Road to Oscars for Russell & Buchanan

 

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As part of a series on ‘The Road to Oscar,’ SHOOT Online featured two Final Cut creatives – Jeff Buchanan, co-editor of Her, and Rick Russell, editor of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

Here’s the SHOOT story which showcases the process of these films and the great relationship these editors have with the features’ well-known directors.

Her

After it ran as the closing night film at the New York Film Festival, the Spike Jonze-directed Her began to build momentum as an Oscar contender across several categories.

Joaquin Phoenix stars in Her as a Los Angeles resident in the not-all-that-distant future who gets an operational system (OS) that connects with him via a voice (Scarlett Johansson). The woman’s voice starts to grow on him, taking on a human-like presence and influence. He finds himself falling in love with “her.”

Eric Zumbrunnen and Jeff Buchanan–who have track records of collaborating with Jonze–edited Her. Zumbrunnen’s history with Jonze goes back nearly 20 years, spanning assorted commercials (e.g., the lauded Ikea’s “Lamp,” the Absolut short I’m Here) and music videos (Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice,” Weezer’s “Buddy Holly”) as well as the features Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Where the Wild Things Are. (The latter was cut by Zumbrunnen and Union Editorial’s James Haygood.)

Being John Malkovich received three Oscar nominations and earned Zumbrunnen both a BAFTA nomination and an ACE Eddie Award for Best Edited Feature Film. Adaptation garnered four Academy Award nominations and netted Zumbrunnen an Eddie nomination.

While not as extensive as that of his colleague Zumbrunnen, Buchanan too has a filmography that includes various projects directed by Jonze such as the Arcade Fire music video “Suburbs,” Jay-Z/Kanye West’s “Otis,” and the documentary short Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak. Buchanan also cut the Directors Label series of DVDs devoted to notable music video directors, including one chronicling the work of Jonze.

Besides their common bond with Jonze, Zumbrunnen and Buchanan also share the same roost for commercials and branded content–editorial house Final Cut which maintains shops in New York, Los Angeles and London. Zumbrunnen is a partner in the company and founded the L.A. office.

Both Zumbrunnen and Buchanan concurred that one of the biggest challenges posed to them as editors by Her was to capture what in essence is a romance between two people with one of them never seen. “Luckily Phoenix is an amazing actor and we benefitted from his performance,” related Zumbrunnen. “Clearly, though, there are things you can’t do if you only have one actor physically in scenes.”

Buchanan expounded on that, noting, “We have these dialogue scenes between two characters with only one on screen. We cut to some visual motifs but often we were just on Joaquin for entire scenes.”

Zumbrunnen and Buchanan both described Jonze as being “a great collaborator” who is open to different ideas and approaches. Initially, for example, Zumbrunnen recalled that Jonze thought there wouldn’t be that many moving parts in Her, meaning that the edit wouldn’t be all that open-ended. “Yet when we got more into the project, Spike felt the edit would be more open-ended. In the past, he’s said that it can take a long time to find the movie in the edit.”

Towards that end, Zumbrunnen noted that in pre-pro Jonze came to the conclusion that an extra editor would be needed. “We immediately thought Jeff would be the right guy,” said Zumbrunnen. “Both of us have known Jeff for awhile and he was the natural choice.” At the time Buchanan was working on another movie so he came on a few months after principal photography on Her had been wrapped. Zumbrunnen, though, was working on Her from the very beginning, cutting during shooting and afterwards. As for the division of labor between he and Buchanan, Zumbrunnen related, “I was working from the beginning and end of the movie toward the middle; Jeff from the middle toward the beginning and end. After that, we kind of jumped around, cutting and collaborating.”

This marked the first time that Zumbrunnen and Buchanan worked together on a project and they found the experience gratifying. At press time, Zumbrunnen was still working on Her, specifically on deleted sequences from the movie that could serve as DVD extra or perhaps even a short film. He should wrap that endeavor shortly and return to commercial editing. Buchanan meanwhile has jumped back into spots at Final Cut, cutting an ESPN job directed by Stacy Wall of production house Imperial Woodpecker for Wieden+Kennedy.

