Conversations with...
Billy Weber and Leslie Jones

By Liv Torgerson

Can you imagine working on a picture that shot a million and a half feet of film and the director never watched dailies? Or a $50-million film released without even one preview? These improbable scenarios occurred on Terrence Malick's 'The Thin Red Line', according to editors Billy Weber and Leslie Jones, who spoke at a Fireside Chat at Electric Picture Solutions on February 25. For their work on the film, the duo, along with Saar Klein, were honored with Oscar and Eddie nominations for best editing.

Billy Weber and Leslie Jones

Billy and Leslie had collaborated previously on several films as editor and assistant, and, more recently, as co-editors. Billy's credits include 'Midnight Run', 'Beverly Hills Cop' and 'Top Gun', which earned him an Oscar nomination in 1987. He also directed a feature, 'Josh and S.A.M.', in 1993. Leslie grew up around the business, watching her father and grandfather work as editors. (All three generations have now earned Oscar nominations!) She co-edited 'Murder at 1600' with Billy and has cut several documentaries on her own, including 'Wild Bill', 'Hollywood Maverick'. Her working relationship with Billy undoubtedly piqued the interest of the capacity crowd of film assistants.

At the editors' request, the evening revolved around a Q&A session that concentrated largely on 'The Thin Red Line'. The audience enjoyed the opportunity to learn of Billy's experiences working on all three of Malick's films: as associate editor on Badlands in 1973, as editor on 'Days of Heaven' in 1978, and now as co-editor of 'The Thin Red Line'. In re-uniting with Malick, Billy said he "knew much more and could handle the situation better. My prior experience and knowledge were also helpful in guiding Leslie through the long and difficult process of working with this very creative director."

Because of Malick's unique working style, the editors were faced with an unusual set of challenges. Much of the film was unscripted. At times three units were shooting at different locations around Australia and, though he was concerned about what was being captured, the director did not screen the dailies. Leslie started the picture without Billy, who came on after principle photography wrapped. She met Malick only once prior to the shoot, briefly in L.A., and though she was on location for five months, Leslie rarely saw him during production. "Terry and I rarely talked about the film," she commented. "He left me to my own devices. Eventually I came back with a five-hour first cut."

"Even that five-hour version was very powerful, and you could see it was a very moving story back then," Billy added.

The editing team spent 13 months in post, and the mix lasted four months. There were no previews, but there were several in-house screenings; the largest of which, attended by 15 people, was for marketing executives. Malick had final cut. Although the editors said he had specific ideas he wanted to try, the director was also willing to explore and experiment with the material. His creative process demanded time and patience, and though occasionally frustrating, was often rewarding as well.

In working with the footage, the editors found the blend of seasoned and less-experienced actors to be a particular challenge. The many cameos were another difficult element, as were the film's voice-overs, which were not initially in the script. Making room for them was tricky, and most were recorded directly into the Avid. Some of that scratch track remained in the final film, according to Billy. "Terry is not really fond of dialogue, and shoots takes with and without it," he said. Leslie added, "Terry lost dialogue wherever possible. The final film varied greatly from the original concept."

The team used four Avids (at one point a fifth was added). They were linked via a fibre-channel network, allowing multiple editors to work on the same sequences simultaneously. In addition to the three editors, the crew included an Avid assistant, a first assistant who was also credited as associate editor, and two film assistants. Occasionally, additional help was brought in to conform. "All things considered," commented Leslie, "it was not that big of a crew."

According to both editors, Malick enjoyed the technological advances overall, like the camera cranes used for the shoot, but was less enamored with the Avid. The editors, however, thought the Avid enabled them to cope with the wealth of incredible footage from cinematographer John Toll. "If we had cut on film," said Billy, "we would still be editing today."

Working on 'The Thin Red Line' was a very special experience for both Billy and Leslie, and they acknowledged that the entire crew felt extremely fortunate to be a part of the film. At the end of the Fireside Chat, the editors encouraged assistants to "cut, cut, cut. It doesn't matter what you cut. Practice whenever possible on your current film and show it to your editor for comments. Get experience editing freebies, low-budget films and anything else you can. Just cut."

The Editors Guild thanks Electric Picture Solutions
for hosting and helping us launch the Fireside Chat series.

Reprinted from
The Motion Picture Editors Guild Newsletter
Vol. 20, No. 3 - May/June1999

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