Art of the Cut: Inside Edgar Wright’s “Last Night in Soho”

Today we’re talking with Australian film and TV editor Paul Machliss, ACE, whose work you’ll have seen in movies like Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen and Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, Scott Pilgrim vs The World, and The World’s End.

In fact, Paul’s association with Edgar Wright stretches as far back as 2001’s cult UK comedy series, Spaced, which is just one of several offbeat British comedies you’ll find in his credits, alongside Black Books, The IT Crowd, Peep Show, and Fleabag.

Paul and I last chatted about Baby Driver, for which he picked up a BAFTA for Best Editing, along with Oscar and ACE Eddie nominations, but today we’re speaking about at Last Night in Soho, a sinister thriller based on Krysty Wilson-Cairns’ screenplay, directed/co-written by Edgar Wright, and starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith, and Thomasin McKenzie.

Listen while you read…

HULLFISH: One of the things that I really liked was the pace of the opening cab ride in London and the discomfort and danger that was set up for the lead character Ellie. Can you talk to me about that scene?

MACHLISS: I think that scene was designed as the first real instance of something being not right or laying the foundations for the troubles that potentially await our protagonist in Soho.

I think Edgar Wright has such a reputation for comedy in his films that if you’re a fan, you might not know a lot about what you’re going into with this film. What I actually found at the screenings that I’ve been to in the last couple of weeks is the audience laughed quite strongly at the first scene with Eloise, played by Thomasin McKenzie and her gran, and they think “It’s Edgar, so it’s going to be a comedy.”

I think it’s that first scene in the taxi cab where the score gets a little darker when we’re actually driving into Soho, and you’ll notice it goes from early evening into dusk, and it gets darker as well. By the time she gets out, it was all designed to make you feel that not only is this going to be unlike any Edgar Wright film you’ve seen before, but now we’re going to start telegraphing a few of these points to make you realize that there’s actually going to be a little bit of danger ahead.

The moment Eloise gets into Soho, it starts to go a little dark. It almost immediately is not what she expected London to be. A lot of that preempts what will happen to her attitude of ultimate escapism, initially from the student housing where she was sleeping to the empty apartment room with Ms. Collins. A place where she can indulge in another form of escapism, of getting away from one environment into another, a bit like her real environment that also holds dangers in it as well.

HULLFISH: It also sets up the theme of the rest of the movie.

MACHLISS: Absolutely. That threat starts from the cab driver may or may not realize how much of a threat he is. It starts that danger element that red light going off is already starting to flash for Eloise at that point.

HULLFISH: Is that the intent of the scene to intentionally make certain kinds of edits to amplify that danger?

MACHLISS: Oh yeah. Getting to the right point where you punch in to really emphasize the concern and her kind of perceived threat level. The fact that we take a darker turn through some of the streets of Soho and the footage gets a little bit more intense. That’s a scene where she says, “I’ll get out here.” That’s the first time that we really ramped up the cut level. The cutting here is in contrast to the almost restrained and flowing scenes outside her grandmother’s cottage and on the train ride. It’s the first time that the editing can help emphasize the threat of the potential jeopardy that she’s under.

HULLFISH: Can you talk about the value of pre-lapping music?

MACHLISS: I’m a big fan of pre-lapping, as is Edgar because it very smoothly joins two scenes or sound effects together. What is great is that we’ve got this Dick Dale guitar sound coming in on the Soho, which not only emphasizes the realization that the girls think they’re going for a great night out but can also signal a slightly evil undertone. It telegraphs their journeys through the Soho streets, ending up at the Toucan Pub, and you feel like there’s excitement, but also an undercurrent of danger even though we’re using that cue to take us through the girls first big night out in Soho to tie it in with a clink of the glass makes you realize that what’s going to happen to the girls is not what they think might happen.

The Truman Brewery—one of the filming locations of Last Night in Soho.

Edgar has lined a lot of these cues and songs up months before we shoot; it’s the way he’s put the tapestry together of his perception of the sound design, knowing that when you go to Soho, it’s full-on sound with that kind of guitar. I think what it also helps do is maintain an intensity level because once she stepped through into the sixties, whether it’s in color or whether it’s in sound or lighting or speed of editing or the nature of the photography or the characters. Everything is ramped up a notch, and then by the end, several more notches as all those various elements are designs begin to interplay and, by the end, present you with a bit of a psychedelic overload.

HULLFISH: There’s a great smash cut or, as I call it, an answer cut where like Ellie says, “I would never disappear in the middle of the night” cut to her disappearing in the middle of the night. How planned was that specific cut while shooting?

MACHLISS: That was a great scene and very much planned. It was actually the start of a longer scene that ended up being cut. Once it smash-cuts to her walking down the corridor and staircase with her suitcase and record player, there was a whole bit where she bumps into her classmate John, played by Michael [Ajao], saying, “Where are you going?” and it was a kind of a comedic scene. We watched it once or twice, but we realized it just gets in the way of the smash-cut moment, and all you really need to know is that she’s on her way, and it actually improved the scene so much.

