The Rough Cut: Bringing Humanity to AI in Gareth Edwards’ “The Creator”
The Creator editor Scott Morris not only already had experience in the sci-fi genre, having worked on Ad Astra (2019), but also experience working with co-editor Hank Corwin ACE. Alongside Oscar-winning editor Joe Walker ACE, the three helped realize Gareth Edwards’ vision of a world where AI and humanity are at war; each racing to deploy their own solution to eliminate the threat of the another.
Plot summary for The Creator
As a future war between the human race and artificial intelligence rages on, ex-special forces agent Joshua is recruited to hunt down and kill the Creator, the elusive architect of advanced AI. The Creator has developed a mysterious weapon that has the power to end the war and all of mankind. As Joshua and his team of elite operatives venture into enemy-occupied territory, they soon discover the world-ending weapon is actually an AI in the form of a young child.
In our discussion with The Creator editor Scott Morris, we talk about:
- Making the handoff from one post crew to another
- Shooting sci-fi with an indie doc approach
- Exploring the themes of man v machine
- Editing room inspiration through better decoration
- Doing your homework on the director
Check out The Rough Cut podcast to listen to this interview.
Editing The Creator
Matt Feury: Scott, a lot of people are very excited about The Creator. It’s the first thing that Gareth Edwards has directed since Rogue One, nine years ago. Clearly, that would make it difficult for you to have worked with him recently. That begs the question, how did you end up a part of the editing team for The Creator?
Scott Morris: I got very lucky. It’s kind of a dream. I’ve been a fan of Gareth’s since Monsters, his first project. I’ve been working with Hank Corwin, ACE for a while. He’s been mentoring me through the years and he got contacted to do it. To roll it back a little, Joe Walker, ACE had originally signed on to do it with Gareth way back in 2019, when he was preparing to shoot. Of course, the pandemic happened in 2020 and the project got pushed about a year.
Joe Walker had done the first part of Dune and he had signed on to do the second part. When everything pushed, his schedule became more complicated. Joe was able to start the project, but he knew he had to hand it off at some point. Joe and Hank are friendly, so Joe contacted Hank, and Hank was very impressed with the project and with Gareth. He called me, and I was very excited, being a big fan of science fiction and of Gareth.Joe and his amazing team, Christos Voutsinas, Job ter Burg, and Dylan Merriman, did an incredible job of preparing for the handoff. Dylan and Job stayed on for a few months after Joe and Chris went to Dune. They helped us tremendously.
MF: Well, that’s pretty interesting. What goes on in a situation like that? What do they do to prepare for a handoff from one crew to another?
Scott Morris: Joe had known since the beginning that this was going to happen. They were preparing for it. It wasn’t a surprise. So, from the get-go, they were preparing for us. They had set up sequences. They would cut scenes, but they also had alternate sequences prepared for us, with different options. They were very meticulous about how they organized the footage.
Gareth has a unique shooting style, which I’m a huge fan of. I love the way he works. This movie was shot on the Sony FX3. He shoots with a documentary style, where he operates most of the shots. He’ll run the camera for twenty or thirty-minute takes. They’re not just resets, they’re brand new setups. He’ll shoot a master shot and then move to a different part of the room, find his lighting and just keep rolling.
The actors were performing the scene multiple times, but he was getting different setups and different angles without cutting the camera. That’s why we would have these long takes. The organization became more like, I suppose, a documentary where you do a lot of subclipping in preparation of sequences. They left a lot of breadcrumbs for us. They were really trying to set the project up knowing that the handoff would happen.
“They left a lot of breadcrumbs for us.”
MF: I don’t know if you necessarily went through an interview process with him, but I would like to know what you talked about with Gareth in regards to working on this film.
Scott Morris: I remember first meeting Gareth. It was so fun to just dive right in. We didn’t know each other and we just started cutting. I think it was a way for both of us to get to know each other.
The first scene we started on was the tank battle sequence in the film. We just started working together. We were getting to know each other, feeling each other out, so we’d cut for a little while, then we’d talk. We’d talk about philosophy, we’d talk about the types of films that we love. It was part hang out, get to know each other, and part vigorous, intense editing to meet the deadline. But it worked very naturally for both of us.
“It was part hang out…part vigorous, intense editing to meet the deadline.”
