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Christopher Walken in 7 Psychopaths - Martin McDonagh + Lisa Gunning at the Whitehouse Post in London

One Shih Tzu…Seven Psychopaths

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Lisa Gunning of The Whitehouse London recently polished off her sixth film project, the highly anticipated Seven Psychopaths. The talented and driven Martin McDonagh, writer and director of In Bruges, directs Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Tom Waits and Christopher Walken – five of the seven psychopaths who come together when Rockwell kidnaps the wrong dog.

In this interview, Lisa gives us a glimpse into the madness and some insight into the editing experience.

1) Are you an animal lover/caretaker?

Indeed I am. This is Maus.

Lisa Gunning Brings Maus to the Whitehouse

At the tender age of 6 months, she came to the cutting room every day, keeping Martin and I in check. She knows the film off by heart and gave us a lot of great notes – most of which were the gaseous kind, aimed at Martin as she was on his lap most of the time! Every so often, I’d turn around to look at them and he’d have his t-shirt pulled up around his nose! She insisted on coming to the music recording session at Abbey Road, too. Carter Burwell (brilliant composer of all the Coen Brothers movies, among many other brilliant classics like Adaptation, and Being John Malkovitch) said she was the best-behaved dog he’d ever worked with!

2) Do you see any overlap between the art of dognapping and the art of editing?

Well, I suppose both can involve a sleight of hand … the old ‘look over there’ trick. There’s a scene where Colin Farrell comes across Sam Rockwell’s secret diary. We worked out that there must be a cinematic convention that says if a person finds the ‘secret diary’ of another, even if you don’t show it, the person reading the diary will automatically know all their deepest, darkest secrets. This is what the audience told us in the test screenings and it was exactly what we didn’t want! Without wanting to spoil the story for you, we really didn’t want people to think that Farrell knew everything about Rockwell, only the nice, sweet, friendship stuff. We worked really hard to create the illusion of this, using sweet (not sinister) score, redirecting the emphasis onto friendship and by staying away from anything psychotic or dark. We used this principle for all the choices in the scene, especially in the performances. Even the production design, the chosen shots were more innocent-looking and less scary. It just about works, and that saved the scene because Film 4 wanted to cut it out completely!!

3) Being immersed in the story of Seven psychopaths for the duration of editing, do you feel like any of their neuroses rubbed off on you? Is there a character that you identify with? Do you feel the need to seek counseling after the project or did it normalize you in the spectrum of psychoses?

I felt like a psychopath before I started and I still feel like one now! You have to be a bit deranged to be an editor in the first place. Editing is a very sadistic profession, because what we do, if done beautifully, is invisible. That’s gotta drive a person mad, no? It’s true that you have to inhabit the world of the film you’re cutting…you dream about it, obsess about it, see it a billion times, live it to some extent but I promise I haven’t killed anybody … yet!! Actually, I nearly killed a taxi driver the other day. He asked me what I was doing working on a Sunday…I said I was doing the sound mix for the film I’d been editing. I gave him the brief explanation that editors put the film together. He said…how long have you been working on it? I said 8 months…He said “so have you seen the whole thing yet?” … I could have killed him. Billy is my favourite character though, he’s probably the most psychotic, but he’s quite sweet and is only trying to be helpful…

4) What challenges did you encounter in telling the stories of seven psychopaths? Were there any highlights/favorite memories?

The first challenge was actually getting the thing assembled! They shot 4x the normal amount of material for a movie this size. There were two and sometimes even three 35mm cameras rolling ALL DAY, EVERY DAY – FOR 10 WEEKS! It’s pretty hard to keep up with that! The Director/Producers expect to see a finished assembly with temp score/sfx/rough titles 2 WEEKS after the last day of shooting, so after the material has been processed etc…this gives roughly 6 days of grace at the end. Falling behind is simply not an option. There are only 12 hours in a day and if you have 4 hours of material to look at, there isn’t much time to think about how to put it together! I had to be very decisive and pace myself. Working all night is always a temptation, but that would have killed me, so I just had to force myself to go home, sleep, eat and carry on the next day. Also, the producers expect the editor to take responsibility for when to destroy the sets. They call in a slight state of panic and ask if you have enough material/angles/performances to make the scenes work. It can be a tough call sometimes, so there were a couple of uncomfortable moments where I had to ask them to pick up extra stuff or reshoot things that weren’t working so well. The upside, however, was that every morning was like Christmas (even when it really was Christmas!). I knew this was going to be a good movie from day 1. The rushes were really, really great and no editor can complain about having too much “brilliant” material, can they?! Once I got over the terror, it was an absolute joy to put together.

