The Rough Cut: Editing Alex Garland’s “Civil War”

Civil War editor Jake Roberts, ACE is back in the cutting room again with writer/director Alex Garland for a sequel of sorts to their 2022 feature, Men. Although Men was their first foray into collaborating on a feature, Jake and Alex first worked together on the 2020 FX mini-series, Devs.

Summary of Civil War

Written and directed by Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Men), Civil War follows a team of journalists traveling across the United States during a civil war fought between an authoritarian federal government and several regional factions. The cast includes Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Sonoya Mizuno, and Nick Offerman.

In our discussion with Civil War editor Jake Roberts, ACE, we talk about:

  • The non-linear editing benefits of a linear production
  • Depoliticizing a political thriller
  • The unsettling sound of silence
  • How tension can affect retention
  • The skill of slotting in stills

Listen while you read…

Editing Civil War

Matt Feury: You just can’t avoid the fact that the audience is going to come into Civil War with their own biases and prejudices pre-loaded. I think we should start with what Alex Garland said to you about the film and what he wanted to achieve with it. 

Jake Roberts, ACE: Alex sent me the script for Men and the Civil War script on the same day. It was during lockdown, and I’d last seen him near the end of editing Devs, which was a TV show we’d done together. He had been writing a different TV show about civil disobedience. 

Three months later, Alex rang me up. He said, “I wrote two screenplays” and I said, “What happened to the TV show?” He said, “Oh, I changed my mind.” The plan was to shoot Men and Civil War back-to-back and then cut them back-to-back. Then we couldn’t, for reasons that were largely Covid-related.

We were able to do Men on a smaller scale. That film is essentially a two-hander in a country house. It was quite easy to do within Covid restrictions. But something on the scale of Civil War, with the amount of people involved, just wasn’t practical. But really, Alex just wanted to know what I thought. He doesn’t preload his conversations. He just asks, “What do you think? Are you up for it?” That’s the whole talk. 

We mostly talked about stylistic things. I think all the films Alex directed before Civil War were carefully composed. They have a lot of scenes where people sit down and talk. Civil War was obviously going to be a much more kinetic, less controlled ride, quite literally. I was curious about what kind of aesthetic he was going for and how he would handle all the handheld. He determined that they wouldn’t go, as he described it, “free jazz”. But Alex knew he was going to have less control than he was used to. We talked about that.

The subject matter is baked into the film. The title is the title. But at the same time, Alex didn’t want to make a broad political statement. He wanted to tell the story of these specific people going through this specific experience. The context was just a backdrop to the drama. We weren’t trying to make a political statement. We were just trying to tell the story and this is where it happens. I thought that was too interesting a proposition not to get on board with. 

MF: The film is about the united forces of Texas and California, the Western Forces, trying to stage a coup. If you look at it from the real world, you might think that Texas and California couldn’t be more different. But there is no sense of what the political movements are in this film. By the time the movie ends, you don’t know what the politics of either side are. When you read the script, did you have questions about the film’s politics?

Jake Roberts, ACE: The script made it very obvious. The film starts with Nick Offerman’s President character giving a speech, but you saw even less of him in the script. In the script, the president was only ever a distorted image on a TV screen. You couldn’t even hear what he was saying. That was the most overtly political pointer in the screenplay. 

When you read something, you’re looking for indicators of what the director, writer, or in this case the same person, is trying to get across. It was obvious to me that Alex wasn’t trying to discuss the specifics of American politics, so I put that in the back of my mind. The Texas and California of it all was kind of interesting. We couldn’t even get anyone to hear that part during any of the screenings. Any time we showed people the movie, they didn’t pick up on that detail at all. But the trailer put it right at the beginning, so suddenly the whole world has that piece of information. It’s fascinating that it has become such a hot-button issue.

Making it Texas and California was a very intentional thing for Alex. It was sort of undecodable because you have the biggest red state and the biggest blue state side by side. How do you interpret that? It was a self-conscious indicator from Alex to the audience: Don’t bother trying to unpack this along party lines. That is not what I’m trying to do. Some people have seen that and said, “How stupid are you as a British person that you don’t understand America?” Obviously, we know. We’re not that stupid. 

