Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller speaks with multi-talented filmmaker David Heinz, whose latest work, editing Chris Sanders’ The Call of the Wild, hit theaters late last month. Heinz talks about an editor’s delight at being a film’s “last storyteller,” as well as his inspirations, collaborations, and experience working with Sanders on this epic-scale new movie.
Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller: Thank you so much for speaking with me! Been looking forward to this.
David Heinz: Thanks, me too!
NBB: So we’re here to talk about The Call of the Wild, as well as plenty of other things. You have said you worked on this film since significantly before filming began, and this has been the most involved you have been as an editor. Can you tell us a bit about how you got involved, and what the initial stages were like with The Call of the Wild?
DH: Yeah, so unlike most movies – where I don’t get the call about the film until it’s just about to start filming, typically – on this film I got a call about a year before any filming was done. And the reason for that was, they knew the main character of the movie, Buck, was going to be completely CG, and completely animated. So they wanted to do quite a bit of very meticulous planning before they went off and shot the film, knowing on set they basically wouldn’t have the main character of the movie there. So we did a process which is called pre-vis, which is basically a more elaborate, moving storyboard, almost like a cartoon or a video game version of the movie. And that’s a pretty common process for films, particularly larger films, but usually, pre-vis is only used for a sequence or two, like a big action sequence for example. In this film, we pre-vis’ed almost the entire film, so that process took quite a while, and what was great about that was we ended up with a version of the movie, so to speak, before we even filmed it. Granted, that version of the film was very crude, kind of rough, but we were able to look at some things on the whole in terms of the story, the pacing, the transitions, all before Chris and the crew went and even shot it. Which is a real luxury, and great for me as an editor, to be involved that early. I always have an impact on the story but in this way I was able to make changes and adjustments to the story before they went and shot it, which was really amazing.
NBB: Of course. Did you feel like it gave you more of an investment in the film and in its development?
DH: I think it did — I won’t get too technical, but basically the way we were doing the pre-vis allowed me a lot of creative freedom to not just edit it together but also set cameras, shoot different parts of it, so to speak, and those sequences ended up being the framework for the finished product in the movie. So in those terms I was definitely very invested and feeling very creatively fulfilled from an early date, which was exciting.
NBB: I believe you have said you were familiar with the novel itself beforehand — I think a lot of us had to read it in school at some point.
DH: Yeah, I did, I read it in I think it was seventh or eighth grade. But I hadn’t read it since then until I got the call for the movie so I went back and re-read it. It’s great, it’s a classic, no doubt. But what I was really reminded of this time reading it is it’s a pretty intense, brutal survival story. There’s dogs starving to death and eating each other, a lot of murder and killing and suffering — all that very true to the times and obviously made the book what it is. What we were tasked with was that the studio wanted to make a family-friendly version. So how do you take this book that’s a classic that you don’t want to change too much, try to stay true to that, but also try and make it palatable for families, and grandparents to bring their grandkids to?
NBB: I was curious about the crew and how you all worked together, starting with Chris Sanders, who has made plenty of movies with plenty of well-known animated characters in them, from Stitch to Toothless and many more. Did you have the intention of making Buck one of those? Quite a few other adaptations focus a lot more on the humans, and this one is much more about the animals — how did that factor in when crafting the cinematic character of Buck?
DH: We knew he was going to be animated, in the sense that every nuance of performance is going to be created by animators, but I don’t know that Chris ever thought of it as if he was a character out of an animated film. I know what Chris often found challenging was, moment to moment, making sure the audience understood what Buck was thinking and feeling, but also not going too far so that he still seemed like he lived in the real world and didn’t jump off the screen. It’s a really difficult undertaking, a really ambitious undertaking in a lot of ways. The decision to make Buck fully CG was made well before I was part of the film so I wasn’t necessarily privy to those discussions, but I think what happened was that they wanted to tell the whole story as it was written in the book, and the book is from the dog’s perspective. In the other film adaptations that I have seen of The Call of the Wild, they do make it much more about the human characters and less about the dog, and we wanted to make a film that was about the dog. In order to do that — it would be nearly impossible to train a real dog, you can train a dog to sit or to hit a mark or any number of things but in terms of, say, empathetically listening to Harrison Ford as he talks about the loss of his son, I think it would be pretty tough to get a real dog to do anything close to that, let along any of the big action sequences, where there was just no way we could have done those.
NBB: So you call Terry Notary!
DH: We often call him “Terry No-Terry.”
NBB: You worked with him before, on the Planet of the Apes films.
DH: Yeah, Terry’s a great guy.
NBB: So when you edit, and you’re often looking at it before they add most of the effects in, so you’re watching him playing an ape or playing a dog but looking like a person, is that right?
