Editing: <I>Bad Times at the El Royale</I>
Issue: November 1, 2018

Editing: Bad Times at the El Royale

It’s the late ‘60s, and the El Royale is an aging hotel situated on the border between California and Nevada. The Tahoe hotspot is a decade past its heyday, when some of the country’s most famous celebrities and politicians mingled in and around the resort’s casino, bar, bungalows and pool.

Now, its few guests are mostly passing through, and prefer anonymity. A chance rainy night brings seven individuals together, where their complicated lives intersect. While some see opportunity and redemption in their future, others are looking to escape their past. As events unfold, each is drawn into a complicated backstory that involves murder, spying, the government and robbery.

Jeff Bridges plays Father Daniel Flynn, a priest who returns to the hotel in search of a missing fortune. Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) is a talented lounge singer on her way to a gig in Reno. Jon Hamm plays traveling salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan, while Dakota Johnson and Cailee Spaeny play sisters looking to break free from a religious cult, led by Chris Hemsworth’s Billy Lee character. El Royale manager Miles Miller (played by Lewis Pullman) has his own demons, many of which come to light over the film’s duration.

The project reunited editor Lisa Lassek — a frequent collaborator of writer/director Joss Whedon (Avengers, The Avengers: Age of Ultron) — with director Drew Goddard. Lassek cut Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods, The Circle and most recently, 12 Strong
Here, she speaks exclusively with Post about the challenges of editing 20th Century Fox’s Bad Times at the El Royale — “It was such a labor of love…”— working with Goddard, and for the first time in more than a decade, cutting a feature shot on film.

You have worked with Drew Goddard a number of times. Is that how this came together?

“I actually met Drew Goddard with Joss Whedon. We both go way back. I first met him working on Buffy [The Vampire Slayer]. Both Drew and I came up in the ‘Joss Whedon school’. That was my early career — his early career. We both learned everything from Joss basically.”

Editor Lisa Lassek

How was Bad Times at the El Royale different than the Marvel films you have worked on?

“They say every film has it’s own challenges. There’s nothing harder than those Marvel films…but for this one we had a really short schedule from the get-go. We started shooting in February in Vancouver and we came out the beginning of October. So it was particularly short. And even though it doesn’t look like a VFX-heavy movie, it did have quite a few VFX. Just like we do on a Marvel film, we had to start doing turnovers while we were still shooting.”

The story is presented in chapters. Can you talk about your workflow?

"Drew’s concept was to shoot in order. It takes place in the lobby of that hotel, and the lobby gets progressively changed as it goes. It’s not like we could start at the end anyway. It really helped me editorially because it was something I’ve never had the luxury of before. Obviously, in a Marvel movie, we are getting bits and pieces of the entire movie the entire time. You almost feel like you don’t have a complete chapter or anything complete. But in this movie, I actually did have scenes complete. 

“I can tell you that I had the beginning of the movie — the whole first act almost — done, pretty early on in shooting because he shot that first. It was kind of nice. It wasn’t perfectly in order. He had to shoot some of the flashbacks and things like that based on locations, but it was far more in order than I’d ever had the luxury of. 

“I feel like it was great and it was almost like you were building the movie from beginning to end and discovering the movie and the characters, and letting them develop from beginning to end. I can understand why it’s something that actors would prefer…I never knew it would be so nice for an editor as well.”

Do you have a preferred editing system?

“I am definitely, very strictly, an Avid editor. I haven’t had any show where I’ve used Premiere or anything else. I’ve been using Avid from the very beginning and never changed.” 

Bad Times was shot on 35mm film? That is not too common today?

“I haven’t done a feature shot on film since 2005. It was really refreshing, but there are things I forgot when you shoot on film, like the delay. Because we were shooting in Vancouver, we had to ship the film every day. It had to fly, everyday, from Vancouver to LA to get processed…then telecined and then sent to me. It was days before I got my dailies.”

Where were you working?

“I was in Vancouver. We were literally above the set. I could walk down to set any time of day...I can’t imagine doing a movie any other way, especially on a Drew movie. We did Cabin the same way. We had a lot of the same crew as Cabin in the Woods on this one, so it was so natural for me to walk downstairs and talk to the script supervisor, who was the same on both shows — Susan Lambie... There are things that evolve as you are shooting. For example, on Cabin, we had a ton of footage that was shot to then be on TVs or monitors later. And this was the same thing. Drew shot the ‘Malibu Massacre’ footage at the beginning and then that played a couple of weeks later on-camera.”

