Dylan Tichenor, Oscar-nominated editor of There Will Be Blood, Magnolia, Brokeback Mountain, and more, breaks down clips from his movies.
During a wide-ranging discussion at Saturday's Sight, Sound & Story panel in New York, Academy Award-nominated editor Dylan Tichenor, ACE revealed to moderator Bobbie O'Steen that he first began to comprehend film editing while watching classic films like Nosferatu with his father. It was during these formative viewing experiences—including holding a piece of film from Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons up to the light—that Tichenor realized movies were composed of different shots.
"If I saw a shot change, I would think, 'Oh, yeah, that's the line where they went to the different piece of film," he remembered thinking in his youth.
"You set up a rhythm...and then you need to break that rhythm, because that's what gets people's attention."
Tichenor's first break came when he was taken on as an apprentice by Geraldine Peroni, Robert Altman's long-time editor. They worked together for five years. (Sadly, years later, Tichenor would take over cutting on Brokeback Mountain after the Oscar-nominated Peroni died, in 2004.) In those days of cutting on film, Tichenor learned how to operate a KEM flatbedediting machine. His duties included syncing and projecting dailies as well as working with the 8-track sound—"That was very rare, even in those days," he said—and 1/2'' reel-to-reel tape that Altman used.
Tichenor recalled how Peroni let him take a crack at a troublesome scene in Altman's 1992 film, The Player. "The apprentice system is extremely important, even if we don't have that position anymore," said Tichenor of honing his expertise under Peroni.
After seeing a screening of P.T. Anderson's first feature, then entitled Sydney (and later released as Hard Eight in 1996), Tichenor met the director at a party, which led to a phone call a few weeks later. Anderson said that the studio had "taken the movie away from him...cut the negative, changed the title, and changed the music," but that, after speaking with Gilles Jacob (then Artistic Director of the Cannes Film Festival), Anderson had managed to get his cut accepted. The problem was, he only had six weeks to turn around the cut. Tichenor came on board as post-production supervisor for this process, which led to his first film with Anderson, 1997's Boogie Nights.
Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (2000)
Tichenor said that one of the challenges in editing Boogie Nights was how to integrate long takes with coverage as well as figure out the answer to the question, "Whose story are we telling?"
This would become even more of an issue on their next collaboration, the operatic Magnolia, where, in the opening sequence, it was necessary to introduce all of the different characters and their connections, as well as establish rhythm and theme.
While some of the shots in Magnolia were written into the script, others were shot five or six different ways and then altered in the editing room. Tichenor said that P.T. Anderson uses Microsoft Word to write his scripts, doesn't really adhere to traditional format, and does "all the things you're told never to do" as far as writing camera directions into his scripts. Of course, the editor noted that "Anderson can get away with it."
During post, Tichenor and P.T. Anderson went back and forth over the film's 188-minute runtime. Whenever Tichenor asked if there was anything Anderson would consider cutting from the film, Anderson responded, "'Like what, Dylan? What would you cut?'" Tichenor then related that "about two years later, I get a text from Paul saying, 'Magnolia's playing on TV. It's too long. Great, thanks a lot, Dylan.'"
"I get a text from Paul Thomas Anderson saying, 'Magnolia's playing on TV. It's too long. Thanks a lot, Dylan.'"
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
The next film up for discussion was Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums. Of the director's style, the editor observed, "Wes Anderson's storylines are about emotions, but the mise-en-scène of the filmmaking is often dry and removed. Even though it's funny, it's proscenium arch kind of stuff...we're not living every minute with these characters."
"Over the course of the film," he continued, "the emotion kind of bubbles up and you realize, 'Oh, I really care' and because he's held off on being directly kind of saccharine, it's now unexpectedly emotional."
When O'Steen mentioned how the sequence has a sort of odd, comedic "button" that comes in when Luke Wilson's character is discovered by Dudley and the sound cuts out for half a second, Tichenor said the reason was "...mainly because [Dudley] did such a funny noise."
"Wes Anderson is a mathematical editor."
Tichenor described Wes Anderson as a "mathematical editor." Anderson initially requested that, during the quick cuts of Wilson in the mirror, each shot be equal in length. In the film, however, "they're not all the same length," said Tichenor. "It didn't quite work that way."