The fact that we took out that little interim scene of her, trying to get the suitcase all the way back down the stairs, out of the student housing, and encountering John really emphasized the point she’s done the one thing she said she wouldn’t do. The next shot, of course, is that sweeping crane which goes up to her attic bedroom and, of course, for the first time introduces the neon lights, which is almost a character in its own right.

Any editor should be very prepared to say, ‘Let’s let it go.’

That cut was telling us it looked good on paper, but as we saw it, we realized less is more, and any editor should be very prepared to say, “Let’s let it go.” You try and give every scene its moments, but I think there’s a point where if there’s always an element of frustration and it’s not quite sitting the way you want it to, you can ask, “What’s it like without?” and you see how it works and feel the weight lifted from your shoulders and say “That’s it, all the information is there.”

It’s also a nice way of losing one extra minute of duration as well, people are very aware of running times, and that’s something else an editor should be aware of. Where the various acts start and stop and what is a good running time for a film. I’m a big fan of the phrase, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” Having set up the Eloise character and her adventures in coming to London, there’s a point where you realize that roughly 25 minutes have passed, and we need to be at that first dream sequence.

The very first thing we cut was the first dream sequence with the Café de Paris and meeting Jack. We then immediately jumped to the Rialto, where Sandy, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, sings Downtown for her audition. We actually spent the first five or six weeks getting those because they were going to be what they were in terms of storytelling.

The dance that they do was designed as a oner and wasn’t designed to be cut down, so we knew that the whole sequence was going to be pretty final. We had these set pieces that were kind of key moments, so we then edited the other scenes around the set pieces. We got an understanding of when and where things should happen, scenes leading up to the first dream, and how long it should roughly take.

I remember watching a very early cut with those set pieces but feeling they were a bit episodic. I remember after an early watch being very conscious of not making it feel like the set pieces are just clunking in and that you didn’t have time to breathe or time for the rest of the story to move in tandem with those moments. We worked quite hard to make sure that the flow was there.

When we are first introduced to Ms. Collins, played by Diana Rigg, and she takes Eloise up the stairs and talks her through her apartment, it’s history and rules the audience should realize that the film has lifted at that point, and we didn’t want to wait too long for that to happen. Then when we hit the first flashback, we jump up a quantum leap, and suddenly when we see her in the Haymarket and the Cafe de Paris, you want to make those steps gradual and effective. You want to ramp to those moments rather than jump to those moments.

HULLFISH: When you were trying to get to those set pieces, you didn’t want it to feel like things were missing like some pages fell out of the script. What were some of the things that you did to help make sure that didn’t happen?

MACHLISS: The pacing around those set pieces I learned to give the audience a bit of a breather between those big key moments; the story is going to carry on, but maybe you just ease back on the pacing, and you don’t rush forward.

There’ve been a few people who’ve commented that the editing in the first 20 to 25 minutes is very unlike Edgar’s other films because people normally think of things like the opening scene of Baby Driver or the editing of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, or the opening montage in The World’s End, all of those start at a pretty intense level.

This movie really couldn’t be a more gentle or different approach. Which was part of the fun for us. We thought we were going to do a different kind of Edgar film and certainly with the influences that we took and not only with the editing style, but the shooting style as well. There are some sections where it’s unlike any approach that Edgar has done before, and I think that makes for something completely distinctive.

You still see those bits of Edgar’s style, but I think it’s those bits around them that actually allowed us to afford to take out time and just have those little elements play. They’re just as important as the big set pieces, so we give them some time and then just make sure we are transitioning in and out of them to those other dramatic scenes that have their own little tempo as well.

HULLFISH: You mentioned the dance. Are you saying that the dance where Eloise and Sandy switch in and out with Jack, played by Matt Smith, was a oner all done in-camera?

MACHLISS: Yes, all done in camera and in one unedited take. A few reviews unfairly and totally wrongly gave me the credit for that. I give all credit for that to our choreographer Jennifer White and the remarkable work of Thomasin McKenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith, and absolutely not last and least the other invisible dancer that you don’t see, the Steadicam operator, Chris Bain. He is basically doing just as much of a dance behind the camera as the girls are in front.

I think we shot the whole thing 12 to 14 times, we actually thought there might be some invisible bits that we could use if we needed to stitch together different takes, but the beauty of that moment is something I absolutely can take no credit for. There’s some wonderful behind-the-scenes stuff of just watching how the girls are prepping their turn going in and out of the dance. It’s stunning stuff and brilliantly choreographed and brilliantly performed.

HULLFISH: Fairly early in the movie, the audience realizes this is a mystery. Talk to me a little bit about pacing and dealing with the mystery itself.

