Swiss Army Man's Matthew Hannam on Editing for Your Audience February 14, 2017

“I’ve always made very, very strange films,” Matthew Hannam tells us, a tidy summary of a skyrocketing editing career that has included such genre-bending projects as Swiss Army Man, James White, and the recent Netflix miniseries The OA. “I feel proud having served a smaller audience well, rather than a general audience.” But with the wide critical acclaim of Swiss Army Man and the massive Internet buzz around The OA, Matthew’s small audience might not stay small for long.

After an initial interest in cinematography and an assistant directing job on a microbudget feature, Matthew talked his way into his first editing gig when the director of the feature film had literally no one else. “After we wrapped 12 days of shooting, I said, ‘So who’s going to edit this movie?’ And [the director] said, ‘Um, what?’ I was a big computer nerd, so I said, ‘I’ll do it!’ And it turns out editing suits me. I don’t like making decisions. I like being able to revise.”

Film editor Lucas Harger talked to Matthew from his hometown of Winnipeg.

Lucas Harger: I’ve always considered editing to be a combination of all the roles that happen on set. It’s cool to hear you started with an interest in shooting and directing.

Matthew Hannam: It’s a really interesting time in filmmaking because of the way we’ve learned how to make films. How old are you?

29.

I’m 35, and even still I bet the way you learned to make movies is very different than the way I learned. When I went to film school in Winnipeg, I shot and edited shorts on a 16mm Bolex. The next year they stopped doing that. Then a few years later, everyone was learning on a RED and not even using tape. It’s all changing so fast. I noticed that when I worked with [Swiss Army Man Directors] the Daniels. They edit their own stuff — that’s just a part of their process now. It’s this more holistic thing, which is how I try to think of editing as well. I’m not just thinking about cutting the material. I’m thinking about making a movie. Can we tell a better story if we move this scene here? Is this scene too bright and positive for the emotion we’re trying to create? Maybe I got too obsessed with the Murch book [In the Blink of an Eye], but we are the guardians of the cinematic qualities, right?

As editors, I feel like it’s our duty to protect the audience. I was reading an interview with Walter Murch recently, and he was saying how he keeps little silhouette cutouts of people taped to his monitor to remind him that people are watching.

I’ve always made very, very strange films. So while I think you’re 100% correct that you’re always making your film for an audience, I always make sure the film I’m making is not for every audience. You have to become the audience for the movie you’re making, take on their spirit. Sometimes you need to challenge them. It’s not about making a purely enjoyable experience. Sometimes it’s about creating frustration or anticipation, which elicits a greater effect in the next scene. I suspect some editors are able to calculate that. For me, it’s all about feeling. I just mess around, watch it, and lean on the experience of being a viewer.

One last thought on this. I remember when we were editing the film James White. The crew had gone all the way to Mexico and shot this really fantastic sequence that was supposed to be the big flourish in the middle of the movie. This guy is having a horrible time with his mom dying, so he runs away to Mexico and has this time of release before the really hard part of his mother’s illness sets in. We loved the sequence. It had all of this incredible imagery. We had made an amazing sequence from the material, but for some reason it never felt right when we watched the movie. Finally, someone realized that it needs to feel the same way for the audience as it feels for the character, which is that his entire experience in Mexico is too short and ultimately unsatisfying. So we cut out all of the amazing material and made it a very quick sequence interrupted by bad news. Suddenly the movie clicked.

Is that what you use viewings for? To find those areas that you hadn’t even realized weren’t working?

For me, screenings are the most important part of editing a film. They’re 50% about getting notes and 50% about feeling the film from the other side. When I first started editing films, I was lucky to hang out a few times with Ron Sanders (David Cronenberg’s editor). One thing he told me was that David and he always need someone else in the room when they watch a cut— even if it’s the Janitor. (Although I’m sure many janitors have very good taste in movies.) He said, “It doesn’t matter who it is. Something happens when you’re aware of the people around you.”

What were the screenings like for Swiss Army Man? There’s a very specific audience for that film.

That film was so interesting to work on. I didn’t know [the Daniels] beforehand. I was introduced to them by the producer, and I came on after the film was shot. But those two guys deserve so much credit for the editing of that film. Like I said, that’s just how they work. Those big montages… I looked at the footage, and I was like, “So what is this?” And they were like, “Oh, well, we’re going to do this and this and this and this and this.” They’re two of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met.

