Nocturnal Animals

nocanim_01_smSome feature films are entertaining popcorn flicks, while others challenge the audience to go deeper. Writer/director Tom Ford’s (A Single Man) second film, Nocturnal Animals definitely fits into the latter group. Right from the start, the audience is confronted with a startling and memorable main title sequence, which we soon learn is actually part of an avant garde art gallery opening. From there the audience never quite knows what’s around the next corner.

Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is a privileged Los Angeles art gallery owner who seems to have it all, but whose life is completely unfulfilled. One night she receives an unsolicited manuscript from Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), her ex-husband with whom she’s been out of touch for years. With her current husband (Armie Hammer) away on business, she settles in for the night to read the novel. She is surprised to discover it is dedicated to her. The story being told by Edward is devastating and violent, and it triggers something in Susan that arouses memories of her past love with the author.

Nocturnal Animals keeps the audience on edge and is told through three parallel storylines – Susan’s current reality, flashbacks of her past with Edward, and the events that are unfolding in the novel. Managing this delicate balancing act fell to Joan Sobel, ACE, the film’s editor. In her film career, Sobel has worked with such illustrious directors as Quentin Tarantino, Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Thomas Anderson and Paul Weitz.  She was Sally Menke’s First Assistant Editor for six-and-a-half years on four films, including Kill Bill, vol. 1 and Kill Bill, vol. 2.  Sobel also edited the Oscar-winning short dark comedy, The Accountant.  This is her second feature with Tom Ford at the helm.

Theme and structure

In our recent conversation, Joan Sobel discussed Nocturnal Animals. She says, “At its core, this film is about love and revenge and regret, with art right in the middle of it all. It’s about people we have loved and then carelessly discarded, about the cruelties that we inflict upon each other, often out of fear or ambition or our own selfishness.  It is also about art and the stuff of dreams.  Susan has criticized Edward’s ambition as a writer. Edward gets Susan to feel again through his art – through that very same writing that Susan has criticized in the past. But art is also Edward’s vehicle for revenge – revenge for the hurt that Susan has caused him during their past relationship. The film uses a three-pronged story structure, which was largely as Tom scripted. The key was to find a fluid and creative way to transition from one storyline to the other, to link those moments emotionally or visually or both. Sometimes that transition was triggered by a movement, but other times just a look, a sound, a color or an actor’s nuanced glance.”

nocanim_02Nocturnal Animals was filmed (yes, on film not digital) over 31 days in California, with the Mojave Desert standing in for west Texas. Sobel was cutting while the film was being shot and turned in her editor’s cut about a week after the production wrapped. She explains, “Tom likes to work without a large editorial infrastructure, so it was just the two of us working towards a locked cut. I finished my cut in December and then we relocated to London for the rest of post. I always put together a very polished first cut, so that there is already an established rhythm and a flow.  That way the director has a solid place to begin the journey. Though the movie was complex with its three-pronged structure – along with the challenge of bringing to life the inner monologue that is playing in Susan’s head – the movie came together rather quickly. Tom’s script was so well written and the performances so wonderful that by the end of March we pretty much had a locked cut.”

The actors provided fruitful ground for the editor.  Sobel continues, “It was a joy to edit Amy Adams’ performance. She’s a great actress, but when you actually edit her dailies, you get to see what she brings to the movie. Her performance is reliant less on dialogue (she actually doesn’t have many lines), instead emphasizing Amy’s brilliance as a film actor in conveying emotion through her mind and through her face and her eyes.”

“Tom is a staggering talent, and working with him is a total joy.  He’s fearless and his creativity is boundless.  He is also incredibly generous and very, very funny (we laugh a lot!), and we share an endless passion for movies.  Though the movie is always his vision, his writing, he gravitates towards collaboration. So we would get quite experimental in the cut. The trust and charm and sharp, clear intelligence that he brings into the cutting room resulted in a movie that literally blossoms with creativity. Editing Nocturnal Animals was a totally thrilling experience.”

Tools of the trade

nocanim_03Sobel edited Nocturnal Animals with Avid Media Composer. Although she’s used other editing applications, Media Composer is her tool of choice. I asked about how she approaches each new film project. She explains, “The first thing I do is read the script. Then I’ll read it again, but this time out loud. The rhythms of the script become more lucid that way and I can conceptualize the visuals. When I get dailies for a scene, I start by watching everything and taking copious notes about every nuance in an actor’s performance that triggers an emotion in me, that excites me, that moves me, that shows me exactly where this scene is going.  Those moments can be the slightest look, a gesture, a line reading.”

“I like to edit very organically based on the footage. I know some editors use scene cards on a wall or they rely on Avid’s Script Integration tools, but none of those approaches are for me. Editing is like painting – it’s intuitive. My assistants organize bins for themselves in dailies order. Then they organize my bins in scene/script order. I do not make selects sequences or ‘KEM rolls’. I simply set up the bins in frame view and then rearrange the order of clips according to the flow – wide to tight and so on. As I edit, I’m concentrating on performance and balance. One little trick I use is to turn off the sound and watch the edit to see what is rhythmically and emotionally working. Often, as I’m cutting the scene, I find myself actually laughing with the actor or crying or gasping! Though this is pretty embarrassing if someone happens to walk into my cutting room, I know that if I’m not feeling it, then the audience won’t either.”

