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« BAFTA Nominations: Bridge of Spies and Carol lead | Main | USC Scripter Nominations Add a TV Category. (But Where's "Carol" in Film?) »
Thursday
Jan072016

Interview: Affonso Gonçalves and the Art of Editing Great Actresses

Affonso Gonçalves with this ACE win for editing True Detective (2014)Affonso Gonçalves is a man that every actress lover ought to both thank and envy. Over the course of his career in TV and film he has been privvy to a consisently vivid series of strong and sometimes downright iconic performances by several of our greatest actress. He's helped shape the way we see them, too.

His career began in earnest with as an assisant editor on Todd Solondz's cult hit about a nerdy teenager Dawn Weiner in Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) and soon thereafter he was editing multiple films for Ira Sachs and other independent minded directors. In the 20 years since his debut he's edited performances by Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive), Kate Winslet (Mildred Pierce), Kerry Washington (Night Catches Us), Michelle Williams (The Hawk is Dying), Kim Basinger (The Door in the Floor), and  Patricia Clarkson (Married Life). More famously he's edited two star-making young performances that went on to be Oscar nominated for Best Actress in Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone (2010) and Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012). Next week he'll likely be able to add two more Oscar nominated performances to his editing triumphs with Cate Blanchett & Rooney Mara's duet in Carol.

I had the pleasure recently of grilling him about watching and shaping these Best Actress performances in Winter's Bone, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Carol. Here's our conversation (edited for length and clarity) with very mild Carol spoilers if you haven't yet seen it. The film opens in additional theaters this weekend. More after the jump...

NATHANIEL: Did you know from the beginning that Carol was The One. That it was as special as it is? As an editor, especially, you're seeing it at literally every stage. 

AFFONSO GONÇALVES: I mean yes and no. Todd doesn't watch anything -- he doesn't want to watch while he's shooting. 

NATHANIEL: No dailies? 

AFFONSO GONÇALVES: He doesn’t do any of that.

Wow.

So they're shooting in Cincinnati and I was in New York cutting the first scenes. I have to watch and give feedback and write emails, and I'm just sending these glowing reviews. 'Is this even happening? This is amazing!' Cutting the first scene where they meet in the toy store, I was like, This is incredible. With the acting choices and all these little things.

But then it’s such a long process and they shot so much. So to get to the final film, we had to make hard choices. We changed some of the structure, some of the ideas, give up some characters. There are times where it’s like, 'Is this working? Is this confusing?' So it’s not like we sit down and go...

NATHANIEL: 'Yes, I'm a genius! I'm a genius" 

AFFONSO GONÇALVES: [Laughs] You make choices and they're hard choices. Because the performances are so beautiful and because they're so detailed and so kind of small. It's satisfying for me but editing -- it's hard to judge unless you're doing big action and stuff. But I needed for people to see what I was seeing so I had to slow the pace down. With Rooney Mara when she does that or that [mimics small gestures from the first date scene over lunch] those are details that Rooney is doing and it's very specific. So I had to learn how to recognize and ... 

NATHANIEL: How to keep them?

AFFONSO GONÇALVES:Yes, how to keep them and not to overdo it. But keep them in the sense that [they're saying] This is Therese: incredibly uncomfortable, but also with joy to be in this place. 


So when you get a scene like that, or their first meeting with the glove and the train and doll conversation. Obviously for us watching, the meaning is in the combination of the close ups and the images and the dialogue. So much of the film is how we're seeing the way they see each other. It seems like you would have an infinite amount of choices then, too many really, as an editor. Or does Todd, when he sends you the material, does he say, 'I want a close up here.'

How do you know what he’s going to want?

As I’m cutting, I don’t. There’s something you sense, that 'oh!' There are very specific things or moves that feel deliberate. [To self] 'This is what Todd is going for here.' And you work around it or with it.

The way we did it, I did my pass on the film with notes from the script supervisor. And then Todd came in after he was done shooting. He took a little break, came in on his own, watched the whole film and took very detailed notes. 'I love the performance, this line delivered here, that line delivered there.'

The looks and gestures we were finding in the cutting room...

I'll bet.

Because the very beginning at the restaurant and the very ending of the film are the same scene, I wanted it to be the same but it had to be a little bit different. The story is a little wider in the beginning, tighter close-ups at the end. But there is some thing that we had to change in VFX. Nobody knows but I'll tell you. Carol leaves, she's not coming to the party. She stands up on in a wide shot and touches Therese's shoulder. 

That shot! 

Therese doesn’t blink. She looks down but her eyes stay open. Only she does blink. We had to change that. In the end there's a closeup from behind and you see Therese closing her eyes. We felt like, if she had closed her eyes in the beginning, it would give too much away. If someone's been touched and they react like that.  

Spoiler alert. 

Spoiler alert right away!

AFFONSO GONÇALVES: So through the film we had to play with that kind of question - which looks you give? How many? That scene at the piano. Cate did this once or twice exactly the same, she touches Rooney's hand and Rooney messes up [the piano] But Rooney messed up because Rooney messed up. But then you play with it. And you stay on that. So, a lot of the film, it's the way Todd is directing the actors and the way the actors are doing things; it's all informing me. 

