Art of the Cut: Working Under the Gunn in “The Suicide Squad”
Fred Raskin is due to get his Art of the Cut Frequent Flier Card. I’ve interviewed him before for editing films like The Hateful Eight, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. He also edited the first Guardians movie, Django Unchained, Fast and Furious and Fast Five, among others.
Chris Wagner has edited films including Mission Impossible II, Die Another Day, Fast and Furious—and Fast 5, 6, 7, and The Fate of the Furious, The Spy Who Dumped Me and Men in Black: International.
Check out the Art of the Cut podcast to listen to this interview, and stay up to date on all the latest episodes. Warning: spoilers ahead.
HULLFISH: Fred, you worked with James [Gunn] previously on Guardians of the Galaxy, but how did your relationship start?
RASKIN: In the Spring of 1995, I was the apprentice editor on a Troma movie called Tromeo and Juliette, that James wrote. It was his first credit, and it was the second movie that I worked on as an apprentice. This was in New York just after I graduated. I remember going to dailies screenings with James and having a conversation with him at the wrap party. I moved out to LA while Tromeo and Juliette was in post. James moved out a few years later, but we just kept running into each other at various parties and we had a bunch of friends in common.
When he was getting ready to do Guardians of Galaxy, he messaged me just on Facebook I think. This was right after Django Unchained. He said, “I’d love for you to come to London and do this movie with me.” I was initially a little resistant actually because all I knew about the movie was that it featured a talking raccoon and a walking tree. I mean, the image that conjured in my head made me think, “Wow, this could be one of the all time disasters.”
I felt that way until I actually sat down and read the script. Literally, I got about a third of the way in and I was completely hooked. By the time the script was over, I had a lump in my throat and I immediately emailed James. I said, “Count me in. Let’s do this. Audiences have no idea what they’re getting into.”
HULLFISH: Chris, what about you?
RASKIN: [Laughs] Do you want me to tell the story?
WAGNER: I had never met or worked with James before. I had worked with Fred on two films previously.
RASKIN: Fast & Furious and Fast Five.
WAGNER: Yes. It’s strange because I feel like I’ve been working with Fred on almost every movie because of our friendship. I didn’t know James—of course, I knew his work, which was absolutely brilliant and Fred’s work with James—and so Fred called me and was asking about an editor that I had worked with in the past. I said, “Why are you calling about this editor?” He said, “Well, I’m buried in film on The Suicide Squad and I need some help,” and I said, “Would you consider me?”
Here’s an interesting story: I was an assistant for a very long time and I was doing a film in North Carolina and went with my editor to go see Top Gun when it was released—so, yes, I am old. When I walked out of the theater, I turned to my editor and I said, “I’m going to be Tony Scott’s editor one day,” and he laughed at me and said, “You’re an idiot and you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
So, I went on to start cutting films at a company called Cannon, which was the leaping point for a lot of young, aspiring editors. I had edited two films. Then, when I found out who Tony Scott’s editor was and that he was starting on another film called Revenge, I got in touch with him and asked if I could be the assistant editor on Revenge. He brought me on and he allowed me to cut some scenes and Tony really liked them, and lo and behold, very soon after he asked me to cut True Romance.
So, that led to what I was saying on the phone with Fred, “Yes, I would love to come to Atlanta and meet James Gunn.” I was a little starstruck because it was James Gunn as I was starstruck because it was Tony Scott. To have the opportunity, regardless of the pay, I said, “Yeah, I’ll come down and do it,” and that’s how I got brought on.
RASKIN: To back up a little bit, initially, this was only intended to be a one-editor movie, and James dramatically altered his shooting style for this film, basically shooting everything with three or four cameras. Whereas, the Guardians movies—where he shot a lot less footage—were always two editor movies. On this one it was expected that I would be able to do it on my own, but I was getting in about five hours of dailies a day. It took about three weeks before I called one of the producers and said, “I’m already a week behind. I’m going to need some help.” So, the studio gave me a list of editors and one of them was someone who Chris had worked with before, so I reached out to him and said, “Hey, what do you think of this person?” He said, “What do you think of me?” I said, “I think we probably can’t afford you.”
“This was only intended to be a one-editor movie, and James dramatically altered his shooting style for this film.”
WAGNER: I told him that I didn’t care. One of the iterations that’s happened over the last ten years doing the Fast movies is that you do the first one, you do the second one, you do the third one, and then you can start asking for a certain amount of money because you have been doing them. After Fast Eight, I called my agent and I said, “Listen, I think that my price is ridiculous.” It got to the point where it was ridiculous because that’s what’s happened over the course of doing all the Fast movies. I said, “If it’s a great movie, then I don’t care about the money. It’s not that important to me.”
