Action sequence from "Black Widow"

Art of the Cut: Spinning the Web of Black Widow’s Backstory

I’m really proud to announce that today—with this very special episode—Art of the Cut celebrates its 300th interview! 

Our special guests for this landmark interview include the director of Black Widow, Cate Shortland, who joins me with editors Leigh Folsom Boyd, ACE, and Matthew Schmidt

Cate Shortland is an Australian director whose most recent films before Black Widow were Sommersault, Lore, and Berlin Syndrome. She’d also directed numerous shorts and TV series and mini-series. 

Leigh Folsom Boyd is a one-woman blockbuster editor in her own right. Previous projects include Spider-Man Far From Home, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Ant-man, Fast and Furious and Furious 5, 6, and 7, Total Recall, and others. Not to mention TV series Magnum PI, Deadwood, Bull and more.

Matthew Schmidt is also a member of “Team Blockbuster” with a filmography that includes Avengers: Endgame, Avengers: Infinity War, Captain America: Civil War, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier among many others.

Matt is also from Hollywood editing royalty. His grandfather is Arthur Schmidt, who has been a guest on Art of the Cut before. Arthur worked on Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and won an ACE Eddie and an Oscar for editing Forrest Gump, among others.

Just as we were about to start this interview, Leigh got called away to do a review session on her current Marvel movie, so she ended up joining us for just the last 20 minutes or so of the interview. Art of the Cut’s loss will be Marvel fans’ gain, somewhere down the line. 

Listen while you read…

HULLFISH: Cate, it’s wonderful to have a director with us on Art of the Cut. It’s rare. Thank you so much for joining us. You are in Australia right now, correct?

SHORTLAND: Yeah, in Australia in lockdown.

HULLFISH: From what I remember, we were actually planning on doing this interview with Leigh and Matt at least a year ago. Tell me a little bit about the schedule and how close you were to locking the film when COVID hit?

SHORTLAND: Matt, were we about four weeks out from locking the film?

SCHMIDT: For the most part. We were in the first week for our final mix on the mixing stage and just locking reels as we went. So, we were really close to the finishing stage.

HULLFISH: I’ve talked to a couple of editors who’ve had productions that have had the opportunity because of one thing or another—such as Tom Cruise breaking his ankle or Harrison Ford breaking his leg—to postpone or have a couple of weeks or even months of space to reformulate, rethink, and step back from the movie and get a fresh look at it. Did that happen on this film and what kind of changes happened because of that?

SHORTLAND: I think we had quite a few endings. Like a lot of Marvel films, you would have a lot of options for that ending. So we were testing those endings initially with the audience, but then, of course, when COVID hit, we were just looking at it ourselves. It was the editors and I, our producers, and Scarlett Johansson, who was our EP [Executive Producer]. I think what ended up happening—which was a good thing—was we ended up taking out quite a bit at the ending, didn’t we, Matt? We left it more open. That was a lot to do with Kevin [Feige] I think.

SCHMIDT: Totally. We kept on circling around trying different endings, and it really allowed us to have a little bit more freedom and a little bit more time, and then we could have a bigger discussion and we could look at it one way, come back the next day and look at it again to discuss and try multiple options, instead of rushing to lock the picture and hit the release date and hit all the deliverable schedules. With the pandemic slowing us down, it really gave us time to think about and sit on and let it take the right path to where we should really end the movie because it was a hard decision. There were so many good endings. There were so many great ways that it could have ended.

SHORTLAND: There’s one thing I miss which is Rachel Weisz and David Harbour kissing. We cut that out, but it was just time. We just needed to wrap up this beast, didn’t we?

SCHMIDT: Yeah, and that’s the thing that we’re always up against. Cate shot a wonderful movie, but it was just too much movie. It was way too long. We were moving so fast from the beginning because we got done shooting, then we had the director’s cut, then we showed the studio, and then it was preview, preview, preview, and then it was additional photography. We were moving fast and furious during that whole time so it was really hard to take a step back and watch it.

Your relationship with the director and working with another editor is so key to being in a safe space.

When the pandemic hit, it was a blessing in disguise because we could take a step back. We got probably an extra six weeks. The visual effects got better. We had more time to finesse the end of the movie and pick which ending we wanted.

Cate, Leigh, and I got to go to the mixing stage for three weeks and it was just us. It was amazing because we usually never have time for that stuff. We’re always in visual effects meetings that take five hours or locking the picture while the mix is going. We remoted in and it worked really well, or as well as it could. That’s weird to say that the pandemic worked out well, but we made the best of the moment.

HULLFISH: Cate, this is so wonderful to have a director here talk about these things. Because Leigh and Matt have done a bunch of Marvel movies before, they know the beast that is the Marvel Universe and how things have to work, and they’d been through a bunch of meetings with Kevin and seen what played and what didn’t. Obviously, it’s your own vision, your storytelling, your voice throughout the movie as the director, but how much did you have to rely on the editors for that Marvel flavor?