Music and sound are integral for many editors, especially Sobel. She comments, “I love to put temp music into my editor’s cuts. That’s a double-edged sword, though, because the music may or may not be to the taste of the director. Though Tom and I are usually in sync when it comes to music, Tom doesn’t like to start off with temp music in the initial cut, so I didn’t add it on this film. Once Tom and I started working together, we played with music to see what worked. This movie is one that we actually used very little music in and when we did, added it quite sparingly. Mostly the temp music we used was music from some of Abel’s [Korzeniowski, composer] other film scores. I also always add layers of sound effects to my tracks to take the movie and the storytelling to a further level. I use sound to pull your attention, to define a character, or a mood, or elevate a mystery.”

Unlike many films, Nocturnal Animals flew through the post process without any official test screenings. Its first real screening was at the Venice Film Festival where it won the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize. “Tom has the unique ability to both excite those working with him and to effortlessly convey his vision, and he had total confidence in the film. The film is rich with many layers and is the rare film that can reveal itself through subsequent viewings, hopefully providing the audience with that unique experience of being completely immersed in a novel, as our heroine becomes immersed in Nocturnal Animals,” Sobel says. The film opened in the US during November and is a Focus Features release.

Check out more with Joan Sobel at “Art of the Cut”.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network.

©2017 Oliver Peters

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Filmmaking Pointers

df_fmpointersIf you want to be a good indie filmmaker, you have to understand some of the basic principles of telling interesting visual stories and driving the audience’s emotions. These six   ideas transcend individual components of filmmaking, like cinematography or editing. Rather, they are concepts that every budding director should understand and weave into the entire structure of how a film is approached.

1. Get into the story quickly. Films are not books and don’t always need a lengthy backstory to establish characters and plot. Films are a journey and it’s best to get the characters on that road as soon as possible. Most scripts are structured as three-act plays, so with a typical 90-100 minute running time, you should be through act one at roughly one third of the way into the film. If not, you’ll lose the interest of the audience. If you are 20 minutes into the film and you are still establishing the history of the characters without having advanced the story, then look for places to start cutting.

Sometimes this isn’t easy to tell and an extended start may indeed work well, because it does advance the story. One example is There Will Be Blood. The first reel is a tour de force of editing, in which editor Dylan Tichenor builds a largely dialogue-free montage that quickly takes the audience through the first part of Daniel Plainview’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) history in order to bring the audience up to the film’s present day. It’s absolutely instrumental to the rest of the film.

2. Parallel story lines. A parallel story structure is a great device to show the audience what’s happening to different characters at different locations, but at more or less the same time. With most scripts, parallel actions are designed to eventually converge as related or often unrelated characters ultimately end up in the same place for a shared plot. An interesting take on this is Cloud Atlas, in which an ensemble cast plays different characters spread across six different eras and locations – past, present and future.

The editing style pulled off by Alexander Berner is quite a bit different than traditional parallel story editing. A set of characters might start a scene in one era. Halfway through the scene – through some type of abrupt cut, such as walking through a door – the characters, location and eras shift to somewhere else. However, the story and the editing are such that you clearly understand how the story continues for the first half of that scene, as well as how it led into the second half. This is all without explicitly shooting those parts of each scene. Scene A/era A informs your understanding of scene B/era B and vice versa.

3. Understand camera movement. When a camera zooms, moves or is used in a shaky, handheld manner, this elicits certain emotions from the audience. As a director or DP, you need to understand when each style is appropriate and when it can be overdone. Zooming into a close-up while an actor delivers a line should be done intentionally. It tells the audience, “Listen up. This is important.” If you shoot handheld footage, like most of the Bourne series, it drives a level of documentary-style, frenetic action that should be in keeping with the concept.

The TV series NYPD Blue is credited with introducing TV audiences to the “shaky-cam” style of camera work. Many pros thought it was overdone, with movement often being introduced in an unmotivated fashion. Yet, the original Law & Order series also made extensive use of handheld photography. As this was more in keeping with a subtle documentary style, few complained about its use on that show.

4. Color palettes and art direction. Many new filmmakers often feel that you can get any look you want through color grading. The reality is that it all starts with art direction. Grading should enhance what’s there, not manufacture something that isn’t. To get that “orange & teal” look, you need to have a set and wardrobe that has some greens and blues in it. To get a warm, earthy look, you need a set and wardrobe with browns and reds.

This even extends to black & white films. To get the right contrast and tonal values in black & white, you often have to use set/wardrobe color choices that are not ideal in a color world. That’s because different colors carry differing luminance and midrange values, which becomes very obvious, once you eliminate the color information from the picture. Make sure you take that into account if you plan to produce a black & white film.

5. Score versus sound design. Music should enhance and underscore a film, but it does not have to be wall-to-wall. Some films, like American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street, are driven by a score of popular tunes. Others are composed with an original score. However, often the “score” consists of sound design elements and simple musical drones designed to heighten tension and otherwise manipulate emotion. The absence of score in a scene can achieve the same effect. Sound effects elements with stark simplicity may have more impact  on the audience than music. Learn when to use one or the other or both. Often less is more.

6. Don’t tell too much story. Not every film requires extensive exposition. As I said at the top, a film is not a book. Visual cues are as important as the spoken word and will often tell the audience a lot more in shorthand, than pages and pages of script. The audience is interested in the journey your film’s characters are on and frequently need very little backstory to get an understanding of the characters. Don’t shy away from shooting enough of that sort of detail, but also don’t be afraid to cut it out, when it becomes superfluous.

©2014 Oliver Peters