So, when Fred called me and said, “Well, we really can’t afford you,” I said, “It’s James Gunn. I don’t care. And, more importantly it’s you, and I love working with you.” So, I was very happy to join that in a heartbeat.
HULLFISH: In the opening battle scene, the first time when Suicide Squad Team One hits the beach, there’s this great rock music that’s going along, and then all of a sudden there’s a comical moment and the music stops and it’s just sound effects. I love that. Can you talk to me about making that decision? Did you ever cut it with the music running all the way through or was it always planned at this moment to cut out the music?
RASKIN: Are you talking about the moment when Weasel jumps into the water?
HULLFISH: Oh, that’s another one. No, I’m thinking about when TDK sends his arms out to punch the soldiers.
RASKIN: Oh yeah, when TDK shows off his power for the first time.
HULLFISH: The music’s chugging along and all of a sudden, it stops. Just sound effects. So, there’s two places though? That’s interesting. So when Weasel jumps into the water is another one?
WAGNER: There’s three places actually, because when Harley is talking to Javelin with this incredibly heart-wrenching music and you’re feeling like she’s mourning the fact that she could have loved this man, all of a sudden the music stops and she slaps him.
RASKIN: She slaps the music away.
WAGNER: That’s right. I just want to say that anything from the very beginning of the film up until the point where Idris Elba has his confrontation with Waller was Fred’s absolutely brilliant work. So, I can’t answer any questions about the beginning of the film.
RASKIN: That’s very kind of you. I think that was the first thing that was shot. For me, that was one of the things in the screenplay that just really jumped out at me. The structure of the opening of the movie, how you see this opening sequence where we’re introduced to Team One and taken all the way through their entire ordeal. We see Team Two for a moment, and then we jumped back three days earlier and get to see everything that preceded this that happened alongside Team Two.
HULLFISH: Was it structured that way from the screenplay?
RASKIN: Yeah. The two moments in the movie where we jumped back in time—later on in the movie, there’s “eight minutes earlier” in the middle of the Jotunheim sequence, which Mr. Wagner cut—those were both in the screenplay. Structurally, there wasn’t a lot of moving stuff around in the edit. I think there was a little bit in act two, but it was more about stuff that we just deleted in terms of the changes that happened during the editorial process.
HULLFISH: What about those three places where the music drops out?
RASKIN: Actually, the one with TDK’s arms, I imagine that we did have something going through that at one point, and I think actually the music does continue, but it’s super low. But the Weasel moment was always designed for the music to cut out when he belly flops into the water. It was a discussion of, “Are we doing this too much?” But every time we did it, it seemed to work, so we just went with it. On every occasion, I think it’s really funny, so why not?
WAGNER: I always loved it because I’m such a believer in all parts of all movies to have peaks and valleys, and when you’re just blazing through on action films with sound effects and music you just tire out and you disengage. When Fred showed that to me when I came to Atlanta, I just thought, “This is so beautiful and so beautifully done.” I was inspired. It was great to watch him cut footage before I started because I got a feel for it and I got a feel for what Fred was doing and what James wanted.
I was quite intimidated at my first meeting with James, not on set but when he came to the cutting room for the first time and I showed him my first scene that I cut, and his reaction was really great. So, it was a daily thing where Fred, James, and Peter Safran we’re just very excited about the cuts. So, I was very happy to be there regardless.
RASKIN: I have to say, James is really tough. If you show him something that is sub-par, he will tell you and you will see it on his face. From the beginning, everything that Chris did, James said, “Wow, this is fantastic.” Chris really fit in perfectly from day one. So, it is a testament to his skill.
HULLFISH: That’s great. The opening graphics are pretty involved and very graphic. How did that evolve?
WAGNER: In my career of 40 years now, I think I did one or two movies where I cut the main titles. These days main titles are given to title companies and they’re all designed and done, but Fred took that footage and cut the title sequence. Other than changing the fonts, Fred cut that main title sequence.
HULLFISH: So originally it was Comic Sans or Helvetica?
WAGNER: It was Hebrew [laughs].
RASKIN: Chris Tonick, our brilliant first assistant, found me this really cool stencil font that you’ve probably never seen before. It felt like a ’60s war movie and it worked really well as a temp. Our title designer came in and came up with something even better, but some of the lengths of the titles ended up changing, but the picture edit actually I think really stayed the same from the beginning.
The one thing that I want to add to that is that the way the title sequence begins with Savant’s brain matter spelling out “Warner Brothers Pictures Presents” was something that I’m fairly certain was in the script. It certainly was always James’s intention.
