How do you get to be Christopher Nolan’s editor?
By cutting critically acclaimed films back to back (Manchester By The Sea, Hereditary, Marriage Story) and then sharing a common creative language. Or at least that’s what Christopher Nolan said when he was asked about his hiring of Jennifer Lame, ACE for Tenet and then Oppenheimer.
“For me, hiring is about looking at the work people have done in the past, but not necessarily in relation to what you’re looking to do. I look for excellence and judgment.
When meeting, it’s more about discovering if there’s a common creative language, which is exactly what turned out to be the case.”
Christopher Nolan, ICG Magazine Interview
Jennifer joins only two other editors who have worked for Nolan, with his previous editor, Lee Smith, ACE having every film he had made since Batman Begins (2005), with only his breakout indie hit Memento and first studio film Insomnia being edited by Dody Dorn.
Her career got it’s start working as an assistant editor on projects such as The Lovely Bones and 30 Rock, and then her second feature Francis Ha, established her long-running collaboration with director Noah Baumbach.
Jennifer also has additional editor credits on films such as Midsommar, Judas and the Black Messiah, and Blonde.
So then when you get 30 minutes to chat with an editor with the industry standing and creative accumen of Jennifer Lame, what in the world do you talk about?
Well I don’t know but this is what we spoke about…
- How she builds a scene from scratch
- Why you need to learn new approaches with every film
- Only having four weeks to rough cut Oppenheimer
- Working with writer-directors
- Building an enduring editorial career
- Collaborating with Christopher Nolan
- Where does she go from here?
Read through our conversation below, or listen in with the video above.
Interview with Christopher Nolan’s Editor, Jennifer Lame, ACE
Thanks to Rachel A for connecting me with Jennifer!
Here is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
What’s your daily work routine? When you’re in the trenches of the creative part of the edit, when it’s just you and the footage.
During the assembly? For me, it’s a very different process during the shoot and the assembly versus working with the director.
I feel like that’s almost the more daunting part of it. But over the years, I’ve tried to come up with different ways to tackle that part of it because it can be really stressful, or there are days where not much is going on, and it’s hard to structure your time, during that whole section.
For me, it’s coming in, talking to my crew, relaxing, figuring out what’s happening on set. And then just hyper-focusing, for hours, an hour at a time; “Okay, how much can I get done in one hour?” And I found that after years of attacking the assembly, that works the best for me.
Just mini goals. Because I think tackling a whole assembly can be very overwhelming. Even just the first stabs at putting the film together. It’s like starting anything, you know?
So I think for me, it’s structuring my day so I can find some joy in the day and have lunch with my crew or run an errand and then put timers on for like 30 minutes. I’m gonna spend 30 minutes on this scene and see how many different versions I can cut and what I learn in the next 30 minutes. I’m gonna live in this scene and then try to move on.
The other thing is you don’t want to get bogged down in something. But I can get very bogged down in things, and managing that is difficult, but I’ve found ways to do it.
How do you go about building a scene from scratch?
I know from Steve Hullfish’s interview, you used to create a string out of each line, take by take, to then pick the best take and stack them or lift them up, one or two tracks, to indicate whichever one you prefer best.
But then are you thinking, “Oh, there’s this close-up that I wanna build to”, and work backwards from that? Or do you start from the beginning of the scene, or I know the editor of Life of Pi, would cut together only all the wides, the whole scene is just wides, and then he’d cut all the close-ups, and he’d cut all the medium shots, and then he would mash together the three different scenes that he’d made to pick the best of the best, and see if it worked together.
Can you talk me through your process of tackling a scene, or does it change every time?
Yeah, I think that’s a really good idea. Is that Tim Squyres? (Yes) I’m gonna steal that one. I think I’m gonna steal that one because what I’ve learned is, I worked for one director (Noah Baumbach) for a really long time and that’s the method I learned from him, the one you just mentioned.
But then I’ve learned that it’s actually okay to be flexible and deviate from that. So with Chris’s movies, they don’t necessarily jive with that process.
But I think every movie is different, which is why I was like, I’ll steal that Tim Squyre’s thing for one movie. And I think it’s actually really important to do that as an editor. Something I’ve learned actually about myself is – because I was in kind of that rigid mode for a while where I did that one specific method – is that changing things up is actually good for your brain and good to get you out of rhythms and to discover new things.