Don’t bother trying to unpack this along party lines. That is not what I’m trying to do.

MF: You already talked about how Alex wanted Civil War to be different from the films he has done in the past. Not exactly free-form jazz, but a little wilder, a little looser. Did he give you any other films to show you what he was going for?

Jake Roberts, ACE: The most obvious touchstone for the film, not stylistically, but structurally and spiritually, is Apocalypse Now. Now, we’re not for a second trying to put ourselves in that company. But we talked about the aesthetics of it and the cutting rhythms. We never tried to emulate it, but it was a point of interest. I also saw the film Come and See, which is a big one for Alex. Again, we never consciously discussed it as “definitely do this” or “do not do that”. I don’t ever have those conversations with filmmakers, to be honest. 

I’m often asked in retrospect, “Were you very consciously copying this film?” and usually I’ve never even seen the film in question. Maybe I have, or maybe the director did and never told me, but we’re always just trying to make the film we’re making. It’s like how people keep singing the choruses of other people’s songs these days. There are only so many combinations you can put chords into. There are so many movies out there nowadays that you’re always going to stray into common territory.

MF: You mentioned you started working with Alex five years ago on Devs. How did you guys meet and what did you talk about to establish that you’d be a good fit for one another?

Jake Roberts, ACE: My first awareness of Alex was reading The Beach, the novel before it became a film. I was working on the sound mix for Brooklyn, and the guys on that film were the same team who did the sound for every Alex Garland film. They said, “There’s a film we worked on last year that’s absolutely incredible, and it’s got a screening in London tonight. It’s called Ex Machina.” I didn’t know anything about it. So, on their recommendation, I got a ticket and went. It completely blew me away. It pinned me to my seat. 

The next day, I ran to my agent. I said, “He’s out of my league, but if Alex Garland is ever looking for an editor, please sign me up.” Two years later, I got a phone call from my agent saying, “Alex would like to meet you for projects.” I thought, “Oh, wonderful! My agents have done their job.” But it turned out that Alex had contacted them independently because he’d seen a film that I’d done a recut on. He had heard about the film before my involvement and subsequently saw it and thought, “That was better than they said it would be.” So that got me into the room, I guess. 

I always think you get the job or don’t get it the moment you walk in the room. People have an intuitive feeling about whether you’re going to get along with them or not. It’s like house hunting. The minute you walk through a front door, you can pretty much tell if you’re going to buy the house. And then someone else will walk through that same door and have the exact opposite experience. 

That’s not to say I will only get the jobs that I’ll get, but I can’t predict the vibe of the director. Sometimes I might feel it on my side and think, “That was a fantastic meeting! I’m pretty sure I got that one” and then never hear from them again. But sometimes you think a meeting was dreadful and there was no vibe, and then you get the job. I’ve always tended to get on very well with the directors I work with, let’s put it that way. And Alex is a great and interesting guy to spend a year in a room with. This film was a huge production. Had he not just retired, I would have hoped to continue working with him. 

MF: I’m hoping that’s not true.

Jake Roberts, ACE: We’ll see. He never said he was retiring indefinitely. He said he was going to take a pause. 

MF: We all need a break once in a while. As I understand it, Alex shot this film primarily in Atlanta. Where were you cutting?

Jake Roberts, ACE: Some directors like their editors to be nearby during a shoot. They think they might want to spend their weekends coming into the cutting room and looking at stuff. I was able to do the assembly where I live in the U.K., in Somerset. These days, there are great drive systems where the media will migrate. The DIT in Atlanta would put it onto a server, which then went to my assistants in London and they synced it and created the bins. Then, by overnight osmosis, all of that data flowed to me in Somerset. That way, somewhere between twelve to eighteen hours after they had shot something, I could catch it on the other side of the world. 

