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Whitehouse Post partner and co-founder John Smith ACE joins Stephen Hopkins and in crafting the triumphant story of Jesse Owens as he literally and figuratively races against adversity in the 1936 Olympic Games hosted in Germany under the Hitler regime.
With the film debuting this week, we sat down with John to take a look behind the curtain and into the crafting of RACE—and be sure to check out the titles done by Carbon!
Whitehouse have edited a lot of films. You have several significant films under your belt—Leaving Las Vegas, Sliding Doors, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, to name just a few. What key differences do you find between the two mediums? How, for instance, do you prep for a job like this one?
The main difference is the time and scale of the process; for instance, commercial work typically wraps in a few weeks, and I worked on this movie on and off for about 15 months—that’s a lot of commercials!
A commercial can obviously be a big story, and there’s a real skill to telling that story in 60 secs. It’s a completely different skill to tell a story over 2 hours, keeping your audience engaged, while achieving the right pace and story arc over that length of screen time. It’s like a sprint versus a marathon—you really need to pace yourself. On long form, I read the script once when I first get it, and then once more just before I start. I try to remain fresh and not get bogged down in all the rewrites up until shooting.
How did you keep from feeling overwhelmed?
I always feel a little anxious before I start a movie because it’s such a huge undertaking and long journey into the unknown—but once I’ve cut a few scenes, I feel more relaxed. I start cutting scene by scene until I get a few that run together, then I start to put sequences together…but I don’t really look at them until they make a decently-sized sequence.
The script is my bible at the start, and I’ll only veer away from that once I’ve seen how it plays or if I have some kind of inspired idea early on. Stephen’s great—he loves me to mix it up and surprise him. I always feel a bit overwhelmed when I run my first cut—that’s the first time you really get to see what you have. It’s a daunting experience, but equally as exciting.
RACE tends toward the nonfiction genre—do you notice any significant differences editing fiction vs. non-fiction?
With fiction you have an advantage over your audience because they don’t know what’s going to happen, and that’s already working in your favor. With nonfiction, because the audience or some of them know the story, the challenge is to keep surprising them with the way it’s made—and how it’s edited plays a huge part in that. We tried to cut RACE like a thriller because it has all those elements; the kid against adversity, the rise of the Nazi party, and the racism he faced.
What about the project drew you in? How did you get involved?
I’ve worked with Stephen Hopkins on and off for the past 15 years, and we’ve done a few movies together, so he kindly asked me. I knew about the Jesse Owens story and was surprised it had not already been made for the big screen. The script really moved me—what an incredible achievement by one man in a time when racism was prevalent all over the world; not just in Germany, but also in the US. I thought, “What a great project to be involved with!” For an editor it has everything; drama, emotion, racism, Nazis, hypocrisy—and it’s all true!
Can you tell us a little bit about how it was shot?
It was shot on the Arri Alexa, recorded Arri Raw. We’re all very used to it now, and it looks amazing cinematically.
It was also shot anamorphic, which affects the editing. Because the frame is so wide, you have make sure your eye isn’t jumping from one side of the screen to the other—especially with close ups. If they are too short, your head will be darting from left to right, and subtitles have to be carefully placed, which affects the length of the shot and pace of the scene. And, of course, the only way you can tell if it works is by projecting the whole movie.
How much VFX was involved? What was that like from the editor’s seat?
There are a lot of VFX shots in RACE because some of these stadiums no longer exist—but a lot of RACE was shot on location. For example, the moment where Jesse goes to meet Hitler after the 100 meters final was shot at the Berlin Olympic stadium in the very room where it took place. I visited that location; it was pretty chilling. All the Hitler and Goebbels scenes were shot in the very box from which they watched the 1936 Olympic Games—it’s actually still there!
Since RACE has lots of VFX, I often had to guess the length of shots with nothing in the background but open spaces. The really interesting thing was, once the VFX were finished and added, we didn’t actually change the edit that much—we guessed it pretty well!
We were also lucky as we took 3 months off whilst the VFX were being done. Then we came back to it fresh—it was a real luxury and very rewarding to be able to take a second pass after the VFX were in.
How closely did you work with the director? What was that dynamic like?
Stephen shot on location in Montreal and Berlin, and I received dailies streamed to London, where I did my editor’s cut. I sent assemblies to Stephen on weekends. If he had time, he might send a text or email with a few thoughts, but generally he lets me get on with it until he’s finished shooting. I would take a few days on my own to cut the last few scenes together and add them to my editor’s cut. Then we’d sit down together and watch this beast of a first cut—and that’s when we really dig into it.
We did Stephen’s director’s cut in NY and screened it for Focus in LA. We actually did something in every Whitehouse office—we even screened it in our Chicago office for the Owens family.
What were some of the challenges/triumphs of this project?
The biggest challenge of editing this film was balancing all the different storylines, while keeping the film moving and coherent. Jesse’s journey, the U.S. Olympic committee, Goebbels and the rise of the Nazi propaganda machine, Leni Riefenstahl making Olympia the movie—that’s a lot of concurrent storylines!
I think sometimes great storytelling can be taken for granted or go unrecognized, because, like VFX, the better the execution, the less you notice—but solid storytelling is the result I always strive for.
RACE is an impressive example of a lot of great crafts all coming together to produce a tremendous end result; photography, production design, VFX, music, direction.
How does the editing drive the piece? What drove your edits? Can you educate us by speaking to a segment of the film that maybe stands out to you as an editor?
We didn’t want it to feel old fashioned—and because it’s set in 1936 that’s a risk. So, we kept it moving by cross cutting a lot, which seems to have worked—it never feels slow.
A couple of scenes that particularly stand out to me are Larry (Jason Sudeikis) telling Jesse to block out the locker room racism, and the montage where Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) and judge Mahoney (William Hurt) are debating whether America should attend Hitler’s Olympic Games. We all know they went to the games, so I cross cut the speeches deliberately to keep them moving—I think it makes for a more interesting, less linear sequence.
Any other behind the scenes tidbits worth sharing?
We lost a cool scene where Larry goes into Berlin to find Jesse some new track shoes and finds Adi Dassler. We lost it because it stopped the film from propelling forward at a point where we needed to get going, but it’s such a shame as it was such an iconic moment—Adidas giving Jesse his track shoes.
Anything else you’d like to add?
The VFX team in Montreal were amazing. This is the kind of film where you are not meant to see the VFX; they are meant to be invisible—and I think they did a fantastic job. Focus Features were great—they had very smart notes, and they were really supportive.
But Stephen deserves most of the credit. He had a mountain to climb with this project and pulled it off to an amazing standard. Yes, we all played our part—DP, Production designer, 1st AD—but Stephen was amazing from start to finish and never gave up pushing for the absolute best under extreme pressure. He remained very generous throughout and always encouraged my ideas and input—a dream job for me.
What makes me most proud is that Jesse’s family are happy with the film—it’s been such a privilege to have edited this story; a real honor.