Editor Jonathan Alberts discusses the long, painstaking editing process on Lean on Pete, from screening dailies on location, to creating a sound temp track, finding the best takes, choosing minimal cuts, and finding the right rhythm. This is the fourth feature in our Special Issue on Lean on Pete.
The editing in Andrew Haigh’s films is often invisible. People “think the editing is just attaching two shots together,” reflected Canadian editor Jonathan Alberts, Haigh’s long-time collaborator. But as Haigh and Alberts explained, the less you cut, the harder the editing process is, because each cut is so felt.
Haigh first worked as an editor, and even edited his first two films, Greek Pete and Weekend, himself. He has a very specific idea about how he wants to edit his films, with as few cuts as possible. Ever since they did the HBO series Looking together, Alberts has been working with Haigh on his films. Together, they’ve made two of the best edited films — 45 Years and Lean on Pete — in the last decade.
On each film, their work together starts with discussing the script, continues during production where Alberts joins Haigh on location so they can discuss the dailies each week, and finishes with months in the editing room. For Lean on Pete, they edited together for about six months, and that’s after Alberts had done the initial assembly.
I talked to Alberts about what made editing Lean on Pete such a challenge, how they go through multiple permutations of every scene and how they’re stitched together, and the role of an editor to maintain perspective on what the overall film looks like.
7R: You’ve worked with Andrew several times before, on Looking, 45 Years, and now Lean on Pete. How did that collaboration start?
Jonathan Alberts (JA): I had seen Weekend a couple of times in the theatre. I see a lot of films, but it’s pretty rare for me to see a film a bunch of times. I remember thinking, “I’d love to work with that director” — thinking there was no chance in hell I’d ever meet him.
I met Andrew to cut the pilot of Looking. We got along easily right away. That led to 45 Years. While we were cutting 45 Years, I read the book Lean on Pete because he said, “I think I want this to be my next movie.” I liked the book a lot, and we had a lot of time to talk about it while we were in the editing room.
7R: What was the overall process for editing Lean on Pete?
JA: Andrew likes the editor to be on location. It gives him a sense of how things are progressing, from a different perspective. For Lean on Pete, I was in Portland for two months, from August to September of 2016.
While we’re working, Andrew and I are talking a lot about the dailies. On Lean on Pete, we were screening dailies once a week, in the theatre, in Portland. Andrew would yell things out, or talk, as they would go by. Sometimes, it’s just observations or things he was thinking about. Sometimes, they’re not necessarily instructions, just feelings. I’ll usually take notes during that, and we’ll talk about them.
I’ll usually send him an email every day after I’ve seen the dailies, to just say what my thoughts are: what I’m seeing, what I’m feeling about something, if there’s something about a performance… Andrew wants things to feel lived in and naturalistic. So I’m always keeping my eye out for things that are either not feeling like that or things that are.
Lean on Pete was pretty much a five-day week shoot. On Saturdays, he’ll come into the cutting room, and we’ll look at things together for an hour or two. We did that on 45 Years, too. I can get instant feedback from him [on the uncut footage].
Once production wrapped, we moved it to London. I finished my assembly in about 10 days, and then we were in the cutting room together to do his director’s cut.
7R: I know Andrew tries to shoot in order. How does that affect the dailies coming in and your process?
JA: Typically, when shooting out of order, you may get some big scene that’s in the middle of the film on day four. It’s a strange process because when you finally put all the scenes together, you realize there’s some real wonkiness — some things that don’t work.
When you’re cutting scenes in order, you’re seeing the narrative unfold. You’re starting to feel where things are at, emotionally, so you can build one scene on top of another.
In our interview with Andrew Haigh, we got his perspective on collaborating with Jonathan Alberts on the edit for Lean on Pete. To read the whole Special Issue on the film, become a 7R member now, and you’ll also gain access to free eBooks and our entire back catalogue of content.
7R: Do you have sound when you’re doing your initial assembly and when editing on location?