Most of that workflow wouldn’t have been any different if I had been in Atlanta anyway. Actually, because of the time change, Alex could phone me at the end of my day, which was the beginning of his shoot day, and tell me how it went yesterday. He usually wanted reassurance that he had gotten what he got. But at the same time, the nature of our schedule was that there was no going back. If I had said, “We didn’t get that shot” there wasn’t a lot we could do about it. 

Alex shot Civil War completely in sequence. He did Men the same way but not Devs. Alex shot Devs in little ecosystems. He didn’t shoot the whole show in sequence, but everything inside the cube was. I think most actors and directors like to work that way if they can. Obviously, there are usually financial reasons as to why it is not practical. But in Civil War, I don’t think there was a single exception to anything being shot out of sequence.

The only thing shot out of chronological order was the Nick Offerman speech. That was shot on the first shoot day because it had to be on the TV screens in the background. Scene four had Kirsten Dunst watching him in the hotel room. There was no upside to putting that scene later in the schedule, so it was the first thing shot. But that was nowhere near where the original script began. I think the first five scenes were written out. Otherwise, the story was one hundred percent shot in sequence.

MF: I imagine shooting in sequence is beneficial to you as the editor when you’re crafting the story. Is it? And if so, how does filming chronologically pay off for you?

Jake Roberts, ACE: It absolutely does. I always think of the editor as the first audience for the film. And so I was, in a very slow, repetitive way, seeing the film thirty-seven times. But at the same time, I was having the linear experience of going on that journey. A lot of the editorial decisions you make are about the emotional context of what’s just happened before. But when you start editing most films, you’re beginning with scene seventy and then cutting scene twenty-three, because it’s being shot out of sequence. 

That means the decisions you’re making in that first assembly cut are sort of wrong. When you finally put it all together, you see, “Oh, of course they aren’t going to cry there.” Even if the actor crying felt good out of context, it might make no sense when you put everything together. But when you’re shooting and editing the film in sequence, you’re at least making the correct decisions based on the context of the previous scenes. Then, by the end of your first assembly, things are a little less bumpy because you’ve put the film together with the full knowledge of what came before. That really helps. You don’t go down so many cul-de-sacs. 

Making any set of decisions means you are excluding a whole bunch of possible alternatives. Sometimes a director will go back and change the context of scene three, which means you have to recut the whole film again. Cutting in sequence is just more fun as an experience because you get to see the film unfold before you instead of jumping all over the place.

I always read the script, but I usually don’t pay attention to what it says when I’m putting a film together. Alex is a director who changes things a lot on the day, depending on if the actors aren’t feeling a certain thing, or if the location doesn’t allow him to shoot a scene the way he wrote it. Editors have to be very reactive to things. Often, if you’re tracking something using the script, you’ll go, “This isn’t what the script says!” and you can get confused. 

But if something seems to be the most apparent thing about a scene, then that is valid. I might put a scene together in a very different way than the director intended, but sometimes that’s a good thing. You might learn something that the director didn’t anticipate. I always allow for that and almost encourage it. When I do that is based on whatever I’m feeling after watching a scene fifty-seven times. If the director ultimately goes, “No, I want it to be exactly what I wrote” then it takes ten minutes to put that together when they’re in the room with you. It’s not that hard. 

The main drawback with shooting in sequence is that days one, two, and three of a film shoot are usually not everyone’s best day. The crew may have never worked together before and everyone is just finding their feet. You always want to start a film on strong, confident footing. The scenes that Alex had written to start Civil War weren’t strong enough, for all sorts of reasons. The film used to start with Kirsten’s character, Lee, on an airplane landing in America. She had been overseas on an assignment, so she was seeing her home country at war for the first time with her own eyes. Then she met Joel at the airport, and Joel gave a long speech about the war in the car. That, funnily enough, would have given the audience a lot of the context that people are clamoring for now.

