Interview with Zach Staenberg (Film Editor) from The Matrix (1999)

By Paul Martin February 28th, 2012, in Official Interviews, The Matrix

Archival interview with Zach Staenberg from the official Matrix website.

MATRIX: What is your role in the Matrix?

ZACH: I am the film editor.

MATRIX: Give me a rundown of what that entails.

ZACH: Say a movie is going to be two hours long, which is probably about the length of ‘The Matrix’, it will have about 100 hours of film shot for it. That is 45 to 50 times extra film that has been shot, it is on the high side because it is a big movie. Even a small movie will have upwards of 15 to 20 times as much as needed. What the editor has to do is create the scenes from all the film that has been shot. If you are doing a very simple, say, dialogue scene in a room with just two people, there would be a master shot which would be pretty wide and show the two people and a lot of the room. Next there would be a medium wide shot which would show most of the two people, and then a pair of over the shoulder shots looking at one person from behind the other. Following that would be a close up of each actor. This is the most simple straight forward coverage, what you call television coverage. But when you work with talented directors like the Wachowski brothers you get much more interesting coverage. Using that example with its six set up shots, which is minimal, each set up shot will have multiple takes, in other words you will do your close up 6 or 8 or 10 times. If this scene has one page of dialogue, they will shoot each one of those set ups or camera angles with the dialogue a number of times, which gives the editor all the film for that scene. Depending on the moment, you have to decide what you want to be seeing on screen. For instance one actor is telling the other that he hates him; do you want to see the anger on one actor’s face, or the horror on the other’s? Or would a wide shot be preferred so that we can feel the room vibrate? Editing is about juxtaposition of images, so there really is no set way to do it. A lot of people who don’t know anything about film editing think we are the ones that take all the bad stuff out. There is some bad stuff, but on a good movie most of it is good stuff. What makes a good movie really good is the number of ways that you can go are more bountiful. So with a greater number of options you can really play with it and tweak it.

MATRIX: So no two editors would end up with the same film, then. It would, in fact, be possible, shot for shot, to make a second film from what hits the cutting room floor.

ZACH: I suppose you could. Two different editors could easily create two different films. On the other hand I feel that after I have worked with a film a long time, and I have thought about it a lot, there is one way of putting it together that is more right than any other way. And within that way there are small variations that you can play around with. When I get to that right way I would not want to see it changed. I never went to film school, but I have talked to people who have gone; apparently there used to be an editing curriculum that they used, giving all the students the same old ‘Gunsmoke’ episode which they would edit, coming up with their own different versions depending on the talent or perspective that they had.

MATRIX: So during the time you are working on a film, you are feeling out what you consider to be the definitive film?

ZACH: Exactly. Once you have gotten to that point you feel that it is pretty much right because you understand what all the other problems are. Editing a movie is a very complex task because the ripple effects of decisions are enormous. You can decide to tweak a character in one way and it can ripple on, not just through that person’s character and their scenes, but with the characters he or she interacts with. Quite often characters in movies do get somewhat changed through editing, especially if you want to bring out the comedy more or the pathos more. You have to look at the movie and see how it is all working.

MATRIX: How soon did you start editing on ‘The Matrix’?

ZACH: With any movie I start prepping about a week before they start shooting, I get everything set up to get ready to roll. At the beginning of the second day of shooting the editing room gets the film from the first day of shooting, this is called the dailies. So if on the first day, they have shot a complete scene, I will edit it the next day. But if they take two or three days to shoot the first complete scene, I will continue prepping and watch the dailies every day. Essentially I am cutting right behind the camera. Realistically I try to stay approximately two weeks behind the camera by the time the movie is over. This means that two weeks after filming is completed I will have the whole movie rough cut. But the rough cut will be long and loose, probably approaching three hours. This movie has been harder for me than most because it is very complicated, it has been a challenge, which has been great. It is the kind of movie that you wait to edit, its a chance to have fun with your art and your craft.