MF: You talked about philosophy. This movie addresses important themes that other films have explored, but it’s unique because AI is on a lot of people’s minds today. What thoughts did you have when you first looked at the script? Did anything jump out to you or prompt any questions from you for Gareth or Hank or Joe?
Scott Morris: When I first read the script, I was immediately impressed with the worldbuilding and the sense of scale. It was such a massive project. I was thinking about David Lean, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia. There’s also the original Star Wars, which are massive projects in terms of worldbuilding and the scale.
But I was also impressed with the script’s emotional depth and how grounded it was in character. It was asking these huge questions, which is what I absolutely love about science fiction. The Twilight Zone, the original The Planet of the Apes, all these classics ask massive questions, including the original Blade Runner. The script for The Creator had all that. It was asking these huge, huge questions that science fiction can ask in such an exciting way.
“This film tackles prejudice and grief, what it means to be human.”
Science fiction can pull us out of our world, and then we can focus on these great truths and these massive ideas. This film tackles prejudice and grief, what it means to be human. That was what excited me most. Originally, the AI was designed as a metaphor for ‘the other’ and how we process our relationship with fear and nature. I was very excited about that and about the spirituality component, the reincarnation.
The Creator is a little cyberpunky. It explores this idea about the nature of the human body versus the robot body. Gareth and Chris Weitz were exploring all of these ideas about life and death in the script. It was very impressive.
MF: As I said, big themes. You name-checked a few movies. It’s hard not to think of films like Blade Runner when you’re watching The Creator. District 9 has been mentioned in other articles. This concept, these themes have been explored before. Did Gareth actually give you any reference points or allude to any other films?
Scott Morris: One of the things that Gareth did that I thought was wonderful, was he bought a bunch of posters for the films that inspired him. He does this for most of his films. The whole editing room was plastered with Apocalypse Now, Akira, Baraka, all of these wonderful films that were inspirations to him and specifically influenced this project.
It was inspiring to come into the office and look at an Apocalypse Now poster, or Akira or Baraka. It’s there every day. It gets into you and you think about it.
MF: Was Gareth explicit with you about how he wanted The Creator to be different? Did he ever say where he wanted to go that other films hadn’t gone before?
Scott Morris: A big part of what makes his take on AI so interesting is how he treats the AI as natural beings. He’s all about exploring sentience. This project is about exploring sentience and what it means to be alive. He would ask the actors playing AI characters to perform as if they were human. The AIs perceive themselves as being human, and there are so many odd things about these AIs that you don’t usually see. They’re eating, they’re sleeping, they’re laughing and joking. They’re doing all these things that are just so human.
In the documentary-style parts, the performers weren’t aware if they were playing humans or AIs. It created all of these natural performances, so you have these AIs doing very odd human things that are unpredictable. Afterwards, the visual effects came in and that turned the characters into AIs. Over the course of the film, your brain starts to accept it as just nature.
The AIs become part of the natural world. That’s one of the things the film grapples with, this idea of machines being a part of nature. That was something that we talked about and explored.
“That’s one of the things the film grapples with, this idea of machines being a part of nature.”
MF: Obviously, Gareth is the director, but he’s also the co-writer. Does that make the process a little more expedient? Can he make those hard choices faster? Or is it the opposite, where he wrote it, so he doesn’t want to lose any pieces?
Scott Morris: I’ve been very fortunate to work with a few writer/directors. I’ve been a little spoiled. I absolutely love working with writer/directors. They are so open to working with the material. Since it is their world, their imagination, we can continually work the material in the editing room and reinvent. We can explore and nothing is sacred. It allows for a very freeing environment. You can make those broad changes instantly. Gareth’s imagination is constantly falling and it allows a lot of freedom in the editing. In this film, we really went there.
The editing choices we made, in large part, were to condense it. It was a massive assembly and it was a massive script. It was an epic film. There was so much in it and Gareth had a lot to say. We had so many wonderful set pieces and characters to explore.
Ultimately, we just couldn’t keep the pace up without making some trims. In order to make those trims, we got very creative in the way that we told the story in the editing room. Without Gareth’s very quick response to rewriting and willingness to change things, I don’t know if we would have been able to do it, at least not as quickly.