SHORTLAND: I was really lucky because I had two incredible editors and I think it wasn’t so much the Marvel flavor, it was more that I could just rely on them. I think initially we were in London and they kept saying, “Cate, you’ve got to come into the edit,” and I was really angry. I thought, “I don’t want to bloody come into the edit. I’m trying to shoot this monstrous beast,” but afterward I knew why. Because as soon as you get into the edit and you stop principal photography, it’s so fast. It’s crazy to say that because you would think that we would have all the time in the world, but it was really fast.

So, that’s how I relied on them in terms of not only their knowledge of special effects but their knowledge and their stamina, because I had never worked like this before. I mean, I kept telling them to go home. It was pretty insane, wasn’t it, Matt? Some days Matt was doing seven days a week and you just think, “That’s really hard. That is very hard to keep your positivity.” He was always kind to me, and so was Leigh. They were always good people, even though they were really exhausted. It was a great experience, even though it was bloody hard.

SCHMIDT: It was bloody hard. We as editors are locked in our room and we just know that there are visual effects sequences to get out, there’s things that we want to show the director, there are things that we need her to look at and we need to get moving on early, and in our short-sightedness sometimes we lose sight of the pressure that Cate had from shooting and production. We say, “Hey, can you come up and look at the stuff?” She says, “No, you don’t understand. I don’t have time.”

It was an interesting process when we started moving into post to see how there was a disconnect when we were in London—and not a disconnect personally—but she was shooting the movie and it’s a big movie with so many moving parts, and that’s where Leigh and I were valuable where we knew how to keep the system moving.

Even though Cate didn’t want to come in right away, we could sit there and tell visual effects, “Hey, hold off. Everything’s going to be fine,” or, “Let’s move with this. Here are some things that we can do to wait until we get into post,” and that’s the invaluable stuff that we brought where we could say, “Cate, it’s okay. We’re asking you to come up, but if you can’t come up, that’s fine. Totally get it. We’ll just have to hit the ground a little harder.”

SHORTLAND: The stressful part—which I hadn’t dealt with before and these guys of course had—was that we have to hand over shots.

HULLFISH: Hand over shots to visual effects?

SHORTLAND: Yeah, so you have to commit. I think visual effects wanted us to commit even while we were still shooting. We have to start handing over shots. I wasn’t really aware of that because I’d only done tiny films of budget. I thought, “How can I hand over this shot when it’s going to cost $100,000 or $200,000 and we might change?” That’s just a part of it, and that was something I learned: you have to relinquish stuff very early and move forward. Keep going, keep moving.

HULLFISH: On this film or previous films, do you talk to the editors and give them some ideas or intentions before you start shooting? Because, as you said, once you start shooting, the director is buried.

You have to relinquish stuff very early and move forward. Keep going, keep moving.

SHORTLAND: I cut six short films, I think. One was about children, one was about armed forces and guerrilla warfare, one was about elements, weather elements and the ether. I cut those together with an editor to show all my heads of department what we were dealing with and the way that we may deal with different movements or elements.

But I remember the first time Matt showed me the beginning of the film which he’d cut, and I got really teary. That beginning is virtually the same. We’ve had to shorten it.

SCHMIDT: Unfortunately we did have to shorten it.

SHORTLAND: It was like pulling teeth because we really loved all the material and I loved how I’d put it together, but I can think of a couple of sequences that changed quite dramatically. In a lot of scenes, the editors had a really great handle on what we were making from very early on.

HULLFISH: Was there anything you were able to do to help them be on target with that stuff? Or is it just great editing?

SCHMIDT: What was your wall with all the pictures?

SHORTLAND: Geoff Baumann, our visual effects supervisor, made a whole wall of images that I’d picked. We knew we were making something gritty and intimate and we wanted it to be cinematic as well as action-packed.

SCHMIDT: Sometimes it’s hard to get the director’s aesthetics or what they’re going for, but once we started getting dailies in, the film really spoke for itself. It was so beautiful and nuanced. We didn’t sit there and think, “Oh, how’s this going to go together?” It was really so beautiful.

SHORTLAND: We struggled a lot with some sequences, but one of them that was interesting was that fight scene in the apartment between the two sisters, which has ended up being one of the favorite scenes in the film. That was shot really differently than some of the fights that Marvel had done, I suppose.

SCHMIDT: Yeah, for sure. I think it was one of those things where we shot some stuff starting out and then we went in and picked up a couple of beats here and there just to make it have a little bit more energy. That was an interesting sequence actually because it did have a few different iterations and it evolved into something pretty special. That was one of those things that we struggled on, especially aesthetically at first, but I think it came around and turned out great.