WAGNER: Yes I believe it was.
RASKIN: Yeah, it was in the script. That was something that was handled by our visual effects department. Then, the rest of the titles are not made out of brain, hair, and blood.
WAGNER: But they should have been…
RASKIN: Maybe. But it really is a great way to just tell you what you’re getting yourself into in one shot. One of the really fun things about it is the way that at first you’re just seeing a puddle of blood in the water and then the letters form over the course of the shot. I just think it’s a great way to announce: “welcome to James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad.”
HULLFISH: When that happened, I thought, “Okay, now I know the movie that I’m in for.” It sets you up for everything else that happens.
WAGNER: I know that was in the script because I remember that we were in the cutting room one time and we were talking about it and James said, “Yeah, this is the way I want it. I’m not so sure Warner Brothers is going to allow me to do it, but I would like to have it.” Warner Brothers gave the film to James and let him do what he wanted to do, and it’s such a beautiful thing. With all the stories that I hear about studios interfering with directors and all that stuff these days, it was quite a great thing to experience.
RASKIN: There’s also something to be said for the writer/director, putting it in the screenplay because it’s not like the CEO could come to him and say they had no idea this was going to be the case. It was right there on the page.
HULLFISH: Is there any advantage or challenge to having a director who’s also the writer?
RASKIN: Personally, I find it to be a benefit. In terms of figuring out how to restructure things that we want to remove, or even additional dialogue that we want to record, having the writer be the director really helps the process I find. Sometimes, when it’s not a writer/director and you have a separate screenwriter and you want to come up with anything additional, you have to wait for the screenwriter to come up with it. Whereas in this case we say, “Hey, James, what can you come up with?” Literally, two minutes later you have what you need.
“It was a scene that he’s totally in love with that he was really proud of and it just was clear the movie’s better without it.”
I think for James also—and he may not have this in common with every writer/director—it’s really important to him that the movie play as well as it possibly can because I think he sees it as reflecting on both the writing and the directing. So, for him, it’s just about making the best movie. If that means we have to take out any scenes that he really loved—and there were a few where it was a scene that he’s totally in love with that he was really proud of and it just was clear the movie’s better without it—and he was actually the first person to say, “All right, we gotta lose it. I love it, but it’s got to go.”
WAGNER: They just happen to be scenes that I cut.
RASKIN: There were ones that I cut, too.
HULLFISH: That’s what I was talking about with it being a challenge is sometimes if a writer’s written some great scene, they’re loath to take it out.
Did you read the comic books?
WAGNER: I would have to say absolutely not.
RASKIN: I am a comic book guy from the age of 14, but I had never actually read a Suicide Squad comic book. Also, to be fair, three and a half years ago my oldest daughter was born and from that moment, my comic book reading was substantially diminished. When we did the first Guardians, I had asked James if there were any of the comics that I should check out and he did recommend one series to me, but he also said, “You don’t need to have read this to work on this movie.”
“Three and a half years ago my oldest daughter was born and from that moment, my comic book reading was substantially diminished.”
I think with the case of The Suicide Squad, James loves the original run that John Ostrander wrote, the writer of the original Suicide Squad comic. He’s in the movie in case you were unaware. He’s the guy who injects Michael Rooker. The movie is very true to the spirit of those comics from what I understand, but the team is—with the exception of Amanda Waller, the Viola Davis character, John Economos, Emilia Harcourt, and Florence Crowley, her three underlings—the rest of the team is totally different from who was in the original run of the comics.
HULLFISH: What did James have to tell you about editing before you started in post?
WAGNER: Fred, did you cut previs?
RASKIN: I tweaked the previs a little. Michael Goldberg, who was our VFX assistant editor in Atlanta, was cutting previs for a couple months before we got to Atlanta. I think I got to Atlanta two weeks before the shoot started, and I did go through the previs and made a few adjustments though actually more of what I did was cutting what they referred to as stunt-vis. For example, the big Harley escape sequence had been shot with stunt people and so I cut that together mainly so that James would have it to figure out how he wanted to shoot it.
In terms of my conversations with James prior to starting the movie, he told me that this was sort of his take on a ’60s men-on-a-mission World War II movie, and that was it. I knew that he was a big Paul Greengrass fan, that the style of the movie being this sort of cinema vérité, handheld, and lots of cameras rolling. That didn’t really surprise me and it certainly seems appropriate to the subject matter, but it wasn’t something that he necessarily prepared me for.
HULLFISH: How much did you guys have to cut remotely? What was the schedule like through COVID?
