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Art of the Cut

Where the Crawdads Sing

31 minute read

Alan Edward Bell, ACE, on editing book adaptations, recognizing what an audience wants or needs, and working with a women-led team.


Today, on Art of the Cut, we’re talking with editor Alan Edward Bell, ACE, about editing the film Where the Crawdads Sing, which is based on the 2018 best-selling novel by author Delia Owens.

Bell has been a guest on Art of the Cut several times for his work on The Hunger Games movies and Red Sparrow. Bell is an ACE Eddie nominee for his work on (500) Days of Summer. His other films include The Amazing Spider-man, Water For Elephants, and Gulliver’s Travels.

My wife and I went to go see it last night and we both loved it. She was a big fan of the book and was very pleased with the depiction.

BELL: I'm so happy to hear that. I really loved the movie and all of us who worked so hard on it. And really put our heart and souls into it to try to make the best movie we could. Audiences that we tested it with absolutely loved it. And the issues that they had on some of our early testing, we learned from those and made changes, and it just got better.

At the beginning of the movie in the theater I went to, Reese Witherspoon did a little videotaped introduction, explaining that she was involved in this as an executive producer.

BELL: She was an executive producer. She had the book listed in her book club. The way I think it went was that Elizabeth Gabler had optioned the rights to this movie. This is my understanding. She had optioned the rights or was in development for this script. And she brought that over to Sony 3000 pictures when she left Fox. She's had a long relationship with Reese and Hello Sunshine (Reese’s production company). So she asked Reese Witherspoon if Hello Sunshine would produce it. Creatively, they were very involved. Lauren Levy Neustadter (President of Hello Sunshine) was really our on-the-ground creative producer, who I absolutely love. She’s married to one of the writers of 500 Days of Summer, so I met her many years ago.

It was nice to be able to see her again and work with her again on this project. I wasn't really working with her on 500 Days, but she was around and I'd met her and liked her then. She said that she was really interested in getting the feeling of the book.

BELL: Correct. 

Can you talk to me a little bit about your discussions with anybody on the creative team, the director, Olivia Newman, or anybody about what your marching orders were?

BELL: We wanted to create something as true to the book as possible. And one of the things about the book is that feeling that it was — barring the poetry in the book itself— the narrative style of the book was very poetic and it really celebrated nature and the marsh and the cycle of life in the marsh and to do that in a movie and not have it feel like a documentary is a bit of a challenge — certainly when you're trying to progress the plot and character arcs and things. But one of the things that's interesting about the material is that Kya and the marsh are like partners. There's a real symbiosis there. Having her in that environment and seeing her — particularly little Kya/Jojo — made it pretty easy because you could see they're in this beautiful environment. And then you have these wonderful actors and actresses who are reflecting the environment that they're in when Kya's in her boat. That first montage of her going through the water when she takes her dad's boat — the first cut of that was super long— because I just couldn't stop looking at it. And Paul Alderman, who was the first Assistant — and who has an additional editing credit on the movie — he did one of the first passes of that.

He did just a beautiful job and both he and I loved it. “It's never gonna be this long in the movie. We're gonna have to cut it down.” Everybody knew that the marsh had to be a character in the movie. And the best way to do that is to ensure that your protagonist is in the marsh as much as possible. Have as many things positive could happen to her in the marsh, so that when she's in jail and in the courtroom, there's a real contrast, right?

Taking this woman's environment away from her is one of the worst things that you could possibly do to that particular character. Livy (Director, Olivia Newman) was the main person who I got most of my marching orders from. It was a great collaboration. We were both on the same page: the marsh has to play a big part in this movie and that feeling of the marsh and the character's relationship with the marsh has to be — if not overt — it needs to be subtextual throughout the whole film.

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There are great little moments of “breathing” that are in the film, especially between scenes. Moments where you're not getting dialogue, you're just getting that chance to feel things. First of all, talk about putting those in your initial cut, but also being able to maintain them when you're trying to trim the film for time.

