<I>Nightmare Alley</I> editor Cam McLauchlin
Issue: January/February 2022

Nightmare Alley editor Cam McLauchlin

Searchlight Pictures’ Nightmare Alley follows the charismatic but down-on-his-luck Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), who finds work at a traveling carnival. It is there that he endears himself to clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her mentalist husband Pete (David Strathairn). Stan learns their crafts while working at the show, and at the same time, falls for a young performer named Molly (Rooney Mara). He and Molly then go out on their own, using their new-found knowledge to entertain and take advantage of New York’s wealthiest. Cate Blanchett plays psychiatrist Doctor Lilith Ritter, who introduces Stan to a number of wealthy prospects, but with each introduction, the danger increases.

Guillermo del Toro directed the feature, which was shot by Dan Laustsen and edited by Cam McLauchlin. McLauchlin has worked with the filmmaker on a number of projects, including Pacific Rim, The Strain, Crimson Peak and The Shape of Water. He stayed in touch with del Toro, and when he asked the director for some career advice, the filmmaker suggested his next project should be Nightmare Alley. McLauchlin, who is based in Toronto, accepted, and recently shared with Post details of the two-year process of cutting the feature.

Photo: Cam McLauchlin

You have worked with Guillermo del Toro on a number of projects, dating back to Pacific Rim in 2013. Can you talk about how that evolved?

“I got a call from the studio saying, ‘We need another assistant.’ And from there on, he and I kind of developed a short hand with sound and music. And I sort of departed being his first assistant editor. I became more of creative set of hands for him and the editor, and we just kept working together.”

What was your understanding coming on board for this film?

“From the beginning, the script was 155 pages, so everyone knew this was going to be his epic film. The challenge (was) going to be, how do we keep it moving through all that material? And that's just something you don't know until you start getting the footage.”

Describe your workflow?

“I'll get there ahead, and get the dailies and start. I'll watch them and kind of go through his select takes, because I know [Guillermo] likes to see that first before we start looking into performances. He shows up maybe two or three hours after I'm there, and about an hour before call time, and we'll go through the scene or a scene that he shot the day before, and start making decisions. If we haven't finished that scene, and he has to turn the camera around for that day, I'll throw a title card in where I think (we need) the reverse to this character or a POV, and he'll kind of start making his storyboards for the day based on what we are doing in the edit. Then he'll go off, and he may come back at lunch to see how the scene has evolved. Or, he'll call me…and talk about a take or something that happened that day. So there's a constant dialogue from the get go.”

Is there a process that you follow when working on his films?

“We have a wonderful team. Our post production supervisor, Doug Wilkinson, has been with Guillermo for almost as many years as I have. He's a guiding force for us through all this post. I also have a great first assistant, Mary Juric. She’s a master in After Effects, so definitely using her abilities, because Guillermo likes to see things as polished as possible. That means temp VFX, temp sound, temp sound design. 

“We rarely cut with music. The music is something that comes in later, as we're preparing for a screening or sending an output to someone. What I do is, I usually cut without music. Then later, when the scene is working, I'll start playing with music. I'll put something in, and then I'll mute it, and I'll play a for him and to say, ‘What do you think of his tone?’ And get his feedback. Generally, those tracks are sitting on the Avid, muted, until we have to go and show the film.” 

You always hear about the dangers of using temp music?

“The ironic thing with that is, in this film, I found it very difficult to temp. Something about the film having two parts, even though, you know, we're trying to distinctively have it feel like as whole cohesive piece, and the journey staying parallel. We had a lot of source music in the carnival that had a realism that we were kind of diving into. And then when we got to Buffalo, we could really lean into the noir, and quickly vibe off of Bernard Herrmann, and really (go with) a classic tone...but it could be misleading. Anything in the carnival would just reject it. It felt fake. It didn't have any authenticity to it. So, in terms of falling in love with a temp track, we kind of fell in love with the track of silence. Nothing. Just naked.”

Where were you working during production?

“We were shooting out of the Netflix studios in Toronto, and we had all these sets built, mostly for Buffalo. Some carnival stuff. But the big marquee set piece was the carnival grounds, which was shot just north of Toronto and Markham. And then all the Buffalo exteriors, and some of the massive interiors were all shot in Buffalo. 

“They went down there for a week, mid-shoot, just before COVID, actually. When COVID hit, we had basically the majority of the back half of the film shot. There are a couple of peculiar moments where we finished shooting. They decided to shut down production amid ‘the lie detector test’ (sequence). And when we came back, I thought maybe Guillermo might just go and reshoot the whole scene again. But we picked it up halfway through, and it's amazing! 

“And then there's another scene where Rooney Mara's running from Stan, where they shot in Buffalo at a train station. She runs through a door, and that cut, we pick up six months later, on a set in Toronto. And she's now had a kid in her own personal life! We do a bit of a wipe through the door.”

So you were close to set for much of the production?

“We were kind of embedded with the production offices, so I was actually next door to the production designer. Dan Laustsen had an office next door, and Guillermo’s office was next door…And my assistants were nearby. We had a pretty decent setup. We were all running off a NEXIS, cutting Avid DNx36. For me, (between) DNx36 and 115, I am doing a show now with 115 and trying to take hard drives and copy footage to cut off a laptop. With the amount of time it takes to copy and access the material, I just prefer 36. And I can go to a soundstage with my laptop and can quickly have the entire show sitting there, so storage isn't an issue.”