WAGNER: Pretty much the entire movie was cut remotely other than shooting with the exception of one week.
“Had the shutdown happened two weeks earlier, we would have left Atlanta without a finished movie.”
RASKIN: We got remarkably lucky in that the shoot ended on February 28th I think. I think Chris left Atlanta the next day. I left a few days after that. We set up our cutting room, I got this beautiful 75 inch monitor, my room was completely tricked out, and two days later we were all working from home.
In all seriousness, it was incredibly fortunate because—had the shutdown happened two weeks earlier—we would have left Atlanta without a finished movie and probably would have been editing for a few months getting everything that had been shot into place, and then we would have had to stop until we could go back and shoot the remainder of the movie.
WAGNER: I don’t know that we necessarily would’ve stopped because James always has ideas.
RASKIN: Indeed. But we might’ve reached a point where there was just nothing more to do. Probably not. You’re right. But if the studio didn’t want to spend the money, that could have been a potential outcome depending on when they might’ve stopped us, but because we left there with a complete movie, the post-process continued unabated. It really just proceeded the way it would have.
WAGNER: Because Fred was talking about cutting the stunt-vis for the escape scene, I did want to mention that when the dailies came into the escape scene and we watched them, they were just so beautifully shot. I went in to talk with Fred about who was going to cut that scene, and I realized just today that when King Shark is playing with those little fish that he played with in the Aquarium called Clyrax, and they are all friendly and they turn upside down and show their teeth, that was essentially the look that I got from Fred when I asked who he would like to cut that scene.
HULLFISH: Friendship only goes so far.
RASKIN: That’s probably true [laughs].
WAGNER: That scene was meant for Fred from the day that it entered James’s mind to this very day. Fred brought me into his room after he cut it and I was just blown away. If I remember correctly—and I think I do because we talked about it recently—there were very few changes from the first time Fred cut that scene to this day. So, if you’re cutting the stunt-vis and you cut the previs, for me to even think that I would have a chance to work on that scene was just delusional.
“Here was an entire major action sequence where there was no previs.”
RASKIN: Well, there actually was no previs on that sequence. That was one of the reasons why I really wanted to get my hands on it because so many of the action sequences in the movie were heavily previs’d. James’s previs is very much what he wants the sequence to be. It certainly evolves through the course of post-production as you tighten stuff up and you get the performances from the actors in there, but the main layout and the order of shots, at least initially, he wants to stick as closely to what he’s previs’d as possible. So, here was an entire major action sequence where there was no previs.
He really let the stunt team come up with the sequence with fairly specific instructions in terms of what he wanted to happen, and then he figured out how he was going to shoot it by watching the stunt-vis. I wasn’t working off of any sort of a map for that one. I really had the pleasure of just getting in there, feeling my way through it, and just trying to make it as exciting as possible by trying different things. We shot with a bunch of different cameras, so I asked myself, “What’s the best angle to see every beat from?” That was a total blast.
WAGNER: I think there were two big scenes that were not previs’d. Obviously, the Harley escape was much bigger, but the other scene that was not previs’d was Rick Flag and Peacemaker fighting.
That was a scene that I had no guidance in and I, as Fred did, just delved into it and did what I thought would be cool. There wasn’t a day where I didn’t walk out of that cutting room just feeling proud, not only because of the accolades that Fred gave me and I gave to him and our producers and the director, but it was just such beautiful footage.
One of the things I say all the time is that, “Every editor can only paint a painting when you’re given certain colors.” If you’re given black and white and you’re asked for a Monet, then it’s a very tough situation.
HULLFISH: In other words, the film is speaking to you and the director is telling you how it needs to be edited through the footage and you can’t veer from that without doing damage to the film itself.
RASKIN: Although actually, credit where it’s due: in the Peacemaker and Rick Flag fight, Chris put it together really well and then had an idea of cutting it like a Jason Bourne action sequence, putting some jump cuts in there and tightening things up to make the hits more impactful. He was actually a little afraid to show James.
WAGNER: Not a little afraid, I was scared to death.
RASKIN: But he showed it to him the normal way and then said, “Also, I did this version. See what you think,” and James said, “That was great.” So that’s what’s in the movie.
HULLFISH: It’s like the old Thelma Schoonmaker quote where she’s asked, “Isn’t it tough for a woman to edit such violent movies?” and she says, “They’re only violent when I get done editing them.”
RASKIN: That’s right. That’s a good line.
HULLFISH: So, how did you guys collaborate? What kind of collaboration did you do watching each other’s scenes, giving notes to each other, and how did you collaborate with James since you were in COVIDland?
