Editing: <I>Murder On The Orient Express</I>
Issue: November 1, 2017

Editing: Murder On The Orient Express

In 1974, film director Sidney Lumet brought famed suspense/crime writer Agatha Christie’s best-selling novel to the big screen, along with a big-name-cast that included Albert Finney (as detective Hercule Poirot), Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave and Michael York. The film, Murder On The Orient Express, went on to receive six Oscar nominations at the 1975 Academy Awards, and earned a win for Ingrid Bergman as “Best Actress in a Supporting Role.”  

In a 2017 remake, actor/director/producer Kenneth Branagh, along with 20th Century Fox, brings Christie’s suspenseful whodunit back to the big screen. This time, Branagh takes on multiple roles as lead actor (stepping in as Poirot), director and producer, and is joined by a stellar 21st century cast that includes Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe and Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley. 

Working closely with Branagh to help bring the 140-page screenplay to the screen, was DP Haris Zambarloukos, composer Patrick Doyle and editor Mick Audsley. 

Speaking from the UK exclusively with Post just days before the film’s opening, Audsley discussed the film, its challenges and working with a director, who is also the movie’s lead character.

How long were you working on the film?

“We started in October 2016 with some tests for makeup, hair and various other issues related to the way the backgrounds were going to work with the train with LCD screens that we were using. The actual shooting wasn’t until the 15th of November, so it was just over a year ago. I finished work on the 29th of September and my associate editor completed work last Friday. It’s a bit worrying when you see something on the side of a bus and you think, ‘Oh my God, it’s not ready yet.’” (laughs)

How would you describe the style of editing on this film?

“I’m always a bit reticent to say that there is a style because that seems to imply that you’ve applied something to the material that you carry with you that’s personal before you even make the film or that you bring to the film. I prefer to think of the style as something that is born out of the material you’re given. So, you respond to the style rather than stick something on to it. All I would say is, I think soon after we started shooting, based on all my conversations with Ken about what he was going for, and what I perceived out of the material I was given, even as early as the tests I got a feeling for it, was something quite traditional and emulating some of his heroes like David Lean — those big, extravagant, very solid movies. I think that’s kind of what we’ve gone for, something very elegant, editorially and certainly elegant to look it. It’s very beautifully designed, lit and shot. Something that is in a way, classical, and I guess that’s what we’ve gone for. So, if that is a style I unconsciously have applied or was born out of the material, I think then that’s something Ken would applaud — I hope so. “

The word cinematic keeps jumping out at me.

“Yes, yes, and remember, of course, it’s Agatha Christie, so we had that in the back of our heads. There’s a sort of genre. It’s a remake, so there’s a line in the back of some of people’s heads, perhaps my age group, younger people perhaps less so, but I was surprised and delighted when we previewed the film in California to realize that the majority of the audience didn’t know the story or the book well to be in advance of our narrative. So, that’s always a worry with something that’s familiar in another form — they’ll know what’s going to happen next.” 

When I look back now at the original film, and that cast, I forgot there were so many big stars of that time period in it. Did you feel any pressure working on this movie because it was a remake of such a classic film?

“Yes, initially it was a concern. Of course I remember the film, but not in detail, because Sidney Lumet made it in 1972 or 1973, and there’s a sort of legacy in your head for a film like that. It was popular and very striking and I thought, ‘Oh, is this going to be a hindrance to us? I better look at the film again.’ And, in fact, I started to watch it a few weeks after we started shooting. I got about 10 minutes in and I said, ‘I don’t think this is going to help me, it might confuse me in some ways, I’ll just put it aside and try to imagine we’re making this for now, for an audience that hasn’t got any memory of it.’ In fact, when we previewed it, I was gratified to realize that actually my concerns about people’s fore knowledge or some legacy of the Lumet film wasn’t quite so deeply etched in their minds. So, we were on our own.”

How do you feel this new film differs from the original version? 

“I don’t want to give the game away if you haven’t seen the film, but I think what Ken has gone for in terms of performance, and let’s say the slant of the film, is an invincible man who has a moral dilemma that completely shakes him to the core. This is an invincible detective who normally cracks things with his extraordinary intelligence and observational skills. In this case, he does unravel it, but it leaves him with a huge moral dilemma, which is what we wanted to bring, a difficult moral situation for him to process and deal with. That’s hopefully what makes this film stand on its own two feet.”

What was Kenneth Branagh looking for from you in terms of the edit?

“Well, I think obviously each director I work with is of different experience and different personality. Perhaps there was a greater responsibility on my part because Ken is a very busy man and doing three jobs is very consumptive of his energy, which he is remarkable at achieving. I don’t know how he does it, so perhaps in the early days I had a great responsibility to choose performances and shape the film as best I could. I always do have that responsibility, but certainly from my point of view I felt it quite acutely on this one. I’d never cut a film for a director who was also the leading actor, which is what I was interested in doing, so that was unique to this project. It certainly seemed to work very well. We had to concentrate our working time together to very regular, but fairly contained meetings either when he was shooting or in post. We moved along at a good lick I would say. It was one of the few films where all the deadlines seemed to come forward instead of moving backward. Hopefully that was a sign of doing it right.”