JA: I work hard to give options and possibilities for what the sound could be, building layers of sound on the temp track from the beginning. Not all directors care about sound the way that Andrew does, but it’s really, really important to him. Once Andrew gets into the room, we build even more layers, or sometimes, strip things back.
Andrew always wanted, throughout the film, the sound of children playing. You hear that at the end when Charley’s with [his aunt] Margie. It’s very subtle, but the kids are outside. Andrew wanted this sense of family that was all around Charley, even though he was in this really fractured state.
7R: What are you working with when you’re doing your temp track? Do you have good sound from the shoot?
JA: As an editor, I have a ton of libraries that I bring with me that have everything from environmental ambiances to very specific 19th century guns. It’s the same thing with score. You bring with you all these scores from other films, which you temp in to get the feel of it.
Andrew loves to capture the sound: all the sounds of Charley walking around in the Oregon desert, the sounds of the neighbourhoods… He does a really good job of always running sound and always collecting wild tracks. It’s trying to bring the authenticity of that moment, that’s really specific to the place. I can use that and layer that within the tracks.
Our interview with production designer Ryan Warren Smith gets at why a sense of place is so important in Lean on Pete. It’s only available to 7R members, now and you’ll also gain access to free eBooks and our entire back catalogue of content.
7R: Andrew likes long takes, and he thinks about his blocking as almost editing within the frame. He’s talked about how the cuts between scenes and shots become really important because of how minimal he wants the cuts to be. How does that affect your approach to editing?
JA: Andrew likes things to play out in one shot. In 45 Years, I actually created two different assemblies for the first cut of the film. I did one which was all oners, and one which I cut as I saw fit, cutting within the scene and using coverage. That was a jumping off point for us both to look and see where does this work and where does it not work?
I think, often, people see his films, and they think the editing is just attaching two shots together. It doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of editing. But with Andrew’s films, I feel like I work much harder on the edit than on other ones that feel more flashy. When you have one cut in a scene, it’s much more scrutinized by an audience. It’s much more felt.
Although Andrew says that he doesn’t like to shoot coverage or that he doesn’t shoot coverage, he does shoot coverage. He does. He doesn’t shoot coverage in the same way that other directors do with five different angles on a scene. But you will get two or three that do it in a way that you can see how they connect.
I look at all the footage. I’ll often see an evolution to the performance between take one and take six. Sometimes, the first take actually works the best. It was maybe unexpected, but the evolution of where that performance got to is not actually where you want to go with it. I’ll do a version with a oner. I’ll build the sound completely. Then, I’ll do a version where I’ll use coverage. Where would that cut go?
I’m always trying to cut within an emotional context. Where are we coming into the scene, and where’s the best emotional point to leave the scene? The cutting is always about why we’re cutting in a certain place. You don’t just cut to get to the other side. You don’t just cut to speed things along or for pacing. For me, it’s always about how we can amplify the emotion. Sometimes, that’s a bit trial and error. You try things and see that a cut works, but then you ask yourself, “How could it be better?”
I will often go through and produce three or four versions of a scene. I know a lot of editors don’t like to work that way. They like to think there is one version of that scene. I’m of the mind where, once Andrew comes in, we’re going to probably do every permutation possible. We did that on Lean on Pete and on 45 Years. We may end up with that shot in a oner. But the footage is there to cut. With Lean on Pete, we could have made a different film if we had decided to cut as much as we want.
Looking was TV. There were two cameras a lot of the time. But his instructions to me were: “You don’t need to cut a lot. You don’t need to use all the material.” He said, “Don’t necessarily cut where you’d expect to cut.” On 45 Years and Lean on Pete, there were different instructions.'I think people see Andrew Haigh's films, and they think the editing is just attaching two shots together. It doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of editing.'Click To Tweet
7R: Lean on Pete has a bit more plot than 45 Years. There are more scenes, so fewer five-minute scenes. Did that change your editorial approach?
