Art of the Cut Special: John Gilbert, Editor of “The Fellowship of the Ring”

Welcome to a special Art of the Cut interview, celebrating the 20th anniversary The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring.

Yes, you read that right. It’s been 20 years since Peter Jackson’s landmark film premiered in theaters. Collaborating with Jackson in the cutting room was John Gilbert, ACE, who was nominated for a BAFTA, an ACE Eddie, and an Oscar for his work on the film.

Since editing The Lord of the Rings, Gilbert has cut films including Bridge to Terabithia, The Bank Job, The Killer Elite and Chasing Mavericks. John has been a previous guest on Art of the Cut for his work on the movies Adrift and Hacksaw Ridge—for which he won a BAFTA and an Oscar and was nominated for an ACE Eddie.

I’m thrilled to have him back on the show to discuss this epic film and the decisions, discussions, challenges and victories of editing The Lord of the Rings.

Listen while you read…

HULLFISH: It has been 20 years since you cut this movie… so even longer since you finished cutting it, correct?

GILBERT: 2001. That’s right at the end of 2001.

HULLFISH: Obviously, you finished editing before the movie was released.

GILBERT: It was pretty tight; actually, we were supposed to be finished in September so that we could go into sound, and we weren’t quite finished. They had lined up the orchestra in London, the London Philharmonic for September, and Peter wanted to keep cutting.

So I went to London and was cutting in the morning, and he was recording with the London Philharmonic in the afternoon. Then 9/11 happened while in the middle of that, and I couldn’t leave. Peter thought for them to send some more footage over, and we’ll just keep cutting. It was early days of electronic editing so getting a large amount of material to London from Wellington was quite complicated, but they managed it.

He’s a terror for getting things right; I ended up reworking a number of scenes and some of them; they then rerecorded the music with the Philharmonic after I reworked the scenes. Then the sound mix was right up against that; Peter likes to work right till the end, it came out in December, but it was still being worked on in November.

He’s a terror for getting things right.

HULLFISH: Joe Walker, a fellow editor, asked me to ask you, “How do you survive an edit that lasts this long?” The shooting schedule was over a year, right? How long were you actually getting dailies? Since he’s about to dive into editing Dune 2 and 3, he’s probably looking for reassurance that he’ll survive.

GILBERT: The intention was for the first year, they would shoot all three movies, and they would schedule it so that if they were in a particular location, like Hobbiton or Rivendell, they would shoot the material for three movies there.

That was the stated intention, but the reality was he only concentrated on material for the first film over that year. He had second unit and multiunit directors doing battle scenes and stuff for the other movies. So that first year, I had dailies coming in, and there were some days when there was material for other movies.

The following year I started working with Peter, and pretty soon, we decided we were going to reshoot some scenes and shoot some new materials. So there were rewrites, and there was an eight-week pickup shoot. It was being rewritten continuously. The Fellowship of the Ring was a two-year job for me. I started around September 1999 and finished in November 2001. Then Peter wanted me back to add more material for the DVD release.

There was a bit of a push-pull, and the film was quite long. It ended up being just under three hours. I like to keep things moving, and Peter’s the sort of person who likes to have everything in. So there was a bit of tension there sometimes. I’d say, “You can put this on the DVD.”

At the beginning of 2002, I went back for a month or so and retrieved a lot of the material I’d managed to pull out of the movie and used that to make the longer version which went out on the DVD.

HULLFISH: That’s an interesting dynamic. With Peter Jackson being the director, how much push and pull could there be? How much did you feel comfortable saying a scene needs to be shorter when he’s pushing to make it longer?

GILBERT: I always felt okay; I always felt I could say it, but he was the boss, and if he wanted it in, it was in.

I believe you’ve got to say what you think, and I’m the sort of editor who wants to keep things moving forward. I don’t want to lose the audience’s attention. Peter likes for things to play a little bit longer in places.

It was a little bit of tension, but I think it’s a good tension. I think it’s my job to hold them to account, to justify why things are there, but ultimately it comes down to “he’s the director.

HULLFISH: Even if you don’t get your way, that pushback can help the director. It helps them strengthen or clarify their creative choices.

