of course he would. Although sometimes he’d come back to me and say, “Look, this doesn’t quite work musically. You need to add a bit more time to this, or another couple of bars of music.” So we had a whole back-and-forth process like that.
For instance, in the track “Rocketman,” which is the film’s centerpiece, Elton tries to commit suicide. He’s at a party, gets drunk, and jumps into the swimming pool. While he’s underneath he starts seeing visions of himself as a child under there. He starts singing and gets fished out of the pool and then put on stage in a stadium. It’s a whole sequence that’s been planned to play like that. Of course, I couldn’t fit what they’d shot into the song – there wasn’t enough time. It was all good stuff, so I added a few bars. I’d give it to music and they’d say, “Oh, you can’t add that in that way.” So I’d go back and try different ways of doing it.
At the end, when he’s put back on stage at Dodger Stadium, he’s in a baseball uniform and then fires into the air like a rocket. They shot it in a studio without a big crowd and it looked okay. As soon as we started getting the visual effects, we thought, “Wow. This looks great.” So we doubled the length of that – added on, repeated the chorus, and all of that – because we thought people were going to love this. It looked and sounded great. But, when we then tested the film, it was way too long. It had just outstayed its welcome. We then had to cut it down again, although it was still longer than they’d originally planned it.
[OP] With a regular theatrical musical, the song are written to tell the story. Here, you are using existing songs that weren’t written with that story in mind. I presume you have to be careful that you don’t end up with just a bunch of music videos strung back-to-back.
[CD] Exactly. I don’t think we ever strayed into that. It was always about – does it make its point? These songs were written at all times in his career, but we didn’t use them in their original chronological order. “Honky Cat” was written later than when we used it. He’s just getting successful and at the end of “Honky Cat” they are buying Rolls Royces and clothes and football teams. At the end of that there was a great song-and-dance routine with them dancing on a record – Elton and John Reid, his manager and also a kind of boyfriend. That part went on for two minutes and we ended cutting it out. Partly because people and the producers who saw it thought it wasn’t the right style. It had a kind of 1920s or 1930s style with lots of dancers. It was a big number and took a long time to edit, but we took it out. I thought it was quite a nice sequence, but most people thought the film was better without it, because it wasn’t moving the story on.
[OP] Other than adjusting scenes and length, did friends-and-family and test audience screenings change your edit significantly?
We did three big screenings in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Kansas City, plus a number of smaller ones in England. The audiences were a mix of people who were Elton John fans, as well as those that weren’t. Essentially people liked the film right from the start, but the audiences weren’t getting some parts, like the flashback structure with the rehab scenes – particularly at the beginning. They didn’t really understand what he was singing about.
That first song [“The Bitch Is Back”] caused a lot of difficulty, because it starts the film and says this is a musical. You have to handle that the right way. I think the initial problems were partly in how I had cut the sequence originally. I tried to show too much of the crowd around him and the dancers and I thought that was the way to go with it. Actually what it turned out was the way to go was the relationship between the two of them – Elton and Elton as the little boy – because that’s what the song was about. I then readjusted the edits, taking out a lot of the wide shots.
Also Taron had done some improvised dialogue to the little boy rather than just singing all the way through – dialogue lines like, “Stop doing that.” That was in the film a long time, but people didn’t like it and didn’t understand why he was angry with the boy. So we cut that out completely. Another issue was that right at the start, the little boy starts singing to Taron as Elton first, but audiences did not feel comfortable with it. We discussed it a lot and decided that the lead actor should be the one we hear singing first. We did a reshoot of that beginning portion of the scene. You have to let the audience into it more slowly than we had originally done. That’s a prime example of how editing decisions can lead to additional filming to really make it work.
[OP] You mentioned visual effects to complete the “Rocketman” scene. Were there a lot of effects used to make the film period-accurate or just for visual style?
[CD] Quite a lot, though not excessively, like a comic book movie. I imagine it was similar to Bohemian Rhapsody that had to shoot gigs and concerts and places were you couldn’t go now and film that. But our visual effects weren’t as fundamental in that I didn’t need them to cut with. The boy underwater was all created, of course. Taron in the pool was actually him underwater, because he had breathing apparatus. But the little boy couldn’t, so he was singing ‘dry for wet’ – shot in the studio and put into the scene later. There were different evolutions of that scene. In one version we took the boy out completely and just had Taron singing.
The end of the film as written was going to be a re-imagined version of Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” music video, which is on the beach in Cannes, shot in the 80s. The idea was to go there and shoot it with a lot more dancers. By the time the film was being shot, the weather changed and we couldn’t shoot that sequence. That whole ending was shot later, partly in a studio. Because we couldn’t afford to go to Cannes and reshoot the whole thing, someone was able to get the original rushes from that music video, which had been shot on 16mm film, but edited on videotape. We had to get permission from the original director of that music video and he was very happy for us to do it. We had the 16mm film rescanned and also removed the grain. Instead of Elton, we put Taron into it. In every shot with Elton, we replaced his head with Taron’s and that became the ending sequence of the film. As a visual effect, that took quite a leap of faith, but it did work in the end. That wasn’t the original plan, but I think it’s better.
[OP] In Bohemian Rhapsody there was a conscious consideration of matching the Live Aid concert angles and actions. Was there anything like that in Rocketman?
[CD] There was no point in trying to do that on Rocketman. It was always going to be stylized and different from reality. We staged Dodger Stadium the way it looked, but we didn’t try to match it. The original concert was late afternoon and ours is more towards night, which was visually better. The visual inspiration came from the stills taken by a famous rock photographer and they look a little more night. At one point we talked about having a concert at the end and we tried shooting something, but it just didn’t feel right. We were going to get compared to BoRhap anyway, so we didn’t want to even try and do something the same way.
[OP] Any final thoughts or advice on how to approach a film like Rocketman?
[CD] Every movie is different. Every single time you come to a story, you nearly have to start again. The director wants to do it a certain way and you have to adapt to that. With some of the dramas or comedies that I’ve cut, it’s a less immediate process. You don’t really know how the whole thing is coming together until you get a sense of it quite late. With this, they shot a few of the song sequences early and as soon as I saw that, I thought right away, “Oh, this is great.” You can build a quick three-minute sequence to show people and you get a feel for the whole film. You can get excited about it. On a drama or even worse, on a thriller, you’re guessing how it’s coming together and you’re using all of your skills to do that.
The director and the story are the differences and I try to adapt. Dexter wanted the film to be popular, but also distinctive. He wanted to see very quickly how it was coming together. As soon as he was done filming he wanted to go to the edit and see how it was coming along. In that scenario you try to get some things done more quickly. So I would try to get some sequences put together knowing that, and then come back to them later if you’ve rushed them.
Since it’s a musical you could string together the songs and get a feel, but that would be misleading. When you start off you can produce a sequence very quickly that looks good, because you’ve got the music that makes it feel almost finished and that it’s working. But that can lead you into a dead end if you’re not careful – if you are too precious about the music – the length of it and such. You still have to be hard about the storytelling element. Ultimately all of the decisions come from the story – how long the scene is, whether you start on a close-up or a wide – I always try to approach everything like that. If you keep that in your head, you’ll make the right decisions.
©2019 Oliver Peters