We were never happy with those opening scenes. We tried for months to make them work. Eventually, Alex came in and said, “I remember that we shot all of this extra footage of Nick’s character, the president, practicing his speech.” So Alex pitched a new beginning and I put it together. We both looked at each other and said, “Yeah, that’s the way to start the film.”

The footage came from an improvised moment that I had completely forgotten about. We never changed it after that first cut, other than the interstitial real-world media intercuts. That was the only change from the first time we put it together. It suddenly felt like, “Okay, that’s the way to start the film.” Then we moved the scene where Kirsten’s character is watching the speech up a bit. We originally had it after the bombing scene. We put it in front, which gave things more context and felt more assertive. Those scenes help you lean into what is going on in this world.

MF: When I’m watching, I often don’t realize how important one element is until I look back at my notes. Needle drops are always important. That first needle drop is going to play a bigger role in setting the tone than possibly the other ones. You have “Lovefingers” by Silver Apples playing. I admit, it’s a song I didn’t know before this film.

 Jake Roberts, ACE: No, nor me. 

MF: The needle drops in this film are all over the place stylistically. What drove them? Was it the message of the song?

Jake Roberts, ACE: None of them came easy. It was a huge amount of trial and error. Sometimes you sit on something for a long time, sometimes you have a newer, better idea, and sometimes you just get bored. Sometimes you simply can’t clear the song. There were a few cases where we either couldn’t afford something or couldn’t track down the songwriters. It comes down to a gut feeling. Some of those songs were very counterintuitive, but that’s Alex’s nature. 

The day we put in “Say No to Go” by De La Soul, we thought, “This isn’t going to work” and it sort of doesn’t work. But at the same time, it weirdly does work. We had that sequence cut to a myriad of different tracks before that. Then you move a few edit points around to hit some beats or however you want to do it. We didn’t change much. The dissonance of it was part of what we liked. You don’t need to examine it beyond that. 

That is Alex’s way. He’s very intuitive. He wrote the screenplay for Civil War in ten days, and there were no revisions or rewrites. His scripts usually have a few typos, and they’ll go right into the shooting script. Since I’ve worked with him, there has never been a second draft of anything. It’s just what comes out of his brain. It’s a sort of stream-of-consciousness, and that’s what we end up shooting. He has enough clout that people go along with him, I guess.

Most people wouldn’t get away with it, but Alex does. He comes up with the money and the actors sign on. None of the actors really give him notes about their characters. Well, they might, but he won’t do it. That’s how he writes. Some scenes just hit right on the tuning fork and you don’t change it. You feel the scene on a certain level, and then you move on and work on getting the right tune for the next scene. 

For the music, it went case by case. The Silver Apples song was a suggestion by Geoff Barrow, one of our composers. He’s got a great barometer for musical tastes. Alex knew that song and loved it, but I had never heard it before. Alex and I work well together because we tend to agree on when something’s right even when it’s wrong. 

MF: One of the first scenes in Civil War is a protest in Brooklyn, and there’s a suicide bomber. The bomb goes off, and then it’s total silence, except for the sound of camera shutters. That scene reminded me of The Last Jedi. They take out the sound completely, and it throws the audience. There’s quiet and then there’s silence. Was that something you always had in mind, or was it something that happened in the process? And was it true silence? Did you go right down to zero on the noise floor?

I’ve done a few films with silence involved but never one where literally nothing is coming out of the speakers.

Jake Roberts, ACE: Yeah, it was true silence, which is quite hard to do. I’ve done a few films with silence involved but never one where literally nothing is coming out of the speakers. The standard industry belief is that you’ll hear too many people rustling their popcorn, so you should put something through the speakers even if it’s just perceptual. But Alex was determined to have absolute silence.

That decision came pretty late in the process. There was a point where we were doing the classic tinnitus, high-pitched ringing effect, which we’ve all heard a million times. We were going down that path, which was more familiar. But Alex doesn’t want to do anything if it feels too familiar or rote. So at one point, he decided, “No, let’s just go with absolute silence.” There was a bit of resistance from the sound team at first, but that’s where we ended up. 

