Pietro Scalia has worked closely with several of the worlds best directors including Bernardo Bertolucci, Oliver Stone and Ridley Scott. He has won an Oscar for JFK, Most recently he completed The Martian, starring Matt Damon and sat down with me for a nice talk about editing films.
Jacobson: Hi, Pietro. I love your work and It’s an honor to have a talk with you. I know you have done a lot of interviews and I hope to ask some different types of questions to get a deeper insight to your methods and experience working with world’s greatest directors. Overall, has language ever been a problem communicating with your directors?
Scalia: No, no, I don’t have problems with languages, you know, I mean I speak four languages because I grew up in Switzerland so I grew up speaking both German and Italian and then had French in school and now English, obviously, as a main language. But I like languages so I think I have a good ear for languages. It’s a good thing to have and I keep practicing my French and obviously German and Italian. I speak Italian all the time.
Jacobson: Do you think that knowing so many languages has helped you in your career as an editor to collaborate better with people from all over the world? Has it offered you more opportunities?
Scalia: I think you just have a good ear for languages and intonation, I think maybe that helps in terms of understanding hues of performers. I mean, I don’t know it’s not that specific. I just think, I know, for example, that I can distinguish, you know, if you have a foreign film or have foreigners in an American film, I can distinguish what kind of German it is from which region, or which Italian, what dialect, and so forth. So it helps in being authentic in certain instances. I mean, I distinguish a few languages and it just helps being aware of the reality of the languages and the people who speak it, I guess.
Jacobson: Let’s talk about your work with directors that speak languages other than English.
Scalia: I worked with Oliver Stone for many years and he grew up speaking French and he was very fluent in French. I also worked with Bertolucci in Italy and that was interesting because we would speak Italian but switch over to English and French and it would be just one into the other. That’s sometimes what happens in Europe if you’re in a place where people speak several languages, you just jump from one language to the other. I mean, around the table. It doesn’t really matter, everybody speaks the languages. So it’s whatever comes out. I mean I think that I’m better talking, in terms of technical terms about editing and shots and description, I mean that’s my professional language. I prefer speaking in English then to find the words in German or French every time. It’s just more conversational than those languages for me.
Jacobson: The language of cinema!
Scalia: The most beautiful language of cinema. I’ll tell you a story. Talking about Bertolucci, he told me this story, he said he was very much influenced at a very young age by the French new age filmmakers in France, and his first, second movie really, but feature film, which was received with a lot of acclaim internationally, called Before The Revolution. He told me this story that he was in Italy and he had a press conference with reporters about the film. He started speaking in French, answering questions in French, and that really irritated the Italians. Like “why are you speaking French?” And he goes, “because French is the language of cinema.” Arrogant little know it all, but I thought it was beautiful because French is the language of cinema. He obviously loved the new way, he was very much influenced by Renoir and Godard and all those people, so it’s funny you mentioned that language of cinema.
Jacobson: Controversy is great for the press. I’m sure they ate that up. You get a lot of publicity that way.
Scalia: He was considered a genius, a protégé, you know, in terms of what he was capable of doing at a young age, but he told me that story and I think it’s funny.
Jacobson: That is funny. You’ve worked with a lot of great directors, wow!
Scalia: The thing is I’ve been very fortunate to work with masters and that was always, my initial idea was that I’m going to go and be a director myself in the European way, you know. Write and direct your own films and I did a lot of that when I was in film school. I concentrated mostly on documentaries, and obviously doing short films, experimental short films, but the idea was always to write and direct. In the mid 80’s when music videos became very popular a lot of my friends from film school went on and started doing all the music videos. I returned to Switzerland, wanting to keep working in Europe with my films, with my shorts, with my script, and spent there a lot of time trying to get going. It wasn’t easy because there wasn’t really anything happening in Switzerland and so I decided to come back to the States, but not as a director, my intention was I said I’m going to, if I want to be a director I want to learn from the masters and so the best way to do that is to be in the cutting room and is to work close with the director to understand the whole process. I wanted to have that experience in the States on feature films. It wasn’t just any film, I wanted to work with directors whose work appealed to me and I really was blown away by Oliver Stone’s Salvador and that’s the kind of films I wanted to make. Social, realism, social and political films. Films that are based on true events. I liked the image of that and so I pursued that. I was fortunate enough to work with him and I worked with him for six years. Every time a project comes up, I mean in the early stage it was always about the script and the director. I’ve had long relationships with these directors, with Oliver Stone six years. I did several movies with Delucci, with Gus Van Sant, and now most movies I’ve done with Ridley Scott, we’ve done ten movies together over the period of 17 years.