GILBERT: Yeah. I think the conversation is important, and bringing up ideas the director doesn’t necessarily agree with “maybe helps another idea come out of the conversation. You make discoveries through the conversation, which is a part of filmmaking I like.

HULLFISH: The discussion you have about one scene can help you edit another scene.

GILBERT: That’s right, because you’re talking about the underlying themes of the film and what’s important in taking the story forward, or what’s the underlying theme or message of the film. How you’re going to integrate that in subtle ways. There are lots of layers to it. The overall momentum of the film and feeling that something’s necessary early on.

HULLFISH: Do you remember structural changes that were made to accommodate story rhythms that you felt had to change?

GILBERT: The overall structure was pretty true to the original script. I seem to remember there was material added to the Black Riders. We strengthened them in the pickups now that I think about it—more material was added in that area, and we dotted that through the film.

HULLFISH: There were obviously a bunch of deleted scenes found on the DVDs. Can you think of any of the reasons or any of the discussions why those scenes were cut?

GILBERT: Quite often, I would say to Michael Horton, who was cutting the second film, “I’ve got a great scene for you here. I don’t think it belongs in movie one. I think you should have it.” So that was sort of a running joke with us.

There’s a great scene with Bilbo and Frodo, and he pulls out and gives him the sword, and then there was a scene where they’re gathered at Rivendell getting ready to go, and there’s a moment between Arwen and Aragon, and I said “Look, we’ve been in Rivendell so long. I think after the scene with Frodo and Bilbo, we should cut to them on the road.” So we lifted that scene out; I think that was a momentum thing.

HULLFISH: You were talking about the Black Riders. There are furious scenes with them in the chase to Rivendell, and then there are calmer, quieter moments like the romantic scenes in Rivendell. Can you talk about the regulation of the fast scenes compared to the slow scenes, or did it feel like those dynamics just happened correctly by following the script?

GILBERT: I Think they worked the way they were supposed to. Peter is very good at working out which scenes are meant to be energetic. The scene where they hide underneath the tree and the Black Rider comes along.

I think that was the very first day of the shoot. It was a great scene, I think, and the Black Riders chased them down, and they were on the boat, and the horse pulls up on the wharf. It’s the sort of material an editor can look at and think “Oh yeah. I can make something out of this.” Peter was very good at that.

The interesting thing with this scene is when Frodo looks down the road, and he gets a spine-tingling moment and says, “Get off the road,” to the other Hobbits playing on the road. The scene didn’t quite work, we had a point-of-view shot of him looking down the road I’d put it together, and Peter was saying it doesn’t really work. I suggested they film a track-zoom of his POV. So the second unit guy went up there and shot the track-zoom a few days later, and I put it in, which really made the scene work. I was pleased to have that idea, and it made the scene have a slightly supernatural moment.

It was the early days of visual effect and a big learning curve for everyone. Originally it had something like 500 visual effects shots in it, which you look at a film like that these days, and it would have 5,000 visual effects shots. There was a lot of motion control, a lot of technology, which is not really used anymore.

The hobbits were supposed to be three foot six inches in shots with people of normal size, so they were all scaled motion-controlled moves so that you could shoot them and put them over the top of each other. It was technically quite challenging, certainly more than anything I’d ever done up till then.

HULLFISH: How were those shots with the Hobbits delivered to you? Did you have split screens to try to get the Hobbits in or before you had VFX?

GILBERT: Sometimes the pass was on a blue screen, so I would get a sync pop between the two pieces of films, and I would line them up on the Avid and put them over the top of each other. I’d then go through and find the pieces I wanted and make a rough comp of them, and cut right there.

I had cut two or three films on Avid by that point. It’s interesting because Peter worked with Jamie Selkirk on his earlier film, and Jamie’s a film guy, and they were cutting on a Steenbeck. Interestingly, they were doing The Frighteners, and they had quite a lot of similar visual effects shots with Michael J. Fox and some ghosts.

They didn’t really know how to deal with it on the Steenbeck, so I got a call, and I went in there, and I cut a lot of the visuals scenes on an Avid. It was a bit of an eye-opener to him, not only what I could do effects-wise, but how quickly I could work compared to working on the Steenbeck. That was a great thing for me, and that’s how I got to do Lord of the Rings.