MF: We talked about what Joe and his team did to prepare things for you. You read the script, you talked to Hank. You’re all in. What did you do next to prepare for it?
Scott Morris: I love prep. I love preparing for a film!
MF: You might be the only one.
Scott Morris: It’s one of my favorite parts, actually. There’s so much excitement. The earlier I get involved, the more fun it is for me. I love to explore my own imagination and get familiar with the script and think about the world.
Each project has different explorations to go on. I’ve done period pieces, so you’re reading about the history of that time period. If it’s based on a book, then you’re reading the book and you’re getting excited about the author’s take on it and all the research there. I just did a film about New York in the 1980s. I was looking at street photography from the time, just to immerse myself. For me, the editing process, the filmmaking process, is about full immersion. I absolutely love doing that.
“For me, the editing process, the filmmaking process, is about full immersion.”
For this project, since I hadn’t worked with Gareth before, the first thing I did was I scoured the Internet for interviews with him, both in print and on YouTube. YouTube is a great resource. I learned a lot about his editing style and his filmmaking style. When I work with filmmakers, one of the things I want to do is get into their mindset. It’s such a joy as an editor to work with different filmmakers. I love going back to filmmakers that I have a good connection with. It’s also exciting to work with different voices or people who come from different backgrounds.
Different filmmakers love different things about cinema. Different creators have influenced their work and excited them. In his interviews, Gareth was diving into some of the things that inspired him to be a filmmaker and there was a lot of crossover for me. We have a lot of projects and filmmakers that really inspired both of us to be a part of this.
One of my favorite things I found on YouTube was a behind-the-scenes video on the editing of Monsters that he did. He and his editor, Col Goudie, BFE, go into their process. It’s unique. They shot a lot of material on that film.
Gareth’s whole thing, which I love about him, is that he has this ad-libbing, improv, jazz-like flow for his entire process. It happens in the writing, the shooting, the editing, and the visual effects. He’s always doing this kind of improv. He creates a lot of space for spontaneity and invention on the fly. His imagination is so strong. He has great collaborators who can flow with that style. That happens in the editing room too, and it’s all exemplified in that video.
When I started the project, I was diving into all these films that we had mentioned. Many of them are favorites of mine, but I was revisiting them with a new lens. Having read the script for The Creator, I was thinking about how they might influence the work that we’d do.
One thing I like to do is study films in the genre. I choose films that I think might be influential that Gareth has not mentioned. Those can spur some ideas, not to copy or emulate, but that just live inside your mind. Again, this is more of a deep dive for the project I’m working on. In this case, I was looking at Baraka, The Tree of Life, Akira, and the original Star Wars films. I also looked at movies like Chappie and Ghost in the Shell, just to have them live in my head.
MF: I like to ask editors if they edit on site. Clearly, you weren’t out there in Nepal with Gareth. If you had to choose, would you prefer to edit on site or do you like to be removed from production?
Scott Morris: On this project, I wasn’t able to be there during production. But with my style being so immersive, yes, I prefer to be on site. I like to travel for work. I’m not a huge fan of being on the set while they’re shooting, but I want to be close to the set. I want to be in the environment that we’re shooting in.
I’ll go for walks, I’ll explore the neighborhoods and the sounds, the smells, the environment. It all goes into your subconscious. I did a film called Armageddon Time in New York, and walking around the streets, hearing the sounds, feeling the experiences, all that goes into the editing.
In this case, I would have absolutely loved to go to Thailand, if that was in the cards for this project. You experience all of that full immersion. Everything gets absorbed, everything becomes a part of the work. You become more aware of the world that your characters are inhabiting.
MF: No matter where you edit, you’re going to be there for a while. You’re going to be working very hard to create the best version of the film. What do you do to establish a comfortable working environment where you can be productive for months at a time?
Scott Morris: The most important thing is the crew. It’s the people you spend your time with. It doesn’t matter where you are, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing. It’s always about the people.
On this project, we had one of the best crews I’ve ever experienced. Just wonderful, wonderful people. I mentioned Joe’s team, but on our side, Hank and I have been working with Sarah Russell, our first assistant editor, for a little while now. She’s just remarkable. She is the person you want with you on every project. She’s a beacon of happiness and joy and fun and humor.