Did you receive hard drives with the dailies?

“We would download it. Our Internet was pretty good and we were able to get it digitally.”

What resolution were you working at?

“We weren’t cutting film, so we still had to screen out of the Avid. It was your usual DNxHD115, the one that holds up when you do previews, and it looked great. 

“I have to say, it was astonishing to see 35mm film after not seeing it for a long time. You kind of forget that there’s a difference...Film is so rich and the focus is so narrow. It was a real pleasure for me and I’m sure for Drew as well. And (DP) Seamus [McGarvey] did just such an amazing job. The dailies were just a shock to all of us — my assistants too. We had forgotten the joy of film.”

Was the 'the look' created in post?

“Luckily, I had a first pass on my dailies, so my dailies looked good. They were as the DP intended. But the color timing was another endeavor, and I have to give 100 percent of that credit to Drew. I really felt that he took it 10 levels past where dailies ever dreamed of. The dailies were a pale reflection of what his final vision was. And he was thinking about the color timing the whole time, even though he didn’t get to do it until the very end. You can see things that are very particular choices that he made, like the colors of the wallpapers in the rooms. That was something he had really thought out and made all the decisions that he knew he was going to make in color timing later. All those colors had meaning to the characters and to the story. 

“I’ll never forget the change he made to the purple wallpaper in Darlene’s room. From dailies to color timing [it] was night and day, and so beautiful.”

There are a few scenes that really stand out — one being the ‘bottle’ scene in the lounge, and another being the performance in front of the mirror.

“Those were scenes that, in the script, were particularly memorable. It was really the way Drew shot them that took them to a whole [new] level.

“What’s interesting about that scene with Darlene, the one where she gets him with the bottle at the end, [is] that’s actually a long scene, one that we call the ‘Pie Date,’ because they are first meeting and getting to know each other. 

“That scene has several sections…we knew [the film] was going to be long, but that was the scene that was heavily targeted because it was a ‘getting to know you’ scene and because it had so many sections. It was super tempting to say, ‘Do we need to see them buy the pie? Can they just be sitting down and have the pie already?’ There’s even a part where [Father Flynn] gets up and sits back down again. There was much temptation to just lose chunks of it. But what we found, and what Drew always knew, was that because you are lulled by that scene and are into the story and into their character, and getting to know them, that you really don’t expect the [hit] at the end. If we made it punchy and short, you wouldn’t have that. You wouldn’t be so lulled. The shock of that bottle hit is one of my favorite things to see audiences react to. 

“It’s something that is easy to forget when you are editing, and at the end of the movie when you are really concerned with taking out time. I am so glad that Drew is one of those filmmakers who keeps the ‘big picture’ in mind.

“I really think that that impact at the end is maximized by having the length of that scene. There is so much going on...If you watch that scene again, there is nothing that is not important. He is suspicious of her and she is suspicious of him. That thing where it seems that she is just singing hymns for him? She is actually testing him, and that’s how she knows that something is wrong. That’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie.”

What about the scene where Darlene is singing in front of the mirror? It is such a long shot. 

“It’s all live sound. That’s why Drew hired someone with a very special talent that Cynthia Erivo has, because I honestly don’t know who else could have pulled it off? It was difficult shooting. The opening shot of that scene is a long, 360 dolly around her. It’s really difficult technically. It’s difficult to focus. It’s difficult on 100 different levels. And she’s also live singing. It has to be perfect. 

“There is choreography to that scene and when things happen. We reveal Jeff Bridges behind her. And he is opening up the knife right as we see him. It’s just so difficult, but that’s Drew’s gift and why it’s so great. There is always more than one thing happening. She is performing, but we are also finding out what they are up to. I love the long takes and that was something that was definitely a part of Drew’s style for this entire movie.”

Music plays a very important role in the film as well?

“[Drew] wrote the script with these songs in mind. And the smartest thing he did was to get all of the songs he planned to use in the movie — the needledrops, the jukebox songs, things like that — cleared before they started shooting. I had actual masters of all those songs to cut with from Day 1. And I had a script that almost spelled out completely how to use each song. That was super helpful. It was great to have Cynthia live singing. When you do a pre-record, it’s just different. You don’t have the attention to the dailies that I got to have in this one because I got to really look at her vocal performance in every take. It’s something I would prefer.”

What’s next for you?

“I’m definitely taking a break. This one was such a short schedule, I am looking forward to taking some time off before my next project.”