Peter was used to editing, he would shoot, and then he would start editing once he finished shooting; he didn’t edit during the shoot, but obviously, with The Lord of the Rings, New Line Cinema, and all the pressure it came with, you couldn’t shoot for a year and then start cutting it. It took a little bit of him getting used to someone digging in and cutting his material while he wasn’t there. He’s not one of these filmmakers that doesn’t understand the process. He understands it all the way through.

HULLFISH: What was the collaborative methodology in the editing room? Can you describe how he likes to work or how you like to work?

GILBERT: He would have a very definite idea of what he wanted, and I had already done an assembly of the film, so I would play it for him, and he’d mention wanting a specific scene to start the film rather than what I had chosen. So what I would do is I would go and find that shot, and I would stick it on the front of my assembly and then play into my assembly.

There was some stuff that I’d put together, which worked, and we were able to agree it worked and move on, and there were other things where he got in, and we’d go over it with a fine-tooth.

HULLFISH: As you said, it’s a three-hour-long film. Is there a challenge story-wise to a film of that length for an editor?

GILBERT: It was actually three and a half hours for a while. I like to watch the whole film, and if it’s three and a half hours long, that’s quite challenging. Just sitting down and watching it is really different than watching a 120-minute film. Just holding it in your head and keeping the sense of the momentum of the film is more challenging at that length for sure.

We tended to work on it in chunks of 20 minutes or specific sections. For example, the Rivendell section or the Hobbiton section, we just worked on it in chunks; we didn’t watch it as a whole film all that often.

Just holding it in your head and keeping the sense of the momentum of the film is more challenging at that length for sure.

HULLFISH: Do you remember how long the first assembly was?

GILBERT: I would guess between three and a half and four hours, but I assembled the film quite tight.

I don’t like to leave things long and leave a lot of choices. I tend to try and make something that works, and if there’s a different version, I’ll make a different version with other material in it, but I don’t like to have just a long series of choices. I like to make an assembly that plays.

Also, with there being a first cut, there were so many pickups and reshoots that the film was constantly in motion, like an accordion. It would get longer and shorter and longer and shorter as new material came in and other material got excised out. It was an unusual project, no doubt about it.

So the film was constantly like an accordion. It would get longer and shorter and longer and shorter as new material came in and the material got excised from it. It was an unusual project, there’s no doubt.  

HULLFISH: Do you remember temping music?

GILBERT:  We did temp, and we had a lot of interesting music. I used something from The Fly at one point; I used a little bit of stuff from Gladiator and even The Fugitive. I was using all sorts of film music from the ’90s.

HULLFISH: Looking back, can you remember any specific scene or sequence that you’re proud of or was a big challenge that you were happy with the outcome?

GILBERT: Boromir’s death had a lot of material for that scene, and Peter said to me, “Don’t touch that material. I want to cut that with you.” So I put it to the side, and a few weeks went by, and I had to get a cut ready for some deadlines, so I closed the door and spent three days on that scene without Peter.  Interestingly, I heard later on that Peter really liked what I did and I was really pleased with that particular scene.

HULLFISH: Is it difficult or is it an advantage to collaborate with a director who is also a writer?

GILBERT: Well, everyone’s different. If you’re collaborating with someone who’s also a writer, they sometimes have an allegiance to the way things are written on the page. Whereas if it’s a director coming in with someone else’s script, sometimes they’ll have things in their head that they wanted to do a little bit different.

I don’t mind if they’ve written it or they’re just the director; you’ve got to say if you think something should be different from what’s on the page. Maybe someone who hasn’t written it might be a little more receptive; it depends on the person. Some writers might be protective of their work, but I think most are interested in making the scene as good as it can be.

There’s the movie you write, the movie you shoot, and then there’s the movie you edit.

As the old saying goes, there’s the movie you write, the movie you shoot, and then there’s the movie you edit. I think most directors understand that. The first-time directors, maybe not quite so much. It’s more of a challenge if it’s their first time out and they haven’t been through that process.