NATHANIEL: One of the things I thought was really remarkable about the movie was how it’s really eerily accurate about falling in love and about queer desire, and that sort of thing. And I know you’ve worked with Ira Sachs several times as well as Todd. Do you feel that working with these very distinctive gay auteurs helps you to cut movies like this together? 

It’s hard to say, because I  don't think it’s been directed to be specifically gay, or something.  It’s relationships, and guys like Ira or Todd, I think it’s just – like if you watch Mildred Pierce, it’s not a gay love story. Or even with some of Ira’s films. 

Yes, you're right. Married Life is not gay at all. But you also cut Love is Strange and  Keep the Lights On.

Ira's very first The Delta, my first film, was very much like that. [Pauses] There is something to that. What it is is there’s sort of [struggles for words] being judged by society? I wouldn’t say 'a taboo,' but there is something that’s kind of transgressive in a way. The way you present the relationship, it feels a little different maybe. 

There’s one shot of Abby (Sarah Paulson) and Carol walking down the stairs where they link their arms in the back, which is my single favorite shot in the whole movie because I don’t think I’ve ever seen an image that so perfectly showed specificity of queer friendship. It actually shocked me only because I realized that I’d never seen it expressed onscreen. Was that very deliberate? 

It was something that Cate and Sarah did. I don't think they did it in every shot but it was something they had worked out together. This is a good example of [working with a shot in editing]. Maybe in another film, once they do two/three steps you'd cut. But that shot [you hold]. The fact that she cares so much and they understand each other -- it's one of my favorite shots, too. 

It gives you so much history of the characters. 

It says a lot about the way that they are with each other.

Two Best Actress nominees whose work was edited by Gonçalves

NATHANIEL R: Obviously, these are brilliant seasoned actors, Sarah and Cate, but when you’re working with novice actors like Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild or brand new talents like Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone. Are those performances more difficult to cut together? I mean I guess I assume Jennifer Lawrence was already spectacular back then. 

AFFONSO GONÇALVES: Not only Jennifer Lawrence but John Hawkes -- they were spectacular together in that film. It’s funny because Quvenzhané in Beasts, she had this understanding and this uncanny way of reacting to things, which is what great actors do; it's less about acting than reacting. And she would react to the dad. The dad was more complicated [to edit] in that film.

Because he wasn't an actor either?

None of them were actors. So Benh could bring something out of him. If you met him in person, he’s not that person, but he has that person inside him, and Ben just brought it out, but I had to shape it and shape it. But with her, no. She was reacting so much, and she would give me choices, too. Because Benh wasn’t directing, but just talking to her. There was something about his dialogue with her. Like, 'what if this happens, what if the world was like this???' 

It’s something that Jennifer has, and it was very apparent when cutting Winter’s Bone. And Rooney’s like that. She's technically perfect but whenever Cate changed something, Rooney would change accordingly. So she wasn’t like, 'I know how I’m doing the scene!' If Cate were to do something else, Rooney adapted. They adapted to each other, they listened to each other, they reacted to each other. For me, it's like ' a quieter? a sweeter? a stronger version?' I could choose and go that way. It was really incredible. 

More on... Carolfilm editing, previous interviews

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Reader Comments (6)

SPOILERS:

Great interview! I've seen CAROL twice now and it is well-paced and expertly edited. But that shot in the end where Therese looks down at Carol's hand on her shoulder made me melt. So beautiful. And that final shot of Carol watching Therese walking toward her in the restaurant. I officially fell in love.

On a side note: I love love love FAR FROM HEAVEN but I think I love CAROL even more ;)

January 7, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterkent

Vindication for Quvenzhane from the editor himself. Her performance was called into question because she's a child. But adults have given performances which were solely based on the abusive behavior of their director. Shelley Duvall in The Shining is certainly not giving an acting performance so much so reacting to the constant undermining from Kubrick.

January 7, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

I really am not into Carol or Jennifer Lawrence, but I pray other interesting topics come up here soon.

January 8, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterWatt Finnegan

Great interview! Two thoughts:

1) I'm sure someone must have mentioned this somewhere already, but when Carol and Abby link arms in that scene, it instantly reminded of the moment in All About Eve after Eve's friend calls Lloyd for her, when the two women (who are coded as being lovers) go upstairs together arm-in-arm.

2) What was his answer to you opening "genius" question?

January 8, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

fantastic interview. For all the critical love for Carol, the editing is truly underappreciated.

January 8, 2016 | Unregistered Commentermurtada

WATT -- come on now. in the past 3 days there there have also been articles on THE REVENANT, BROOKLYN, SICARIO, Wiz Khalifa's "See You Again, SPOTLIGHT, Judy Garland, Many Precursor Prizes and Groups, Documentary Films with a Profile Bent, Fan Art for Films, THE BIG SHORT, ROOM, etcetera.

We don't *only* talk about Carol ;)

January 8, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

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