WAGNER: I believe that I called Fred into my room on just about every sequence that I cut because of his knowledge of James’s likes and dislikes and my own insecurities of cutting for James Gunn. Fred absolutely helped me. We both, from the first one that we worked on together, have always done that. We’ve just said, “Look at this and look at that.”
Even though we took ownership of the scenes that we cut because we knew the footage, just to have two minds on a scene and to get an outside opinion is like a test audience or a test screening and was so helpful. I’ll say, “Fred, check this out,” and he’ll say, “Well, you might want to try this,” and I did and…
RASKIN: It invariably fucked it up [laughs]. I think there are two benefits to the process of showing something that you’ve cut to another editor, especially an editor you respect: number one, if there’s anything that you’re not sure about, if you feel yourself tensing up as someone else’s watching it, it’s not even about their reactions. It’s just the idea of showing it to someone else and you feel something isn’t working well. Now you know this is something that I need to work on. Then, there’s the value of getting the feedback. It’s really twofold. It’s just how do you feel as you’re playing it? Then, what kind of feedback do you get back about it?
It was really great having that opportunity, which was the case throughout production. Basically, whenever one of us finished something we said, “Hey, come to my room and tell me what you think of this.” We were pretty good about not holding back. I don’t think there was ever anything where we were trashing the work that the other did.
WAGNER: Absolutely not.
RASKIN: There was a lot of good constructive criticism that definitely made all the sequences better. When we were working remotely, we left Atlanta, came back to LA, and were in the cutting room for like a week and a half before the Warner Brothers lot shut down and we had to work from home. I think we got the assembly finished within that first week of being back.
“There was a lot of good constructive criticism that definitely made all the sequences better.”
WAGNER: We screened it on the big screen the last day we were there, right?
RASKIN: We had a visual effects screening room in our office that never screened one visual effect but we did get to use it to screen our assembly of the movie. So, I don’t think there were really any occasions after that point where we were saying. “Here’s a scene. What do you think of this?” Because we had the whole movie together by that point.
Basically, what happened was we would post cuts with the timecode burnt in on it. Then, James would email us notes based on those timecodes and then we would address them. There were occasions when either Chris or I had wanted to run something by each other before sending it to James.
For our first month, we had local storage and then we moved up to a remote system called Teradici. It was harder in that first month because we had to figure out how to do assistant work like emailing bins to each other, which neither of us had done for quite awhile.
HULLFISH: I’ve been hearing that a lot from the previous year is, “I was an assistant editor for myself for a year and a half. I hadn’t done that in ten years.”
WAGNER: I had truly never done it because the last time I assisted was on film. So, I didn’t know what a bin was. I didn’t know what “going to a drive” was. It was a little tough at the beginning, but we sorted it out.
RASKIN: We had a very patient team of assistant editors who would talk us through all of our management issues.
WAGNER: Yes we did.
RASKIN: Once we were on the Teradici, then we could just put stuff in each other’s transfer bin and say, “Take a look at this.” The remote systems were not perfect, but the time that we saved in not having to do the assistant work was well-worth the price that we paid, which early on was sync being off by one to three frames, depending on the bandwidth. So, not ideal, but over the course of the time that we worked remotely, systems got better and it just became not an issue.
HULLFISH: Because you think their software got better or your internet connection got better?
RASKIN: Probably a combination of both.
When we started working from home they told us, “As long as you have about 50Mbps down, you’ll be fine, but that turned out to not really be the case. I started at 200 and it wasn’t really until I got to one gig that things felt like they were operating normally.
You can use the waveforms as a guide and it became tricky when visual effects were coming in and things would be different than they had been in previous iterations, and the sound effects didn’t seem like they were quite in sync and you would want to move them so that they’re in sync, but because you have this potential one to three frame sync drift, getting those effects in where they should be wasn’t always perfect.
WAGNER: Dialogue always worked because Avid has that great feature that shows that you’re out of sync.
RASKIN: Exactly, but we don’t have that for sound effects.
HULLFISH: Were you guys able to do previews?
RASKIN: Sort of. We did two test screenings. I know one of them was in Las Vegas. They were theaters that seated about 300 people and they had 50 people there, but none of the creatives were in attendance.
WAGNER: I thought it was a double Vegas one with different times. Is that right, Fred?
“You sort of have to question the people who are willing to go into a movie theater in the middle of a pandemic.”