So on this movie, Oppenheimer, it was really different for me because I came in after the movie had wrapped.
A lot of editors are actually really daunted by that because I asked a couple of editors, do you think this is a good idea that I’m doing this? And a lot of them are like, ‘Don’t do it!’
I mean, obviously, do it, but it’s going to be really hellish because you’ll have just all the footage lumped together and only a couple of weeks to cut it, as opposed to getting in footage incrementally over the shoot.
But I actually found I really loved it, because in a way, the incremental-ness of production, I realized I found, kind of stressful.
I’ve found ways to deal with it, but the idea of having the enormous task of having all the footage and just three or four weeks to cut it all together, because it was so enormous, it almost became meaningless in a way. It was like, “Okay, I can only do what I can do.“
And so I actually really relaxed into it, and I had the best time ever.
I wouldn’t like to pitch myself to do that on every movie! But it was also just a cool way to be forced to do something different.
This is why I learned I can do it differently each time and I can still edit a good movie. And it allows you to trust your instincts as an editor and see that, I’m not just my methods if that makes sense.
This is a creative task. And that’s why I find it difficult to talk about editing because it’s a creative, intuitive task of putting the film together. It’s very hard to talk about how you do that, but I think gaining confidence as an editor is putting yourself through many different experiences that are new and scary.
And it’s funny that you asked me that question. This is a really interesting question that you’ve asked me because, for a long time, I felt like if I didn’t do the method that you mentioned in the beginning that I was like gonna fuck up my whole editing kind of flow. And so I was almost afraid to do it differently.
I remember on Tenet I was desperately trying to do that method, but it wasn’t working in the sense that there was too much other stuff to do. It didn’t really translate to some of the action stuff.
And it was freeing to think, “Okay, I just have to do something different and just edit the movie. I don’t need my methods to edit a good movie.“
A lot of editors will say you edit from your gut, as opposed to strategically thinking through step by step. Because I know some editors will break down the script and they’ll be thinking, ‘This is the key line, and I wanna be on the reaction for that thing.” etc.
But do you just respond to the performances in the footage and remember, “Oh yeah, there was a great shot in here”, and you might not be thinking, ‘This is exactly why I like it’, but you just gravitate towards it?
Would you say that’s how you find your way through the footage? Or is it a combination of logic, “It’ll be more powerful if we’re in a closeup than it will be if we’re on the wide.”
Although conversely, In Manchester By The Sea, there are some amazing scenes where it’s mostly a wide shot, and the performance is so strong that it draws you in any way.
I think just being honest with yourself, as a person who loves films. And so if I’m just watching a scene and I start watching the footage and I just start watching it and I can’t stop watching it, or to your point, one particular performance I find riveting, I’ll grab that and try to make it work with that.
And then I’ll spend 15 minutes on that and it doesn’t work at all and it’s terrible and then I’ll go back and keep watching the footage.
So a big thing about editing is not being afraid when you go down a rabbit hole of coming back out of it. Because I think with editing, you can get really lost in those kinds of rabbit holes and that’s why I think the Tim Squyres’ thing is so smart too. It’s the idea that you cut it on wides, cut it on close-ups, make a mishmash and then that could be a complete failure too. But through that failure, you find this successful thread. And I think that’s what’s so interesting about editing.
It’s so fascinating, too in the sense of how would two different people edit the same movie, and would it end up being the same movie? Like, who knows?
There are so many daunting, rabbit hole weird things you can go down with that road, and that my brain quickly goes down, that I just have to stop my brain from going down there.
So, but that’s why I’m maybe good at my job because I am obsessive and can go down those rabbit holes but I need to bring myself out of those rabbit holes.
But I can cut a scene 30 different ways, and I find that exciting, not annoying, so I’m just always up for experimentation.
I once interviewed Julia Block, who’s another editor from New York.
Oh yeah, I know her.
She worked on a Terrence Malick movie a long time ago, but she said they had this organic, freeform, try-anything in editorial flow and different editors were swinging in and out at different times. And it sounded like that would be super fun and you would get lost in it.
