Director Sarah Gavron delves into late 19th/early 20th century Britain with her latest film, Suffragette, which presents a look at some of the pioneers of the early feminist movement. Many who laid the groundwork for the movement were working women, who faced brutal odds in their fight for equal rights. The Focus Features film — much of which was shot on Arri 416s on 16mm film in the east end of London — stars Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep. According to editor Barney Pilling, who was based at Hertfordshire Elstree Studios (where interior set builds were located) just on the London Basin edge, the location shots were “pure authenticity!” Here, in an exclusive interview with
Post, Pilling discusses the film, working with Gavron, and the perception of what a period film is and looks like.
How early on did you get involved in the film?
“The first indirect involvement was bumping into Carey Mulligan at a Q&A after a screening of Inside Llewyn Davis at the Curzon in around October 2013. We'd worked together on An Education and Never Let Me Go, and she said, ‘Hey, you should come and edit Suffragette!’ I met with the producers a month later and then started editing the film the following February.”
What cameras were used and what was the acquisition format?
“I'm very proud to report that we shot all our daytime scenes using 16mm film — on Arri 416s. It gave the heebie-jeebies to all the financiers and bond companies to start with because it's perceive as a dead format that has no relevance or reliability these days, which is rubbish, frankly. Classic films and hours and hours of first-class television have been made in the past using 16mm — Spooks, Life on Mars and Tsunami: The Aftermath — in my own experience alone. So I was delighted that Edu Grau, fantastic cinematographer on Suffragette, was serious about using it again. It had such a wonderful, authentic patina that suited the period perfectly. Night scenes were shot on the Arri Alexa, which was slightly under exposed to deepen the black and reveal a little noise. Genius really, because it starts to look just like 16mm film — but with way less lights required.”
Where did you do the editing?
“Elstree for the shoot (plus weekends and evenings at my home studio), then we were based in the flats in Goldcrest, Soho for the fine cut.”
What was your understanding of what filmmaker Sarah Gavron was looking for with the editing style on the film?
“It was very clear from the beginning to all involved that we would have to blow the doors off the perception of what a period film is and looks like. Suffragette couldn't be a rose-tinted memoir. That was very clear from the script, which was vital, angry, visceral and, above all, relevant. So we shot huge amounts of footage with a great deal of variety in camera movement — mostly complete freedom, in fact, for the operators to find moments, ride the zoom ring — get in there and dig stuff out. So it had the feel of a documentary in some respects, which really governs the edit style and what's possible in terms of craft and what is not.”
Did Sarah work closely with you on the editing?
“Absolutely. Obviously I had autonomy during the shoot, which is always terribly arduous for all concerned on set with a modest budgeted film like this. So I was left to really comb all this footage and start putting shape and rhythm to the story while the guys battled the weather, the horses, the extras and so on, to get all this in the can. Then, once the shoot finished, Sarah and I worked side by side for four or five months boiling it all down.”
Barney Pilling, right
What did you find most challenging about editing this film?
“The sheer volume of material and the variety of it. I had to completely re-calibrate my way of processing rushes — logistically and mentally. Because of the amount of footage, it was impossible to watch the dailies with an eye on the shot structure of a scene — which is normal for me with more conventional footage. I had to have a first pass with a slightly removed editorial conscience. Just to boil down the material into a more manageable mass of moments that were real or engaging — regardless of shot size or editorial syntax. Then I'd start again with this selects reel — only then able to start considering the progression of shots.”
What did you find most unique about this film?
“Hmmm — good question, but that's almost impossible to answer. All the films I've worked on feel unique. There are so many different stories, performances, character traits, different colleagues to work with, that they all feel completely unique.”
Any scene in particular that stood out for you?
“Two actually (spoiler alert!) — when Maud loses her son. Adam, who plays George, really gave us something special that day. Secondly, the force feeding. Carey's performance throughout is mesmerizing. The pain, desperation and fear — but with strength and determination she conveys — is simply astonishing.”
What system did you use for editing and why?
“Avid Media Composer 6.5, HP Z820s, Unity. For speed, reliability, unrivalled media management (given how much footage we had) and also, I can now edit as fast as I can think on Avid because it's become so intuitive and customizable.”
Are you happy with how the film came out?
“I'm not sure I'm ever happy with a film I've edited, actually. When you think about it, I'm paid to look for mistakes or untruths and eliminate them. This doesn't cease when the clock stops. I'm always thinking, ‘What if X or Y, could we have done better?’ But I am very proud of what we achieved — the message is important and the performances are all brilliant.”