How did the relationship work with you and Ken? As you said, he was very busy.

“Yes, but he’s great at concentrating — perhaps what other directors might achieve in a half day he did in an hour and a half. He’s a highly intelligent and articulate man and takes full responsibility for what he wants on the screen. So, he would communicate that and we would carry that out. Though he was open to everything that we had to give, he definitely would choose and take what he wanted in an absolutely traditional way. I do find that relationships with directors, they’ve all been completely different, I would be here for three weeks telling you all the different stories, but that’s how it was with Ken.”

Were there any particular editing challenges?

“Yes, the nature of this particular screenplay and Ken’s’ obligation to shoot the pages of it. It was quite long. It was 140 pages and all interesting, good stuff, because it was Agatha Christie and comes from a novel, but it was quite verbose. People talk a lot. There was a concern in my mind of a balance between the visual narrative, action and dialogue-free scenes and the dialogue-heavy scenes. There was a question in my mind as to how we would achieve a balance in that way, because it’s in the nature of a crime investigation that a lot relies on the spoken word, asking people questions, it’s endemic, it’s a part of this film. I was concerned about getting the balance right, that we made it digestible, and hopefully we did.”

Where did you do the edit?

“It was largely shot at a studio just outside London, Longcross Studios, which happens to be conveniently near where Ken lives, which is why we ended up doing the majority of post there as well. There was a four-day shoot in Malta, for a sequence at the beginning of the film, which is posing as Jerusalem, but we stayed in London the whole time.”

The movie was shot on film?

“Yes, it’s a 70mm film, so it was shot on 65mm negative and scanned accordingly at 8K and then the various down res for VFX vendors and so forth.

“We received Avid DNX 1:1:5 files — and then we manipulated the film throughout in the Avid. The scanning process meant that dailies, which went off to Fotokem in California, added a kind of 10-day turnaround for us.” [Files were transferred using Aspera.]

The editing team of (L-R) Thora Woodward (first assistant editor), Mick Audsley, Pani Scott (associate editor), Sarah Bowden (assistant editor) and Julia Hewitt (editing assistant).

You cut on an Avid?

“Yes, on Avid Media Composer 8.3. My team consisted of my first assistant [Thora Woodward] and associate editor [ Pani Scott], who had to do so much work on this, she was promoted in title, an assistant editor [Sarah Bowden] and editing assistant [Julia Hewitt]. There were four or five of us because of the distribution of material on a daily process to all the different parties involved is a very arduous process — making sure the studios got what they needed, all the material was watermarked, because of the piracy issues, because I have such good assistants, I wasn’t allowed to worry about that myself. They very dutifully keep the every day headaches from my mind for which I’m very grateful. It’s a big job to receive a whole film and articulate it at the speed we need to.”

How different was editing this film from others — Interview with the Vampire, Harry Potter, 12 Monkeys, Mona Lisa Smile, Everest? 

“Again, the big difference for me was not the process of articulating the material and shaping the movie in the way in which we did, it was the fact that there was completely different sensibility working with a director who is also, and he’s an incredibly modest man, the star. Ken’s ability to view his own performance, detached, is remarkable and admirable in my mind.”

Any scene in particular you’re most pleased with how it turned out?

“We had an interesting conundrum. As with all Agatha Christie, there’s a denouement scene with all the suspects and this huge soliloquy, a combination of all the thoughts in the film. It was shot with Ken as Hercule Poirot, and all the 12 stars. It was impossible from a practical point of view to have other than a very small amount of time when all of the stars would be in the same space, so what Ken did was, to shoot his end, one in one direction at the very beginning of the shoot, so the first three or four days or week was just his performance to fresh air if you like, or a couple of stand-ins. From that, what I did was, to piece together this long soliloquy — a version of it and then we shot some temporary inserts to put in it just literally with the crew in contemporary costume. We cut those in to get the feeling of the scene, so by the time he came to shoot with Penelope, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench and all the others, we sort of had a sketch of the other direction of the performance and what we would need and where they needed to be together, just to be economical with the very short time they had as an ensemble. That was something that was quite a big deal and I’m quite proud of how we got through that. It was probably from around November to late January before I was able to bring the two halves of the scene together. So it was a bit nerve-wracking. But we did it. When you see it, maybe you can imagine that…it was remarkable. And it was a very brave thing to do with such a key scene where literally he was performing without anything to perform to… “

Did the film come out the way you had hoped?

“I hope so…I wait until I hear what all of you say. If I’m really honest, I’m never happy at this stage of finishing a film, not even some of the ones you mentioned. I’ve always got doubts, thinking I could have done things better. This has been no exception. And it’s until you speak to people and you realize…I’m too close to it at this stage. After nearly 50 weeks or so of working on the material, I’m probably not the best person to ask but I always have a sense of that I could have done better.”