Editing: <I>Joker</I>
Issue: November/December 2019

Editing: Joker

LOS ANGELES – When the nominees for the 92nd Oscars (www.oscars.org) were announced on January 13th, Joker came out on top, receiving honors in 11 categories. In addition to Best Picture, the film is competing in the Directing (Todd Phillips), Lead Actor (Joaquin Phoenix), Cinematography (Lawrence Sher), Music (Hildur Guðnadóttir), Sound Editing (Alan Robert Murray) and Sound Mixing (Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic and Tod Maitland) categories, among others.  

Jeff Groth (pictured), who has collaborated with Todd Phillips on productions in the past that include Project X, The Hangover III and War Dogs, picked up his first nomination in the Film Editing category. The nomination follows Groth’s ACE and BAFTA nominations as well.

Recently, he took some time to speak with Post about his work on Joker, which spanned a full year, representing his longest feature assignment to date. 

You’ve worked with Todd Phillips several times in the past. Is that how you got involved with Joker?

“Yes, 100 percent. I worked with him (on) essentially four movies now. I basically told Todd I would be available. Tell me what you have and I will be available.” (Laughs)

Where were you set up for editorial?

“I live in Los Angeles, but I was set up in New York for three months during production, and then we came back and worked here in Los Angeles. Any of the studio work happened in New York, so I was on the studio lot, there in the production office. It was Steiner Studios in New York.”

Do you have a preferred editing system for feature work?

“Avid, that’s pretty much all I use. I used to use Final Cut Pro, back 15 years ago. I started my career at an Avid training center. I know it pretty well.”

How far behind the production were you in terms of receiving dailies?

“We were as little behind as we possibly could be. We had one assistant in New York and one in Los Angles that stayed on for the remainder of production. The New York assistant came back with me as well. The dailies were sent out to Los Angeles over the Internet, and because of the time difference, we had somebody working there later. It would take longer to get them from Manhattan to Brooklyn – with the traffic in the morning - than it would to get them from Manhattan to Los Angeles. The assistant was working the night before in Los Angeles and basically processing those dailies and breaking up the bins, getting everything ready for cutting. And then the assistant in New York would bring all that stuff in the next morning and lay it out.”

Do you know the format they were shooting on?

“It was shot on digital. I used to (know). I don’t pay that close attention to the camera formats.”

What resolution were you cutting at in the Avid?

“I think it was DNx36. We were bringing in a lot of footage, so we were not working at higher than HD resolution — I don’t believe. I don’t think there was necessarily a need to. At that point you can still tell focus.”

Can you talk about the style of this film? The shots play out much longer than in other superhero-type films. Was that a conscious decision?

“Yes, definitely, to the extent that we would go back into scenes and sometimes look and see what cuts we could remove, just to be able to hold on things longer…Joaquin Phoenix did such an amazing job. We didn’t want his performance to be overly manipulated or to feel overly manipulated. So there was definitely an eye towards letting what he was doing develop and stay on that longer.

“(That’s) editorial and everybody working together. It was my and Todd’s willingness to let the shots play. It’s Joaquin delivering a performance that sustains, and (cinematographer) Larry (Sher) keeping the camera pointed in the right direction with a great composition. And all of those things playing together (and) lets you stay on those shots…We were trying to make it feel like it was a movie that would have come from the late ‘70s, possibly early ‘80s, where things were not as ‘cutty’. There’s not so many tricks put into the cuts.”

How frequently was Todd Phillips checking in on the developing edit?

“While we were shooting, he didn’t have time to look at everything every day. It was an intense shoot. But he would definitely come in and look at stuff, and I would send him things — either if it was something he was concerned about. Did we get the scene? Or if it was something I was excited about. That was the mandate. If I put something together and really liked it, (I’d) just send it because he’d want to see it. Overall, Todd doesn’t watch the movie as a whole until after. He doesn’t even watch particularly long strings of scenes until we are done shooting. Then he comes in — once we are done shooting — (and) we are working every day. He likes editing and he is good at it, so it’s very much a collaborative time. If I have an idea, I am allowed to run with it. He’s there though and paying attention. He watches what I am doing on the timeline on the Avid, because he knows how to run an Avid. He can watch what I am doing technically and understand where it’s going.”

Did the VFX influence the edit at all?

“We are not doing a whole lot of green screen or anything like that. We are not rebuilding Gotham. Most of those scenes are on city street — whether they are amended by visual effects or not. So you really have the ability to cut it without having to worry too much about adjusting those cuts later for visual effects. There are probably one or two here and there — that opening shot of Gotham obviously. It’s a huge scene that he might have extended that by a few frames, because it’s a really great shot. Generally, the visual effects followed the cuts. The cuts didn’t follow the visual effects so much.”

Where did you work after the shoot wrapped and you moved back to Los Angeles?

“We were working in Todd’s office above his garage, and satellite office. He’s got an office above his garage and then we had a satellite office nearby that held a lot of visual effects, all the assistants, a music editor, the post supervisor. Everybody! There was also a cutting room set up in there, so we worked there some of the time. When we were working just by ourselves, it was the two of us in that office.” 

Is there a scene in Joker that you are particularly proud of because of the way editing helps tell the story? 

“I am proud of everything. It would be difficult for me to pull out and say I am most proud of any one thing because there is quite a bit that I am proud of. I guess there are two things: The first is when he is practicing for (the) Murray Franklin (show). He sits down and begins to imagine himself making that appearance. You hear that crowd come in and fill the room. That sound was recorded with a real crowd, for fill in for other scenes and we took that and put underneath. You realize he is off his rocker at this point. The crowd was lifted from somewhere else. It wasn’t planned in the shoot, and because of that, it became something even more.”

Another scene that Groth describes as “amazing from beginning to end” is the ‘scissors scene,’ in which Joaquin Phoenix’s character is confronted by his co-workers. “It has a everything — tension, horror and humor, and then back — all in a single scene.”

Groth is currently working with Anthony and Joe Russo on their upcoming film, Cherry, about an army medic who becomes a serial bank robber. 

The 92nd Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 9th, at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. Joker is competing in the Film Editing category against Ford v Ferrari (Michael McCusker and Andrew Buckland), The Irishman (Thelma Schoonmaker), Jojo Rabbit (Tom Eagles), and Parasite (Yang Jinmo).