In Captain Fantastic, Viggo Mortensen plays a survivalist father raising a brood of six kids off the grid in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, whose life is thrown into disarray after his wife commits suicide. The film, written and directed by veteran character actor Matt Ross (Silicon Valley, Big Love) earned major praise at Sundance and Cannes, and for good reason: it's by turns intense, funny, and genuinely moving. I recently caught up with editor Joseph Krings to talk about his career and the process of cutting the film.
Tell me a little about your schedule for cutting “Captain Fantastic.” How long did it take? What did you cut on? Give me the nuts and bolts of it.
The editing schedule for this film was actually somewhat long and luxurious for a film of this size. Matt Ross and I have worked together before on 28 Hotel Rooms and we knew from our previous effort that Matt is most comfortable having ample time to make major decisions. He really likes to try every version and variation conceivable. The plan for this film with distribution already in place and knowing when and how they wanted to roll out the film with certain festivals allowed us that kind of time.
Production started in July of 2014. They shot in Washington State and New Mexico for 40 days while I received the dailies over Aspera and put together my first cut in New York City where I live with my wife. In September of 2014 I traveled to California to start the directors cut. After a couple of days in the typical dark closet of an editing room, Matt and I decided to go back to way we cut 28 Hotel Rooms, which was in a sun-filled Venice Beach loft, so we picked up the editing gear and headed for the beach. With both of us being away from our wives and families we pretty much lived the film everyday. We would not keep tidy hours... we would work, break, work, eat, work, break, work, sleep, eat, work, etc. Oh and of course, call our wives! We kept this schedule up until about April 2015 at which point the film was more or less “locked.” Then we spent the rest of the summer unlocking the picture and making it better and better while I worked on another project. We had some expert advice from my friend Kevin Tent, ACE on how to improve some key moments of the film and make it even more heartfelt which we attempted to incorporate during this time. This also allowed plenty of time for Alex Somers to really create a magnificent score. We finally finished with everything in December 2015 in time for Sundance.
As for software, this was my first feature cut on Avid Media Composer believe it or not. When I started in editing I used Avid all of the time but I was an early adopter of Final Cut Pro and cut all of my previous features with it. But when Apple sold the version I knew and loved down the river it was time to come back home to Avid. I made sure to hire an expert Assistant Editor in Rob G. Wilson who could remind me where everything was hidden and fill me in on everything I had missed over the previous 10 years of Avid, which honestly was not a lot. It was kind of like riding a bike. I suppose someday I’ll get into Premiere or whatever is the right tool for the time, but for now I couldn’t be more happy cutting in Avid again.
Something I found really great about the film was how much of it hinged on the performances of these child actors playing extremely precocious characters, and how none of them ever felt too precious or overstayed their welcome onscreen. Was there a conversation that took place in the editing room about cutting in a way that reinforced that kind of natural style from the kids? What were the challenges there versus cutting a performance from someone like Viggo, who is obviously very established and experienced?
Well, I am certainly happy to hear you felt that way about their performance because that was obviously one of our biggest tasks in the editing room. Each kid brought their own unique personality and skill set to the film and really what we had to was just make sure they all meshed together and really felt like a family. While George MacKay (Bodevan) is a classic, highly trained British actor Shree Crooks (Zaja) is an amazing free spirit and gifted improviser who just sparks on the screen. Each one of them brought something singular to the table. They couldn’t be more different, but they had to feel like they all came from the same place. The challenge was using the best skills of everyone and creating a cohesion while never losing a delicate balance where everyone felt like an equal member of the family even if some of them had more complex story lines. In the end it just comes down to feel more than a specific conversation. The edit (and sometimes some very loud voices at feedback screenings) will let you know when someone has gotten out of balance or become “precious."
When it comes to cutting an effortless master like Viggo Mortensen, what can I say besides you’re just trying to pick the best of the best and make sure it all hangs together in the right way. He makes it look easy. He also comes to the role with such fierce dedication and so many ideas. We invited him into the editing room later in the process and he had a very complete memory of what he had done and what had been shot and asked us very challenging questions about why we had chosen one approach over the other. He was a very good extra eye in the editing room and I was glad we were able to spend some time with him there.
I also thought the use of music was really effective. How much of a role did you have in shaping those musical sequences, especially the kind of impromptu-feeling one near the beginning?
Well music is always so much fun to cut! I like to think I had a pretty big role in that. The impromptu family jam around the fire was exactly that impromptu. In the script they were going to start to play a little music and once they started to all gel together of course we would cut to the next scene and use it as score. While the cast were rehearsing together and figuring out how to play a piece of music together they improvised a little story on the spot where Nicholas Hamilton’s character Rellian, who was the rebellious middle child would actually disrupt the nice family happy family jam with a vicious and aggressive beat, but then the family adapts to his new beat and they create a whole new song together. When I saw that material in the dailies I knew it had to go in the film and stay in as complete as possible. It cut against the sappiness and told a complex story without dialogue. It allowed me to cut other parts of scenes where this idea was told more explicitly and tell the story in a more sophisticated way without a single line of dialogue. That was one of those magical scenes where you don’t really touch it that much after your first cut. We made it shorter and shorter and added a few different inserts, but the core of that scene hardly changed from day one including how we used it to propel us into the next scene of them training physically.