BELL: That was very difficult, right? One of the things that I knew early on in making the movie is when you do a studio film, every studio has its kind of caveats — its own personality, if you will — which basically starts at the top and rolls downhill. I know that Sony and Tom Rothman, in particular, really want things to drive. You're not gonna show Tom Rothman a three-hour film and have him say, “This is awesome. It's great.” There can't be a bunch of shoe leather. Entrance and exits and anytime there are double ideas going on within scenes — all that stuff has gotta go.

Early conversations I had with Livy were that I knew she was going to shoot this stuff, but I also knew we were gonna be cutting a lot of it out. Making The Thin Red Line is never gonna fly. There can't be a lot of really long pauses because those will be the first thing that the studio says to remove, and by and large, that was true. It's true of every studio. It sounds like a criticism, but it's part of the process. You can't have these really long pauses. In the early cuts, there were quite a bit more of those and they were a bit longer and we all loved them, but I knew that was never gonna be the case.

So it was really whittling down of: Do we have too many birds? Do we have enough insects? Is it the right shot?

 I was thinking in particular about the alligator shot before the sheriff and deputy go to her house.

BELL: That was a shot that was in early on, which we then removed for a time, and Livy really fought hard.

It was one of the last shots we actually put back in the movie.  The reason for that, and the reason why we chose an alligator. I don't think there's a huge amount of tension. You see an alligator in the water, but we wanted to give the sense that later on, when she's running from them and she dives in the water that these waters have alligators in them. It gave that little moment of breath. So it did double duty, but I don't know how effective it was. I doubt you were on pins and needles when you saw the alligator, cuz it wasn't really connected to anyone.

The movie does jump around in time quite a bit. There aren’t any complicated ideas in the film, but you need to rest... to let one land... take a little bit of a moment and move on. When I just saw the movie at the premiere, I was thinking, “Gee, did we cut some of this stuff too tightly?” But that's just because there is a version of the movie that's two hours and 15 minutes with credits that I really like. I really love this version as well. And this is 2:05 with credits.  I don't know how to make this movie much tighter without really going too deep.

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I can see how 2:15 would be nice...open it up and let it breathe some more... But when I saw that it was 2:05 when I looked at the movie times, I thought it looked right.

BELL: Particularly if it's a movie that maybe you're going with your partner to see, you think, “OK, I can go for this two-hour ride.”

This movie, it's a fable. It should be looked at as a summer escape film that's for a slightly more mature audience. If you don't wanna see a bunch of light savers and people shooting each other in airplanes, this is the movie for you. I really love this film. When I read the script, I thought, “It's been a long time since I've read a script like this. It feels like these movies don't get made anymore. To be able to be in contention to be an editor on it... I fell in love with the director in my first interview. And I was super thrilled to be involved. 

Before we get back to that idea, did you read the book either to prepare for your interview or before you started editing? 

BELL: I read it as part of my interview process. I read the script and I really enjoyed the script. Although the script was a little long — the version that I had read. So I read the script and I really liked the script. And then, as I was talking to Livvy — because we had several zoom meetings — she said, “Why don't you read the book?” So I read the book over the weekend and I really enjoyed the book. In the same way that if you read the book first and then you see the movie, you're biased to that initial piece of material and the way it affected you.

The book is definitely much more a murder mystery told through Kya's eyes, but also we leave her point of view and go through the sheriff and deputy quite a bit. And the courtroom is really just in the last third of the book. The sheriff and deputy were interesting, but every time I left Kya in the book, I just wanted to get back to her. The movie really didn't have that issue because Kya was pretty much always there.

When you're in the courtroom, she's part of that experience. When you're off investigating a murder with these two country law enforcement people, she's nowhere around. So I found that I enjoyed the script a little bit better than the book, but I think it was because of that initial dopamine hit of Kya and the marsh and how compact it was in the script. And then when I read the book, I feel like it may have been reversed if I'd done it the other way around as well. I think that's just a natural human condition that we, that if we find something that we really like, and then someone dishes it out to us in a different form, it's a little bit harder to digest that new version.