MATRIX: There are two looks to the film, depending on the scene. That had to be a challenge.

ZACH: Yes, but the fact that it has aspects of two films is why its going to work out so well, contributing to it’s wonderful density. Ultimately, it is our job in the editing room – me, with Larry and Andy – to weave those two seemingly different pieces of thread together and make an interesting fabric. But because that situation exists, it is a lot harder for me to judge this movie at this point than other movies I have worked on.

MATRIX: So you are the man who sees the film before anyone else. What is your impression?

ZACH: I never like to make predictions, but I have high hopes for this movie.

MATRIX: Are there any particularly challenging scenes that you have perceived, having seen some of the rough footage?

ZACH: Probably the most challenging scene, as a self contained scene, would be the shoot out in the government lobby. In this scene there is amazing parallel action, so there you really could have two movies. Neo and Trinity decide to go and take on the government alone, heavily armed they march into the lobby where Morpheus is being held, blasting their way through a contingent of marines. The way they do it is that Neo peels off down one side of the lobby and Trinity down the other side past rows of columns, but staying parallel with each other, punching, shooting, karate kicking and cart wheeling. So I was joking with Larry and Andy that we should put up an old-fashioned split screen.

MATRIX: It sounds like it is a pinnacle scene.

ZACH: It will probably end up being the set piece scene of the film. The only CG work in that scene is wire removals, so it is pretty much all on film right now. Although it is hard to compare at this point because so many other scenes we have are heavily CG, so they are not ready yet, which is one of the reasons why it is so hard to give an over view of the film. It is still being created, the computer work is an extension of the shooting, only we continue that in post production.

MATRIX: When do you expect to finish it?

ZACH: We have been trying to turn things into visual effects as we go so we can get rough composites and pre visualizations of shots that are being created in the CG world. This way we get something which gives us a feeling for what it is going to be like. But you can’t really understand more than the essence of it until you see the final material. We were talking about difficult scenes in the movie, and I mentioned the government lobby scene, but ultimately I think the hardest thing in this movie, the way the script is written, is that it doesn’t have scenes that are conventionally self contained. In this film most scenes don’t have a beginning, middle and end, whereas the government lobby scene does. Neo and Trinity march in, do their stuff and march out in one location, which is a very traditional way to make a movie. What happens more often in this movie is that there will be a defined group of scenes that do, in a sense, what the traditional one scene does. So I feel that until we make a complete pass of this movie it is going to be really hard to get a handle on that. But I anticipate great stuff as a result. In my experience it is work that is unusual and interesting that turns out to be great, that people really respond to.

MATRIX: We are very near the end of principle photography. How does it feel to be so near the sense of what it will be, so near the edge?

ZACH: I am looking forward to the end of principle photography because I am very anxious to get into the process I have just described, so I can get a sense of the entire movie.

MATRIX: How does it work with Larry and Andy, going away for two weeks after filming?

ZACH: They are going away for two weeks because they are exhausted. They have been getting up every morning at 5.30am, going to the set and shooting twelve to fourteen hour days, then they will go to see the dailies and sometimes have a meeting. They have been dealing with less than 8 hours off the set every day, having 16 to 18 hour work days. This doesn’t include what they have to do at home, like writing down a few shots. So they need to take two weeks to decompress.

MATRIX: And you will be doing the rough-cut?

ZACH: Yes, that will give me time to complete the rough-cut. This is very traditional, what most movies do.

MATRIX: So when they get back and see the rough-cut, how do you guys work together?