Just like the rest of the film, the action is unique. There’s a rawness to it all. Even in dailies, you watch it and you can kind of see how it’s going to go together and see what it’s going to become.

HULLFISH: How does a scene like that evolve from the cut that you do during dailies to what we finally see? What are some things that you see in context that make you realize that as good of a cut as you thought you might’ve had during dailies, things needed to change?

SHORTLAND: I think I’d always envisaged it as very emotional. Then, when I was on set, as one of our producers describes it, “I heard the call of the wild.” I went really crazy with the girls and we got these dailies back and the girls were so emotional in the kitchen.

There’s this part where Scarlett is strangling her sister, Florence Pugh. I saw the rushes and thought, “Oh, f**k. We’ve got to cut some of this emotion out. It’s just too much. This is nothing like a Marvel movie. It’s never going to work.” Anyway, we sent a cut to Kevin and he said, “I’ve seen the dailies. You have to put all the emotion back in.” Then, Matt was really great because he could use the emotion that he wanted, but pull out all the icky stuff. So, it ended up being the right mix.

I think it’s like cooking a bit, isn’t it? You put too much of something in, and then you take something out and you feel the lack of it. I think what was beautiful about that sequence was we were able to go back in and reshoot, and that was in collaboration with Matt. Matt could actually look at it with the second unit director and myself and say, “This is exactly what we need.” With his experience cutting fights in Endgame or other Marvel films, we could go back in and he could say, “Oh, we really need this shot because it’s not going to work without it.”

You put too much of something in, and then you take something out and you feel the lack of it.

SCHMIDT: You don’t know until you sit down and watch the whole movie. Then, you get a real feel for where the emotion is or is lacking, and we can see if we need to go back into that fight to build a little bit more emotion or intensity. I think it ended up having a nice balance to it.

Again, with the production, we have that time and we have the days to sit there and say, “Okay, where do you want to go back in?” They’re always open and welcome to trying things, seeing what’s lacking, and seeing how to enhance and make the best movie possible. Marvel is always pretty great about seeing how they can accommodate it and fit it into the schedule if you need to.

HULLFISH: When you were worried about that emotion in that scene, was it a tonal thing? I think of directors as being arbiters of tone. Was that what you were worried about? Talk to me a little bit about tone and post.

SHORTLAND: I think what I saw on screen frightened me because it didn’t feel like a Marvel film, and it didn’t really feel like a fight in certain aspects of it, especially the intimate material where Scarlett is really strangling her sister and stuff. You hear the girls screaming at each other and emoting—not the usual post-grunts. It was more like she was screaming at her, “Stay down.” That doesn’t feel like a fight. That feels more like a domestic dispute.

So, to see something like that in a Marvel film really frightened me because I thought, “The studio is going to hate this.” So, I instantly thought I’d messed up, but then Matt, Kevin, and I were able to go back in and just pull out pieces of it so that it would work on both levels, so you could retain the intimacy of the rawness of it but also escalate it.

When we put the music in by Lorne Balfe, it also elevates it because he created this very raw, percussive score that Matt could really fine-tune it with. I think it was all those elements, visual effects as well, that helped because otherwise, it becomes turgid. We have to remember that we’re making spectacle, as well. We’re making something for people to enjoy.

SCHMIDT: Yeah. I think the first cut that I did was really intense because I had it all in there. It was not off-putting, but it made you feel a little bit uncomfortable at times because it did feel like more of a domestic quarrel between two sisters that just went too far than a fight sequence in an action movie. I think we found a happy medium through trial and error, reworking, and getting some extra pieces. It was all fun to cut, but it’s all time-consuming and then you have 80-something days of dailies to deal with after that. So, it’s a fun juggle.

HULLFISH: You mentioned that you thought, “Oh, this doesn’t seem like a Marvel movie,” but it seems like you were chosen to direct this obviously, for your vision and your voice but also because maybe what they wanted was for this to not be just like another Marvel movie.

SHORTLAND: That’s one of the things I struggled with, actually. When I watch the film now it’s like a mix of genres and some critics have commented on that. It’s partly a Cate Shortland film, and then it slips into other more familiar genres, and then it comes out again. So, it’s not like you’re watching a Bond film or a Mission film, which tends to stay in one genre. This is like a family drama, and then it’s an action movie.

That is also us, of course, shooting the script. The script jumps around and that was something for me that I had to learn to love because we’re not used to doing that. When you do an arthouse film, you really are totally in the one film. That’s Kevin as well. He doesn’t have a problem with walking from a really high-impact action sequence into a comedy moment into another moment. I think that’s a lot of who he is, and that’s reflected in the type of films they’re making.

SCHMIDT: They’re always thinking outside the box and I think that’s why people get engaged by it. It’s not a Marvel movie, it’s more a Cate Shortland movie than a Marvel movie. There’s that beauty in it that she brings, and they expect to see the spectacle, so you have the spectacle, but like Cate just said, Kevin’s very smart about that.