RASKIN: Actually, I think that there were two test screenings and yes, they had two theaters each. They put a camera facing the audience and they had a microphone so that we could hear their laughter, but I don’t know how valuable that experience really was because about 50 percent of them were masked, and you sort of have to question the people who are willing to go into a movie theater in the middle of a pandemic and watch an over two hour long movie. Then, the people who would go into a movie theater and watch an over two hour long movie without a mask, you really have to question how valuable was the information that we got from that? Not really.
For me, the truth is I didn’t feel like I got to see the movie with an audience until the premiere. Thankfully, there really weren’t any issues with things that we would have learned about places where we hadn’t left enough room for laughter or anything like that. It played really well. We really just got lucky. We also had a very good director who knew what he wanted and was able to guide us. The things that you normally gained from test screenings, we didn’t really gain those things.
HULLFISH: Are you both proponents of test screenings otherwise?
RASKIN: I am personally.
WAGNER: I am. Yeah.
RASKIN: Just to feel the audience as you’re watching the movie and to gauge their reaction is really valuable, I think. I don’t think the numbers really matter much. Certainly, there’s nothing to be gained by the silliness of these questions.
HULLFISH: “What’s your least favorite character?”
RASKIN: My favorite one is, “What would you say about the pace of the movie? It moved: too slow, too fast, just right, or just right but slow in spots.” They all are going to say “just right but slow in spots.” You’ve given them that option. That’s why they’re always going to say because, guess what? For some of the movie, you’re being fed information and when that happens it probably is going to slow down a bit.
WAGNER: My only distaste about previews is the focus group. They just go too long. In the first ten minutes they get all these great reactions and a lot of great stuff, and then they start going into the forensic science. Then, there’s people in the audience who are upcoming filmmakers and they’ll say, “Well, I think if you had taken four frames off of it…” and it gets to be too much.
“When you start going into 30-minute focus groups, it gets to be too much for me.”
It’s funny because Fred and I have both worked for a producer named Neil Moritz and when we go into those focus groups, after the first ten minutes it was always a great experience because everybody loves the Fast and Furious movies, but he would just raise his hands, smile, and walk out out after the first ten minutes. He was right to, because that is the time when you really know what the audience felt. When you start going into 30-minute focus groups, it gets to be too much for me. That’s my only distaste about previews.
HULLFISH: There were a lot of storylines with people breaking off and getting lost and being separated from the group. Talk to me a little bit about trying to come up with a story that’s not too slow in spots and jumps between characters correctly once you’ve put together your editor’s cut.
RASKIN: Most of it was laid out in the screenplay, but there were things that we found by watching it through. Like I said, in the second act of the movie preceding “Meanwhile Harley” when we get back to Harley, as we’re learning about the Team Two characters there was a lot of backstory given and there was some extra stuff that didn’t end up making the movie. This was really a situation where James said, “I feel the movie slowing down here and it’s just one scene too many here.”
Frankly, Chris cut a scene that I think was probably the funniest scene in the movie that is not in the movie because it just came at a point where we needed to keep moving. James was the one who cut it. He said, “I think this really is the funniest moment in the movie, but I want to lose it.” It’s something that no audience member has missed.
Like I said, we had a director with a very strong guiding hand. We would all contribute our thoughts in terms of how things could be cut down and if there were scenes that we felt weren’t fully working, we would voice our opinions saying, “Hey, maybe we don’t actually need this.” Sometimes we would be resistant to an idea of James saying, “I think we can cut this,” and sometimes James would be resistant, but ultimately we tried everything.
“No matter how certain I am that any given idea isn’t going to work, 50 percent of the time I’ll find that it actually ends up working.”
If I’ve learned one lesson in my time working in editorial it’s that no matter how certain I am that any given idea isn’t going to work, 50 percent of the time I’ll find that it actually ends up working. So, we just really had to try everything.
One of the nice things about this movie’s post schedule is we did extend a bit beyond when it was supposed to. I think the movie as originally scheduled was supposed to be done by the end of December , but it was still not coming out until August . We all kind of knew that we’re probably going to go longer because we have the time. Thanks to the shutdown, things ended up stretching out and naturally things just took longer not having a director in the room with you and with the way that we had to work passing cuts back and forth as opposed to saying, “Hey, just come in and take a look at this and give us notes,” ended up taking a little longer. But it gave us the opportunity to really try everything, and the movie is certainly better for it.
WAGNER: It also gave us extended time which was a godsend to develop visual effects to perfection. All through the movie I questioned if King Shark was going to work, and I really believe that Kelvin McIlwain and his team just brilliantly surprised me with how well it all did. When you talk about silver linings—and it’s hard to do because COVID is such a horrible thing—but actually having that extra time to develop the visual effects was a godsend because even though we had a long post schedule, it was still short for visual effects.