Other great music sequences include the grocery store robbery [cut to Bikini Kill's "Rebel Girl"] which cutting and music wise was inspired partially, believe it or not, by the shootout scene in Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic. For the final family singing showpiece that was like a traditional performance based music video. I think we had 30 angles grouped together and just cut it like that. Matt and I just worked that one over together trying to make it feel as natural as possible and less like a music video.
Another musical sequence I am particularly proud of is the moment when they take off from the mountain to the blaring of bagpipes and enter society for the first time in a long while. All of the material of them hitting the road and seeing the big box store and commercialized America for the first time was purely an invention stealing a scene that actually happened much later in the film where the bus was actually stationary and stuck in traffic and mixing it with moving footage from a Second Unit Camera trip into Portland. I simply put the reflection from that B-Unit material in the windows while Ben and the kids witness the ugly sprawl of strip mall America and magically the bus was hurtling down the highway! This kind of scene needed to be propelled by music and for a long time it was some very expensive classic rock. When Matt finally drilled down on the bagpipes idea it was complete.
Was there a scene or sequence in the film that proved particularly challenging to cut? Tell me a little bit about one of those.
I think perhaps the most challenging scene overall was one late in the movie where Ben has a very emotionally vulnerable conversation with his children out on the lawn of the grandparents place. I don’t want to say specifically what they discuss, but Viggo’s performance here was so fragile and distraught it was exceptionally difficult to find just the right balance between what he was doing and how the six children were each individually reacting to it. It was one of those scene where we tried it every which way searching for the right mixture of storytelling and poetry. We had versions with practically minutes of strained silence and versions that were short and abrupt. to complicate matters we decided to tell another important storyline here with only looks and no dialogue so that we could cut another expository scene elsewhere. I’m sure we cut over 100 versions of that particular scene alone. Watching it now it seems like one of the most special scenes not only for it’s emotional content but for it’s unique approach unlike anything else in the film.
What is your basic approach to cutting a scene? How do you begin to attack it? What gives you the sense that you’re done working on a first pass at a scene and that you’re ready to show it to a director or move on to the next thing?
So my process depends on how badly I’m freaking out about how far behind I am! Ideally though, I’ve seen all of the footage and then I try to very quickly cut together at least two, but ideally three, versions of the scene in which I never use the same shot or take of a line more than once between them. So in one I open wide in the second I open on an extreme closeup and in the third I cut off the top of the scene entirely. Similarly each one ends completely differently. In the middle I use different mediums, overs and closeups each time. If there is a clear opportunity for a oner I single that out as its own “cut.” Now the result of those early cuts usually none of them is any good or cohesive on their own. But from that variety I can see my preferred path and I make a hybrid cut of those three which usually is what makes it into my first cut.
I have to credit the genius Tim Squyres, who was a mentor to me through my Sally Menke Fellowship with teaching me that process. He takes it even further at times and cuts entire versions of scenes entirely out of mediums and then again entirely out of closeups. The idea being that you are trying to make the perfect cut right away, but instead you are trying to really know all of the footage inside and out so that when you start tearing it all apart again with the director you’ve already tried certain approaches and know how it does or does not work.
What got you interested in editing? How did you originally get into the industry?
Growing up in small town Nebraska I only ever had two broadcast channels and we did not get a VHS player until well after most families had them. We did have a one screen theater that re-opened by the time I got to high school, but really movies were not a thing for me. I was going to be a print journalist. Right before I went to college my parents got a satellite and I saw IFC for the first time. Two films I saw the summer before I left for college on IFC were Husbands and Johnny Suede. The seed was planted there because I finally learned there were actually smart, cool films out there. It wasn’t all Hollywood. I honestly didn’t know that. So when I got to college at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln and saw they had film studies classes through the English department I was all over that. There I really got my education and formed my tastes. There was no film major at the time so I basically devised my own by being a Broadcast Journalism major with minors in Film Studies and Theater.
My first job was at the local CBS affiliate in Lincoln, Nebraska. I was hired as a Writer/Producer in the Creative Services department. This meant I wrote, directed and edited the promos for the news and super cheap commercials for local businesses. It was amazing experience because I really did everything myself. It was there I learned my absolute favorite part of the process was editing where I could just lock myself away in a little room until I really finally made something work.
So then I packed my bags and headed for New York City and pounded the pavement until I got a job. That job happened to be at a small post-production boutique called Refinery which serviced the advertising industry. Over 8 years I went from the machine room to assistant to editing national ad campaigns for MTV and Hertz. Then I realized I came to New York to do films and not advertising so I quit and started over scrapping together freelance work and trying to get into features. Finally Matt Ross, entrusted me with his first film 28 Hotel Rooms, partially because I was cheap and I was blessed to find a great loyal partner who brought me along for the ride with Captain Fantastic.