They rarely say no to any idea because it always leads to something pretty great, and if it doesn’t, you tone it back.

They rarely say no to any idea because it always leads to something pretty great, and if it doesn’t, you tone it back. It’s just like Cate said in the kitchen scene, “Hey, look at this. We’re thinking about doing this,” and he says, “No. Do that,” and breaks it. That’s kind of how the whole process went. It’s an interesting movie tonally, but it functions because the base is there, and the base is the family. You start the movie and you can go with them for the whole ride because I think the setup is so good at the beginning of the movie that even though they are a different age, you get to know them and you go with them for the ride. It’s pretty amazing that it really functions as it does.

HULLFISH: A lot of the Florence Pugh and David Harbor stuff seemed like improv. I’m assuming it was. What kind of difficulties does that pose in post when you have a lot of improv?

SHORTLAND: Well, I’m just going to say as a director, for me, it didn’t pose any, and it was really disappointing because we had to cut a lot of David’s improv which was really tragic because certain governments in the world —I’m not going to comment on who—don’t want to hear what he has to say. So, we had to do a special David Harbour cut. But, for me, what was beautiful is that you get that freshness of performance. Then, for the editors, I’ll let Matt comment on that.

SCHMIDT: For this one, I really wish Leigh was here because she cut the dinner scene and there was a lot of ad-libbing, jokes, and just an overwhelming amount of material in that. Ad-libbing is great, just going off the cuff and seeing where it takes you. The struggle that we have is that on the day it’s really funny. Everybody’s around watching their monitors and on-set it’s hilarious. Then, you get dailies in, you watch dailies, and in the take, it’s amazing and funny. Then, you throw it into the cut and it just doesn’t fit. It doesn’t feel like the movie. It doesn’t fit the tone of the scene, or maybe it fits, maybe it works there, but then all of a sudden the scenes around it don’t feel right.

So, that’s where it becomes really tricky and the balance is hard to gauge until the movie’s really built as a whole. Then, you can rewatch stuff, and we go back to stuff and we say, “Hey, this is working, but what if we go back in and see if we can insert some more jokes that didn’t work before now that we know the tone and the feel of the movie?” It’s always trial and error. It’s really sad that there was amazing stuff that was left on the cutting room floor.

Instead of one line you have 20 that are great. Finding that balance and finding what works is time-consuming.

All the actors are just funny, on it, witty, and smart. They all had great stuff which also becomes tricky because you get this abundance of riches. They’re just sitting there reading their lines and all of a sudden instead of one line you have 20 that are great. Finding that balance and finding what works is time-consuming.

HULLFISH: Improv can take the scene in a totally different direction and then you think, “Oh, how do we get out of this if we go down this rabbit hole of some kind of improv?”

SCHMIDT: Yeah, and that’s why sometimes you reign things back and sometimes the best stuff is not used because it takes you down a path that you don’t want to go down. There’s really funny stuff, but you might not have characters reacting to it because you shot it at the last setup and there’s no coverage, no master, or nowhere to cut to, but what they’re doing is really funny. All of a sudden, you really want to use this, but don’t know how to utilize it or where it goes, and it doesn’t fit in.

That’s the sad part too because they have to make their day and they have to keep on moving on. When you get these great lines and great ad-libs at the end of the day, you don’t have time to turn the camera around and get everybody’s responses, move that story, or move that joke or idea forward. But I think the movie turned out rather funny. There’s some stuff in the additional scenes and deleted scenes that are pretty funny.

HULLFISH: Storytelling has to be difficult in this Marvel Cinematic Universe because you’ve got the fandom that knows every little detail inside and out and who’s who, and then you’ve got people who just want to go to the movies and you have to storytell for those people, as well. Can you talk to me about walking that balance between the universe of Marvel and just telling a good story that’s exclusive to this movie?

SHORTLAND: For me, it was about making a film that most people could walk off the street and watch without having to have watched every Marvel film to get it. I think that was the producer’s idea, as well. It could stand quite separate, but we also use things within the edit and the storytelling that were threaded through earlier films and threaded in later films because our film slots in between two films that are already made. So, there’s a vest that reappears and there are certain things that are commented on within the narratives.

I’m really surprised by how much moviegoers or Marvel fans relate to those elements. They’re crazy. I mean, the producers called them “fetish objects.” It’s like a fetish for these beautiful little gems that come from other films. I was watching Breaking Bad Season 3 last night actually, and that’s so beautifully cut. The narrative is so great because they’re threading something through a cigarette in an ashtray in one episode, and then they tell the story in the next episode of how that got there. I just love that kind of cutting. It’s like a patchwork. That was actually really fun to play with in this film, that we could use elements of past narratives and thread them through this and then propel her into the next film, and it was all done post her death.