DH: Yeah, months before. Terry was really crucial to this movie. It was a little different than Planet of the Apes because they weren’t capturing the motion. What that means is, on the Apes movies, for example, you have Andy Serkis, you have Terry Notary, Toby Kebbell, all these great actors, in motion-capture suits, and every nuance of their performance – their facial movements, their vocalizations, anything they’re doing – is captured, and translated directly to the CG characters. On this film, we did have Terry stand-in for Buck, but we didn’t capture his motion because, as great as Terry is, there are too many physiological differences between a human and a dog, there’s no way for Terry to really get the movement exact, or the expressions exact, or anything like that. So, Terry was a great reference for all the actors on set, a great reference for Janusz (Kaminski), the cinematographer, and his team to know how to frame shots. And he was great for us, as we were cutting the movie, to have something to cut to instead of just an empty shot with no dog in it. And Terry’s amazing; working on the Planet of the Apes movies, I had an absolute, newfound appreciation for these guys who do motion-capture acting. Because it is acting; the physicality of it is incredible. As soon as they found out Terry was available, that was a really quick call that was made right away.
NBB: Oh I believe that. I take it it wasn’t too strange to watch him… play a dog? Before the animation?
DH: That’s funny — it’s funny, but it’s a testament to Terry because he’s totally committed. And I think he and the other actors, especially him and Harrison, formed a real bond. They were both so committed to it, that, yeah, the first time you see it you chuckle, and then the second time you see it, you realize, wow, there’s a lot here in terms of emotion and connection. It takes a really gifted and committed actor to pull that off, otherwise, it’s just a goofy guy in a grey suit acting like a dog.
NBB: Which can be fun too!
NBB: So moving into more general questions, I’m sure as an editor, and as a writer and director, you are very tuned into visual storytelling, and how editing and visuals play into the narrative. Can you tell me how you think about that, in terms of your own feature American Folk, playing many different roles behind the scenes, and how these have affected your view of how visuals and narrative interact?
DH: Let me think about that. Bouncing around from different roles on different projects is something that just sort of happened to me, it wasn’t a long-term goal to bounce between editing and directing, but now that I’ve done it a few times I definitely could see it potentially happening in the future. Ultimately it comes down to the project and the timing. I’m definitely willing to wear the director’s hat again if the opportunity presents itself. But in terms of visual storytelling, it’s an ongoing learning process. Every project I do, in any different capacity, I’m always learning something about the story, and at the end of the day that’s all audiences care about. People go to the movies to escape their lives for a few hours at a time, and they’re looking for a great story, and they want to get engaged by that, and maybe moved by that, and maybe motivated to think by that. So at the end of the day no matter what role I’m taking on, it’s all about trying to tell a great story. I think the challenge in terms of visual storytelling, in The Call of the Wild, is that our main character never speaks. So, moment to moment, scene to scene, it is largely my job to ensure that the audience knows what’s going on in this character’s head, and be able to relate to the character, because without that they’d be lost — and that’s pure visual storytelling. That was a huge challenge, and really one of the most exciting parts of this project in particular.
NBB: How did you get your start in editing?
DH: I went to film school, knowing that I loved to make movies, but it was really just a hobby at that point. And when I went to school I decided that I was going to get more serious about it, and really try to make it a career if I could. But I wasn’t sure what aspect of filmmaking I was going to go into. It was my first class when I first edited something together that I thought, oh, this is it. Because you get to be the last storyteller on the movie. It’s true that a lot of problems that have happened up until that point, in the writing or the shooting, or whatever the case may be, falls in your lap, but I love that challenge. I think when you see a movie and love it, you love the editing. You might not think about it — hopefully, you don’t think about it! — but if you love a movie, if you think a movie’s funny, or entertaining, or emotional, you are responding to the editing. And once I learned that, once that secret was revealed to me, then editing was going to be my direction. So after I finished school, I moved out to California; I didn’t know anybody, I had no leads on jobs, I just thought ok, I’m gonna give it a go. And I eventually got a PA job, which is kind of the entry-level position on a movie set, and I was a PA on a few films, one of which was the original Underworld movie with Kate Beckinsale. I forged a relationship with the director on that movie, and when they made a sequel I went on to that film, and I got into the editor’s union through that movie. Then I just kept rolling, and I worked freelance; and it’s really exciting because every movie is a different challenge, it’s a different group of people, sometimes it’s a different part of the world, it’s a different story — I’m very very grateful I get to do this for a living, I’ve honestly never wanted to do anything else. So I’m glad it worked out.