Memorable moments specifically? Well, Martin and I had to fight hard to keep the first scene in. CBS and Film 4 wanted it out, every set of notes we got from them asked us to cut it. They said it was “badly shot,” and the dialogue was “boring.” We held onto it with our fingernails til the first test screening in San Francisco. The lights went down, we were very nervous about the reaction to it. It played out and the audience went nuts for it, cheering and roaring with laughter. The focus group at the end said it was one of their favourite scenes. So it stayed. Victory! No one can imagine the film without it now.

5) Can you tell us more about the process? The team? How did seven characters influence your editing?

The process was dominated by constantly trying to balance the plot (quite a simple story about dognapping) and the imaginary world of the characters. There are a lot of meta-cinema layers to deal with. Farrell is trying to write a screenplay (about ‘peace’ and ‘love’) and each character recounts their version of what they think it should be. The challenge was that every time this happens the plot stands still…like a pause button is pressed on the movie. We were constantly shifting things around, cutting things, accelerating scenes, trying to give the impression that the story had pace while we dipped into the various dream layers…hopefully we got it right in the end!

I couldn’t believe it when Martin asked me to cut the film and that I was allowed to be part of such a great team. So many of the actors and crew are actually my heroes! Carter Burwell was pure bliss to work with. He really tunes into each character and their emotional state of mind at any given moment to inform the score. This is what I always try to do while I’m cutting, so it was wonderful to find it’s so central to his process too. I loved hearing him talk to the musicians at Abbey Road before we recorded each cue. He was so articulate about the story and why we’d chosen to underscore a particular moment. It’s unusual for a composer to do this in a recording session, but I think you can really hear and feel it in the film. Another one of my heroes, David Wasco, the legendary Production Designer (Pulp Fiction, Inglorious Basterds, Kill Bill, Reservoir Dogs, Royal Tennenbaums, etc.) made some brilliant sets that really reflected the madness. I keep noticing new demented details in Billy’s apartment to this day. Also great working with my friend Ben Davies the cinematographer (Layer Cake, Kick Ass) who made everything look so delicious. Being the editor really gives you the chance to see behind all the perfection and into the real talent of the actor. I’ve been so disappointed on previous movies when I’ve realised certain actors I thought I admired rely almost entirely on the editor to craft their performance to make them look good (or even passable in some cases…I won’t name any names!). I was a little anxious that I’d overestimated Walken as he’s probably my favourite actor on planet earth…as they say, “never meet your heroes…” but I was not disappointed. This man is indeed the real deal. His rushes were consistently brilliant and every single take was genius. There is so much going on behind his eyes, and he gives a massive range of performance from take to take without being directed. Same for Rockwell, especially his improv stuff. He’s been underestimated as a leading man before, so I hope this movie will prove otherwise. I spent most of the last 9 months rolling around laughing my ass off at him. Apparently, he’s an amazing dancer too, and a good bloke. I bumped into him at a sushi place in Burbank while I was cutting and told him I’d been watching him all day. He gave me a big hug and took it the right way! Tom Waits’ gorgeous, gravelly voice was a pleasure to hear every day too. I had no idea he was such a great actor. In the movie he carries a rabbit around most of the time. Apparently, before the shoot started, he (off his own back) did considerable research, buying various books on how to handle rabbits, and how they like to be picked up etc…so sweet. The Director, Martin, is also the real deal. The best two movie editing experiences I’ve had have been with writer/directors. There’s nothing like a director who has actually written the material s/he is directing, as they really understand what it’s about! Martin is extremely hard working and talented, so working with him has restored my faith in making movies! In the original script the dog “Bonny” (who is the star of the show) gets shot into a million pieces. CBS said they wouldn’t finance the film if the dog got killed, even though nearly all the women die in the movie. Martin thought about the irony of this for a few days and finally agreed to rewrite Bonny staying alive. I found it quite brilliant that as a form of protest he wrote a line for Rockwell during his version of the screenplay where a rabbit stays alive…”because you can’t let the animals die in a movie…just the women!”

6) Re: the quote at the end of the trailer – Does an eye for an eye leave the whole world blind?

Don’t know about “an eye for an eye” but three films one after the other can leave an editor blind, so I’m off on holiday now!

In the meantime, Seven Psychopaths has opened to critical applause and has already started amassing awards, taking Toronto Film Festival Midnight Madness Audience Award. We’re relatively certain that there will be many more updates to come – is it too much to predict that audiences will go crazy for it…?

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