“It doesn’t matter where you are, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing. It’s always about the people.”
That’s the thing. There’s so much humor and fun in the way that Hank, Sarah, and I like to work. We’re cracking jokes all day, just keeping it really light. The rest of our team was Michael Shusterman, Zachary Harrison, and Jordan Brown and we created this little family. We spent so many hours together, oftentimes working six or seven days a week when there’s a tight schedule. There’s a lot of bonding.
In our case, we had all done other projects together. We had already gotten really close. If you can go into the trenches together with a sense of humor, laughing at all of the silliness, keeping it light, that’s huge. And, you know, having windows is great too. If you can open them, even better. Get some fresh air.
I like to go for walks. It’s all about cultivating that inclusive space where all the assistants can be a part of the creative process. That’s really important. I think that everyone feels like a film can be something they’re proud of, something they can put their heart and soul into. It’s not just a job for an assistant.
“It’s not just a job for an assistant.”
They’re a part of the process as much as we are. They’re in the room, they’re writing, they’re creating ideas and editing things. It’s a group mentality of, “We’re going to do this thing together. We’re going to support each other and really care for each other.”
MF: Let’s talk a little bit more about the people aspect. When I talk to editors who are co-editing, we talk about the division of labor and the answers are varied. For The Creator, how did you and Hank balance taking the work that Joe had done to the finish?
Scott Morris: Hank and I had already worked together on a few projects and we had gotten used to how each other’s brains worked. That’s a huge part of my process with any collaborator. I really want to understand who they are, how they see the world, and how they see their process. That’s how I work with directors too. I try to understand their process, like I mentioned with the interviews and looking up on Gareth. I want to try and understand how their mind works.
With Hank, we spent a lot of time together. I felt like we had already established how we think. We understood how to work with each other and that applies to the editing. It also applies to our personalities and how we work together. Humor is really important.
When it comes to splitting the work, we had a lot of ground to cover. It’s a huge, epic film. And there’s deadlines, especially when you have a lot of effects. You have to meet the deadlines to get the visual effects out to the vendors so they can start their process, which takes a lot of time.
One of the things we did right away is we split the film in half. Then, we just worked on sequences. That was the beginning of the process. Once Gareth got more involved with the director’s cut, we were headed towards working together more. At first, we were off on our own, just working on sequences. Then we showed each other the sequences and over time we became more and more focused on being together.
“One of the things we did right away is we split the film in half.”
We had these projects, for example, where each of us would take something on. There was a lot of creative brainstorming. The three of us would sit in the room as a group and talk about a sequence or talk about the whole film or where we needed to go with the characters. We would have these nice conversations about the story and about where we wanted to take certain sequences. Then we would go off and take a day or so to work on this scene or that scene. Then we’d come back together.
Eventually, on the back half of the project, we were in the room together constantly. That was the process. It was just the three of us in the room together, brainstorming ideas, having assistants come in. Sometimes they would be a part of it. Sarah was in the room collaborating as well. I like to equate it to a band jamming in the studio. Each of us had an instrument. Some of us would riff and the other person would riff off that. Then it becomes something new and fresh, something that’s not of one mind, but three or four minds.
MF: Generally, the most important part of the film is the opening of the film. That’s where you’re laying the groundwork, setting the context, and teaching the audience how to watch the movie. You do this in a very interesting way in The Creator. You use antiquated newsreel footage of the robots working and fighting alongside humans. I’d like to know about how you collectively tackled that.
Scott Morris: The opening sequence is something that just kept evolving. It started with, “How do we get the audience to understand this world?” There’s so much worldbuilding that has to be done so quickly in order for you to enjoy the movie and to understand what’s happening. We wanted to have a lot of fun with it.
It started off small and then it kept growing as we kept working on it. Then that audio came in, the dialogue of those 1950s advertisements. That was something that Zachary Harrison, one of the assistants, was a really big part of. He was very passionate about that sequence. He worked with Gareth on some of those lines and it was really great to see his work. He’s a really talented editor and he really put a lot of work into the sequence and made it into something special.
“You’re going to see things from the past and you’ll see things from the future, but we’re going to try not to see anything from our present.”