It's interesting that Olivia wanted you to read it because I have talked to multiple editors who have done book adaptations and it's about a 50/50 split between “No, I do not wanna be exposed to that because then I know stuff about the story that the audience might not know" and others that say, “I really want to know it, so I'm immersed and I understand, and I feel part of the story."

BELL: I am more on the defense of, “I don't wanna be hamstrung by trying to stick to the book too much.”

So if it were up to me, I probably wouldn't have read the book on The Hunger Game series. I read those books because basically Francis Lawrence said, “We're making the books, so read the book and the script isn't ready yet. So just read the book, which I did. And we went back to the book a lot in this case.

A movie is a completely different beast than a book. I only read the book because the director asked me to in the interview, and I wanted the job, so I basically said, “If you say jump, I’ll say how high?" Having said that, I'm actually glad I did read the book because when you're working with filmmakers who have read the book and are really into the book and they're talking about things in the book and how they relate to the movie.

It's really good to have an understanding of what they're talking about and be able to take part in those thematic conversations and ideas. If I hadn't read the book, there's a whole lot about the subject matter that I wouldn't have been privy to. So that helped to have read the book in this case.

You mentioned that the movie jumps around a little bit, and the structure of the movie is much different than the structure of the book, correct? 

BELL: It's not that much different because the book does jump around a bit. The book starts off with this murder mystery and then goes back in time.

But instead of going instead of the investigation and then the courtroom, we threw away the investigation to get that out of the way right away. And it's a courtroom drama, essentially we don't really meet Kya until she's running from the police.

And was the film the same as the script? Or did you find yourself restructuring things in the edit?

BELL: We restructured quite a bit in the edit. Not a huge amount, but we did move things a bit. It's funny: when I first read the script, both Livy and I thought, “Oh, we're gonna be moving stuff all over the place.” But because there are two relationships in the movie, and they both have to go through their ups and then downs, there's only so much that you can do. You can't really take the first relationship and move it because you will confuse things quite a bit. So it was really more about what happens between the courtroom scenes and which courtroom scenes would be there or which there were a number of scenes that ended up being lifted just for time. Also, because emotionally, they were really heavy, but they dragged the movie down time-wise. 

This particular script had 205 scenes, which is a tremendous number of scenes. 

That's a lot of scenes. Yeah. 

BELL: And the first assembly was 2:23. The first cut that I showed the director was 2:17. While we saved quite a bit of time internally within scenes themselves by making them more efficient, most of that time was by actually removing material from the movie scenes.

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Let’s talk about getting in and out the flashbacks. There are a couple of flashbacks. Sometimes people choose some kind of a device to get them inside of flashbacks. My recollection was that there's no device. 

BELL: Yeah. Just cuts. There were a few dissolves in the movie, mostly for the purpose of seeing time has gone by. While there were a couple of little clever devices, which were more visual, like the reading montage where all you feel is one big shot panning around despite the obvious time jumps. Or when they're getting old and they’re bird-watching and we dolly behind a tree and they're much older. We needed to really pace the movie up and find ways to tell parts of the story that took much longer in the book that a movie can't withstand.

And one of the things that, that both, you know, that Livvy was really adamant about — and I was in total agree with her — is that with the courtroom stuff, anytime you can put it over something else and we can get some more flavor of the town, that paces it up. Courtroom scenes are the embodiment of expositional dialogue, right? In this case, there's talking about things and ideas that maybe we haven't seen. And some of the earlier versions of the script – and certainly in the book – there was a whole lot about what she did or didn't do that was visualized in the book. It was also visualized in early versions of the script. We didn't take the time to show all that stuff. So it became interstitial. The courtroom is a brown bunch of brown walls. We all know who the people are. It's a courtroom drama, but it's really a love story, so we were trying to find the balance. So we weren't spending too much time in this dull courtroom, which is really not where Kya belongs. So that was how that worked out.

06galleryIf I remember correctly — going into the first flashback — she almost says, “Here's a flashback,” right?

BELL: Absolutely. She says, “I had a family once.” Then there you are. You're back in time with her. 

