'Interstellar': Editor Lee Smith, ACE
Issue: December 1, 2014

'Interstellar': Editor Lee Smith, ACE

Lee Smith, ACE — Christopher Nolan’s longtime editor — likes to joke about how grueling it was to cut the director’s massively-layered and technically-complex space/science drama, Interstellar. He claims he spent “10 minutes rolling around on the floor holding my head” when he first saw the script, and even urged Nolan to shoot a simple romantic comedy next time around, after this recent experience “trying to bend time.” But in truth, Smith says the opportunity to work on Interstellar was the fulfillment of a long-held dream — “I’ve always wanted to work on a space movie since I was a kid,” he says. “It’s truly a career high to get to work on [this film].”

During a recent conversation with Post, Smith emphasized that he feels this way, not only because of his lifelong love of space movies, but also because of his devotion to the notion of layered narratives, complex filmmaking, and the idea that helping his friend Nolan make stories that require audiences to unravel what he calls “puzzles” is actually, in the modern world of bubblegum fare, a worthy endeavor, if not an easy one for a motion picture editor. 

“His films are not ones you would want to tackle as your first film as an editor, or perhaps even your 10th,” Smith says. “They are complex in the extreme. You have to have a willingness to be someone who is very interested in puzzles and deconstruction and reconstruction… [The scripts Nolan and his brother, Jonathan Nolan] write are really more of a blueprint for a very complex piece of a kit. They are like a watch — you can mess with it, but it still has to tell time on the other end. The complexity [of editing the film] is really in the pacing.”

Given that Interstellar takes place on multiple planets in two galaxies, in more than one dimension, over almost a century, and indeed, plays with the very concepts of how time and space can be bent and manipulated to the edge of what theoretical physics might permit, how to pace the story, connect characters, timelines, and multiple plot arcs were enormous challenges for Smith. He says that the director had some direct ideas about how to tackle this challenge and, along the way, threw him a major curveball — one designed specifically to help Smith be as judicious as possible in how he put together the sometimes epic space sequences in the movie. 

“When Chris comes [into the editing room], we basically start from Frame 1 and we don’t jump around,” he says. “We do an initial pass through the entire movie, of just making sure that it’s just, in a linear sense, that it is making sense, that it is following the script. But Chris got me to do something quite interesting on this one that did make it a little bit harder than normal. He asked me to not use any of the animatics for the exteriors of space [during his initial assembly, which made his job harder] because, of course, that helps me to edit because there are all these logical moments where you go, ‘OK, let’s cut to the [spaceships docking], cut to a shot of Saturn, cut to other [things in space], because they are built into the script.’

“But what [Nolan] said was, cut the entire movie as if you had no exterior shots [of space], and assemble it as such. You have to construct everything like it is going to work without those shots. Now, we knew [those shots] would be in the movie, but what his thoughts were, was that a lot of these movies have way too many of those shots, because you just can’t help it. You have a shot of a spaceship doing something, then you are bound to use it, even in animation form. What his thought was, that if I can construct it without those exterior shots, it will make us very, very accurate in when we do have to go outside, and we will much reduce the over-usage of the visual effects. He always comes up with something to mess with me, and that was pretty good.”

Smith has dozens of anecdotes regarding the unusual nature of collaborating with Nolan in the edit room, largely because the director was, according to Smith, always thinking ahead “and talking about those things” while Smith was busy grappling with his present crop of challenges. But the relationship also works beautifully, he adds, because the director’s memory of literally every moment during the production process is so keen that Smith has come to often rely on Nolan as something of “another computer” when he can’t find particular takes or shots during the cutting process. 

“His memory is just unusual in its accuracy of what he shot,” Smith states. “To me, that’s great — it’s like having another computer. If I’m struggling to find something, I can look to him and say, ‘Did you ever do a strange reverse shot on this?’ And he’ll go, ‘Yes, it was Take 2, and then we elected to move the camera around.’ And I’ll go, ‘How did you remember that?’ Let’s be frank — it’s not possible to remember every single nuance, but weirdly, he does.”

And, Smith elaborates,Interstellar was chock full of nuance and details, not only creatively, but technically, as well. On this point, he enjoys disputing the notion that because Nolan has evolved into Hollywood’s leading acolyte for continuing to shoot film — large-format film, in his case, as long as he possibly can — that he is somehow “old school” as some might suggest. Rather, the editor suggests Interstellar’s pipeline and workflow, and Nolan’s way of working generally, “is the most complicated pathway in the world, because we are shooting multiple formats.”

To hear Smith explain exactly why that is so, and why he finds it almost amusing that even Nolan himself doesn’t always realize exactly how technically demanding the nature of his workflow can be, click HERE to listen to Smith explain it from his conversation with Post.

At the end of the day, Smith is particularly proud of the work he and his colleagues did to serve Nolan’s vision onInterstellar, and he is honored to see the film get awards consideration this year, particularly given the complexity of the themes and story structure. Movies that require the audience to think, he insists, are a good thing. 

“My theory a little bit is that Chris’ films ask a lot of you mentally when you watch them,” he says. “I’ve got to give Chris top points for that — the man goes way out on a limb,” Smith says. “And who doesn’t like that? It’s like Terrence Malick films. I don’t want to live in a world where they don’t exist.”

Click HERE to hear Lee Smith’s entire conversation with Post contributor Michael Goldman. And for more on the visual effects’ work in Interstellar, see the November issue of Post, HERE.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Earlier this year, Iain Blair sat down for a conversation with Matt Reeves, director of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, one of the favorites to earn an Academy Award nomination for its visual effects work this year. Reeves discussed the entire scope of the ambitious project, including the visual effects that brought the animated ape characters to life in unprecedented fashion, the decision to make it a 3D movie, the sound track, the importance of the digital intermediate, and other aspects of the project’s post workflow. Check out Post’s coverage HERE.