When I started working on the film ⎯ and I do this for every film, especially if it’s allegorical ⎯ I tried to come up with the real-world story. For example, when I was cutting Enemy I was like, Okay, this is a movie about a guy who makes a choice to leave his wife and move in with his girlfriend, but he doesn’t tell his wife. He says he’s going to his mom’s for the weekend, and then he goes back on his decision. So when I sat down with Swiss Army Man early on, I was like, “Guys, what is this movie about?” And they were like, “It’s about a guy who finds a dead body in the woods who had magical powers.” So from there we slowly eked out this story of a guy who’s depressed and feeling lonely and goes out into the woods with a lot of bad feelings. A lot of the work was shaping that emotional arc of the character. Initially, we went full quirk, but people weren’t responding the way we wanted. They weren’t getting everything. But that led to us having an amazing time together shaping the tone of the film. Making it darker. Making it get light again. Digging into the character of Hank, [played by Paul Dano], and finding out what was actually going on with him, making sure that was intact in the footage we chose.

In the initial screenings, you felt like people weren’t getting everything?

We tried a variety of ways to get to the heart of the story. At the viewings, people would always focus on something different. So we’d realize, Okay, we did too much here. Time to pull that back. Sometimes people were grossed out, that was usually a good thing. Sometimes it was too distracting and we’d take it out. A lot of people were focused on the possibility that none of it really happened, that he was in her backyard the whole time, that there was no desert island. But the Daniels didn’t want to go for that “false narrative” thing. They wanted to make it feel like he really had traveled on a magical adventure somewhere.

We got to the point where we were screening it every one or two weeks for different audiences, and then going back as a team and talking about what we’d learned. We were able to turn around a new version of the movie in just a week, because we were all so dialed in.

The ending of the film is so great. Was it hard to get that right?

We always loved the ending, but getting there was a bit of a challenge. We had to find a way to get him from the backyard down to the beach, which was hard because it felt like it ended in the backyard. In the end, the trick was to make the backyard moment less satisfying than it was originally. Making it less satisfying made it feel like less of an ending. But that’s challenging to do. When you have a satisfying scene, it’s hard to get rid of it.

I think the ending works so well because it works for both the physical and metaphysical stories. If you look at it philosophically, he faces his fears in front of everybody. His dad is proud of him. He also lets go of the farting corpse that is keeping him from engaging with the real world. Whether or not that moment is actually happening doesn’t matter because he is moving forward as a character in both realms.

You talked about building an emotional arc. What’s your workflow for doing that? Do you use notecards?

I wish I were more meticulous like that. For me, it’s all about having conversations. I believe talking is very important. After a screening, I like to have a half-day long chat where we take notes and decide this is what we want to do now. Then I try to execute very quickly without fixating too much on the details. Often I’ll have a notebook that’s loaded with thoughts and ideas and reminders to “try this, try that.” It’s all about trial and error for me. Sometimes I feel ashamed that I’m not more calculated, but I love the experience of working quickly, watching it, and feeling it out instead of getting obsessed with “Is that shot three frames too long?” When I do that, I lose the big picture of what was good about the scene in the first place.

Those conversations you have with your collaborators are so important. And I know it sounds corny, but you need to be friends with those people because there are so many obstacles you run into when you’re making a film. So many moments when you’re like, “I can’t figure this out.” You need to be able to say that to each other. One of the most important things you can say is: “I don’t know what we’re doing right now.” You can pretend you know what you’re doing, if you want. You can be cocky. But that could send you down the wrong path for a week. It’s better to say, “How can we fix this? Let’s take a walk.”

I don’t know if the crew would agree, but one of the best days we had on Swiss Army Man was when we all looked at each other and were just like, “We can’t work on this anymore. We’re too tired and messed up.” So we left. We saw a movie together, we ate lunch, and we came back the next day recharged because we’d taken the pressure off. It’s so important to remember that we’re all just people.

The best films get made from a posture of vulnerability. At the end of the day, it’s the most collaborative art form.

Totally. I think the Daniels chose me to edit their movie because during the interview, I said, “I love working with people, and I like working in whatever way is best.” I think it helped them to know they could grab a sequence and mess around with it themselves, instead of having to tell me what they thought I should do. I try to keep everything really free and open. With new directors, more and more that’s what’s desired.

What does it take to become a better editor, do you think?

Compassion is one of the most important things in being a good editor. Just the ability to know that it’s all going to turn out okay and that you have to keep working and not freak out in the middle of the process (I’m still working on that). Another thing is learning to get over your habits. At first you think, Oh, these are the cool things I do when I’m editing! You have your bag of tricks. Your style. But you have to learn that you don’t really have a style. I don’t believe in my style anyway. I believe in finding the film. Finding what the film wants. The coolest thing that can happen is you go from film to film thinking, What kind of interesting thing can we do in this movie? What can we do that’s going to be unique and tell this story better? As you move along in your career, you become more flexible. So I think that’s it: being flexible, sympathetic, compassionate, and diligent. Those are the things you need. Those are the key elements.

Lucas Harger
Lucas Harger is an editor at Bruton Stroube who’s worked on numerous commercial, documentary and cinematic projects.