This movie means a lot to me. It was really some of my best work. I enjoyed working on it so much. I was really one of the only men involved, certainly in post, other than some of the studio executives. We’d do a screening for the team and there would be 11 people and I was the only male. It was really made by women. When you're at a table with a bunch of men and there's maybe three women or two women involved, the women have to lift their voices up much higher to be heard by the men and the men do a lot of sort of blustery stuff and it feels less collaborative. 

When I was working with Elizabeth Gabler and Lauren Neustadter and Rhonda Fehr and Olivia, obviously, and Veronica— all these wonderful women who have these great creative ideas, I was able to sit back and listen to how they're working with each other. I was in a position where I wasn't always talking first and I didn't have to ram my idea. A lot of times when you're in a room with a bunch of men, you, even when you're a man, you have to — if you want to be heard— you have to force your message out there because they're all jockeying.

They all wanna be heard. We're like a bunch of little soldiers, and when you're with a bunch of people who are behaving differently, it was really interesting to me. And a lot of times, I was the only guy, so they would say, “So what do you think?” And it was nice to be in that position. I really enjoyed it. It was great to see what a bunch of super-talented, strong creative women could create. And I was so grateful to be part of it.

Let's talk about VO and the use of VO and how that might have evolved through the course of production or post. 

BELL: The voiceover was always in the script and there was plenty of it. There were a lot of weather breaks during shooting — lightning storms and flooding of the set and all sorts of crazy things. So when those happened, I called Olivia up and said, “Why don't you record the voiceover?” So she did that. So we had the voiceover and when it's a voiceover film, you're constantly recording and re-recording because you're changing things quite a bit. (SPOILER ALERT): A perfect example is in the book — once she discovers that chases has a fiance, she in the book, she actually gets in her boat and she goes out into sea towards a storm to challenge herself. (END SPOILER ALERT) And then the waves take over and she decides that she's had enough, and she goes back in and gets the will— like nature showed me the way. That's really easy to tell when you can just explain what somebody's thinking in a book. In a movie visually it's a lot harder to do without voiceover.

We ended up removing the storm because that was the only time we ever saw her in the middle of the ocean. It didn't make a lot of sense and the effects were going to be expensive, so we pulled that out. Once we pulled it out, we needed something to flesh in the part before (SPOILER ALERT) “ Congratulations. We’ll buy your book. Here's $5,000. Everything's gonna be great.” (END SPOILER ALERT) You need to have her life bottom out a bit and then recover. So we came up with her running through the woods and running out to the beach and collapsing on the beach. And we actually used some of the footage from the boat when she comes back from the storm. She got out of the boat from the storm and collapsed, so we just painted out the boat. So that voiceover changed quite a bit obviously. And throughout the movie, that was the case. We rewrote her voiceover probably three times throughout the whole movie. To the point where we'd be getting ready for a screening and we’d be asking her, “Hey, can you record something on your iPhone and send us these lines or just this word?”

I think that's the nature of voiceover because you want as little as necessary but if you are working on a movie that's going to have voice over there has to be enough so that when you hear it, you're not all of a sudden surprised by it each time. So hopefully we, we worked that out.

You used a prelap to get into the trial. Can you talk about the value of a prelap? Why do you use them sometimes and not all the time?

BELL: I think it has to do with what people are saying. I think in this case it's just to help with the transition because we're not doing any thing special transitionally. In this movie there aren't a ton of establishing shots. If it was a TV show, there'd be an exterior of a courtroom and the prelap would be over the exterior of the courtroom. We didn’t want an establihing shot. Just keep it flowing. Some of the prelaps that we did later in the movie, like for instance, for the closing arguments, those were really more about saving time. The prosecutor says what he thinks happened. The defense says what they thing happened. The courtroom trope: we all know how it works, right? The audience has seen enough courtroom dramas to know that there's a rebuttal and then eventually you get to the closing arguments and then the jury goes in and they come back, so once you're at that point, why belabor it? It gave us the time to give the defense's closing argument, which really paints the picture of why she should be found innocent in as efficient a way as possible.