JA: In Lean on Pete, there was real struggle, physically, for Charley. It wasn’t entirely an internal film like 45 Years. Lean on Pete was about the psychological interior, but also battling against these external forces. That was something that we talked about much more than how to approach this in an editorial sense.
Our discussions are about story, about feeling. It’s discussions about this kid, who is dealing with this situation that is absolutely traumatic and life-threatening — what kind of boy Charley was and how he would deal with this. We talk about people and the world and life. Maybe in the beginning, in 45 Years, and certainly in Looking, we talked more editorially.
7R: How did you approach the structure for Lean on Pete? 45 Years took place over the course of a week, and you know it’s going to end with the party. Looking had a maximum run-time and it has to be a unit of story. But Lean on Pete is not as clear cut; he doesn’t know when his journey is going to end.
JA: The assembly was about two hours and forty minutes. For the director’s cut, I think we settled on something that was two hours and thirty minutes. We were feeling pretty good about that cut. I think we knew that, eventually, it was going to have to be shorter. We knew we had to lose whole scenes.
We had an entire section that we shot with the actor Thomas Mann. Charley is hitchhiking and gets into the car with him. He buys Charley lunch at a diner, and they learn a little bit about each other’s families. It’s a really great eight-minute section of the film. But after watching the whole thing, we understood that it made more sense to exclude it.
We took out so many scenes from the opening bit. When I say the opening, I mean the first sequence: going to the racetrack, meeting Dell, Steve Buscemi’s character, and even all the way up to Charley stealing Pete. A lot of [those scenes] weren’t actually needed, but when you read the script, they felt like they were absolutely necessary. It was an evolution in the cutting room to figure out what those scenes were and how we could shorten certain scenes.
We tried some crazy versions. What if he steals the horse much earlier? What if the father dies much earlier? We found that there were real emotional and narrative gains to doing those experiments.
But where it started to fall apart was in the second half of the film. We realized pretty quickly that if we cut out a bunch of the beginning stuff, we found that you haven’t earned the second half of the film.
After I finished cutting, to prepare for when Andrew and I to work on the director’s cut, I had my assistant make an index card with a picture of every scene — indicate whether it’s a day/night scene, what character it is. You put it on a bulletin board.
You see the narrative laid out on cards, and you start to think, if you were to remove this scene, what order would you have it in? It’s a good way to visualize it. You get a sense of what could work: what scenes are left over, what scenes you’re cutting out, and the potential of that.'When you’ve cut something dozens and dozens of times, and you’ve watched it dozens and dozens of times, you don’t hear the dialogue anymore. You don’t hear the meaning.' - Editor Jonathan Alberts on LEAN ON PETEClick To Tweet
7R: How do you figure out what the rhythm is going to be?
JA: It’s tough! You wrestle with it hard. Andrew has an idea of what he wants, visually. That really helps. A lot of times, you start a film or a TV show, and there’s no approach editorially. Nobody sits down and says, “This is what I’m thinking. These are the references. These are the ideas.” Even though Andrew has a pretty similar style from film to film, his ideas are different. He’s looking at different references.
Andrew and I will turn the lights off and watch the whole thing start to finish. Sometimes, we’ll do “talk throughs” where we watch it and won’t turn the lights off. We’ll just talk about it. We might say, “I really like that cut,” or “This section is really interesting.” It’s just to get a sense of how we’re feeling through it.
Or, we’ll watch it for the rhythm and the narrative unfolding. We’ll say, “What do we know? In the beginning, Charley is in his bedroom. We see boxes there. What are you hearing? What do we know? He goes to the door, and you’re hearing voices. OK, that’s his father.” We’ll just step through the film and say, “What do we understand of the story up until this point?” It’s usually to figure out something that comes later.