Jacobson: Do you work in the edit room together or does he cut you loose to do your thing and send him clips? How does that work?
Scalia: Different directors work differently. Some directors like to be in the cutting room all the time, I mean like with Delucci or Gus Van Sant. Oliver Stone would watch dailies but he would give notes and go away. With Ridley Scott, he likes to spend more time doing the director’s cut but basically he leaves me by myself. He comes in the morning, we review material on the Avid Media Composer, he goes away, and then he comes back in the afternoon. Depending on his schedule, he’s a busy man, but I think over the years we’ve established a good rapport and he just lets me do it, which basically means I just put the movie together.
Jacobson: That’s great. It seems like that’s a lot more freedom than, I guess it’s like being a director without the baggage. Do you get to put your creative spin on it?
Scalia: No I think, it’s, listen, editing is a very, very creative job and I’m fortunate enough that I’ve been given a lot of creative freedom, but you have to bring a specific point of view, a specific take, and you have to get along with the director. If you ask a lot of director’s they will tell you that they do enjoy being in the cutting room because that’s really a safe haven. It’s safe in there to try things out, to not worry about the time and the complications on the set. Being on the set is very, very hard. You’re always fighting time and logistics. You have to maneuver and orchestrate hundreds and hundreds of people to get the shots done. The cutting room is calm. It’s a calm environment. It gets intense but it should be an environment where you’re free to be creative and feel safe in trying things out and making mistakes. But at the same time it’s also a very, I think it’s a special and magical place. Very few people actually get to see it because it is the moment where you really make the film come alive. It’s a moment of creation. I mean, yes, you have all the material, all the takes, but when you remove all the artifice from the material and you put the scene together, and the performances, and you start making these characters become real and they actually evoke certain emotions, it’s a wonderful place to be. Unfortunately not many people know that or actually can witness that. It’s an intimate space between the director and an editor.
Jacobson: It seems like the director will do a similar thing with the set and try to create a safe haven for the actors to perform. Is there anything that you do physically in the edit suite to make that a safe haven or a creative comfortable space? Some people decorate or maybe it’s a remote location where no one can be bothered.
Scalia: Yeah, I mean, the thing is for us is basically to have really good equipment that works. Have the screens that really light. Have really good speakers and monitors. We have comfortable chairs and a couch and table. I mean it’s basically things that are useful for us. We decorate it with concept art from the movie. I have a wall full of images like printed out the size of index cards that shows us all the movie. So, it’s a place where we can close the door if you don’t want anybody, and it’s also open, you know, we want to invite people in screen stuff.
On: Method Editing and The Martian
Jacobson: So for this movie Martian did you edit this on Mars?
Scalia: Yes (laughs)
Jacobson: You did didn’t you? You’re a method editor.
Scalia: We did actually, in 3D, we took all the cast. No, this film started pre-production and was shot for almost 14 weeks in Budapest, in Hungary during the winter. In March we moved the cutting room equipment, and my team, we moved to Southern France, in Provost, near where Ridley lives, to do a director’s cut. We basically rented out a small compound of summer houses where we set up our cutting rooms and the crew was living there as well. They all had their own apartment. It was beautiful, surrounded by vineyards, beautiful trees. So we spent a gorgeous spring in Southern France.
Jacobson: Talking about being a method editor, like a method actor. It means you live the film you are working on to be a deeper part of the story and characters. A method actor would become the character all the time. Some people just get into it. For instance, did you go deep into Mars research try to help your creative process?