It's so interesting to think about using the audience's own skill or experience of watching a story to your advantage.

BELL: It's funny because that's one of the things that I've noticed more and more throughout my career is recognizing: What do audiences expect and what are they tired of?

For instance, I'll be watching something thinking, there are so many entrances. There's so much of people just walking around. When are we gonna get to the meat of the story? Sometimes I find that's takes me out of the film because I'm just waiting, but I'm not luxuriating in the wait.

If you get a two hour show and five minutes of it is walking or driving around, you're gonna lose your audience. I try to really think about who are we making this for? What are the current trends in viewership? Back when we were transitioning from film to non-linear, people would complain about MTV. Like they all have ADHD.

They can't wait and sit. And you know what? That's very true. And if it was true then, it's even more today. There are things that people understand. They just understand, because they've seen it so much. So you can take that stuff for granted and use it to your advantage.

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You used an opera track from Puccini diegetically in Tate’s dad's boat. And then allowed that to continue into the next scene. Was that scripted?

BELL: Oh, no, that was something I did. It's funny because you're touching on one scene that we removed from the movie. It's the only scene that – every time I see the film – I really wish was still in. The scene in the movie is when the dad tells Tate to turn up the Puccini music and then we cut to her at home and she smells a shirt that he left behind. In the scene we cut out, she's on her boat in a wide body of water. Presumably, she's headed towards the bait store, and about a hundred yards away is their shrimp boat. Tate and his father are there joking around. She can see them, but they can't see her. It was wonderful to have the Puccini playing all the way through that. It was really great, but for time the studio really wanted to remove it. I just kept the Puccini running into the next scene because I thought it was really cool. It just felt right for the movie. And when Olivia heard it, I think she really responded to it.

The music was interesting for me. I'm a very visual person and I traditionally try to get music editors on as early as possible. But when you have a movie like this, where you don't have a huge budget, it's very hard to get a music editor on before you're halfway through the director's cut. It's really difficult. The studios loathe paying that money. So it was incumbent upon me to come up with whatever music we were gonna use for temp score early on. I was really struggling to try to find the love theme or something that would really help support the Tate and Kya relationship. I don't have a huge catalog of music in my brain to pull from. Traditionally, I'll think, “What movie made me feel in a similar way?” And then I'll go back to that soundtrack and see if I can pull something from that. I did a lot of that. Two of my kids are classical pianists. My middle son is quite accomplished. They both like to listen to classical music at night when they're going to bed. I went to go tuck in my youngest – who is only six – and there was this amazing piece of music playing on his Alexa. Shazamed it, and it was actually this composer named Ludovico Einaudi; he is a pianist and a film composer. He did one album where he had this amazing violinist sort of overdub his pieces or they collaborated or something it's called de Divenire.

I'm gonna try that for the whole relationship between Tate and Kya. So big chunks of temp for this movie was something my six-year-old turned me on to. Mychael Danna, our composer, gets the meat of the idea and the feeling, and he creates something completely different from it and supports it in a better way.

So it was really wonderful to see him take what I found and completely “clean slate it” but kept the emotional part, magnifying it and making it better. Halfway through the director's cut, we did get a music editor, and then Mychael's music editor came on and had some great temp music as well as Michael's music and we started to fill the movie out with score. I'd never gotten a temp score from a six-year-old before that worked so well!

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Were you editing at home? 

BELL: I was editing at home just during production. I started in May of 2021. I have a fairly state-of-the-art facility here in my basement. 

I followed along as you built that. We’ve talked about that in the past. It's pretty impressive. I want to come see it sometime. 

BELL: Yeah, it's pretty cool. Although by the time you come to see it will probably just be a movie theater, and it won't be an editing bay anymore. I'm looking forward to pulling my editing console out because that's the choice seating. That's where the sweet sound spot is. But that's where I wanna sit when I watch movies. 