RASKIN: By the same token, when we got into post we had this visual effects screening room, and under normal circumstances we would have been going in there to look at visual effects in 4k on a daily basis, and we didn’t have that opportunity. We were just looking on our laptops at the material in HD, and then it would get into the Avid in HD. That is the way we saw all of the visual effects. James had a 4k monitor, Kelvin had one, and the rest of us were only looking at stuff in HD. Honestly, I didn’t feel like I had truly seen the visual effects at their greatest potential until I saw the movie in IMAX on opening night.
WAGNER: That was when Fred finaled the shots [laughs].
RASKIN: Legitimately, I thought the visual effects in the movie were good, but it really wasn’t until I got to see them in IMAX that I said, “Wow, these are great. They really did an amazing job.” This was a downside of the pandemic, not actually having the opportunity to see that stuff as we went along.
WAGNER: I can verify that too because I had a conversation with Fred before he saw it on the biggest screen, and the budget ran out on having me as an additional editor. So, Fred was on for a little bit longer than me.
RASKIN: To be fair though, originally, Chris was budgeted to come on for six weeks.
WAGNER: That’s right, and I was on there for a year. It was fantastic. So, I called Fred because I know that he had been to some sessions and probably had seen it in Dolby Vision and he said, “Listen, the movie is fantastic. I don’t really have a sense of King Shark yet,” and I think when he went to see it in IMAX, he got that sense. I was very happy to hear that, and I was happy to see it.
HULLFISH: What were you guys looking at for King Shark all those months? Some goofy previs?
RASKIN: No, we started with an actor on set wearing this goofy padded chest piece and this wooden cage for his head that had two little ping pong balls where his eyes were. That’s what we were editing with, and then that would get replaced with postvis which would then get replaced with animation passes and finally full renders.
WAGNER: There were a multitude and multitude of times that we looked at a turntable view of King Shark. There were a lot of iterations. A lot of this just lends to James’s genius. He wasn’t happy and it took quite a few times to get the skin tone, the decision of how wet he was in what scenes, and the color…
RASKIN: And his shorts.
WAGNER: Yes, and his shorts. Exactly.
RASKIN: Honestly, the hardest thing about King Shark was getting his shorts right, making them look real.
HULLFISH: I have three scenes from the studio that we can talk about specifically. I know that this scene has been edited down by the marketing team. [Plays video below]
WAGNER: Oh yeah, that was edited down.
RASKIN: It’s eliminated the Harley escape sequence [laughs]. That section that you just showed was all Mr. Wagner.
WAGNER: There’s a lot of edits because the camera’s going back and forth. Again, I talk about using the colors that you’re given. For example, the Sicilian scene in True Romance was shot and cut the way it was because there weren’t really a lot of choices. I mean, you had lots of choices, but it was very obviously supposed to go together a certain way. So, I think that scene that you just showed, with the exception of a couple of tweaks, was pretty much in the first cut. James shoots for the edit. I hate to say that because it’s Michael Bay’s philosophy although I have nothing against Michael Bay—but that scene was just so easy to put together and didn’t take a lot of thought to be honest.
HULLFISH: Let me play this next scene.
WAGNER: This is brilliant by Fred Raskin.
RASKIN: Thank you very much.
WAGNER: That’s about as close as Fred and I got to each other as far as editing each other’s sequences.
RASKIN: That actually is the dividing point. Chris cut the first half of the finale from when they go into the basement with The Thinker, the dirty little secrets, from that until Starro starts breaking through. Then, I took over for the remainder of the sequence. He covered the whole section with the top of Jotunheim falling off and the guys having to run across the building. I mean, it’s just a magnificent piece of spectacle filmmaking there. That’s all this guy. Then, I took over at that moment.
WAGNER: Actually I think the first cut is your cut of that little flip.
RASKIN: That’s true, but this was a section that was heavily previs’d. So, the first cut was matching the previs to a degree. I think there were initially more shots of Starro’s tentacle punching upward as they’re in the room and things are rumbling. We came to the realization that we really only needed it once and that was enough. The sound effects really added to that feeling. This is the sequence as James designed it.
“We came to the realization that we really only needed it once and that was enough.”
One of the things I should probably mention here is that Chris and I generally stuck to our own sequences. There wasn’t a whole lot of overlap, but actually the moment where the two halves of the finale meet was something where it wasn’t quite working the way it had initially been planned out. I told Chris, “You have my blessing. Take the beginning of what I’ve done and intercut it with the end of what you’ve done to get that to work as well as it could,” because part of us dividing it at a certain point made that fusion point a little clunky. So, Chris really did a terrific job getting them to blend.