We had a lot of fun integrating the advertisements. We would have a simulant commercial and Gareth would look at fonts from the 50s to make it more authentic. One of the things that is really wonderful about that sequence is that it sets up the alternate history. It’s in there on the production side. It’s been there from day one. Gareth had talked about it. “You’re going to see things from the past and you’ll see things from the future, but we’re going to try not to see anything from our present.”
So we have cars from the 1970s, 80s, and 90s in the film, and then we have cars from the 2050s and 2060s in the film. But we don’t have modern-day things. That was a big part of setting up that language.
It’s a world where there’s no cell phones, there’s no social media, and they’re using tube televisions. It’s a very different world from our own. Technology started with the robots, which started being built in the 50s, and then all of our technologies skewed differently. That’s why some of the technology in this film it’s really different. It has split from our timeline into something new, which then sets up this exciting fantasy world. You don’t know what’s going to happen next, and you don’t know how things work in this world. It’s a discovery as you go.
There’s also the General’s speech right after that, which is also an exciting thing to have. It’s part of this opening sequence where you feel the devastation through the minds of the people who are hurt by that explosion in Los Angeles, which our character Joshua (played by John David Washington) is dealing with.
That brings us into the story from a very character-centric point of view. You understand his emotions, even if it’s not linked directly to him right away. As you start watching that first reel, you’re processing it emotionally through his mindset. There was this great excitement around this technology and then something happened, and now there’s a lot of trauma. The world is grappling with it, and that’s where the story starts.
“There was this great excitement around this technology and then something happened, and now there’s a lot of trauma.”
MF: A big part of the story is Joshua struggling to get over the loss of Maya (played by Gemma Chan), his love and the mother of his unborn child. Throughout the film, you go to flashbacks of Maya and his time with her when things were good. How did you work through those flashbacks with Gareth? Were they specifically scripted or was it the kind of thing that you had to feel out?Scott Morris: There were flashbacks in the original concept for the film. Gareth shot them. They’re pretty long sequences and there were several points where they naturally happened in the screenplay. In the editing process, as we were tightening it, we first took them out and then we were looking at where they might naturally come into play.
Josh is dealing with memory. He’s ruminating on the past, his relationship with Maya, and everything going on in New Asia. The flashbacks were a great way to get into his inner monologue, even if it was visual. We flash back when he’s discovering something new or there’s something triggering his memory in the president.
We’re going back and then seeing things with new context. It’s a fun thing if you see the film twice. You can look at the man that he was and see the man he grows to be throughout the film. There’s a lot going on in this film, so it’s nice to have these breaths where you can dive into his soul. You can see what’s going on in the character’s mind in a succinct way.
MF: In science fiction movies, there are big action scenes, but the smaller, personal themes are what really make them work. I want to focus on one scene—Joshua reuniting with Maya. How did this scene come together, and how did it evolve to make the movie better?
Scott Morris: That sequence comes off a big action scene. There are a lot of big revelations that Joshua is dealing with. The audience is anticipating a really powerful moment. They’re in Nepal at this point, and it was about setting up this big upcoming scene, one that was coming off a big scene that we just had. It’s a moment for the audience and the character to reflect on what’s happened and what potentially will happen.
Gareth described this sequence as a soul-searching sequence. He had shot all this beautiful footage in the mountains with John David and the performance is just incredible. He also shot all this documentary-style footage of the people who live in that area on the mountain. It was something that was immediately very emotional. A lot of that was driven by John David’s performance and it really inspired the edit.
Gareth had also done a recording session with John David about the character’s more internal thoughts, and we had this track to work with. It was nice to work poetically with the sound and the visuals while going into the character’s soul as he is grappling with a lot of deep emotions.
MF: Was that audio track an interview between the two of them? Was it a dialogue between Gareth and John David?
Scott Morris: Yes, in character. John David is in Joshua’s character and Gareth would ask these questions. John David was so emotional. It was very useful to understand what the character was dealing with and some of his backstory. A lot of it was just for reference. Some of it ended up in the film, but a lot of it was just very useful for the editing process.
MF: Earlier, you mentioned the significance of people on a project like this. Can you tell me about your crew and what qualities you seek in a good assistant?
Scott Morris: I love having a crew that is there to support each other, have fun, and have a good experience making a film. We spend so many hours, months, sometimes over a year working on a project. It’s all about that experience.
