Apple has launched its new TV+ service and this provides another opportunity for filmmakers to bring untold stories to the world. That’s the case for The Banker, an independent film picked up by Apple. It tells the story of two African American entrepreneurs attempting to earn their piece of the American dream during the repressive 1960s through real estate and banking. It stars Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Mackie, Nia Long, and Nicholas Hoult.
The film was directed by George Nolfi (The Adjustment Bureau) and produced by Joel Viertel, who also signed on to edit the film. Viertel’s background hasn’t followed the usual path for a feature film editor. Interested in editing while still in high school, the move to LA after college landed him a job at Paramount where he eventually became a creative executive. During that time he kept up his editing chops and eventually left Paramount to pursue independent filmmaking as a writer, producer, and editor. His editing experience included Apple Final Cut Pro 1.0 through 7.0 and Avid Media Composer, but cutting The Banker was his first time using Apple’s Final Cut Pro X.
I recently chatted with Joel Viertel about the experience of making this film and working with Apple’s innovative editing application.
[OP] How did you get involved with co-producing and cutting The Banker?
[JV] This film originally started while I was at Paramount. Through a connection from a friend, I met with David Smith and he pitched me the film. I fell in love with it right away, but as is the case with these films, it took a long while to put all the pieces together. While I was doing The Adjustment Bureau with George Nolfi and Anthony Mackie, I pitched it to them, and they agreed it would be a great project for us all to collaborate on. From there it took a few years to get to a script we were all happy with, cast the roles, get the movie financed, and off the ground.
[OP] I imagine that it’s exciting to be one of the first films picked up by Apple for their TV+ service. Was that deal arranged before you started filming or after everything was in the can, so to speak?
[JV] Apple partnered with us after it was finished. It was made and financed completely independently through Romulus Entertainment. While we were in the finishing stages, Endeavor Content repped the film and got us into discussions with Apple. It’s one of their first major theatrical releases and then goes on the platform after that. Apple is a great company and brand, so it’s exciting to get in on the ground floor of what they’re doing.
[OP] When I screened the film, one of the things I enjoyed was the use of montages to quickly cover a series of events. Was that how it was written or were those developed during the edit as a way to cut running time?
[JV] Nope, it was all scripted. Those segments can bedevil a production, because getting all of those little pieces is a lot of effort for very little yield. But it was very important to George and myself and the collaborators on the film to get them. It’s a film about banking and real estate, so you have to figure out how to make that a fun and interesting story. Montages were one way to keep the film propulsive and moving forward – to give it motion and excitement. We just had to get through production finding places to pick off those pieces, because none of those were developed in post.
[OP] What was your overall time frame to shoot and post this film?
[JV] We started in late September 2018 and finished production in early November. It was about 30 days in Atlanta and then a few days of pick-ups in LA. We started post right after Thanksgiving and locked in May, I think. Once Apple got involved, there were a few minor changes. However, Apple’s delivery specs were completely different from our original delivery specs, so we had to circle back on a bunch of our finishing.
[OP] Different in what way?
[JV] We had planned to finish in 2K with a 5.1 mix. Their deliverables are 4K with a Dolby Atmos mix. Because we had shot on 35mm film, we had the capacity, but it meant that we had to rescan and redo the visual effects at 4K. We had to lay the groundwork to do an Atmos mix and DolbyVision finish for theatrical and home video, which required the 35mm film negative to be rescanned and dust-busted.
Our DP, Charlotte Bruus Christensen, has shot mostly on 35mm – films like A Quiet Place and The Girl on a Train and those movies are beautiful. And so we wanted to accommodate that, but it presents challenges if you aren’t shooting in LA. Between Kodak in Atlanta and Technicolor in LA we were able to make it work.
Kodak would process the negative and Technicolor made a one-light transfer for 2K dailies. Those were archived and then I edited with ProResLT copies in HD. Once we were done, Technicolor onlined the movie from their 2K scans. After the change in deliverable specs, Technicolor rescanned the clips used for the online finish at 4K and conformed the cut at 4K.