SCHMIDT: Yeah, and that was the challenge. How do you tell a unique standalone movie when everybody knows what happens to your main character? I can’t imagine how it was in the script stage. When I came on the script was already great and that was all fleshed out.

HULLFISH: Talk a little bit about that process of taking the film from the editor’s cut—which is really not the editor’s cut, it’s the realization of the script —and then getting that to the director’s cut. What are some of the things that occurred to you as you watched the editor’s cut that you then tried to accomplish in the director’s cut?

SCHMIDT: She thought everything was fantastic [laughs]. It was a walk in the park. We barely had any work to do. We went out for lunches and dinners. It was easy.

SHORTLAND: The part that we struggled with, or that we always were conscious of, was that this was Natasha’s film, so you have to make her central even when she’s not on screen. The narrative has to somehow comment on her or hark back to her or be propelling her story forward because otherwise, it shouldn’t be in the film because this is about Black Widow. So, that was something that we pushed as we kept moving forward through the cuts.

Then, the other thing, strangely enough, was that the film became far more dialogue-driven as the cuts kept moving forward. That, again, was Kevin’s influence saying, “Don’t be afraid to let the film slow down.” So, in the middle section of the film, we have the girls at the diner, then we have the girls in a car sequence, then we have them quite soon after that at a family dinner, which is 10 minutes long. So, there were all these drama scenes and we had taken some of those out or cut them right back, and as the film moved towards fine cut, Kevin was really pushing to not be afraid of those things and to let the film slow down, which is quite unusual for an action film.

SCHMIDT: Yeah, just let it live how it was shot. That’s always the surprising thing to me because we do get to a point in the movie where everything just slows down and takes its time. It’s dialogue scene after dialogue scene after dialogue scene, and you’re totally engaged. You’re following the story. You’re immersed in it and you really get to live in the beauty of Cate’s movie, but also you have producers and studio execs and everybody that is embracing it and being supportive of it. It really helps to make the best movie possible because it’s a big collaboration.

One of those things that Cate always asked us about when we were in London was, “Okay, so what’s it going to be like when we get back?” Leigh and I just kept on saying, “It’s going to be great. It’s going to be lovely. We’ll formulate a game plan and we’ll go in there and we’ll do the director’s cut,” but knowing that time’s always a problem.

You’re always trying to trim some stuff out, and they’re great about saying, “Hey, what about this?” They remember the script and dailies. They’ll sit there and say, “Hey, we watched the director’s cut. There was a longer version of this. There was something there,” and so we would show them the longer versions. We would show them the first pass or the editor’s assembly on some scenes and they would embrace it. We did it for time and also thinking, “Can we sustain the stuff that we like in this movie that’s supposed to be an action film and keep moving forward?” They said, “No, let’s just embrace it.” So, it was a really nice collaboration that Cate and the studio had and that we all worked with. It was very pleasant.

HULLFISH: Cate, you mentioned something early on that I loved because we talk about it often on Art of the Cut, which is the importance for an editor to make the director feel safe in the edit suite. Can you talk about that a little bit and how important that is? There’s the cutting—being a good editor—and then there’s being a steward to the director and being someone that is a collaborator who’s protecting you.

When we shoot, we shoot some really beautiful moments, and then we shoot some absolutely bad moments like bad acting, bad directing, bad just all around.

SHORTLAND: I always felt they had my back. When we shoot, we shoot some really beautiful moments, and then we shoot some absolutely bad moments like bad acting, bad directing, bad just all around. I knew that these guys had my back and that stuff wasn’t going to see the light of day, and that’s a big relief.

Also, they weren’t afraid of telling me if something wasn’t working because I don’t really have a good sense of humor, or not slapstick I suppose, and they would say, “Cate, this is funny. You’ve got to have this in the film.” That was really great as well, especially Leigh because she had a lot of this more slapstick stuff with Alexei, the father, like the prison and the dinner scene.

So, I was able to really trust them. We had my daughter in the edit a lot, we would talk about our families, and neither of us would sit there and chat for hours, which was also great, but when we did it was nice because most of the time we were working. I could really rely on them in terms of action, because I didn’t have that experience, and they never made me feel lesser. I always felt like my opinion mattered, but I could trust them. They could make something drive forward and work with visual effects. It was like a really soft landing for me to work with these guys. Imagine if I was working with really hard-ass people, doing a film like this would have been really stressful, but I had two particularly lovely people.

SCHMIDT: Yeah, these movies are too hard. I couldn’t imagine working with somebody that was just a hard-ass or another editor I didn’t get along with, or a director where we weren’t seeing eye to eye.

FOLSOM BOYD: [Leigh joins the meeting].

SCHMIDT: Oh, Leigh! Look at that. Right on cue. When I was saying how much I hate working with Leigh, and Cate was a gem but Leigh was so horrible.

HULLFISH: Just when you were saying that it was so good to work with another editor you love. There she is. She appears just when you say that exact thing.