ZACH: We work very closely. I find them to be very collaborative, which I love. They are very involved, very hands on. In my experience they are not autocratic, maybe that is because we get along very well and we see eye to eye. I have a tremendous amount of respect for what they do, and I think they respect what I do. So if I tell them that I don’t think one of the ideas they had is working, they will listen, and if they ask me to try something because they would like to see it, I have no problem with doing that. I think all three of us have a similar idea of how the movie should end up, the only differences tend to be the route taken to get there. There are different ways to put the material together to achieve the same end. So the main thing that we will be doing is working out how to achieve that end, and within that we may find there are two or three different tangential approaches, so we will decide which one seems the best. Editing is a process of cumulative revisions, constant revisions. Every time you refine something or look at it again, something else comes out that you didn’t see before. You are at a certain point where everything is not at the same level, so you look for the real rough spots and smooth them down; when they are smoothed down other spots that didn’t seem rough before become apparent.

MATRIX: Can you sand it too much? Is there a point when you can go too far?

ZACH: Yes, you can definitely over work material, you have to be careful not to. Otherwise it will lose its guts and its angst.

MATRIX: How did Larry and Andy approach you to work on the Matrix?

ZACH: We started talking about it as something they really wanted to do. We worked on ‘Bound’ together and felt really comfortable with each other. When you are editing a movie, especially the way I work with Larry and Andy, we spend more time with each other than we do with our families. A lot of very intense time.

MATRIX: As a comparison, how long did it take to get from the rough cut to the final cut of ‘Bound’?

ZACH: There was about 8 weeks of filming and it took about 5 months after they finished to come up with the final cut.

MATRIX: Do you expect this film to take longer?

ZACH: No, I think it will take almost the same amount of time because we have more pressure with this film. It will probably take about 7 months to get to the final cut, but considering the size of the movie it is not a proportionate amount, we have a lot more film for the Matrix.

MATRIX: What were your first thoughts on the concept of the movie when the idea was introduced to you?

ZACH: I was worried for them. I hadn’t read the script yet, we talked about it a lot before I saw the script. It sounded very exciting, Larry and Andy are fantastic story tellers, so you hear it from them and you get excited. I realized right away that it was a big movie and was worried from my experiences in Hollywood, and stories from other people, that it would be a process fraught with pitfalls. Here are these two guys who have just done a $4 million movie and all of a sudden will be doing a $65 million movie with major stars. From a more safe point of view I would have preferred to see them do a $20 million movie, where I wouldn’t be so worried about them, because I care so much about them. But they have handled it brilliantly. I continue to be impressed.

MATRIX: There is not a single person that I have spoken to that doesn’t have the utmost respect for Larry and Andy.

ZACH: They understand the process and are collaborative, not prima donnas. Larry and Andy had a vision and wanted to exorcise it, which means that sometimes they have had to dig their heels in. With their movie ‘Bound’, if I remember correctly, they refused the traditional credit which is ‘a film by’ credit, and I think they will probably do the same with this movie. This is called the possessory credit and is something that the Director’s Guild and the Writer’s Guild are always fighting about. The Director’s Guild has worked it out that any director has the right to have ‘a film by’, even if they have not been involved other than with directing; the writers feel that they should have that credit as it was written by them. But Larry and Andy, and some others, refuse the possessory credit because they feel that a film is a collaborative process. Whether they are talking to a scenic artist or an assistant props person, they are just talking, there is no elitism, just the feeling that we are all in here striving to make a better movie. Crew members really respond to them, maybe this has something to do with their background as carpenters.

MATRIX: What do you think of the Matrix concept now that have read the script and seen some of the footage? Does the concept itself have any resonance for you?

ZACH: I have to say that, for me, the concept is still evolving. It goes back to seeing the movie in your mind’s eye; when I first heard about it from Larry and Andy I had a picture, when I read the script once I got a better picture, before we started shooting the movie I probably read the script four times, then I started seeing the dailies and was able to put things together. This movie is so dense, and although I feel that I am as intimate with this movie as anyone, it is still constantly being revealed to me. I am extraordinarily excited by the potential of the material, and like all things that have great potential, you have to keep working it and see what comes out.

MATRIX: Thanks Zach.

Interview by Spencer Lamm

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