Norm Hollyn



photo by Alec Boehm
Editor Debra Neil-Fisher has worked in a wide variety of formats and genres — in television movies (Heat Wave) and series (Boomtown), as well as on character-based feature dramas (Fried Green Tomatoes, The War, Up Close and Personal) and horror films (Teaching Mrs. Tingle, Dr. Giggles). Recently, she has developed a reputation as a skilled comedy editor, most notably on the first two Austin Powers films and last year’s How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days. Her latest film is the Gene Hackman/Ray Romano comedy, Welcome to Mooseport, directed by Donald Petrie.

The film tells the story of a very popular former president of the United States, Monroe “Eagle” Cole (Gene Hackman) who retires to the small town of Mooseport, Maine, in an attempt to keep a low profile during a messy divorce. While there, he is recruited to run for mayor, without knowing that local hardware store owner Handy Harrison (Ray Romano) is also running. At the same time, he is unaware that a local woman to whom he is attracted, Sally (Maura Tierney), is Handy’s long-suffering girlfriend.

The scene that Debra and I discussed comes after Hackman has discovered that Romano, whom he knows only as his local handyman, is also running for mayor. He comes to Handy’s hardware store to ask him to bow out of the race.

Norman Hollyn: What are the differences between the various genres that you’ve worked on?

Debra Neil-Fisher: Of all the genres, I think that comedies are the hardest to edit. With comedies, we’re always trying to figure out what’s funny and what the rhythm of the piece will be. We look to see how frequently we can have jokes and where we need to step back a bit. It’s very subjective. There are also different types of comedies. The Austin Powers movies were much broader than say, Mooseport. This is more of a character piece.

What style do you bring to each film?

I try to make the picture that the director is trying to make, to understand and interpret his or her vision and goals. By reading the script, seeing how the director interprets it in dailies and having conversations, you get a sense of what he or she thinks is funny. Then, in the first cut, I put a lot in. I’ll create new jokes that I think are funny. Sometimes they end up in the picture, sometimes they don’t.

In a comedy, it’s all about getting down to the best jokes and the most concise character moments. With each preview or screening we tend to lose more and more until we’re left with the very best jokes. The interesting part of that process is that when you take out one joke, you need to see if the jokes that are left work in the new order. You may end up taking out two jokes because you lost one, or rearranging them.

We are always weighing: How much time does it take to get any joke? What kind of a laugh do you get? Is it worth the time or should we just take it out and move on?

As an editor, you watch it many more times than your audience. By the 20th time you see a joke, how do you keep it fresh?

I have trained myself to remember my initial reaction to dailies. Previews also help us to see the movie with fresh eyes. Every time I’m with an audience, I’m watching how they are reacting to a joke. I’m able to remember this later in the cutting room. Some directors prefer that we tape the preview, and then we put the sound of the audience reactions into the Avid in sync, almost like a laugh track. That way you can see where the reactions really were.

This is a comedy that is essentially character-based, so you have to do all the things that you would do in a dramatic piece as well, in terms of building character.

But as quickly as you can, because there’s always the question of how much time until we get to the next big laugh. It’s a fine line between how much do we need to know about the character and how much do we need to know about their situation in order for the jokes to play. Most of the directors that I’ve worked with believe that you should start the movie with a joke so everybody knows the picture is a comedy, what type of comedy it is and what the pace will be.

In Mooseport the first shot is of feet jogging through the main street and then we pan up to see the naked ass of one of the townspeople. So everyone knows this is a comedy and it’s about a quirky small town right from the beginning.

What have you had to set up ahead of time in order for this scene to work?

We need to know that the president is a popular, but competitive guy. We also need to know that Handy is an easygoing guy who is running for mayor just because no one else will. We’ve set up that Handy is afraid to ask his girlfriend to marry him and she has had it with him. So when the president gets interested in her, he and Handy are going to collide on both the personal and the public level. The comedy grows out of this situation.

 

It seems like this scene comes at a point where the film’s setup is done and now the movie kicks into gear — the rest of the film is about how the characters’ problems play out.

That’s right. We were trying to get the lead-up to be no more than 30 minutes. We wanted the set up to be as fast as possible because once you get to this scene, you really get hooked.

[Hackman comes into Handy’s hardware store and immediately is greeted by a surprised and impressed Handy. While the two talk, in the background of the shot a Secret Service agent checks Irma (June Squibb), one of Handy’s employees, using a metal detector.]