MACHLISS: On Eloise’s first couple of bouts of escapism, she loves it because she sees this young wannabe singer who is romanced by this handsome guy named Jack, and then the next time around, she’s auditioning on stage. It’s the third time she goes in when she realizes exactly what Jack has set her up for, and Eloise becomes disgusted, and she wants to leave, but she realizes she can’t leave. She’s now in this world, and it’s dictating where she’s going and what she is doing, so that’s where it starts getting interesting editorially because suddenly you’re in a kind of Alice-in-Wonderlandsituation.

You are suddenly transitioning from one environment or set or location to the next in a very non-standard nonlinear kind of way. That was a lot of fun to do and where editing could certainly play its part when it starts getting hallucinatory to enhance the levels of mystery.

Later on, it gets a little more traditional when you’re at the police station, and Eloise is on the edge of totally losing her mind. You want to emphasize that she’s trying to remain calm, but really she’s totally on the edge here.

Thomasin offered up an amazing performance and needed to be judicious about those moments when cutting. We keep going back to her when she’s answering a question when she’s considering options because she offers you so much with so few gestures; it’s all there in her face and in her eyes; it’s something that Edgar and I took a long time to go through to get the right level of character embellishments there to really make sure we were feeling what she was feeling at that point, to enhance the mystery and to enhance the psychosis embedded in her character.

HULLFISH: In the scene where Sandy is auditioning with the song Downtown, we see she is only singing for two gentlemen, but as the camera pans, we see that Eloise almost magically appears in the audience. What made you decide at the moment in the song to reveal her?

MACHLISS: Unlike Baby Driver where we had a lot of animatics about where car crashes and various actions would take place within the course of the song, we actually had every track broken down by the music department. Steven Price, the composer, and his incredible music associate Bradley Farmer basically broke down the tracks by verse, chorus, duration, minute, and second for us.

With that, we could figure out exactly where the pan would be. It’s one of those things where the camera never stays still in that scene, so it starts out just as an over-shoulder shot of Sandy singing for the two gentlemen, and then the camera does this innocent pan behind Sandy, and suddenly Eloise is magically there.

We made sure that we worked out beforehand at which point in that song those moments would occur. So we worked out a beat sheet for every one of those moments, and Edgar would say to me, okay, “We want to start this shot, third line of the second verse,” and then I would communicate that to Pete Blaxill, our playback operator so he would put the right pips in which not only would cue the actor but would cue the cameraman as well. We use that technique throughout all the dream sequences, especially when it comes to the programming of all those flashing neon lights.

It’s a subtle thing, of course, but every time she goes to sleep, listening to one of her records, the neon lights from the restaurant next door are always magically in time and tempo, but let me tell you, that just doesn’t happen. [Laughs] There was a lot of prep with that, and really it’s a whole other thing about how editorially we were able to coordinate camera, lighting, and music. That’s actually, for me, something I’m incredibly proud of.

HULLFISH: There was a great moment of musicality with the sound effects in the scene where Eloise is in the bar after they closed, almost afraid to go home, and the bartender says, “You can’t sleep here.”

MACHLISS: Absolutely, I think that’s something that Steven Price, the composer, did a wonderful thing to. I can’t speak highly enough of Steven because we did an interesting thing on this film. Normally the composer, having got an idea of the story, offers up some temp tracks, just ideas, to work with, maybe five or six tracks for you to start your edit with. Normally when you get a demo track, it’s all mixed. You get a stereo track, and it’s there for you to use it, edit it, and do anything you want with it.

What Steve did, however, was offer up the actual Pro Tools MultiTracks, which we loaded into the Avid. So I had a finished piece of music that had 16 individual tracks with all the individual instrumentation on each track. This was something we had never done before and what’s amazing is sometimes you can find really fascinating things if you start playing around with it.

As we were digging in the track, we found there was one big, intense, busy musical cue. It was fantastic, but we started pulling things out one by one until we were left with three little piano notes, three small notes from this huge score, three small notes.

We just listened to that, and Edgar said, oh, I think we’ve almost found the musical motif for the film, and in actual fact, he was right because that’s the first thing you hear as soon as the first Universal logo or Focus Features logo comes up. You will hear these three notes, which are basically all that was left of this huge track that Steven wrote.

Now, of course, after we found it, we gave it back to Steven, and he was able to start with that and build out a new cue from that. It was brilliant just to discover a cue within a cue or a motif within a cue by just Steven allowing us to take the MultiTrack; tearing it apart and finding whatever we liked.

HULLFISH: Speaking to the sound design, it’s amazing how it amped up how frightening the film was.

MACHLISS: Oh yeah. Edgar is a master at sound design and the way sound works and always has been since I worked with him on Spaced, the sitcom series we did more than 20 years ago now.