But then without the constraint of, “Hey, you’ve got to get Christopher Nolan’s movie cut in four weeks”, as opposed to Terence Malick’s two years of, “Let’s just see what happens”.
Yeah, to that point, one of the things I admire and love about working on Chris’s movies is that there are a lot of rules and constraints and he hits deadlines and time feels very important to him. You know, the clock is running, and you’re just trying to hit those deadlines and get work done, but also I feel like within the time it is incredibly relaxed, and creative and free-flowing, and it’s like this weird dichotomy of both very rigid and not rigid at all and incredibly creative and free-flowing.
So I think I’ve learned a lot from working on two movies with him, to have that interesting theoretical Terrence-Malicky-flow but also not go too far with it if that makes sense?
But it’s very interesting that Julia mentioned that. It’s crazy.
She’s such a great editor as well.
Yeah, I love her.
When working with Chris, does he like to sit in the whole time or does he pop in and out and see things? I saw an interview where he said that, you guys didn’t really do an assembly per se in terms of the whole movie back to back, but you did each scene and then he’d rework each scene with you.
How did that whole assembly process go? Did you just have the first four weeks by yourself and then kind of transition to working with him or how does that collaboration work?
In this particular case, because I missed the production, he gave me four weeks to work with the footage. And he was really sweet and said, “I don’t expect you to cut this whole movie in four weeks. Obviously, that’s insane. But I do want you to get familiar with the footage as if you were on the shoot. So I want you to watch all the footage, but I don’t expect you to cut the whole thing.”
But I actually ended up cutting the whole film because in order to watch all the footage, you just naturally want to throw shit in a timeline that you like. So I ended up doing a rough pass of the whole film just because it felt silly not to because that’s what my brain does anyway.
But see, the thing about Chris, and I learned this on Tenet, is that he doesn’t watch an assembly from beginning to end – but again most director writers don’t do that.
I’ve typically only worked with director/writers – because their brains can’t comprehend that, and I think it’s so brilliant of them that they don’t because, and Chris and I have spoken about this before, an editor’s assembly is just my first rough kind of ideas of the movie.
It’s not me presenting the film as like, “Here’s your movie!” Or, “Here’s what I think of your movie!”
And so it’s so daunting this idea that a director would come in and sit and watch your entire rough cut, you know? Of course, there’s gonna be problems. And I don’t even know how beneficial that is necessarily.
However, I know a lot of directors do find it beneficial because they need to wrap their heads around the whole mess of it all.
But I think for writer/directors, they’re used to writing and that doesn’t make sense to them. To them it’s like you watch the first couple scenes and then you’re like,”Okay, we know what we need to do. Let’s go start doing it.” And then you work on those couple scenes. And then you watch those couple scenes with the next couple scenes.
And then you might win the fucking lottery and there’s one or two scenes that are pretty fucking good and that you keep, and then you move on, which happens sometimes, which is really fun for me. Where I’m like, “Oh. That actually works.“
But it’s never the scenes that I think are gonna work.
On Oppenheimer, it was always funny when we’d go to watch the next scene and I’d be like, “Oh God…”, and Chris would say, “Stop saying that.” But it was always funny because the scenes that I would be the most embarrassed about usually had the least amount of issues. It was so fascinating.
And then the scenes that I was like, ‘This one’s good, he’s gonna like this one’, it was like, “Wow, we need to start from scratch.” You know what I mean? It’s such a good lesson in humility and having no ego. But it’s really fun, and that’s how we do it.
That said, the whole film needs to be cut because every time we start fine-cutting the scenes, then he wants to watch like the next 20 minutes, so it has to exist. So it’s kind of funny that he said, “Don’t worry about putting it all together.” because I knew that he actually did expect me to put it all together, but he was trying to be nice.
But there’s no temp music, and I don’t put temp effects or anything like that. He doesn’t expect any of that, whereas some directors do. They expect a full temp score, full temp sound effects etc. So I really appreciate that I’ve never really worked on a film like that before.
I think with Ari, he wanted that because it was his first film and he needed that. So on Hereditary, I did it, but that was so hard because it was a horror movie. So I had to put all of these crappy temp sound effects in, and that was scary.
Yeah, I remember Julia saying, because she has done quite a lot of horror stuff, how so much of cutting horror is about (Read more…)