We had coverage of that action with Irma, but it was much funnier as a background joke rather than featuring it in the foreground. Irma is in the center of the frame and your eye goes to her. We also added a sound effect, which may or may not be what the detector really sounds like, to bring our eye to the background.

 

Now, you cut in tight for the introduction of the three co-workers.

That’s because there’s a joke coming up. In the third line, Irma introduces herself to the president as selling wood products, “like your last two cabinet appointments.” It was funnier to have each person say his or her setup lines in tight. You could have stayed in the wide shot and then punched in only for her joke. But I thought this worked better because I was able to adjust the timing between all of their line readings slightly.

I also had to cheat Hackman’s reaction to Irma’s line from another portion of the scene.

[Mandy, a local girl who has a crush on Handy, asks to be introduced to the president.]

There’s a joke here as Hackman reacts to the pairing of the names — Mandy and Handy. Some people thought we should cut that out because it felt extraneous , but Donald felt that the president needed to believe that Mandy was Handy’s girlfriend in order to ask out his actual girlfriend, Sally, later in this scene.

[The two walk back to Romano’s office to have a private conference. As they walk in, the president mutters “what a dump” and then turns to Handy and compliments him on how cozy the office is.]

That’s character. That first line, “what a dump,” is a loop. There was a certain slowness in getting them into the office — what we call “shoe leather.” Sometimes we put in lines to add comedy and spice up the slower parts of the scene. If I could have gotten them in there faster I might not have had to add this joke, but you’re often locked into the staging that they created on the set. So, you distract the audience with a joke.

[Hackman notices that Handy plays golf and the two discuss having the same handicap.]

Later on this will become important, so this is a set up for a later scene.

The trick in putting this together is to do so without seeming like set up. Handy is a naive guy who reacts to the president’s flowery language. He doesn’t realize that the president is there for a reason. When the president says, “I have a PR problem here,” we use a reaction shot of Handy not understanding. The comedic reactions get us through all of the set up.

The cutting style changes the moment Handy realizes that the president is there with an agenda. Up until now, the lines have come quickly — there are no pauses to let the characters think before they talk. Now you start to show Handy thinking.

It’s cut that way to emphasize the change — he starts to understand why the meeting is happening and what the president’s motives are.

You also drop back wider.

That’s about performance. Hackman’s best performance for the next line, “You have the Eagle’s word,” is in the wide shot. Because I knew I was going to the wide shot for that line, I decided that I wouldn’t go in close and then wide again, I would just stay in the same coverage.

But you didn’t do the typical thing and go back wider for the matching shot on Handy.
No, Hackman is moving around in that shot and it’s distracting. Also, Romano’s reactions are better in the close angles.

So, Handy agrees to help the president and we cut out to the front of the store. Was there originally anything more at the end of the scene?

Yes, the president asked Handy what he meant and he began to clarify. But we realized that the audience actually knew what was going on. Once the characters got it, we didn’t need to continue.

[We cut to the front of the hardware store where the employees and the Secret Service men have been waiting. Sally enters as the president is leaving and they start talking. As they do, Handy realizes that there is a spark between the president and his girlfriend.]

The scene changes dramatically with Sally’s entrance.

I’m using wider shots here because I like the interaction between these three characters and all of their reactions to what’s going on. You can see Handy’s face clearly while he is watching the president and Sally talk.

After the president exits the shot you hang on Handy for a bit.

It’s a question of timing. You can stay on a shot too long and the audience would go, “Yeah, we get that already.” I think it’s a sense of your own timing — knowing how long to hold on a shot before it stops being funny.

[The president’s assistant, Grace (Marcia Gay Harden), starts to follow him out and passes a photograph of Sally and Handy together. She realizes who Sally is and, with hand gestures, tries to prevent the president from asking Sally out, but he shrugs her off and plows ahead.]

 

We had to find room for this shot of the photos. In fact, we had to add dialogue to the scene so we could stay on the shot long enough for the audience to understand that Grace gets what is going on. As she is gesturing to alert the president I used repeated frames of her waving, so that we could really emphasize the fact that she is trying to get his attention and he ignores her. There was a scene that we cut out after the president walks out of the hardware store where Grace said to him, “Do you know who you just asked out?” And he says, “I don’t care. I don’t have to watch my back. I’m not the president anymore.” But we decided it wasn’t necessary. One problem with cutting that scene, though, was that we had a later scene where Grace tells the president that she tried to tell him about Sally. So, by extending her gestures here, that later statement now makes sense, even without the scene outside the store.

Music comes in now.

Yes — but very subtly to emphasize the predicament and the tension.