But the studio really wanted me in LA and when you're working with a director that you're trying to collaborate with, so much of your interaction is spoken without words. While I wasn't happy about leaving my family, it made a lot of sense to me to come out to Los Angeles and work with Olivia on the Sony Studios lot, for the director’s cut, but it went a lot longer than I had wanted it to. We were supposed to be done before Christmas. I ended up out in Los Angeles until the end of March. It was quite a long time. We did take a one-month hiatus in the middle of it, but I was away from my family for a solid nine months, which is really rough. Hopefully, I won't ever have to leave for that amount of time. I'm basically trying to retire. But honestly, I can't retire until I turn 60, so I have one year left. I've been turning everything down. 

I just got home and I'm getting called, “Hey, can you do this? Can you do this?” I basically just told my agent, that I wouldn’t take anything until the end of September because I need to soak up the love of my family. I'm also at the point now where I may have one more movie in me, but I won't be leaving for nine months. If the movie posts in New York, I could do that because I could come home every weekend or there has to be something contractual that says that six weeks away, six weeks back, six weeks away, six weeks back, because I just can't do it. I'm sure you have similar sentiments.

It's hard. And my kids are older, but I totally understand. Being away that long, you definitely feel it. 

BELL: It's not that you lose the connections, but you're not with the people that you love. Your spouse. You're divided. To keep it balanced, you need to both be in the same time zone at the very least to share both the good and the bad. 

I was very fortunate in that when I was in Los Angeles for nine months, I was actually living with some very dear friends of mine who were the writers/directors of a movie I did in New York. It was at a pivotal point in my career. It was this movie called Little Manhattan, which I absolutely loved working on.

Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett became very close friends of mine. I was literally living in the pool house where we had cut Little Manhattan. When I'd taken that job, I had one foot in the editing door, one foot out. I was trying to decide if I was gonna be a VFX supervisor? Or am I gonna be an editor? And at that time, I chose to be an editor. They really recharged me. Because they're great people, and it was good material, I really think it helped me get through the nine months to have a built-in family of people that loved me, that I loved, that was there for me.

If I'd been in a hotel, I don't know if I would've been able to come back after that one-month hiatus.

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The human and “life” side of editing is a big part of staying creative and being happy at work. Let's get back to the editing. There's a montage with a bunch of time jumps around her first kiss with Tate. Can you talk about that little sequence of the kiss?

BELL: That particular sequence was they're by this tree and they're having this intimate conversation. She's just asked him, “Why did you teach me to read? Do you have a girlfriend?” And he's awkward. “Sometimes. I don't have one right now.” And then he asks about his mom and he tells her the sad news that she had passed away with his little sister in a car crash. We worked really hard on that sequence and the original bit at the tree. The conversation was meant to be a slow push-in — an oner. A lot of times when you don't have a lot of time, some scenes had to be shot like they were indie film scenes. So that was one where we were lacking a little bit of coverage. We didn't have close crossing closeups for this really intimate conversation there at the tree. And what was supposed to happen is they're talking and they get interrupted by a wind gust and a dust devil of leaves.

It was a little awkward getting them to break from the original conversation to the dust devil. It just wasn't firing on all cylinders. Also, the issue was that they had these huge fans that were right off screen – four or five of them. It was like having enormous vacuum cleaners right next to the people talking, so anytime they'd turn the fans on, any semblance of acting is gone. Your senses are assaulted by these jet engines. So it was a little rough there and because we didn't have the close-ups. When I first saw it, I didn’t know what I was gonna do with it. I created something that was really stylistic, but it wasn't really in the vernacular of the movie. I showed it to Olivia, and she said, This is cool, but it's not really our movie. It needs to be more elegant.” Then we basically did some additional photography to get those cross angles, but we had to manufacture the rear plates because we didn't have the actual angles to pull from. I have a VFX background, so I went through and pulled a bunch of things that we could manufacture the plates from. At one point, I stole one of the shots of her before she moves into frame and created my own cross angle before we'd done any reshooting or additional photography in order to solve this problem. We wanted to try to create a magical moment. We did a little bit with sound.