Can you talk about the camera media and dailies process?

“Dan shot Arri Alexa 65 with prime lenses, and he also shot with the Alexa Mini with primes. There was a DIT on-set. He would work with Dan and basically deliver the DaVinci file to the lab and then, overnight, they would transfer, sync and Aspera us the material. As soon as it arrived, Harrison Perez, my second assistant, would copy locally to our NEXIS, and basically stream me out the sequence of the dailies, and then have the script supervisor’s notes. And I'd just start watching, and while I was watching, he was starting to build the scene bins.”

Was the footage given any treatment?

“Basically, the LUTs that [Dan] uses are as close to what you see in the final picture. I was cutting with that LUT.”

How did COVID affect the timeline?

“COVID, obviously, presented some issues. There was one advantage. We were allowed time to really go through and mine all the material that we had shot from Buffalo. So in essence, we could see where Stan was going to land as a character. And it helps kind of give a beacon or North Star for where he may have come from. So when we came back, we finished shooting around Christmas. 

“Guillermo and I were working remotely. And then as soon as he was able to get the vaccine in Los Angeles, he flew down. We continued working remotely through Evercast. And then when he was set up, I came down and we worked mostly in Los Angeles. We did go to New York for a bit to cut…And we finally finished and came back in June for a temp mix, which we had a screening in mid-July. We did about four weeks of mixing. 

“At that point, we (didn’t have) a score yet. We had some other scheduling/COVID issues with our first composer, so we temped that and then screened it, cut again…We had a very sobering first screening, where you think everything is working, and then you realized that it's not. We started in January of 2020 and finished almost at the end of 2021. We screened in New York, the premiere December 3rd, and we had just finished two or three weeks prior.” 

Is Avid your editing tool of choice?

“Yeah, for sure. Avid is my go-to tool. I started learning how to cut in Premiere, way before the Premiere it is now, and then I went to Final Cut. I knew Avid was the industry standard and by far is, to me, the most powerful. And so, yeah, I definitely dictate that.”

You mentioned how production stopped at one point and picked up months later. Is there a scene that was particularly challenging or interesting from an editing standpoint?

“I think it's a hard question to answer, because most times, Guillermo is very specific about how he covers the scene, so it doesn't really overlap the camera that much…He definitely is cutting in-camera, but where it gets tricky is when we get to the edit and we decide for storytelling purposes, we have to start losing lines, or we're going to re-shuffle the order of the scene in particular. That happened all over the film. But the larger, more complicated thing in the piece was, it was a 155-page script. 

“One scene in particular that stood out for me the most was the first time Stanton and Lilith - Cate Blanchett’s character - they have that therapy session at night. That was the one scene where I cut it, Guillermo came in, and we kind of tweaked a couple of things, and then it didn't change basically for the rest of the movie. I thought, ‘This is going to be the one thing we spend the most time on.’ And it just worked! I would say that's mostly due to the performances and the choreography of the camera work, and obviously the set design. It was just a magnificent piece of everyone's work.”

This isn’t perceived as a VFX-heavy film. What was the level of VFX involved?

“It's interesting. I kind of like these films, where you don't know what the VFX are, but when you see them, you're kind of bewildered because they fall into the storytelling so well and so cleanly. 

“Mr. X was our VFX house, and we've worked with them solely for the last three films now - Crimson Peak, The Shape of Water and this one. We have a really good relationship with (VFX supervisor) Dennis Berardi there. They are mostly set extensions, sky replacement, adding clouds, lightning. And there was a lot of split screen that I did, and some fluid morphs that couldn't be done in the DI, so they had to tackle set augmenting and time warps that I did. The biggest things that you can see are probably the bus station exterior, when Stan gets his ear shot off. It's all in the frame, and it's very seamless and it just registers as a real, which I think it's so great.”

You prefer working on a laptop over a desktop workstation?

“I really like being able to be mobile. I've cut on an airplane. I've cut in the back seat of a car, and cut on the floor of Guillermo’s living room and dining room table. I especially like to be mobile for the mix, because I just like to be able to reference the Avid sound. And also, Guillermo cuts up until the last second, where you need edits on the stage, so it's nice to have the flexibility if you need to pivot. When I had to go to LA, it was just me for a while. My assistants stayed (in Toronto), so I was running off a hard drive and we were using Dropbox for the project.”

Are you using an eternal Thunderbolt drive at that point?

“Yeah, just a LaCie Rugged Thunderbolt. We would DCP off the Avid for our test screenings - we did two. And we would project the Avid DNx36 QuickTime in the mix theater, and it holds up fine. It's a great codec. It's very mobile. You can manage the file. It doesn't take forever to copy, if you need to do a clone, and running off a laptop.”

What’s next for you?

“Guillermo has a Netflix series and I'm cutting one of the last episodes for it…It's called Cabinet of Curiosities. It’s an anthology genre series. He picked who he thinks are sort of the next wave of interesting directors. It's their stage. It's their cut. He weighs in a very minor (and) lets them do their thing. Ana Lily Amirpour is directing. We're just started yesterday. She flew up here to Toronto, so we're going to do that. And then I'm gonna cut a concert movie for a band, because that will be something different.”