When you’ve cut something dozens and dozens of times, and you’ve watched it dozens and dozens of times, you don’t hear the dialogue anymore. You don’t hear the meaning. You don’t feel the meaning. Andrew will be like, “I’m going to listen to the dialogue. I’m going to understand what they’re saying. I’m going to understand what the meaning is.” By the end of the film, you’re emotionally spent, and you’re narratively spent. And you’re like, “What does this mean anymore?”
Part of my job, as an editor, is to always maintain a perspective on the film, the narrative, the emotions, and how that is playing out. How do you unfurl the information in a way that is most economical, most efficient, but most importantly, most emotional?
7R: How do you maintain that perspective?
JA: You’re banging your head trying to figure it out. You take a break. You go home. You’ll be falling asleep, and you’ll be thinking about Charley. The best strategy is taking a break and not seeing the film for a while. But you don’t have that luxury, most of the time. There’s budget constraints. A weekend can help.
Most films, you’ll do a very small, intimate screening with family and friends. It’ll give you such a different perspective when you see that film in the room with people. You read the audience. I’m not even talking about the experience of people giving you notes and their opinion. It’s the experience of sharing that in a public space with other people. It’s frightening and daunting, and ultimately, it’s transformative. That’s a way to see the film in a different way entirely.
Interestingly, Andrew doesn’t really have those screenings. On 45 Years, I suggested we should have a really small, trusted screening. But Andrew was like, “I don’t know why you’d do that.” I mentioned it to him a couple of times on 45 Years. Eventually, it was just like, “Nah.”'Part of my job, as an editor, is to always maintain a perspective on the film, the narrative, the emotions, and how that is playing out.'Click To Tweet
7R: How do you know when it’s done?
JA: Oh, God. It’s hard. It’s tough knowing when to stop. You can cut a scene, and that scene can work. But that scene can have a lot of different shapes to it. It’s hard to not settle for just what works.
Andrew and I go through every permutation of the film. We cut so many versions of scenes because we feel like we can get something more out of the scene. We did it for Lean on Pete, and we did it for 45 Years.
By the 14th week, and the 25th time you’ve screened it, you’re like, “Yeah, there’s something that’s always kind of rubbed me the wrong way about this scene.” We’ll talk about it. But it doesn’t come out until that moment.
If there’s any part of your being that’s like, “Well, I always felt a bit weird about this scene,” that will stick with you whenever you see the movie until the end of your days. There’s one time to do that: before you lock picture.
We understand when a scene is done: this is the best version. We know it’s emotionally giving us what we want. The performances are exactly what we want. But you can’t know that before you’ve tried everything!'Andrew and I go through every permutation of the film. We cut so many versions of scenes because we feel like we can get something more out of the scene.' Click To Tweet
7R: You mentioned that working with Andrew is different than working with other directors. What else is different about it?
JA: Andrew and I are friends, foremost. Obviously, we have a good working relationship, too.
We share a sensibility about the way we see the world. We talk about books a lot. We talk about films. I remember when we were working on 45 Years, and we were talking about the ending of Lean on Pete, and I was just blown away by it. I was brought to tears. We talked about how important it was for Charley’s story and the kind of kindness he exudes and the tenderness he has throughout the book. You feel so good about where he does end up. It’s so nice to work with somebody who shares those feelings.
I like to work with filmmakers who see the world in similar ways. I feel like they’re creating art that reflects that, and I want to be a part of that.
Want to read the whole of our Special Issue as soon as it’s available, including our interview with production designer Ryan Warren Smith? Become a Seventh Row member now and you’ll also gain access to free eBooks and our entire back catalogue of content.
The importance of emotion in cutting is something editor Joe Bini also talked about regarding his work on You Were Never Really Here. Like Alberts, he was also on location during production. Director Cristian Mungiu also likes to have his editor on location with him during the shoot. Since the best editing is often invisible, we spotlighted the great, subtle work that went unsung in 2017 on such films as God’s Own Country and Their Finest. We’ve recently written a few essays about how critical editing is to the storytelling in Personal Shopper and Call Me by Your Name.