The shutters were the real sounds of each of the respective cameras the characters use. Cailee’s camera sounds different from Kirsten’s camera. We also showed still photos during the movie. That device was written into the script to some extent, but we embellished it in post and retrofitted a lot of it. Originally, we were never meant to see the image that Cailee took of Kirsten. We created that in post to set up that each journalist has a different kind of voice.

MF: Going back to shooting in sequence, after the protest Lee is taking a bath and reflecting. You see a montage of the events she’s covered in the past. Knowing Alex’s approach to this, what footage did you have to draw from? Did Alex just shoot a lot of things?

Jake Roberts, ACE: Yeah. The film originally opened with an extended flashback that included the horrific image of the man being set on fire with the tire around him. That was the end of the opening sequence, which was sort of nonspecific. Pretty much all of the acts of extreme violence in Civil War are drawn from actual news reports. They’re all things that absolutely have happened. Sometimes they are specific things, sometimes they’re something that Alex had seen or read about. But that quick montage was an editorial contrivance that we came up with. There used to be more specific flashbacks dotted throughout the film for these characters. We amalgamated them all into one scene and embellished it by taking footage that was shot for other parts of the film to make it feel like it happened.

MF: Something else I wondered about was the relationship between Joel and Lee. You never really establish that. Were they romantically involved? What kind of history did they have together? Was that ever explored more in previous cuts? 

Jake Roberts, ACE: Many of the scenes we cut were the scenes talking about that. Had they ended up being great scenes, would we have kept them and they would have filled in a lot of questions. But Joel and Lee’s relationship was only ever subtly inferred. Alex’s style of writing is not on the nose. A lot of their backstory was only implied. But those would have helped you understand more about their relationship.

You have to weigh the pros and cons of cutting things. Everything is written for a reason. Every scene in a script serves a function. When you cut something out altogether, you always have to ask, “Can we live without it? How much does it hurt us not to have this piece of information?” We decided that ultimately their backstory wasn’t as important as quickly and efficiently setting up the relationship between Lee and Jessie. There was once a scene where Jessie asked Lee if she and Joel had ever been romantically involved, and Lee said no. We decided to sidestep that whole subtext and subplot. It wasn’t a big plot anyway. It didn’t go anywhere. 

I think Civil War is pretty languid. It has a little air in it. But at the same time, we tried to make it as tight as possible. The only way to do that was by not keeping all the scripted words in and taking out all the space. Sometimes you have to remove fifty percent of the dialog from every scene to keep the thing moving along. 

MF: The president’s speech is a touchstone that you go back to throughout the film. Did you plan on using it through the rest of the film? What drove your decisions there?

Jake Roberts, ACE: All those moments were pretty much placed as written. The big difference was that, in the script, you couldn’t understand ninety percent of what he was saying. But Alex had written out the speech in full, so Nick acted it on the day. Alex scripted it so the audience would only hear every third word. He wanted everything else to be distorted. But in the end, we decided to have it be fully intelligible. 

But those moments were always placed where Alex intended. He wanted to keep the audience connected to it. The ultimate mission was to keep you checked in with that speech because it’s the only allusion to the outside world beyond a subjective perspective. Even though you’re not meant to believe a word he’s saying, you can infer that whatever he’s saying is the opposite of the truth.

MF: Ultimately, Civil War it’s a road picture. They’re traveling from New York to DC.

Jake Roberts, ACE: An implausibly long 857-mile route.

MF: Yes. And you have title cards for the distance from DC.

Jake Roberts, ACE: Someone gave us a note about that saying it would help. It seemed relatively plausible that one could say, “They have to take this weird route because any interstate would be utterly unusable.” We shot everything in Atlanta, so topographically I don’t think it’s particularly accurate to what New Jersey or Pennsylvania look like. We didn’t go out of our way to make it so either. I think we added one digital state line sign as a marker. 