The creative stuff is everything for me. I’m so passionate about filmmaking, editing, working on the material, and working with directors. But the thing that matters most in life is the people you spend it with, that being the entire team.
On this project I got to work with Sarah Russell again. We’d worked together for many, many months on some other projects and we have a good relationship. She’s so brilliant and such an inspiration. Michael Shusterman was our apprentice editor on Don’t Look Up. That was his first project out of college. He was just getting into the industry. It was amazing to see how quickly he grew and learned. He became a second assistant on this film. He’s also very creative.
“If you’re going to spend hours and hours with people, you gotta have fun.”
Everyone is just so creative. I met Zachary Harrison, another assistant, on this project and he’s become a friend. He’s also incredibly creative and a great editor. All three of them are very passionate about filmmaking. They all have incredible senses of humor. It’s so important, the humor. If you’re going to spend hours and hours with people, you gotta have fun. You gotta laugh. We spend most of our days laughing.
I also met Glenn Cote, visual effects editor on this film. He’s incredible to work with. He’s a good guy, really smart, and he cares. He’s very passionate. There’s also Jordan Brown, who is our production assistant. This is the first project he’s ever worked on. We got close. He’s another really creative person. He does music and he writes.
As far as having assistants and having a crew, I think humor is number one. You want good-natured, kind, compassionate people. On the technical side, of course, you want people who are technically competent and know their way around computers and around Avid. All of that comes second nature to my team. More importantly, you want people who are passionate about the work and love it. We work long hours in this field and it’s great to work with people who love working on the project.
We start the day with our morning coffee and checking in on one another, maybe talking about ideas that we had or just regular office banter. It’s so important to start the day with that. It’s a reminder that we’re a group of people working together on this larger thing. It’s really nice to care about the people you work with.
MF: Did you have screenings for The Creator? If you did, what did you learn from them?
Scott Morris: We had some friends and family screenings. It was very useful to have those. It was also a bit odd for this project because there are so many visual effects in the film. There’s so many characters that are AI and there are different forms of AI. In the early days, we didn’t have much artwork or information to share with our audience. It was challenging for them to understand fully without having that information. We put text on the screen and things like that to try to explain it.
The screenings helped us focus on the character work, the story, and the emotion, because we didn’t have the effects at that time. They helped us understand what bits of information the audience needed. There was still a lot of guesswork, but we knew that the VFX would fill in a lot of that. Then, as the effects came in, we started pulling out certain expositions that were unnecessary, because the picture tells a thousand words. The imagery from the visual effects team told the audience what they needed to know, which we knew would happen.
“One of the best things that comes out of a screening is that you get to feel the audience.”
The screenings really helped us with rhythm and pace as well. They helped us understand the flow. One of the best things that comes out of a screening is that you get to feel the audience. You hear when they laugh, you hear when they are fidgeting or bored. You can feel it. You can just feel it.
MF: What did you learn from working on this project? What are you taking away from doing The Creator?
Scott Morris: I have worked with visual effects before on previous projects, but working with Gareth is a real education. He comes from a visual effects background and he’s done incredible visual effects films before. He has such a great relationship with the visual effects vendors.
Seeing how he approached effects from a creative standpoint really opened up my eyes to the possibilities of what you can do with them. It was such a treat to watch him imagine these worlds and create these things on screen. It rubs off. I was really grateful to spend time with him and observe his process.
MF: I just realized, after all this talk about The Creator and about AI, I never asked what you think about AI.
Scott Morris: When we talk about AI, there’s two things to keep in mind. There’s the popularized version of AI that we talked about, ChatGPT and things like that. I don’t think that they’re sentient. They’re incredibly complex, data-driven tools that humanity can work with. That’s one conversation.
The other conversation is about sentience and this idea that our film explores. We are really talking about AI as another being, inhabiting this planet with us. That AI is as intelligent as us, if not more intelligent. As far as I know, that isn’t something that we’re grappling with right now, but we could be in the future.
MF: I just go day-to-day. I don’t like to think about the future. What I do know is that no amount of AI could make a film like you did, or make any film. It takes real people with real imaginations. I just want to congratulate you on a very cool film and thank you for talking about it with us today, Scott.
Scott Morris: Thank you so much for having me.