SCHMIDT: She was waiting for it. She was listening.

FOLSOM BOYD: I wish. I was more running down the hall saying, “Get out of the way.” I apologize to you all. I am so sorry.

HULLFISH: We know you’re working hard.

SCHMIDT: This is kind of how the edit went. She would just always show up at the last minute, come in with all the good stuff, and say, “Oh yeah, hey. I’m here to save the day.” I’m sure Matt’s blowing it on this interview, so let’s let Leigh chime in and fix it.

HULLFISH: So, we were just talking about the fact that Cate said how protected she felt she was with the two of you in the edit suite and how important that is. I just wanted to have your input on the importance of that as a trait of an editor.

FOLSOM BOYD: I think it’s crucial. I think that your relationship with the director and working with another editor is so key to being in a safe space. To build that relationship and to make sure that we’re having that communication and that we’re able to communicate freely and openly with each other and just be able to showcase scenes to get input at such an early stage of the edit so that she knows what she needs to shoot moving forward and we know what her ideas are for the scene. That relationship with the director is so crucial.

I loved working with Cate and Matt, and I’m so flattered and I feel so good that you did feel like you were protected with us, because Matt and I took our jobs very seriously and it was all about getting the best performances from the footage and just always talking to Cate to see what her vision for the scenes were. I’m glad she felt protected because we felt that was part of our job, too. We’re there to help her bring her vision of the film to life, and I don’t think that you can do it if everyone doesn’t feel like they’re in a safe space with each other.

HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about that communication. What kind of notes was Cate giving, and how can a note early on help you with a scene later?

FOLSOM BOYD: Well, talking with Cate about story and character arcs I think is really important because when she’s working with the actors on set trying to get them to hit an emotional moment or to follow through with their arc story-wise, it’s informative for Matt and myself to take those notes that she’s communicated to us so that we’re tracking it within the scenes as we’re building on the story from scene to scene.

So, Cate telling us and sharing with us what she’s trying to get and what the scene means on a deeper level is informative for where the film is going, and how Matt and I can look for the correct moments in the footage so that we’re delivering what Cate’s getting out of the actors. The communication is paramount to being able to see through that thread.

HULLFISH: Cate, can you think of a scene with subtext in the movie and how that subtext was realized and honed in editing?

SHORTLAND: I remember one instance with quite a funny sequence outside the helicopter. I remember Matt and I talking about it, and I said, “Maybe that shot could go there or that could… This is what I imagined: following Florence, going with her, and allowing the others to leave frame.” Then, Matt said, “Oh, I see why you did this crazy coverage. It’s making sense why you would cover something like this.” That was one instance just in terms of the mechanics of the material.

I think what was interesting for us to talk about in terms of subtext with Florence and Scarlett, Yelena and Natasha, was that Florence’s character was always hiding something. She was always hiding real emotions in that she really wanted her sister, but in the scene, she’s rejecting her. So, that took place right from the early fight scene when Matt cut the first fight and when Leigh was cutting the later scenes in the diner. We talked a lot about what the characters wanted or what they were hiding.

What was great with those girls was just cutting and actually just choosing takes because there were so many good moments, rather than being desperate to get a moment, we were spoiled. There was a richness to the material because you have such great actors.

HULLFISH: To explore that idea of Florence hiding something, was it a choice of picking this take because she seems more like she’s hiding something, or would it be a reaction shot? How could you explore the subtext in post?

SHORTLAND: Well, interestingly enough, we shot a scene after the fight in the apartment in Budapest. I wanted Florence to walk away and deliver a whole ton of exposition where she’s never looking at her sister and it looked amazing and it was beautiful, and Matt did such a beautiful job cutting it, but the studio saw it and said, “We have to reshoot it. They’ve got to stand still.” Do you remember that, Matt?


SHORTLAND: Because the audience wasn’t getting the story. The studio was right, but it was such a moment for me to learn that sometimes what I want as a filmmaker and what the story needs are two different things. What we actually needed in that moment was for the story to land. So, we reshot it and we got the girls to be very still, and she’s still withholding. Florence didn’t want to reshoot it because she said, “I wouldn’t be looking at her. I’d be wanting to move away,” but it was the right choice because we needed the audience to understand certain things and for that narrative to propel us further into the story.

The location for Black Widow’s apartment scene in Budapest.

HULLFISH: That’s something we’ve talked about before on Art of the Cut: on important story points, do you play them on- or off-camera? So often you have to play them on camera because that is what seals those story points in the audience’s mind.

SCHMIDT: In this case, that is correct. We had a beautiful tracking shot just following Yelena around the apartment, and she’s walking away from her sister and you get the intention. You really feel the separation. They’re here, and she goes this way. She’s saying all these things to her sister and she’s walking away from her and it’s like siblings fighting, unhappy with each other, or still trying to figure out their way with each other.

