Jon Gregory discusses the challenge of editing battle scenes in Peterloo and what he has learned from decades of working with Mike Leigh. This is an excerpt from Peterloo in process, our ebook about Mike Leigh’s collaborative process.
Most discussion of Mike Leigh’s process tends to centre around the rehearsal period. But what happens after he calls cut? Leigh and Pope may choose what to shoot, but it’s editor Jon Gregory who chooses what we see. Leigh’s penchant for ensemble scenes is filtered through Gregory’s eye: he controls whether we see these in mid-shots, close-ups, or wides. There are so many choices for how to cover these (often quite long) scenes, so Leigh needs an incredibly skilled editor.
Gregory is the longest standing of all of Leigh’s collaborators whom we’ve interviewed for this book. They first worked together on High Hopes (1988) and have been working together on and off since, on films like Naked (1993), Secrets & Lies (1996), and Mr. Turner (2014). Outside of his work with Leigh, Gregory has worked across genres and styles on Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco, The Road, A United Kingdom, multiple films with Martin McDonagh, and more.
The way DP Dick Pope gushed about Gregory’s talents when I interviewed him got me excited to talk to Gregory himself: “Jon is one of the best editors I’ve ever worked with. [His] editing is incredibly sympathetic to my cinematography. In the hands of a more ruthless editor, I wouldn’t get nearly such a crack at the visual side because I know it would be chopped up. But Jon lets things run. I’ve always loved working with Jon because I know that whatever I produce, he’ll make the most of it.”
Talking to this great editor was a privilege, and he revealed how post-production on a Mike Leigh film works. It turns out it’s perhaps the part of Leigh’s process that hews closest to what we’d consider traditional filmmaking. But these are still Leigh films, and so they come with their own joys and challenges: Gregory has to make his first assembly without the aid of a script. He edits while the film is shooting, which means he often receives scenes out of order and has to guess at where they might fit in the overall narrative of the film. There’s nothing close to a storyboard either, as Leigh refuses to work with a storyboard artist, so Gregory is almost fumbling around in the dark. In the case of Peterloo, that meant editing together a 20 minute unscripted battle scene with almost no guide other than the scrambled up footage he was given.
Like all of Leigh’s collaborators whom we have interviewed, Gregory also loves working with Leigh. Gregory describes Leigh as incredibly trusting of collaborators: he has very little involvement in the actual edit, leaving Gregory to work his magic alone and just pitching here and there when he’s needed.
Seventh Row (7R): Mike Leigh has this very unique rehearsal process. But we don’t really hear much about what happens after the actual shooting. Could you describe your general process when you are working on one of his films?
Jon Gregory: The first thing that Mike does, before he starts shooting, is we all meet around a table somewhere. He goes through what it’s going to be about. Peterloo is kind of an odd one out because, normally, you know nothing about the film. You get about half a dozen pages of scene headings — you know, John and Mary go to the pub, etc… — that’s it. That’s all you’d get. So it’s very vague.
I read the book about Peterloo, because I’d never heard of it, so I researched and knew what was coming. Mike did discuss how much he had to leave out; otherwise, it would be twice as long.
On other films [not directed by Mike Leigh], I start on the first day of shooting, and you know a bit more because you’ve got a script. I assemble the stuff together as they are shooting. Sometimes, the director might want to have a look at a few cuts and things like that.
What’s interesting about Mike’s method is that you haven’t a clue what material is coming. On Peterloo, the first scene he shot was the scene with the Prince Regent at the end. So you just put it together as you see it. I do try to move quickly through it. It’s good to try to keep up with the shooting, because if they need another angle or whatever, at least you have a chance of having it picked up at the location instead of it being done a couple weeks down the line when they’ve dismantled everything.
But I don’t like to do too detailed of an assembly because you don’t know what’s coming; you just don’t have an idea. If you work on it too much before you actually start editing it, you are getting used to it too much.
Once Mike has shot the scene, it’s in stone. He doesn’t improvise on screen. He’s very particular about dialogue as we move through. And we just do things the normal way, get to the end, have a look at the assembly in the theatre about two or three times, just to see it and get used to it. And then you get into it, and you just keep going at it until you get to the end.
7R: Do you think there’s a particular approach to editing that applies to Mike’s film?
Jon Gregory: Not really. When you look through the slates before you cut them, it’s just amazing to watch the actors. They really are great! I tell you, the landscape of the person’s face is so much more interesting, personally, obviously, because there’s all sorts of ticks and moments on it. I really do study the material a lot.
There are a lot of speeches in Peterloo. Generally, a director would go around and shoot a lot of cut-aways of people listening, and then you’d stick them in, as it fits. But Mike doesn’t do that. That’s why there’s not very many in most of the speeches; they have to be there for a purpose, and I think that’s fantastic.
7R: Has Mike’s process or the editing style changed at all throughout the several decades you’ve been working with him?
Jon Gregory: What’s changed is when we started, the one he did with me that had lots of speeches was High Hopes [(1988)], and a lot of that is single shots. I think because he comes from television, that was his natural way of doing things. But as he’s gone on, he’s got incredibly more confident with widescreen and bigger casts. He uses group shots a lot more now, a hell of a lot more, obviously in Peterloo especially, which I love. I just love all that. I suppose he’s got more experience.
7R: Once the footage has all been captured, and you’re in the editing bay putting it all together, how closely do you work with Mike? What is he like as a collaborator in the editing bay?
Jon Gregory: Because we do all the editing up in town, up in the West End, and he lives around the corner, he doesn’t like being in the cutting room any more than he has to, which is fantastic. He’s always said that the editing is the holiday time when he can go off and look around book shops. So when we start, we generally use ten minutes worth of stuff, which takes he would like to use and then how to approach it. Then he’d go off, and I’d do it.
He would come back after a few days to watch it, and we just move through it, and then we look at it on the big screen — not all the time, but as much as we can. Except for the very end when you’re fine-tuning, he’ll never sit through the whole thing.
But other than that, he’s not around unless you want him. That’s fantastic because I can’t stand a director who sits in the back of the room reading the newspaper.
This is an excerpt of our interview with Jon Gregory from Peterloo in process. Buy the ebook to read the rest of the interview…
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