This was a limited production. An awful lot of the film’s budget was reserved for the DC section. The road trip section was guerilla-style by nature. A lot of the places they’re driving by are just undressed parts of America that happen to look slightly apocalyptic. We added the odd burnt-out car, but otherwise, the desolation is just what it looked like. We added the odd digital embellishment to turn it more into our world but we got a lot of free production value from the state. 

MF: I was going to make a joke about you guys shooting in Detroit, but I don’t want to lose any listeners. I was listening to a presentation by editor Joe Walker, ACE and he brought up Civil War. He said, “If you haven’t seen this movie, you have to see it. The way they employed the stills is brilliant.” That’s certainly been done before, but it’s very effective here. What was the process for doing that? Were those still images pulled from the actual footage or were they real stills shot in the moment?

Jake Roberts, ACE: The script always called for still images. Alex gave the actors real cameras. Cailee had real film in her camera, and she was learning how to operate it properly. She was taking real analog photos throughout and we got her contact sheets. Where at all possible, we used them in the film. Kirsten was shooting digitally. Some of the stills are the actors’ own, the work of our DP Rob Hardy, ASC, BSC.

We repurposed some footage from the film for some of those stills. I never intended to do that, but once we started using that stills device, we realized it served as an illustration of what the characters were doing. There was also a character element to it. The shootout in the office complex is a good example. That scene uses a lot of stills and we created all of them in post. I think the stills ended up being an effective device. And the sound design aspect of it breaks up the gunfire in an interesting way. 

MF: When you started doing that, did you establish any rules? When you used a still, did you have to stay on it for a specific amount of time?

Jake Roberts, ACE: Yeah, that was a bit of trial and error. Sometimes we held on an individual still and sometimes they were quick like a flipbook. We ended up holding on the stills for about eighteen frames or so. Also, the sound associated with each photo was always the corresponding camera click. I think in my offline, there was never any sound underneath them. But then Glenn Freemantle and his team, the sound designers, ended up putting in a sub-bass kind of rumble.

MF: During these immersive battles, there’s gunfire going off all around the audience. How much work did you do on that? And do you have an actual 5.1 or surround sound setup in the cutting room?

Jake Roberts, ACE: We have a 5.1 setup on the film I’m currently working on, but on Civil War, we just had a stereo setup. I always do a lot of the sound design myself at an early stage or in conjunction with my assistants. I find it hard to judge a scene without sound design. In this case, we got a lot of the gunfire for free because they were shooting on set. They used blanks that made a very loud noise, which was quite traumatizing for the actors. That meant the dailies were covered in really good gunfire. 

Very little of that gunfire is in the final film, but Alex insisted that Glenn and the sound team use it as a base, particularly in the office block sequence. There was a particular slap echo that Alex liked. It was very distinctive, and it took a lot of work to recreate the way it sounded on the day. It was unlike any gunshot that he had ever heard in a film before. I think the nature of those gunshots and their volume made them quite shocking. A lot of those scenes come after a period of silence as well, and they’re more shocking because of that. We did a lot of the sound design in the AVID and Glenn and his guys made it a lot better.

Using compact mobile camera rigs helps build the ENG-style in some of Civil War’s scenes. Image © A24

MF: Alex seems to be very economical in his shooting style. How would you quantify or qualify the amount of coverage and footage you get from him?

Jake Roberts, ACE: For someone who started as a writer, Alex is incredibly edit-conscious. He shoots more than enough coverage for any scene because he understands that you need lots of angles to make a scene compelling. I’ve rarely felt undercovered by him except for a few scenes in this film. I’m thinking specifically about the bit where Sammy reveals he’s been shot. That scene was incredibly undercovered. There were maybe two takes of the whole scene because there was no more light left in the day.

Other than that he’s very conscious of the editing. Coverage is sort of a dirty word. It can be boring for the actors to shoot. But editorially, coverage is a great thing to have. If you have four or five sizes of each actor saying each line, you’ve always got somewhere to go for extra emphasis. I like to orient the audience so they understand where everyone is in a scene. Some directors have a blind spot for that.

