The ‘Ford v Ferrari’ Editors Have Sage Advice for Early Career Filmmakers

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Photo Source: Merrick Morton

The only thing faster than the cars in James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari” are the cuts. That is to say, editors Andrew Buckland and Michael McCusker (the latter an Oscar nominee for Mangold’s “Walk the Line”) had their hands full piecing together this full-throttle drama, now in theaters. Here’s how the duo went about choosing the best takes from Christian Bale, Matt Damon, and the rest of the film’s starry ensemble, and why giving your editors variety in your takes is a good thing if—and only if—you take this one precaution.

What does a film editor really do?
Andrew Buckland: I think the job of an editor is to respond to the footage that you receive. Of course, there’s a script that we follow in terms of the intention of this footage and what a scene is supposed to do, but also, once the script is filmed, it becomes its own thing and needs additional interpretation—a new assessment, really, because production alters the original intention in some way, depending on the restrictions that production has, or maybe the director had decided to change the intention of a scene. It’s our job to sort of reassess it in a way and present it to the director, and then a dialogue begins. The director may like the approach you took and you work off of that, or the director says, “No, that wasn’t my intention,” and then you work off of that.

READ: Why ‘Ford v Ferrari’ Has One of the Best Acting Ensembles of 2019

Editors don’t necessarily work with actors, but your work is in concert with theirs. Can you speak to how editing affects an actor’s performance?
Michael McCusker: Any editor, particularly [when] working with great actors, is just trying to find the truth. In a lot of ways, it’s very much what actors talk about when they talk about delivering a performance: What is true? What feels true to you? Part of the editor’s head has to be in this place of “What feels authentic and true to the character?” Any time you veer away from that, it’s a problem. You also have to exist within the character’s headspace, understand a bit of their backstory and their motivations, or have a strong point of view about what their motivations are in order to cut performance.

Do you feel a sense of responsibility to serve the actors’ performances as best as possible?
AB: Absolutely, there is a sense of responsibility. There’s a shared responsibility with the director, as well. When you first get the scene and you construct the scene, it’s your responsibility, in my experience, to interpret the scene and how the actor is presenting their character. Upon that first structure, you have your discussion with the director: “Are we in agreement on how this actor is presenting their character?” And you work from there.

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MM: You just take a stab at what you think the scene is about, and you find out if you’re on track. What we do is the ultimate collaboration. The art form is making movies, so everybody’s got to be on the same page. Is there a responsibility to the actor? Yes, but, ultimately, I feel a responsibility to the story. And if the actor feels the same responsibility to the story and the director is focusing all their energy on the story, you’re going to get something consistent and great.

Is it helpful when you have a lot of very different takes from an actor to cut together? Or is it preferable when there is more uniformity among the takes?
AB: I think it’s good to have a lot of variety, if the variety is coming from the actor’s same motivational place. If they’re really grounded in what they’ve developed in the character and are giving you different stuff, it’s incredibly helpful. Occasionally, you get into a situation where there are just a lot of wildly different directions, and that’s a little bit more difficult, because then you have to go through and piece together something that’s uniform. We didn’t really have that [on “Ferrari”]. In fact, one of the more difficult things was just the overabundance of great performances. It’s stressful to sit down and look at a scene and go, “Oh, my God! I don’t want to screw this up because these guys are so good! I hope I have the right balance! I hope I cut the right guy. I kinda wish I could just stay on one or the other the whole time.”

What about “Ford v Ferrari” is unique from an editing standpoint?
MM: Every single project you work on is its own unique thing. It’s one of the reasons I do this work: No two jobs are the same, so you’re always kind of on a learning curve because you have to master different stories, different genres, and different techniques almost every time you work. I think what was a little different about this movie from other movies we’ve done with [James Mangold] is that his last several movies have been from a singular point of view, a main character that’s going to do some shit. This was much more of an ensemble piece—at the end of the day, it’s really a two-hander. It’s both Matt’s movie and Christian’s movie. But even before we get to that point, there are a whole lot of other characters we have to learn about and understand their motives. The trick was [figuring out]: How much can we do that without losing the audience’s interest? That was the trickiest thing at the front end of this movie: to figure out that alchemy, that perfect recipe.

What’s your advice for someone who wants to get into the editing field?
MM: My advice would be what Quincy Jones said to all those singers back in the ’80s: If you want to be an editor, you’d better check your ego at the door. If you’ve got to have the biggest ego in the room or you’ve got a fragile ego, it’s going to be a hard place to work because you are right at the nexus of creativity, and there are a lot of people who have a lot of ideas. You have to honor all of those ideas to get through the process. If you want to be a person who just says, “Here’s my idea, follow me,” that’s going to be difficult for you.

AB: I like that answer, but in a more practical sense, I don’t even have an answer to it. If you want to get into editing—just edit!