NBB: On the question of movies you love, I’m always curious to ask people this, who inspires you? You’re definitely tuned into various parts of cinema so whether that’s editors, writers, directors, or whoever, who inspires you when you’re doing your work or when you’re looking for new projects?
DH: All sorts of filmmakers today, there’s some really great work being done. I try to see as much as I can — I have two kids now so I don’t get to the theatre as much as I used to, but I still try and go once a week. I’m just floored by the work that’s being done out there. Some of my favorite contemporary filmmakers… P.T. Anderson is definitely up there, Wes Anderson is always doing something interesting. I love some older films, like Hal Ashby’s movies, I love Harold and Maude, I love a lot of American films from the ’70s, that don’t get made as much anymore. Like Godfather, like Dog Day Afternoon, there are some great films in that era that I could just watch all day. I think every film’s got something interesting to offer, and it’s exciting to be able to work with different people on each project. Chris Sanders was a guy I had admired from afar for a while but I assumed I would never get a chance to work with him just because I don’t have any animation experience and I hadn’t realized he was making the jump to live-action. When I got the call and found out he was directing, I was all about it. Chris is an amazing storyteller, he was one of the original writers of The Lion King, among all the films he’s directed and all the great characters he’s created. I find that inspiring, I find working with a great storyteller like Chris to be inspiring, to try and learn from them, and take a piece of every one of these guys with me when I can. Working with Matt Reeves on a few movies was pretty inspiring; he’s one of the best directors I’ve worked with, he’s very meticulous and his work ethic is really admirable, and he’s just a great guy. So on each one of these projects I take a little something with me.
NBB: I have to ask, thinking about your filmography, I’m a massive fan of Dennis Hauck’s Too Late. And I had to ask you, and this came up a bit when 1917 was big in theaters, what’s it like editing a film that’s mostly single shots? I’m curious about what that was like, and I think it can sometimes confuse people.
DH: Yeah, I get asked about that film a lot. And I think people assume it was like the easiest job I ever had because there were so few cuts in the film. But in actuality, it was extremely difficult. And the reason is, normally when I’m sitting down to watch dailies, in any given scene there’s any number of camera setups and within each one of those setups there are many takes, sometimes two cameras on that take and the scene is covered in so many different ways that I rarely have a shortage of options, it’s really just a matter of ok, I know this moment from this take is great, and I have to make sure I use that and work around that. But with Too Late, Dennis, I’ve got to hand it to him, Dennis really stuck to his guns. He didn’t want to hide any cuts in there — I saw 1917 and thought it was terrific, but they hid cuts all throughout that movie, some places more obvious than others, but I know for a fact Lee Smith had a bunch of cuts in that movie even though it feels continuous. Dennis didn’t want to do that. He wanted to shoot 15-20 minute long takes, on film, and he wanted to pick a take and cut it together. So, the hardest part of that whole process for me was picking a take! Because within 15-20 minutes, there are so many things that happen, so many crucial story moments, nuanced character beats, camera moves, timing of blocking, there’s a million different things going on in any given second of a scene. How do you say, oh well this 30-second part of this take was incredible, but there’s this other 30-second part of this other take that was also incredible, I can’t use both of them, normally I would, how the heck do we say this take is so much better than the other takes? So I devised this kind of crazy system where within the Avid I broke the takes up into several-minute chunks, and I changed the order, mixed them all up, and watched them through, then tried to make notes on which parts I liked the best, to narrow it down to a few takes, then Dennis and I would sit down and say ok, this is the one. Once we’d chosen a take, then my job shifts, and it becomes well, what can I do with sound, and music, to enhance the story if my hands are tied in terms of cutting. So it was an extremely challenging job — it might seem very easy from afar because there were so few cuts, but I found it to be incredibly difficult. A really exciting project. I haven’t talked to him in a little while, but I hope Dennis is up to something, I’d love to work with him again.
NBB: Well if you do talk to him let him know I loved it! To both of you.
DH: I will!
NBB: How about the next few projects? Thinking of getting back to the writing and directing side, or is it editing for the next few?
DH: Well, my wife just had our son —
DH: Thank you! So I’m taking a few months off to play dad. I’m trying to find moments, while playing dad, to write. I’m working on a pilot as a co-writer, so I’m working on that on the side. I have some meetings coming up with projects to edit; I’m definitely happy to stay on that track, for a while at least. Never say never with directing but it just has to be the right time, the right project. For right now it feels like editing is the way to go, but I always have a few things going on at once so we’ll see how it works out.
NBB: Sounds good. Well, good luck playing dad! Best of luck with the film, and thank you so much for speaking with me.
DH: Has the film come out there yet?
NBB: It has!
DH: Good! Well, great talking to you, I appreciate it.
NBB: Great talking with you as well. Goodbye!