[OP] I felt that the eclectic score fit this movie well and really places it in time. As an editor, how did you work to build up your temp tracks? Or did you simply leave it up to the composer?
[JV] George and I have worked with our composer, Scott Salinas, for a very long time on a bunch of things. Typically, I give him a script and then he pulls samples that he thinks are in the ballpark. He gave me a grab bag of stuff for The Banker – some of which was score, some of which was jazz. I start laying that against the picture myself as I go and find these little things that feel right and set the tone of the movie. I’m finding my way for the right marriage of music and picture. If it works, it sticks. If it doesn’t, we replace it. Then at the end, he’s got to score over that stuff.
Most of the jazz in The Banker is original, but there are a couple tracks where we just licensed them. There’s a track called “Cash and Carry” that I used over the montage when they get rich. They’ve just bought the Banker’s Building and popped the champagne. This wacky, French 1970s bit of music comes in with a dude scatting over it while they are buying buildings or looking at the map of LA. That was a track Scott gave me before we shot a frame of film, so when we got to that section of the movie, I chose it out of the bin and put that sequence to it and it just stuck.
There are some cases where it’s almost impossible to temp, so I just cut it dry and give it to him. Sometimes he’ll temp it and sometimes he’ll do a scratch score. For example, the very beginning of the movie never had temp in any way. I just cut it dry. I gave it to Scott. He scored it and then we revised his scoring a bunch of times to get to the final version.
[OP] Did you do any official or “friends and family” screenings of The Banker while editing it? If so, did that impact the way the film turned out?
[JV] The post process is largely dictated by how good your first cut is. If the movie works, but needs improvement – that’s one thing. If it fundamentally doesn’t – that’s another. It’s a question of where you landed from the get-go and what needs to be fixed to get to the end of the road.
We’re big fans of doing mini-testing – bringing in people we know and people whose opinions we want to hear. At some point you have to get outside of the process and aggregate what you hear over and over again. You need to address the common things that people pick up on. The only way to keep improving your movie is to get outside feedback so they tell you what to focus on.
Over time that significantly impacted the film. It’s not like any one person said that one thing that caused us to re-edit the film. People see the problem that sticks out to them in the cut and you work on that. The next time there’s something else and then you work on that. You keep trying to make all the improvements you can make. So it’s an iterative process.
[OP] This film marked a shift for you from using earlier versions of Final Cut Pro to now cutting on Final Cut Pro X for the first time. Why did you make that choice and what was the experience like?
[JV] George has a relationship with Apple and they had suggested using Final Cut Pro X on his next project. I had always used Final Cut Pro 7 as my preference. We had used it on an NBC show called Allegiance in 2014 and then on Birth of the Dragon in 2015 and 2016 – long after it had been discontinued. We all could see the writing on the wall – operating systems would quit running it and it’s not harnessing what the computers can do.
I got involved in the conversation and was invited to come to a seminar at the Editors Guild about Final Cut Pro X that was taught by Kevin Bailey, who was the assistant editor for Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. I had looked at Final Cut Pro X when it first came out and then again several years later. I felt like it had been vastly improved and was in a place where I could give it a shot. So I committed at that point to cutting this film on Final Cut Pro X and teaching myself how to use it. I also hired Kevin to help as my assistant for the start of the film. He became unavailable later in the production, so we found Steven Moyer to be my assistant and he was fantastic. I would have never made it through without the both of them.
[OP] How did you feel about Final Cut Pro X once you got your sea legs?
[JV] It’s always hard to learn to walk again. That’s what a lot of editors bump into with Final Cut Pro X, because it is a very different approach than any other NLE. I found that once you get to know it and rewire your brain that you can be very fast on it. A lot of the things that it does are revolutionary and pretty incredible. And there are still other areas that are being worked on. Those guys are constantly trying to make it better. We’ve had multiple conversations with them about the possibilities and they are very open to feedback.
[OP] Every editor has their own way of tackling dailies and wading through an avalanche of footage coming in from production. And of course, Final Cut Pro X features some interesting ways to organize media. What was the process like for The Banker?