It's so interesting that that's your perspective. I understand your discomfort at the trickiness of the edit, but as an audience member who knew nothing of that, I thought it WAS a magical sequence. 

BELL: Oh, that's so good to hear. It's hard to jettison the baggage of earlier experiences. I know all the little tricks. I know which shot is a comp. And I know how hard we worked on those leaves and the speeds of the leaves and the size and the color and the time warps and the kiss. Is it long enough? Is it too short? But the idea was for you to get out of her head and have this thing happen and then come back into reality. 

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But was there also a section of kissing where it was time jumps? 

BELL: So after they kiss, then they just go through this kissing montage. When Daisy smiles, you can't help but light up with her! When Kya is happy, she's just the best person. You just wanna be around her. She's so magnetic. And for me, that's one of the best parts of the movie is that whole kissing scene. And we shaped all that because it can go on for too long. It was a standard montage, but to get into it was that magical thing; the idea is we wanted to create the feeling of what it feels like or visually try to portray the first love feeling. Because if you're middle-aged and you've loved and lost, even when you fall in love again, it's not quite as shiny as it was the first time. So that was what we were trying to do: look at how amazing this is for her, right? 

You've done a bunch of big action movies. Was your process and approach to the material the same for this as it was for The Hunger Games movies and Red Sparrow?

BELL: I think so. The amount of time that I've included the other people in my cutting room, in the process in terms of giving my assistants things to cut or recut has changed as I've gotten older, I've been much less interested in my ego and saying, “Oh, I cut every frame.” By the time I got to Red Sparrow and I was the only editor — it's way more fun when you have more than one editor involved. One: you get to bounce things back and forth and Two: you can go home at seven o'clock sometimes, which is nice to be able to have a life outside of work. And it's nice to be able to mentor people. So I don't really think it's because of the material as much as because I've matured, and it's not as important to me to be the only one involved as it used to be when I was maybe first starting out, I was a little naive and felt like I needed all the credit. That's not as important to me as it once was. But by and large, my approach to the material is almost always the same because I'm trying to tell the best story I can. That doesn't mean that the editing style doesn't change with the film style. There's not a lot of opportunity for cutting action scenes in this movie, though.

I will say I took the attempted rape scene, and that is, by and large, my first cut on that. It didn't really change at all, except for maybe when she runs off. We made a little bit of a visual effect at the end there with the guy in the boat, because he used to be tied off, and we made him move. But when you have “action chops,” you're used to doing that and you try to make it as visceral and as efficient as you can, but by and large, my approach to most of the material doesn't really change much one genre to the next. I will say that large action films, they're more time-consuming because you just have more footage.

And a number of set pieces with multiple cameras and visual effects weighing down. You're never really seeing the scene complete until late in the process, so you're having to imagine a lot while you're cutting it; where it's a movie like this, there's very little that's left to the imagination through the cutting process.

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I'm also interested in the nuts and bolts of your approach. Are you a selects reel guy or do you just like having your bins laid out in frame view with setups and takes in rows. How do you approach a scene from scratch?

BELL: I like my bins to be organized essentially just the way they are in the line script. And I like them in frame view and the largest size possible. And I'll have a bin of cards. They're just color-coded cards. And one might say Good or NG, or it may have a character card or there's a little bit of information that I may throw in the bin and stick underneath the tile. I watch everything and I'll make notes. Those notes get typed into markers and I'll sometimes change the position of one clip or put one of those green cards behind it. And I may even open up something and type a special reminder. But I'm not a big selects reel guy. I will do that for some big action things but for the most part, I don't do that. But I also use ScriptSync. As I watch everything, I think about the performances that I like best, and also structurally, what I think the scene is about and what it needs. 

I work very much in the way that I would on a Moviola. I will basically mark the in and out. I might start at the center and go one direction or the other, but more often than not, because I've watched everything and I've thought about how I wanted to put it together. I'll start at the beginning and I'll mark the in and the out, and I just straight cut it into my timeline. And then I do the next piece and I don't look back. I just cut it together and it took a lot of patience and fortitude to do that early on because of the desire to go back and look at the cut and polish.  But once I did that, you can take a scene and cut it together rapidly that way. And the cut is probably shitty, but you've isolated what your initial gut instincts are: This is the performance. This is what I like about this.