Did you temp the score? Do you like to cut with music?

No, in general I cut without music. Then, my Avid assistant Patrick Don Vito and I put music to the cut. As we’re working on the director’s cut, we drop our music and have a music editor completely temp the cut, though sometimes we go back to our original choices later. We had a great music editor, John Finklea, who put in our temp score.

[The president asks Sally out.]

You drop back into a wide shot here.

 

I wanted to let the audience feel that everybody in the room is watching him ask her out. By staying in this shot it feels like she has to answer in front of everybody, which is pretty funny. She answers yes, and we pop in to Handy for a close up, emphasizing his reaction. We’re building his character to justify the decision he is going to make to stay in the mayoral race in order to get back at the president.

During the scene between Sally and the president, you stay on one side of the line until he says goodbye. Then you jump to the other side.

They shot the whole thing from both sides of the line. But I felt that it would be disorienting to jump the line in the middle of the scene, even though that other angle is sort of Handy’s point of view. Actually, it was an easy decision to make because their performances were better on this side. I finally went over to the other side when the president leaves because they walked out of the shot and there was no more coverage. In order to cross the line, I first cut to Handy, so it became his point of view.

 

I tend to choose coverage for the story, the character and the performance. The fourth thing would be figuring out if cutting to this angle would take the audience out of the movie. But if people are following the characters and the story, then you could theoretically go wherever you want. It’s all about what plays the best and keeps the audience involved without distracting them.

[After the president and his entourage leave, the entire group follows Handy for his discussion with Sally.]

Now there’s a camera flaw in this shot of Handy — a big lens flare which we couldn’t do anything about — but this take contains Romano’s best performance. It’s not the optimum situation, but the way that he delivered the line “that president guy” was so funny, that we had to go with it. You weigh both sides. Is the flare distracting enough that it’s not worth playing the best reading? Or is it something that you should just forget about because the audience won’t really notice.

 

[Sally exits and Handy follows her outside and sees the president signing autographs across the street.]

We went through many variations of this scene, trying to decide how he was going to get up the nerve to say what he thinks. Do we need looks? Do we need double looks? Handy never actually crosses over to the president’s side of the street, so we needed to figure out if he calls out to the president once or twice. We had various versions of this scene just to figure out when he is going to get the nerve to speak and what he’s going to say.

So, when does he decide?

Everybody who watches the scene has a different idea. But I think it’s right between the two cuts of Handy exchanging looks with the president after he calls to him. You would think he would say, “You just asked my girlfriend out.” But he doesn’t say that; he can’t get the words out. The music that John Finklea added feels like “the little man going up against the big politician.” So it seems to me that the choice comes as he struggles to find the words. Then he throws the only thing he can back at the president; he tells him that he’s going to stay in the race. I added a few cuts in here because people wanted to know where he made that important decision. Those extra cuts also helped to show that he couldn’t think of what to say next; all he can do after that is just shout out a frustrated scream.

 

[Handy goes back inside. We dolly into him and he asks, “What the hell just happened?” He gets funny responses from his employees (“You’re running for mayor” and “And the president is dating your girlfriend. Uh huh”).]

From a pure storytelling point of view, you didn’t really need this final scene at all.

No, but it’s a button; a punctuation to what just happened, and it’s a release because the preceding scene is dramatic. It’s often necessary to let out tension with a big laugh — especially when you’re in a character driven comedy. We mix the drama with the comedy this way throughout the film — subtly, character-wise and then end with a joke to button the scene.

That kind of balance is hard to achieve.

 

It is. But this is a very well written script, very well directed and the actors were all very good, and we have good chemistry between the director, the writer, and the editor. You also have to have a well functioning editing room team. My Avid assistant Patrick Don Vito has been working for me for almost ten years. Now he receives an associate editor credit and is cutting scenes along with me. Dave Clark has also been working for me for the same amount of time and he does a great job keeping the film side of the cutting room running smoothly.

Ultimately, you have to trust your own sensibilities and instincts. You go with what you think plays. It’s all about “how does that make you feel,” or “how does that look,” or “how am I making somebody else feel?” I think that’s what you try to do — trust your own instincts and your own feelings and use that to anticipate what an audience will feel. That’s what we do on a daily basis with every single cut.

photo by Alec Boehm
Neil-Fisher with Director Donald Petrie


Norman Hollyn is a veteran film and music editor. In addition to
working in features and television, he is the head of the editing track
at USC Graduate Film School and the author of
The Film Editing Handbook. He can be reached at interview@norman-hollyn.com.