Scalia: I mean, yeah, it was very exciting and yes you do the research by learning more about Mars and, I mean, there are specific areas on Mars I had to familiarize myself with the areas that are mentioned like the Schiaparelli crater and then you find out that Schiaparelli discovered things in some of the canals on Mars. You’ve got a history of Mars and all that stuff, but that’s just for pleasure. I think that we had a really good script and I read the book three times and was just very familiar with all of the beats in it and the science. There were things that I didn’t understand, you know, I looked some things up. So any time you go on a picture you do learn new things. When I was working with Oliver Stone on JFK I learned a lot because Oliver had vast knowledge of the period of the 60’s. Even though I didn’t live through Vietnam in the States, I found out a lot through him. I found out about Mosadaic in Iran to find out what happened before the Shah of Persia happens. So your life is enriched by the experiences in the films that you work on.
On: Tech Talk
Jacobson: For me, it’s like getting an education every time I do a project, I learn more and more. It helps me with small talk because I find myself technically speaking, around my friends or family that aren’t involved in the film business. I got a nudge from my wife once and she said, no more technical talk at the table.
Scalia: Yeah, stop it.
Jacobson: How do you keep the technology separate from the creative, especially if there’s some collaboration in the room? Nobody wants to be distracted.
Scalia: No exactly right. It should be transparent, you shouldn’t even worry about it.
Jacobson: Well I was wondering a couple things about The Martian. It seemed like it could have been a creative challenge to try to do a film that didn’t have so much dialogue? We had these confessional scenes and the helmet cam and the pod cam, and all these different voice over type scenes. Did that help you or hurt you in the edit room?
Scalia: I think that it could have been interesting, I think, or more conventional if Ridley did not use the multiple the Go Pro Cameras throughout. Rather than just limiting itself to just having the initial video log and starting his diary putting down how he feels for whoever might find it because he knows he’s not going to survive there. I think the device of Mark Watney talking into the camera, it helps very early on to identify with the education process of the viewer because he’s looking straight into the camera, straight at you, which is very, very powerful. But then Ridley put cameras everywhere, inside the hab, in the rover, which allowed for the actor to move around and look up and talk to the camera, I mean, as a presence, always addressing the viewer. We become part of his daily life. I’m just saying that helped rather than just having it only his voice over. You can see that it always goes back. It’s always anchored, he’s actually speaking to a camera. It’s not just voice over and deflecting back. It’s present, it happens. The interesting thing is that Ridley also shot several of those voice overs at different times of the day. One conversation could span a few days but you can show different actions that happened at the same time. So that allowed me to jump in time, make certain jumps, and not be linear in time of events as they unfold. Also they didn’t have to be literal in having to show what he explains. It allows me to work on two different levels where I show visually, I move according to the actions that happen at different times, linking it with the voice over and the video, at different times of the day. So it actually was beneficial and useful for me to have those tools available to me to be able to commence time and move the narrative in at a good pace, I think.
Jacobson: And then the cross-cutting with the live action behind the scenes as they are mimicking him building the spacecraft and testing things.
Scalia: Yeah parallel action but also basically to bridge that they are all working towards the same goal in trying to save him. It’s to not only connect them geographically and story points, but there’s a whole other layer of visual language that happens that goes completely unnoticed when you watch the film. For example, if I cut a conversation between Captain Lewis, in the cockpit, and she’s talking to Mark Watney, who is in the capsule, about what they’re going to do in terms of meeting up and rescuing him, you know, I have the choice of three or four camera angles and a lot of different coverage, but I do choose performance, but I also will choose the camera angle so that if I have, for example, Captain Lewis talking to Mark Watney and she looks down in the direction of her eye, I will cut to the angle that is balanced out to Mark Watney looking up. So I could have gone through three different angles but it’s balanced out. It’s balanced on imagery. So it’s connected on different geographical planes, but it is visually connected as having a conversation. And it’s not a big deal to get noticed, but to the eye it’s pleasing.
Jacobson: You follow the eyes. It was really interesting to see how that played out. I was wondering how close the edited version was to the script or the book.
Scalia: I think that they are all very similar in spirit, I mean, authentic in spirit. I think that obviously the script had to do a lot of condensing, which Drew did an amazing job condensing the stories, but the thing is the edit itself is not a true representation of the script, structurally and in the order of scenes. The script initially followed the book structure and basically we find that Mark Watney has died on Mars and we basically spend a good chunk with him on Mars and in the Hap trying to survive. Only later on in the book, and in the script, do we introduce the Hermes crew, and also the event that caused him to be left behind, the storm, him being left behind, and him being tailed by the antenna. So when we put the movie together in that structure it felt like part of the flashback and then it’d catch up in time with the crew but it’s like 40 minutes into the film, we haven’t met any of the crew, now we’re playing a flashback of the thing that we already know in order to have an action scene, but it just felt late.