Jeff Buchanan

Mandela

Editor Rick Russell–who founded Final Cut in London in 1995, expanding the company with the launch of a NY shop in 2001 and then opening an L.A. office in 2005 (for which he recruited Zumbrunnen as a partner)–also has a feature generating Oscar buzz: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, directed by Justin Chadwick.

The film is based on Mandela’s autobiography of the same title, chronicling his life and of course his 27 years in prison before becoming President of South Africa and helping to heal and bring together a country divided by apartheid. Idris Elba stars as Mandela with Naomie Harris as Winnie Mandela.

Russell has known Chadwick for 20 years, cutting the director’s first short film, Boy, starring a then relatively unknown actor, Ewan McGregor.

From that point, Russell established himself as an editor of commercials and branded content while Chadwick got his break at the BBC, directing serialized dramas. Chadwick then made a major splash with the BBC’s take on Charles Dickens’ Bleak House that won the director a BAFTA Television Award, leading to the feature The Other Boleyn Girl.

Over the years Russell and Chadwick kept in touch, and occasionally teamed on commercials. Russell related that Chadwick asked him to come aboard The Other Boleyn Girl but the studio picture didn’t embrace Russell due to his lack of theatrical feature film credits.

Still Russell and Chadwick managed to stay connected, coming together on a short film for the Summer Olympics in London, part of British Airways “Great Britons” campaign. A week after wrapping that project, Russell recalled, “Justin put a manuscript on my desk.”

That script was for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Still, it took time for all the elements to come together and to get a final green light for the picture.

The big difference, though, for Russell was that he had since cut his first theatrical feature, director Malcolm Venville’s 44 Inch Chest. That experience made him more marketable this time around for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. “It [Mandela] was an independent feature even though it was a big production,” shared Russell. “Justin was able to lobby successfully for me. I’m grateful for his support and the opportunity he gave me.”

Russell observed that Chadwick’s approach to the movie was key. “He took a point of view that centered on Mandela’s human story, his loss of love and family, his and Winnie’s self-sacrifice. The performances were extraordinary. Justin captured the real South Africa. In a funny way it wasn’t all that daunting from an editing standpoint. The material was strong and seemed to go together intuitively.”

One of the challenges Russell dealt with on the film was figuring out how to best deploy archival footage.

“I did quite a bit of work looking at archival footage, cutting scenes together and we quickly realized that we needed our own material. We filmed as much original footage as we could. And we found the most useful archival material was the sound.”

The meshing of this audio with original material achieved great effect. Upon becoming President of South Africa, Mandela had to bring the country together, coping with interracial and intertribal violence, a faction of whites trying to destabilize society and other problems.

Mandela addresses his country’s people on television, which was recreated through new original footage yet complemented by archival audio. “We had a cacophony of world press as he enters the building for his speech. There were reporters from all over the world. And we married this audio with our original footage. It was the best of both worlds,” affirmed Russell.

A couple of factors helped Russell get his first feature editing gig, the aforementioned 44 Inch Chest. First came the opportunity to cut director Daniel Barber’s The Tonto Woman, which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Short Live-Action Film in 2008. Cutting an Oscar-nominated short made Russell more viable as a prospective feature editor. He felt that helped him get his foot in the door.

Also instrumental was the commitment of veteran executive Steve Golin, founder/CEO of Anonymous Content, who’s active in both commercials and features. Russell noted that Golin, dating back to his days at Propaganda Films, has been instrumental in helping numerous commercial directors break into features, including Venville, who’s with Anonymous Content, on 44 Inch Chest. “Steve knows people from both worlds–commercials and features–and knows when they can cross over. He was key in letting me edit 44 Inch Chest. He has advised and helped many directors and editors.”

After wrapping Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom back in July, Russell has gotten back into the advertising arena, editing several jobs, including an Audi commercial directed by Noam Murro, Guinness helmed by Nicolai Fuglsig, and an Axe campaign directed by Tim Godsall.

Rick Russell