WAGNER: Have you noticed that Fred and I don’t get along very well?
HULLFISH: I’ve totally noticed that. It’s uncomfortable [laughs]. I’m going to play one more scene for you.
RASKIN: This is one of two scenes in the movie that we continually went back to over and over again. This one, which I cut, and Chris cut the other one, the scene where King Shark goes to eat Ratcatcher 2 and Bloodsport shoots him and then Ratcatcher 2 brings out all the rats. We called it the “rats in the woods scene”. So, for these two scenes we had a running bet for which one of these scenes is going to last longer in terms of the edit before it gets locked. I’m actually not sure which one it was.
WAGNER: I’m not either. I asked you that the other day, “Who won that bet?”
HULLFISH: What was the challenge in getting that locked? Why did you realize there was going to be a challenge?
WAGNER: I would say that it was down to that there were a lot of iterations with different line readings or different words. In both those scenes there were many ways to cut it. I think that’s why we both worked on those for a very long time.
RASKIN: James has what I call a semi-improvisational directing style where he’ll get through the scene as scripted and then he’ll do a version where he comes up with things just on the day. He’ll tell them, “Hey, say this,” or, “Let’s try it again and say this instead.” He’ll throw out completely different random lines. Certainly, the scene that you just showed on the Osprey is as they’re heading to the Team One mission. That was one where there were so many different iterations and so many different things that all of these different characters said.
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That scene, in particular, has a difficult thing to accomplish because you are trying to sell the audience on the assumption that these characters are the characters that you’re going to spend this entire movie with, but in fact, most of them are going to be dead within the next six minutes or so.
HULLFISH: We might have to cut that out.
RASKIN: Fair enough. Although, if they’re listening to this and they haven’t watched it…
HULLFISH: That’s true. Can you call it a spoiler if it’s in the first six minutes of the movie? I don’t think so.
RASKIN: It is actually funny because when the trailers came out people online figured it all out, but I do have at least one family member who had no idea and was completely taken by surprise when what happened happened. The thing that’s interesting about it is you’re trying to set these characters up as though they are your main characters in the movie, but you also don’t want to spend that much time on them because they’re not, so it’s ultimately just there for a misdirect.
That was also one of the challenges because we had all this great improv and all these great things that weren’t in the script and were really funny, but it really came down to asking, “What is the bare minimum that we need to give the audience the sense that these are going to be our main characters without wasting time?”
HULLFISH: When I was watching it I thought, “I bet there was a ton of improv in here.”
RASKIN: Oh, yes. Look at the cast. Between Pete Davidson and Flula Borg, you’ve got a lot of really talented improvisational actors, and that’s saying nothing for the stars of the movie. I mean, John Cena, in particular, is incredibly gifted when it comes to improv.
WAGNER: Thousands and thousands of feet of improv.
RASKIN: In addition to James throwing out lines for him, he was someone who would actually come to set prepared with his own improv which was really funny stuff, a lot of which ended up making at least some cut of the movie. I’m not sure how much is actually in the finished version, but we tried a lot of it. That was part of the process of putting this movie together was asking, “How do we get the best possible version of what’s going to be the funniest thing?”
HULLFISH: Guys, I could talk to you all night for sure, especially with the two of you guys riffing off each other.
WAGNER: Well, the fact that it’s 12:40 for you Steve…
WAGNER: 11:40. Oh, that’s Chicago.
RASKIN: Then we’ve got another hour.
WAGNER: Yeah, let’s go.
HULLFISH: Let’s keep going [laughs].
WAGNER: In closing, let me just say that my biggest dream is to have another interview with you with Fred because there was nobody in this world that I would rather work with than Mr. Raskin.
RASKIN: That’s your biggest dream? [Laughs]. In all sincerity, this really was a terrific collaboration and I would happily do it again. It was just a great team all around with everybody who worked on this movie. The only way we got through the monkey wrench thrown into the works with the pandemic so smoothly was having just such a good team where everybody collaborated really well. Ultimately, I think the movie is as joyful as the process of making it.
HULLFISH: Couldn’t say it better myself. And I’m glad we got a Chris Tonick shout out in the middle of that someplace.
WAGNER: Let’s get one to Brit DeLillo too, our second assistant. She took a lot of my phone calls in the morning when I asked, “Where do I put this? Where do I put that?” I’ve got to give her a shout out too. Everybody was great.
HULLFISH: Guys, thank you so much for your time tonight.
WAGNER: Thank you.
RASKIN: Thank you, Steve.