I don't just pick a moment because I think it's better than the others. I always try to be able to vocalize: “Why is this take better than the others? What's it gonna do for me?” I may not have that conversation out loud with somebody but in my head. So I cut all that together and then I look at it. Usually I take a break and move on to another scene and recut something and then come back or I go to lunch or whatever, and I look at it and then I recut it. I find that in doing that, I'm thinking about the outpoints as much as I am thinking about the in points, and in non-linear editing, it's so easy to just put it in the timeline without thinking about the in and the out. I almost do that on certainly every dialogue scene.

That's how I approach it initially and then I just start to unravel it from there: tighten it, swap things out, change things, see things that I thought worked, but didn't work, or I'm often surprised by things at how my initial idea worked. And it's really good because I’m not thinking about matching. I’m only thinking about performance. All the rest of that stuff comes in later for me. And it makes it fast and it doesn't feel tedious. Because when I'm sitting there belaboring if this performance is better and I haven't even structured the whole thing out, it can feel overwhelming. You can spend four hours and you don't have anything to riff off of.

I work very similarly. I like to get a structure in place and then ask: okay, now what? That way, I can actually see the scene in place. You get it up on its feet.

BELL: Yeah, exactly. It's all about movement and keeping the tempo. And I don't mean the tempo of the cut. I mean, your tempo as an editor. Because the process of watching dailies can sometimes feel so tedious that once you're done with that process, it can really be like you're exhausted sometimes by the end of that. And it's nice to just hit the ground running and make some progress to make up for that four hours that you spent watching and note-taking. All of that pays off later. When I open that bin a month later with the director, that groundwork really helps. 

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Alan, can you talk to me a little bit about how you think you got this job? What do you think the director saw in you that they wanted? This is so different from the latest movies you’ve cut.

BELL: The interview process on this one was very different from normal. I knew they were looking for a while at several different editors. When I got the script, they were getting very close to wanting to shoot. They asked if I could read the script that night and do an interview the next morning? So I read it and I really liked it. Then I met Livy and I really enjoyed meeting her. She was already in Louisiana.

She asked me what I thought about the material and I told her how much I loved it. Then she asked if I'd read the book, and I said, “No, I haven't.” We talked for another 45 minutes. The next day I got an email from her directly from her asking if I could think of some other movies that might be touchstones? And I pulled up some Terrence Malick movies that I really liked that I thought visually could be touchstones. And she asked if we could have another Zoom call. So we had another meeting on Zoom with her and she said that she really wished I would read the book. I agreed, and then we had another meeting. Meanwhile, I'm thinking, “I've never interviewed so much on a movie. She damn well better hire me! :-)”

So I read the book and I got back to her and I think the thing that really tipped the tables for her was because I'd read the script first and I was biased towards the script over the book. That's not to say that I didn't love the book, but from reading the script, I really felt like it was a complete movie. There was some work to do on the script, but it was a good movie. And I think that a lot of the people that she interviewed had read the book first, and their criticisms of the script were things that weren't in the script that they loved in the book. So I think for her — I'm putting words in her mouth — she really was excited by somebody who really loved the script material. It also helped to have Lauren and Elizabeth Gabler being the studio executive, who I did Water for Elephants with. And then Lauren's husband was the writer of 500 Days a Summer, so I'd had really good experiences with those people. I think they were whispering in her ear that I was a good guy. “He may be doing these big action films, but he's talented. You're gonna be in good hands.” So I think that helped. This is the first time I actually got hired on a movie and had some of my peers — people who I respect — also up for the film. I can't believe that she hired me over them. I'm just grateful that I'm able to walk in their company. It was a movie that a lot of people wanted to cut.

Well, congratulations on getting the gig and doing such a great job. Thank you.

BELL: You're very welcome. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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