Everyone is in their own little ecosystem, and you can’t tell where they are spatially in relation to each other. Alex is always good at both getting the coverage and giving a sense of the blocking. In that respect, Civil War was no different than the studio films I’ve worked on. But it was a slightly looser aesthetic with less control over the frames and the lights.

MF: Of all the great scenes that I could ask you about, I have to make time for the Jesse Plemons scene. I have to call it the Jesse Plemons scene because his character doesn’t have a name. He doesn’t even have a credit in the movie. 

Jake Roberts, ACE: I know. In my ideal world, the audience wouldn’t know he was coming until he shows up. But A24 couldn’t resist putting him in the trailer. That’s fair enough. They have to sell the movie. 

MF: He is the trailer. 

Jake Roberts, ACE: I know, I know… But it would have been great if he just appeared, you know? They cast him four days before we shot that scene. A different actor was going to play the part and then, for scheduling reasons, he had to drop out. We knew it was going to be the best scene in the film, and it was a great part. But we didn’t know who was going to play it! Then Kirsten said, “I don’t think Jesse is doing anything.” And we all said, “Thank God!” It could not have turned out better. No disrespect to the person who would have played it otherwise. That person is also a phenomenal actor. But now I don’t think any of us could imagine it being someone else. Jesse was just terrifying.

MF: Both he and the scene are just so good. I’ll give it a bit of a setup. Our heroes run into two militants and Jesse is one of them. They’re cornered and one of the reporters, Sammy, gets away. Plemons isn’t aware that Sammy is hiding, and the tension, the performances, the editing… Everything is so good that I honestly forgot about Sammy. When that truck came roaring in at the last second to save them, my first thought was, “Who is that?” Something about it was so good. I forgot he was there. 

Jake Roberts, ACE: That’s good. I forgot too. Jesse is so compelling that your brain gets stuck in that mode. So often in films with a twist, you hope to give the audience enough information that when something unexpected happens, it isn’t totally out of the blue. You want them to say, “Of course, that thing!” You want to show them the magic trick but then distract them enough so they don’t think about it. I think these things are only satisfying if you don’t feel cheated. If we hadn’t set up that Sammy was there, it would have failed. 

A friend of mine told me, “It works. You got away with it. But it’s sort of contrived that these guys wouldn’t hear that massive truck coming up behind them.” But I think they were in the heat of the moment. Hopefully, we got away with it.

MF: I think you did. 

Jake Roberts, ACE: Editorially, when an actor is performing, you just get out of the way. You try not to be too cutty. Jesse is someone who varies his takes a lot. The choice of which great version of his lines to use is the hardest bit. Some of those lines are improvisations, but not massive ones. The whole “Show-Me State” thing was his. When Cailee said “I don’t know” she was actually confused. It was a genuine response from an actor who is from Missouri but doesn’t know why it’s called the Show-Me State.

I think it took two days to film that section, but it was a lot of fun to do. It was a gift. Those kinds of scenes take the longest to assemble because you want to do them justice. In terms of the overall editing, the months of editing, we didn’t do an awful lot to it afterward. It worked right out of the gate. 

In retrospect, one of the biggest decisions was about the score. My instinct was to use score in it. Alex was very determined to leave it dry. That became a stylistic template for the film, to never use underscores to denote tension.

On one hand, score is the most obvious crutch a filmmaker has to promote tension. But at the same time, not doing so does make things feel more real. You don’t know that’s why it feels more real. But you don’t feel manipulated in any way. I think that makes it more compelling. Throughout the film, we use music as a score, but it’s almost always at the end of a scene, just to sit in an emotion for a while. We never wanted to run it under a scene just to create emotion. 

MF: You mentioned that they did most of the VFX towards the end of the film. You also talked about how you enjoy doing sound design. What’s your take on VFX? Do you lean into that as well? What kind of things did you have to do in the AVID? Or did you even bother doing it in the AVID?