I think for something like this to get a haunting or unsettling feeling, sound plays such a big part in that. Even before we’ve shot a frame, he’s got his sound team together, working on the concepts he’s been thinking of and giving them test footage to get a sense of the tone.

HULLFISH: So many of these scenes that Edgar does seem very well planned. He knows what it can look like, and he can probably imagine the edit in his head, but he probably wants something very different from you, a different look at it. Is that correct?

MACHLISS: Yeah. So with Last Night in Soho, I came in about a month earlier, and there were a couple of animatic scenes and a couple of ideas about what he’d liked the neon lights to do, but he basically said, “I’ve got no idea how to accomplish it, so I need us to all knock our heads together to get these looks in.” He really set himself and us a challenge with the kind of flashing neon because there’s a whole story about how those lights were set up and programmed, but if you think about those, lights always have to go in a specific sequence.

Edgar has actually said a couple of times, ‘Who was the idiot that came up with this idea?! Oh yes, of course. It’s me.’

But if you’re trying to edit dialogue, not only are you trying to think of the best take and the best shot but also now you have to make sure it works with the neon light sequence since it’s so important. So suddenly, you find yourself, as Edgar has actually said a couple of times, “Who was the idiot that came up with this idea?! Oh yes, of course. It’s me.” [Laughs]

The thing you learn about doing an idea like this is to never do an idea like this again [Laughs], but the incredible thing is it’s just okay; that’s the challenge, we can’t just ignore it because, like I said, the lighting in this film is almost its’ own character, so it needs to be right. What ended up happening while we were shooting this part was I would stand next to Edgar and watch the light sequence and let him know so he would call action at the right time so the actors would talk during the correct color of flashing light. I can’t tell you how much fun that was shooting it correctly, let alone editing it correctly. We sweated a lot for that, but it works.

HULLFISH: So, like with Baby Driver, you were editing on set, correct?

MACHLISS: On set, yeah. In fact, I would say maybe 80 percent on Baby Driver and 100 percent on Soho. All that running through the streets of Soho and Carnaby Street in the West End, I’m just out of shot somewhere with a little edit trolley, trying to maintain that she’s running at the right length of time because, of course, I’ve got the song and I know where she has to be at each point. Being on set was integral, and Edgar and I took a lot of the lessons that we learned from Baby Driver and applied them in a much less subtle way.

There’s not a lot of car crashes or big hammering sounds happening on the beat, but in terms of sinking-up lighting, motion-controlled cameras, and music playback, it was just so satisfying to sync up these elements and rather than call attention to them, make them imperceptible. The editing in Baby Driver was capital “E” editing, waving its flag, saying, “Hey, look at me!” and a lot of people actually noticed the editing on Baby Driver, which is fair enough, but this time around it wasn’t so much about being overt but rather being subtle, but it still had a lot of techniques running underneath to make sure it all ran smoothly.

We do these little interstitial edits where we revisit earlier moments of the film as a type of flashback, but interestingly we never actually used the same bit of footage. Whenever we do one of those little flashback shots, we used a different take of the same action. It kind of highlights that sense that you remember things a little bit differently from when they actually happen. They’re close, but they’re not quite the same. So every little remembrance of hers is actually an alternate take of the one that was actually in the scene.

I remember as well that Edgar shot some very odd angles; he disregarded the line and did some very weird over-shoulder shots, which underline her jagged sense of mind at certain points in the film. I also did some very non-standard editing in places, sometimes I’d cut on a gesture, and if it is on a gesture, it might be on an angle or on a line that you wouldn’t normally go to. Once again, it’s a subtle thing, but it’s there. All of this was in service of the story as it feels just slightly schizophrenic and to chime in with what’s going on in her head.

HULLFISH: Were there conversations in terms of when the audience figures out what’s going on in the movie, and as Joe Walker, Editor of Dune would say, “Get a wiggle on” so that you can wrap up the movie and get the audience to the end?

MACHLISS: I guess in that sense, you do want to get a wiggle on, but one point is that we have several storylines to try and get a successful conclusion to. Each needs their moments to resolve, and each needs to work in the context of the other because what you don’t want to have is a film where the audience feels it has a bunch of disjointed endings. I think one of the tricks is to make sure all that stuff is integrated, and I think that’s the clever bit of Edgar and Krysty Wilson-Cairns’ writing is that, along with the visual element, they’re all still circling each other’s characters and stories. I think there’s a nice way where we’ve been able to deal with each story and gently bring it back down to Earth without a kind of chunkiness.

HULLFISH: Exactly, that’s the trick. We want to get the audience to a place where they are happy with the conclusion of the movie.

MACHLISS: Absolutely. Very much so.

HULLFISH: I want to thank you so much for joining me and talking about Last Night in Soho.

MACHLISS: Oh, you’re very welcome. Thank you for asking.

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.