She’s walking away as she gives this whole speech and I thought it was fantastic. When we showed it to an audience and to the studio, there’s just a little bit of information that you miss, and then if you miss it, there are things down the road that don’t land as well as they should. So, it was a smart decision.

When they allow you to go back in and do some additional photography, it’s easier when it’s their idea. That’s a textbook case where it really does land when it’s on-screen. There are certain pieces of information that really have to be on screen for the audience members to really get. They’ll understand it, but for it to carry weight, sometimes it’s gotta be right there in front of you. Audience members are smarter than we think sometimes, but for it to really hit home and drive through the rest of the movie, it needs to be on screen. That was textbook, where it was, “Hey, this isn’t quite working.” I thought it was working, but it wasn’t landing as well as it should have, and we pivoted, adjusted, and we reshot. It worked out really well.

HULLFISH: The weird thing is that scene might’ve been working better the way it was, but later scenes then don’t work as well.

SCHMIDT: Yeah, if you’re not taking that information that the scene is trying to convey and really feel it, then down the line it will suffer for sure. The dialogue stayed the same for the most part. I mean, maybe we added a couple of words or some Russian, but the scene was the scene. Now they’re just facing each other and having that discussion. They’re still separated, which is nice. They’re still doing their own thing. They’re still off, not really engaged in each other still, so there’s still that separation, but it’s not playing it on somebody’s back as they’re walking away.

HULLFISH: Leigh, one of the things that Matt wanted to have you here for when we talked earlier about this was the longer dinner table scene with a lot of improvisation. I would love to hear you talk a little bit about the difficulties of dealing with improvisation and the eyelines and trying to make sure that all that stuff worked in that very complex scene.

FOLSOM BOYD: That scene was amazing because, like Cate said earlier, the footage is just an embarrassment of riches with these actors. Cate covered it really well so that we had different moments for all the characters to go through and really shine.

When you’re working with such wonderful actors like David Harbour, who is great at just ad-libbing and throwing out some lines, then, of course, that seems somewhat contagious because then the other actors seem to say, “I think I can do this too,” and then they throw out a few ad-libs. Then, all of a sudden you have several hours worth of dailies with ad-libs and great moments.

There are very many times that you don’t use the ad-libs on scenes like that, but for the dinner scene we were able to use some of David Harbour’s physicality in his ad-libs and what he brought, and it really enriched the scene for the characters because it made it feel like a true family. You would have a dysfunctional family at Thanksgiving sitting around the table just waiting to be excused and to be done with the meal. All of the characters were really bringing their A-game. I think the ad-libs really helped for the scene.

You’re talking about the complexity of the scene. I love that scene because it speaks to the heart of the movie being about family, and each one of them having to own their own involvement when they were a young family as a cover story. Really that scene explores that. One of the lines that Natasha says is, “It wasn’t real,” and I think in that scene there’s a moment for each of them where they realize it was real. So, I love that scene because Cate was able to cover it from every character’s point of view. That really is evident in the final product.

I think the approach that I’ve found the most successful is just to keep speaking to their point of view when each of them had their moment and always come back ultimately to Scarlett’s point of view since she’s our thread that the story is weaving, ultimately from her point of view, from her initial experiences. I think that’s what drives that scene.

HULLFISH: One of the things that Cate mentioned before you got on the call was that when they were trying to massage from the editor’s cut to the director’s cut that it was very important to remember that it’s Scarlett’s movie, Natasha’s movie. So, even in a scene like that, everyone’s got to have their moment, but the focus is on Natasha.

FOLSOM BOYD: Yeah, and that’s what we kept trying to come back to. What’s Natasha doing? What’s Natasha feeling? What is her perspective and point of view for this scene and how does it play through her eyes?

SHORTLAND: That was hard, wasn’t it, Leigh? Because often she’s a very nonverbal character. Whereas, we have characters that are really verbal, who push into the scene. Then, we have a character who is an observer of others. So, Leigh and Matt had to really choose their moments because often, even in that scene and in the diner scene in Budapest, Florence is pushing the dialogue and Natasha’s just answering it. So, you have to show moments where you realize she’s not speaking, but she’s thinking.

HULLFISH: So it’s more about reaction shots?

SHORTLAND: Yeah, but what is she really thinking? That was when we really got into the fine cut. We went back and back and back. I had to get more moments, and the editors were trying to get more moments of Natasha because she had really strong actors around her that were very verbal.

FOLSOM BOYD: Again, to see how she processed and how even the more subtle, nuanced reactions could really showcase those moments.

SCHMIDT: You’re always looking for that nuance. Sometimes we miss it as editors and the director comes in and says, “No. There’s this little piece and this is what I was going for here.” Sometimes we find those and sometimes we don’t. That’s why having a relationship with the director and getting their sensibility early on makes it easier to find that stuff as you’re watching dailies, as you’re watching the actors perform and do these things. But it takes a little while to get the rhythm and get to the feel of how Cate works or different directors work and how they direct the actors, what’s important to them, and what they really want to see come through.