[JV] The sound and picture were both running at 24fps. I would upload the sound files from my hotel room in Atlanta to Technicolor in LA, who would sync the sound. They would send back the dailies and sound, which Kevin – who was assisting at that time – would load into Final Cut. He would multi-clip the sound files and the two camera angles. Everything is in a multi-clip, except for purely MOS B-roll shots. Each scene had its own event. Kevin used the same system he had devised with Jan [Kovac, editor on Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and Focus]. He would keyword each dialogue line, so that when you select a keyword collection in the browser, every take for that line comes up. That’s labor-intensive for the assistant, but it makes life that much faster for me once it’s set up.
[OP] I suppose that method also makes it much faster when you are working with the director and need to quickly get to alternate takes.
[JV] It speeds things along for George, but also for me. I don’t have to hunt around to find the lines when I have to edit a very long dialogue scene. You could assemble selects reels first, but I like to look at everything. I fundamentally believe there’s something good in every bad take. It doesn’t take very long to watch every take of a line. Plus I do a fair amount of ‘Franken-biting’ with dialogue where needed.
[OP] Obviously the final mix and color correction were done at specialty facilities. Since The Banker was shot on film, I would imagine that complicated the hand-off slightly. Please walk me through the process you followed.
[JV] Marti Humphrey did the sound at The Dub Stage in Burbank. We have a good relationship with him and can call him very early in the process to work out the timeline of how we are going to do things. He had to soup up his system a bit to handle the Atmos near-field stuff, but it was a good opportunity for him to get into that space. So he was able to do all the various versions of our mix.
Technicolor was the new guy for us. Mike Hatzer did the color grade. It was a fairly complex process for them and they were a good partner. For the conform, we handed them an XML and EDL. They had their Flex files to get back to the film edge code. Steven had to break up the sequence to generate separate tracks for the 35mm original, stock, and VFX shots, because Technicolor needed separate EDLs for those. But it wasn’t like we invented anything that hasn’t been done before.
We did use third-party apps for some of this. The great thing about that is you can just contact the developer directly. There was one EDL issue and Steven could just call up the app developer to explain the issue and they’d fix it in a couple of days.
[OP] What sort of visual effects were required? The film is set more or less 70 years ago, so were the majority of effects just to make the locations look right? Like cars, signs, and so on?
[JV] It was mostly period clean-up. You have to paint out all sorts of boring stuff, like road paint. In the 50s and 60s, those white lines have to come out. Wires, of course. A couple of shots we wanted to ‘LA-ify’ Georgia. We shot some stuff in LA, but when you put Griffith Park right next to a shot of Newnan, Georgia, the way to blend that over is to put palm trees in the Newnan shot.
We also did a pick-up with Anthony while he was on another show the required a beard for that role. So we had to paint out his beard. Good luck figuring out which was the shot where we had to paint out his beard!
[OP] Now that you have a feature film under your belt with Final Cut Pro X, what are your thoughts about it? Anything you feel that it’s missing?
[JV] All the NLEs have their particular strengths. Final Cut has several that are amazing, like background exports and rendering. It has Roles, where you can differentiate dialogue, sound effects, and music sources. You can bus things to different places. This is the first time I’ve ever edited in 5.1, because Final Cut supports that. That was a fun challenge.
We used Final Cut Pro X to edit a movie shot on film, which is kind of a first at this level, but it’s not like we crashed into some huge problem with that. We gamed it out and it all worked like it was supposed to. Obviously it doesn’t do some stuff the same way. Fortunately through our relationship with Apple we can make some suggestions about that. But there really isn’t anything it doesn’t do. If that were the case, we would have just said that we can’t cut with this.
Final Cut Pro X is an evolving NLE – as they all are. What I realized at the seminar is that it changed a lot from when it first appeared. It was a good experience cutting a movie on it. Some editors are hesitant, because that first hour is difficult and I totally get that. But if you push through that and get to know it – there are many things that are very good and addictively good. I would certainly cut another movie on it.
®2020 Oliver Peters