So one of the restructuring was let’s put the event before it actually happened, and it might be not maybe as interesting because it’d be great to just say you know, you wake up and you’re the only man on this island or you’re the only man on this planet, it’s a very powerful way to start the film. Putting the event of the storm before helped us introduce the characters, getting to know who they are, for a little bit so when he is by himself and talks about his crew the viewer has a meeting him in a flashback later. So we went with that convention and started the scene with the storm and then reverted back. But, throughout the journey itself and the back and forth between Mars, and the massive establishing of communication, and where we would go back and forth, there was a lot of rearrangements that happened. Anyway, I can make more examples but let me stop talking shop.
Jacobson: I like the tempo that the movie took, it reminded me of kind of like a boxing match a little bit. Like Muhammad Ali and where he used to do rope a dope, where he’d come out banging and then he’d like go back into the corner and kind of wait it out a little bit, and then boom, boom, boom, boom. When the storm hits there’s a lot of nice action cutting. I noticed a couple of little blip cuts in there that was really exciting and then it would pull back again.
Scalia: Yeah. Interesting analogy. I mean, the thing is I think that if you look at the film, I mean, it follows a classical structure in terms of what happens in the event. It does help to have certain movements in the story. They’re kind of like, you know, you can follow that and films like that have been successful. For us, in my particular case with Gladiator or any of those, it follows some classical shapes and story structure of how certain events happen. You set up the condition, the evolution, I mean I don’t want to go into that specific of story structure, but if you analyze it, it follows that pattern. At the same time you need to have dynamics in the story. You have to have highs and lows. The question is where do they happen? How does the movie breathe? It’s a very organic thing about a story. It’s about we know the story, and there’s many different stories, but the enjoyable part is how its’ told right? That’s the thing that’s a breathing, living thing. So, as storytellers, as filmmakers, you have to get a sense how do you want to tell the story? How much do you show? When do you get them excited? When do you build tension and suspense? Those are all elements that make the storytelling part enjoyable.
Jacobson: So do you cut those parts first? How do you work in the Avid? Do you set up certain scenes first?
Scalia: I don’t give preference to any parts. They’re all important parts. I think what I’ve said before and with my assistants who work with me, you always have to start with character. When you make decisions and you put the scenes together on the Avid Media Composer, they don’t shoot them in order, they shoot them in all different orders. But you put the scene together, you know the dramatic content of the scene, you know how you’re inspired by the material the way it’s shot, you put it together, then you put the scenes together, it becomes a sequence and slowly it morphs into a film. What I tell my assistants, and what I do every single day, is that when you go back, you have an assembly of scenes in the Avid, but when you are actually making the film you have to really break it down and you have to focus, the initial part is character. You have to understand character. The audience needs to understand character. Who he is, how he feels, that really determines the steps that he goes through. You can’t rush that. You cannot shortchange. You can fake it, you can fool it, you can abbreviate it, but you have to be aware that it’s a living thing when the audience sees it for the first time. You work on it for a year but the audience experiences it for the first time. One of the key things about character that tells you precisely the things you need to know, and that is how do you feel? How does the character feel? How do you feel and how do you engage and care about this character? The second thing is story. Where does this character take you? Are you going to go on this journey with him? How does the story evolve? Then if you’ve got that shape of the story, and you work it, then you realize the third thing is structure. This restructuring actually helps the story better. This point here is part of the story but it’s in the wrong spot. It’s not correct yet to tell that part of the story. So character, structure, story is the order of evolution. Then afterward the enjoyable part is putting music to images and all of a sudden figuring out the movie itself shows you the branches and the things that are strong and hold it together. You follow that and you put music and you choose what music is necessary. How it affects your emotion. How to interpret a scene by the use of sound. It’s quite an important element. Not just visuals, but the sound itself is key to conveying emotions and how things are played.