SHORTLAND: I think what I would do next time is push for more dialogue. Push the nonverbal character to have to speak more and then have the opportunity to cut it out. Because what we had was true to her, it’s true to Natasha, but you almost have to push the character into uncomfortable territory and then be able to pull it back.

HULLFISH: Regarding collaboration, Leigh and Matt, did you swap scenes at all? Did you pick scenes that you felt one person might be better for than the other? Cate, did you feel like you wanted to give a scene to somebody else for any reason?

SCHMIDT: I always forget the process, Leigh. It’s been so long. I started the movie a little bit earlier than Leigh did. So, I was cutting the first stuff that was shot—just the nature of me being there. Then, once Leigh came on, we looked at the script and at the continuity and we thought, “Okay, here are the action scenes. Here are the other beats.” (A “Continuity” or “Continuity Sheet” lists all of the scenes in the movie in order with short descriptions of each scene, so that the entire movie can be seen at a glance.)

We separated the action scenes first so we wouldn’t get overwhelmed because the action scenes are pretty cumbersome and sometimes they take a while to figure out. There are so many layers, there are storyboards, there’s previs, and we’re cutting the previs and doing sound and music to these previs sequences before they even go and shoot them. So, we were working with storyboard artists, previs artists, and Cate. We tried to divvy up the action scenes the best we can so nobody’s bogged down in those. Then, it somewhat was a flip of a coin.

FOLSOM BOYD: Yeah, and for some of it we said, “You should take this because I think this speaks to you,” or one of us speaking out saying, “I want to take that because I think it’s going to be great.” Then, just obviously always supporting the other person just so that it worked out, and I think we did a great job.

Obviously, we collaborated with each other getting feedback from each other, but you asked, did we swap scenes around? No. I would ask Matt, “Hey, Matt, come look at the scene. See what you think.” He would say the same thing to me, but I think that the most important part was to support each other too, saying, “If you don’t have a lot going on, I need a little more time with this scene. So, can you take this scene?” We were just always communicating with each other.

SCHMIDT: I would sit there and say, “Leigh, I’m stuck in Dreykov’s office. Will you take the dailies that are coming in?” And she would say, “Of course.”

FOLSOM BOYD: Or I would say, “I’m still working on the dinner scene. Can you take this?”

HULLFISH: So, that’s when you’re working in dailies. When you were working in the director’s cut into the producer’s cuts, then are you just spending a lot more time in each other’s rooms viewing reels and deciding on larger story issues together with Cate?

SCHMIDT: Yeah, we would do that with Cate. The one thing that I find for these big movies is to divide and conquer. I have scenes, Leigh has scenes. Not that we’re really territorial, but for how fast these movies go and how big they are, it’s great if Cate can come into my room, work with me and go through reel two. Then, she goes into Leigh’s room and works on reel three. Then, I’m sitting there in my room doing the notes for reel two. It’s the best use of time, I find.

FOLSOM BOYD: You always have to keep pushing forward.

SCHMIDT: I’m very familiar with the dailies outside the helicopter. Leigh has watched them, but she might not be as familiar. But we always sit down and watch the movie. Everybody will get in a room—Cate, Leigh, and I—and we’ll watch it and ask, “Is there anything confusing? What’s the story?” That was the great thing about this movie. It was a really big collaboration.

Then, we had the studio in there, too, sometimes and it was easy to make the movie with everybody’s feedback and opinions. There wasn’t any time that anybody thought, “Nobody’s listening to me.” It was just really open and filled with really great discussions.

FOLSOM BOYD: Like Matt just said, it was such a joy to work with Cate and to work with Matt. I was just so proud to be a part of the process and so incredibly thrilled that we were able to have a theatrical release during the tail end of whatever part we’re in of the pandemic. To see the fan reaction has been tremendous because we work hard on these movies. It’s not a nine-to-five job. So, it’s always nice to see the fans enjoying the product.

HULLFISH: Absolutely, and that’s a great note to end on. I could talk to you guys for the rest of the night, but thank you all, Cate, Matt, and Leigh for joining me on Art of the Cut.

SCHMIDT: Thanks for having us.

FOLSOM BOYD: Thank you.

Steve Hullfish

Stephen Hullfish is an internationally respected producer and editor, and has written six books about the professional scene in Hollywood. He has edited seven feature films, including "Courageous" and "War Room", as well as "The Oprah Winfrey Show". Steve has also worked with industry leaders like Avid, Adobe, Blackmagic, Fujifilm, and Tektronix on technical and creative projects, and produces bespoke training for companies like the NHL, MLS, NBCSports, and Turner Networks.