HULLFISH: You mentioned that there were shots that you told Michael Horton he could use for the sequel. Did that ever go the other way around, and he sends shots to you?

GILBERT: I had enough scenes; I wasn’t taking anything from them.

The first film was about the fellowship getting together, and at the end of the film, they split up. The second and the third films were separate threads of these characters out on their own, and where the first film was a group thing, the other two films were more separate.  They actually had a few flashback scenes in the second and third film, so that’s how I felt they could use some of my stuff.

HULLFISH: I asked some people if they had any questions for this interview, and one of them asked, “This film was a masterclass of editing slow motion and normal speed together, how did you decide?” Is there a trick to transitioning between slow-mo and regular speed? Do you treat them differently, or is it all just treated like footage?

GILBERT: It’s a question of finding the right moment and what’s dramatically appropriate. For example, Frodo falling on his back and the ring tumbling through the air is a moment of suspended time; you just try and work it as naturally as possible for the drama.

Interesting that someone should say that because I tried to make the slow-mo as unobtrusive as possible to make it the entry and exit from it as a natural movement. Even in slow-mo, if something moves through the frame, you can disguise the transition between normal speed and slow-mo, and we try and work that as smoothly as possible.

HULLFISH: Did you read the book before you started editing?

GILBERT: No, I didn’t. My son, who was about 13 or 14, had read it, so I asked him about it, and then of course, once the filming started, I picked up the book, and I kind of did a speed read of it. I didn’t want to be too immersed in the mythology of the book; I didn’t want to know it intimately because the audience wouldn’t necessarily be familiar with the book, and I wanted the film to exist on its own and make sense on its own. It had to be a standalone film.

HULLFISH: What about some of those enormous scenes like the battle scenes? How much footage were you dealing with, and how do you even organize that and keep it in your head?

GILBERT: Well, because they were shooting on film, I didn’t get as much footage as you would get today if they were shooting digitally. I do remember we had about 2 million feet of film and shot over a period of a year. So we had racks and racks of film. I didn’t see that, but we did a film conform when we were screening the film and we would watch it that way. We watched film dailies as well. We sat in the theater and watched film dailies at the end of the shooting day. They were selected dailies, luckily, and I tried to look at as much of it as I could. There were times when I’d skate through and pick over the stuff later, but really you do what you can. 

What I like to do is I’ll get all the dailies for a scene put in the straight line, and I’ll just quickly zip up and down the thing and figure out how they covered the scene. I’ll get an idea in my head of the kind of structure of the scene that I think it should be, and then I’ll go into the areas of coverage I think that are important at certain parts of the scene and create a rough of the scene, according to the structure that I think I want.

When you’re working on a scene, turning over in detail, you can lose the big picture.

Depending on how much time I’ve got, I can put that down and move on to something else, but I like to do a good cut of the scene quite quickly and then come back two days later, and in that little bit of time, I think is really useful because you see it fresh. Whereas when you’re working on a scene, turning over in detail, you can lose the big picture.

Sometimes if a cut doesn’t work, it’s not because you can’t make it work. It’s because you’re cutting the wrong things together in the wrong part of the scene, and I can see that much more clearly when I come back a couple of days later. Of course, the scene will play differently when you got an assembly of scenes around it, or you’ve got a whole reel, but I think it’s important to find the magic moments in various scenes and know what you’re looking for story-wise. Being able to isolate those things, which really are key parts of the scene or the key parts of the story, and have in your mind what they are and build around them.

HULLFISH: Do you bother temping at that early stage, or are you temping once you’ve got some scenes together?

GILBERT: It varies from project to project. Sometimes we agree not to temp the film; we just cut it and temp it late, and there are other times when we know we have a scene that will definitely need some tension, so we try some things out. I try and hold on until I’ve got a decent run of a scene; temping takes a lot of time to find the right musical tone.

I’m often thinking quite early on what kind of music is going to work here and are trying to build a library of the kind of music that’s going to work with a film, but I try not to get too attached to anything too early on.

HULLFISH: I really appreciate all of your fantastic wisdom and memories of how this film went together. It’s absolutely a classic for cinema.

GILBERT: Thanks, Steve. It was nice talking.

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.