Tichenor also revealed that they had tried not to cut to the rhythm of the Elliot Smith song in the background. "One of the things to do with editing is you set up a rhythm, either in cuts or in overarching sequence...and then you need to break that rhythm, because that's what gets people's attention," he said.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
While cutting Brokeback Mountain with Ang Lee (Tichenor had taken over after the passing of his mentor, Peroni), Tichenor said that at one point, something wasn't "resonating" with Ennis, Ledger's character, though neither could tell what was wrong. Then, watching the film one day, Lee said, "Ah, he's touching her on the shoulder. I didn't want him to do that."
"It was a startling difference just in seven or eight cuts."
Although Tichenor figured out how to remove the moment, he said, "It's not a very elegant cut." (Here's where the shoulder touch would have been, at the moment of the cut into the kitchen; you can see by Ledger's motion away from Williams that less than a second has been excised.) Because Ledger was "so naturally warm, he would touch people on the elbow, or he would do these gestures or smiles and they were belying...[Ennis'] complete and utter problem with loving someone." Tichenor and Lee did a pass where they removed the other moments like this one, after which the character "felt like a cold, fucked-up person who was really torturing himself inside. It was a startling difference just in seven or eight cuts."
This example is a testament to the power of film editing. By removing just 12 frames, the tone of the pivotal sequence underwent a profound, though subtle, shift.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
After Magnolia, Tichenor and P.T. Anderson next collaborated on what has recently been named by The New York Times as the best film (so far) of the 21st century: 2007's There Will Be Blood, which earned multiple Academy Award nominations, including one for Tichenor. Unlike their first two collaborations, which were multi-character narratives with lots of parallel action, TWBB is, in the editor's words, "a different kind of beast."
From the start, Tichenor and P.T. Anderson approached the project like a horror film, employing "gothic shot framing and trying to build tension without a lot of cuts." This methodology even factored into the font that was used for the titles. "The cuts that are more nerve-wracking to me are the slower, quieter ones," Tichenor continued. "There's a big spotlight on, 'Now I'm changing perspective; now I'm showing you something else.'"
He explained that because the character of Daniel Plainview was so off-putting and inhuman—in Tichenor's words, "a huge ass"—one of the challenges was eliciting empathy from the story. He and P.T. Anderson approached this problem through the character of H.W., Daniel's adopted son, whose perspective of the action they tried to bring into focus in every scene. "I kept asking Paul for more shots of H.W.," Tichenor said. "The same stuff is happening, but let's watch it through his point of view."
P.T. Anderson obliged, even adding scenes of the two bonding. (Here's a deleted one; it's the first of the three clips.)
"The cuts that are more nerve-wracking to me are the slower, quieter ones."
In contrast to quieter scenes, the editor feels as though "action functions more like [a] mosaic, where you have all the little pieces. When it's good, you get movement and flow."
Regarding the decision as to when to drop the sound out during the above set piece, Tichenor said that, beyond wanting to make sure that what had just happened (H.W. losing his hearing) was clear to the audience, it also was a way to bring the audience back into H.W.'s point of view and "keep that thread" of showing events through someone other than Daniel's eyes.
Tichenor also talked about the strategy underlying the sequence's rhythm.
"It was not a fast movie," he said. "[In this sequence], we wanted to do set-up, set-up, static shots, then a long, handheld walk in...and from there, we wanted it to snap up." In fact, while cutting the seven-minute set piece, Tichenor found that there weren't as many angles as he wanted to use. As a result, he constructed some of them by punching in and out of different takes. "There are more angles than there were actual shots," he said. For example, when H.W. is blown back by the explosion, Tichenor made use of what he referred to as "...little repeated action things," i.e. quick cuts of the same footage, in order to add velocity to the sequence.
The two hours of O'Steen and Tichenor's conversation were a quick masterclass in the art of editing. It's invaluable to hear an artist speak so candidly about their work and process, and even more so to see a film broken down on screen as you watch. Throughout the class, it was clear that, while Tichenor is funny and self-deprecating, he also has an innate sense of rhythm and pacing, as well as a thoughtful, wide-ranging understanding of cinema as a whole. This is almost certainly why he has, in a relatively brief career for a film editor—Boogie Nights is 20 years old this year—worked on so many modern classics with so many brilliant filmmakers.