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August 2014
Issue: September 1, 2008

EDITING: 'GHOST TOWN'

By: Randi Altman
NEW YORK — Have you ever been on line at the store, lost in your own thoughts, when someone starts up a conversation that just won’t end? All you want to do is be alone, but Chatty Cathy or Carl won’t have it. Well imagine that happening everywhere you go, except with ghosts and a very crabby dentist, and that’s the basic premise for writer/director David Koepp’s Ghost Town.

To edit this film, starring Ricky Gervais (the dentist) and Greg Kinnear (a ghost), Koepp called on Sam Seig, who cut the film entirely in New York while based at the famous Brill Building. Although he lives in Los Angeles, being based in New York for eight months during the shoot and the edit helped Seig become part of the city the film’s characters lived in, and that helped him better edit the film.

“The city is so vibrant and has so much energy,” he says. “It’s invigorating, and that helped me with the feeling of the movie. I’m not sure it would have been the same if I was editing in LA. In New York, you get up in the morning, walk out the door and you are sucked into this sea of humanity.” Similar to what Ghost Town’s lead goes through, except his “humanity” won’t leave him alone.

Eight months in New York? Seig admits this set up was more of an exception than a rule. “Usually the movies are shot somewhere and it will come back to LA to post, but Dave lives in New York. He’s a New York guy. He wants to be able to make movies and do everything there.”

JUMPING IN

Each day, Seig would get footage — from the 35mm shoot by DP Fred Murphy — into his cutting room at around 10am. Assistant editor Kent Blocher would get it into the Avid Meridien and start organizing. “We didn’t really look at performances,” says Seig. “We would just high-speed through to see what angles they used, what they shot.” He would then hop on a subway or take a taxi to wherever Koepp was shooting in New York.

During lunch, he and Koepp would sit in the director’s trailer, watch the dailies (supplied by Technicolor New York) and take notes. He would then get back to the cutting room and edit as quickly as he could. “For me it’s all about your gut instincts, so I get into the footage as quickly as I can after I watch it with the director. If it’s fresh in my mind, I get through the first pass as quickly as I can and then rework it.”

Seig is a firm believer in getting a polished cut to the director the next day with temp sound effects and music. He has learned that temping out your cuts to help with the rhythm of the scene also helps the director get into it. “Music is such an important part of the process — the glue that holds it together,” he says.

ON THE SAME PAGE

Even though Koepp and Seig hadn’t worked together before, they both had the same ideas for what the film should be and were on the same page from the start.

“When I read the script, I got a picture of the movie in my head,” he explains. “And fortunately Dave had the same picture in his head. The dailies matched what I had envisioned. He delivered the script almost exactly as it was written,” with some improvisation from Ricky Gervais added in.

Says Seig, “We had only really talked for a little bit before we started working together, but we seemed to hit it off. He brought me to New York and off we went.”

THE FUNNY

Seig had plenty to work with in terms of humor, considering the script as well as comedy vets Gervais, Kinnear and Tea Leoni. But how does he make sure the funny translates to the audience? “It’s all about the set-up and the timing of the set-up, depending on the joke,” he explains. “It’s about, how does funny feel? Does it feel like you are going to hit the punch line? Because that’s what you are trying to do, make the punch line hit at the right time so people will laugh. You have to watch it, and if it makes you laugh or your assistant or Dave, you know you’ve hit it.”

According to Seig, Koepp remembers almost every frame of film and every line of dialogue. “Three months after shooting we were going through a scene and he said, ‘in take two there is a better reading of that line,’ so we would go to take two and sure enough… He is super talented and knows exactly what he wants, so he shoots that, and when the dailies come in you see where he wants to go with the scene, and that makes the editing process much easier.”

While Seig has worked on dramas (Munich) and action films (War of the Worlds), as well as comedies (You, Me and Dupree, Osmosis Jones), if he had to pick just one genre to edit, he would cut comedies for the rest of his life.

“You go to work and you laugh all day long,” he says. “We work hard and get the job done, but ideally I try to have my cutting room be a fun, light atmosphere. If the movie is made with love and fun, it’s going to come across.”

But while comedy might be fun, he admits it’s hard to cut. “Making people laugh is hard to do. It’s a very challenging and fun form of editing.”

Seig credits a couple of mentors with helping teach him the business. He considers the late Chris Greenbury — “a great comedy editor” who worked with the Farrelly brothers — his first mentor. “He taught me a lot about cutting comedy.”

Then he had the opportunity to work with Michael Kahn [the latest Indiana Jones film, Munich, War of the Worlds, Catch Me If You Can] for six movies. “He taught me a lot about rhythm and music and feeling. He made me realize that what I was thinking in my head is true — cut with your gut. If it looks good to you the first time you watch it, then that’s what you will most likely end up with. The first blush.”

Seig called on Avid Meridien Film Composers for editing. “The Meridiens are super stable, they never crash, and since we weren’t cutting in high def, that was the way to go.”

While Seig has worked on Apple’s Final Cut, he is an Avid guy, reporting that all the films he has worked on were cut on Avid, starting in 1995 with Kingpin, and he says he’s staying the course.

Technicolor, NY, provided film developing and telecine, along with dailies on Ghost Town. “Once we got to previews we uprezed to high def and got the color correction at Orbit,” he reports. “We did the DI at Technicolor, got the print the way we liked it and then went back to LA.”

All in all, Ghost Town and Seig got the full New York experience.