What is your process of watching dailies or raw material? Do you take notes or place markers or just let it flow over you? What are you looking for? What ideas are formulating as you watch?
Again it depends on how much I am freaking out. Sometime I severely truncate this process but I usually only watch one Master shot uninterrupted. I don’t have the kind of memory that allows me to watch all of the dailies first and then proceed. After that one master I am simultaneously marking pieces and throwing them into a Pulls sequence. I title only the first marker for a section and then throw all the pieces I like into its proper bucket in the pulls sequence. Sometimes I’ll watch all the takes of a setup other times I’ll watch only one take of each setup and then circle back through everything else. In the end I have a good sequence of solid material from which to carve out versions of the scene. I also love to shuttle through this jumbled sequence or just jump from cut to cut to make accidental associations between angles I might not otherwise make.
While screening dailies I’m really trying to simultaneously see all the different ways the sequence can come together as well as be open to anything that really breaks through to me as a viewer. I’m waiting for the kind of footage that even though I am sitting there analytically viewing it makes me forget I am watching make believe and is effortlessly pulling me into the story. If I get lost in a piece of footage and am not tempted to stop it then I know it is probably special. There are usually only a handful of those for every film but they always seem to make the cut.
How do you use music? What do you temp with? How do you determine what needs music and what you’ll use for temp?
Every films requires its own music approach so I temp with what is appropriate. I go into every film hoping it is Dog Day Afternoon and needs no score at all. A film with no score is my Holy Grail as an editor. Still I know the importance of music in a film and I am constantly temping. I just keep all kinds of music on hand and in mind. Early in a film I put tons of scores and instrumental music on my phone to listen to while commuting and search for the what sounds right for the film. For Captain Fantastic I always knew because I have worked with the director before it was likely going to be Sigur Ros and their related projects. In the end we hired Alex Somers who has very strong Sigur Ros connections to create the score because who else could do it so effectively. He really created something special that improved upon our temp and supported the film even better. Plus we got to have some vocals from Jonsi to boot!
Also I try to immerse myself in the proper source music for the film. I make playlists upon playlists and listen to them endlessly as well. Right now I’m listening to a lot of early 1940s big band music for instance.
Talk to me about the importance of sound editing and sound design in helping to sell the visual cuts.
The old adage is sound is 50% of the picture right? It’s absolutely true. I have learned the hard way to take great care in editing and designing sound in the rough cut phase because if the movie doesn’t sound good in early feedback screenings you are going to have a far less responsive audience. But beyond that there is so much room there to enhance and enrich the story and there are no boundaries. With picture they only had so much time to get the shot and there are only so many takes but with sound you can practically do anything and make those decisions well after the fact. You can tell a story that never existed before. It’s one of the best places to create from scratch once editing. then hopefully a real sound designer comes in takes it to even new levels you never previously thought of.
Tell me a little about how you can help shape and guide an actor’s performance from the editing chair.
This is a tough one because it is so much like alchemy. Or perhaps it’s like baking without a recipe. I think ultimately it is the actor’s performance that is guiding my decisions as an editor. I can only work with what they give me from behind a two dimensional wall of light. What I find is that only after weeks do I even begin to truly understand just how deeply an actor is embodying their character. They are doing things, very purposefully, which I don’t even recognize at first but are on the whole essential to creating a believable four dimensional human being as opposed to a character. The thing is each actor does it very differently and requires a different approach to find the best of them, not take to take but as a whole person within a story. So you jut have to be open and try different things until either a eureka moment hits or you eventually stumble upon it. But once you are there, it lets you know you got it right.
What affects your sense of the micro-pacing or shot-to-shot rhythm of a scene? How do you know you’re “in the rhythm,” so to speak?
More alchemy really. The footage is speaking to you and you are trying to hear it correctly and again you just have to work it and work it until it feels right. Sometimes it’s obvious and sometimes it’s not. But again, you know it when you see it. It’s a tangible feeling when something is working. But then, you might be feeling it and then put it a room with 100 people and it becomes painfully obvious your idea of the correct rhythm wasn’t really correct at all because you can feel those people not feeling it. When you get the tangible feeling something is working in that room, well then you are almost done.
I can tell you I always pace slow to start because it’s so much easier to trim away and begin to speed a scene up when it becomes necessary for the sake of the film as a whole.
Finally, do you have any editing wisdom? What are some of the concepts that have stuck with you over the course of your career?
If I have any wisdom it’s the bits and pieces I’ve picked up from the mentors and friends I have been lucky enough to have over the years combined with the many films I’ve watched. The main thing is it’s hard work and you can never stop until you are completely satisfied even if it means tearing everything you worked so hard to do back apart and starting from scratch. Also, it’s always important to me to remember every director is different and my number one job is to see to it that their vision is realized to its maximum potential.
Captain Fantastic is in theaters now. Joseph is on Twitter at @josephkrings. Written by Elizabeth Belsky.