Jake Roberts, ACE: In terms of the AVID, we had our VFX team on from the beginning. Alex is very VFX savvy. He understands that if you want to get certain shots done, you must make decisions early and commit to them. We looked at certain big shots in DC and gave them to VFX within the first week or two and promised that we wouldn’t change them. That way, they were able to work without wasting any resources on a shot that we would just end up chucking out. 

We gave them a bunch of things to work off of, but we didn’t have a lot of rough cuts. There was a lot up to the imagination. We had a lot of temp in the timeline and we looked at blue screens in a car park for months and months, which was unfortunate. A lot of DC was created in VFX, but I find things like that quite easy to tune out. I can imagine what’s going to be there. I don’t do too much comping of anything like that. It’s quite basic.

MF: Considering the way that Alex shot the movie, how long was your first assembly? Was it much longer than the final runtime? What areas of the film did you have to put the most time into?

Jake Roberts, ACE: I think our first assembly was two hours and twenty minutes. Ultimately, we cut about half an hour out of that. Outside of the opening, which was seven minutes that we cut out altogether, nothing else structural was removed. Action sequences can run very long, so we took some time out of those in the end. There were a few scenes in the White House that we cut. They were little mini-sequences. 

I’m a big believer that films shouldn’t be more than two hours long. But certain films demand it.

I’m a big believer that films shouldn’t be more than two hours long. But certain films demand it. I’m not criticizing any of the Dunes or anything else. They can be great, but the closer to 100 minutes you can be, the better. At the same time, you want a film to feel substantial. I don’t think we ever referred to this film as epic, but you don’t want it to feel too slight. Both Alex and I are keen to make things feel as lean as possible.

MF: You made a point of talking about yourself as being the first audience. Did you do screenings and if you did, what kind of feedback did you get from the audience? 

Jake Roberts, ACE: We only did one test screening for a big recruited audience, which was in New York. Alex wanted to wait until we had decent visual effects in place before we screened it. By that stage, there is only so much you can do to change stuff. But at the same time, he doesn’t think that you’ll learn anything too valuable if there’s too much by screening something that isn’t right. The note we got is the same one we get now, which is more context. We adjusted that to some extent. If possible, just imagine there was even less context before that screening. 

Alex has a stable of friends that aren’t particularly involved in films. He likes to show things to them. We were also lucky because some very esteemed people gave us feedback. Danny Boyle, Paul Greengrass, and Chris Morris all came in and gave us one-on-one feedback. We learned some great stuff from them. Alex is always interested in what people have to say, but he’s also only ever going to do what his gut tells him. 

MF: That’s what makes him Alex. You put a lot of work into Civil War. Between then and now, you’ve been working on another movie that you’re finishing up right now. It sounds pretty cool, a little film called Alien: Romulus. That’s due out, I hope, this summer. How’s that been going? 

Jake Roberts, ACE: It’s been going great. It’s been a really fun experience. It’s literal childhood fantasy stuff, monsters in space. Alien is pretty much why everyone from my generation wanted to make movies in the first place. It’s a dream come true and really fun.

To a large extent, they did Alien: Romulus with practical effects. The film takes place between the first and the second films, and it is very much a kindred spirit of those two films in terms of design, aesthetics, and tone. We’ve done our best to emulate those films. It would be hard to do better than them, but hopefully, we can at least be in their company. It’s fun to work in the action and horror genres on such a big canvas. 

MF: Is Jesse Plemons in this one, too? 

Jake Roberts, ACE: No, sadly not. But Cailee Spaeny is. She’s the new Ripley. It was really interesting to cut her back-to-back. I saw her at the L.A. screening of Civil War and I reassured her that it didn’t feel like cutting the same person both times. She became two distinctly different people, so it didn’t feel repetitive. 

MF: I’m sure she appreciated that. But see if you could fit Jesse in too. That guy can play anything, even the alien. 

Jake Roberts, ACE: Yeah, he probably is in one of those suits.

Matt Feury

Matt Feury is host and producer of The Rough Cut podcast, as well as the Sr. Director, Market Solutions – Video & Post for Avid.

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