The Joker is arguably the biggest movie in the world right now. Steve Hullfish sdat down with editor Jeff Groth to ask him about it. This is another in Steve Hullfish’s “Art of the Cut” series. You can buy the book from our Online Store
Jeff Groth is an ACE Eddie nominated editor for his work on an episode of Entourage (2004). Jeff’s filmography includes War Dogs, Entourage, and The Hangover Part III. His TV work includes Entourage, Ballers, and Community.
Here, we talk about his most recent work with director Todd Phillips on Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix.
This interview is also available as a podcast.
HULLFISH: I’m assuming you’re all done with Joker or are you still doing DVD stuff or some kind of deliverables? Or are you off to your next project?
GROTH: It’s really more deliverables at this point. We’re just QCing the DCPs. I have to look at the 35-millimeter print and that might be it.
HULLFISH: How long have you been on that project? Tell me a little bit about the schedule.
GROTH: It’s exactly a year. I started around the 9th of September of 2018. We shot in New York until early December.
HULLFISH: Were you on for any pre-pro?
GROTH: Sometimes I do a recut of the previs. This time I did that when I first got to New York just before we started shooting. A previs can seem weird and slow to watch, so I’ll typically recut it just to make it play like a real sequence. We’ll temp voices in there and add music and some sound effects, trying to make it play. So it feels like the timing’s real when you watch it, and you get an idea of how it might play. And then it completely changes by the time you’re done.
HULLFISH: I did an interview with some previs editors and they did say that they tend to cut things long because if you cut them short there’s nowhere to go but if you cut them long they can get cut down.
GROTH: Exactly. So that’s exactly where it ends up going — that we have a long cut with the previs and then we try to make it look like what it might look like in the movie. I’ll cut it down and speed up the shots just to kind of get a mock-up that plays a little better. No foul on them for putting together what they’re putting together. They had a library of sound effects that they had brought into the Avid and I was using those sound effects to recut. So it’s not like I just came up with that. They’re doing their best to make it look good too.
HULLFISH: So then you came to L.A., but the director doesn’t show up till maybe January or something like that?
GROTH: Yeah. He came in on the Monday right after the holiday break and he is a director that is in every day between 10 and 7. Not that he doesn’t give me time to do stuff on my own, but he wants to be involved. He knows what editing is and is good at it and wants to be there for everything.
HULLFISH: That couldn’t have been a surprise to you, of course. You’ve worked with him several times before.
GROTH: Originally when I worked on a movie called Project X, he was the producer on it and I had met him at that time and the next movie he did after that was Hangover Part 3, that Debra Neil-Fisher and I cut together. War Dogs was the last movie I cut for him, and now this one.
HULLFISH: You’ve done a lot of comedy.
GROTH: Yeah. I like to think I’ve done a little bit everything. Before the comedy, I had done a number of documentary pieces.
HULLFISH: There’s a jump!
GROTH: It ended up being a little bit of both. I worked on the movie Religulous with Larry Charles, and that definitely crossed over between comedy and documentary. He described it as a non-fiction comedy at the time.
HULLFISH: What do you think you bring from your documentary background to scripted?
GROTH: Story. there’s no better way to learn how to build and deal with story than working on documentary. You’re building it from the ground up. You don’t really have a script, you have an idea. I think it translates just in the way of thinking, how you might be able to move things around and what images you might be able to juxtapose. The practice for all that it’s all there.
HULLFISH: Is there a difference in the way that you collaborate with a director that you’ve worked with multiple times than the way you collaborate with a director you’ve worked with for the first time?
GROTH: Obviously it’s much more comfortable. We quickly switch back into a quick mode of communication. Somebody that I’ve worked with before — that we have a relationship — if they’ve hired me back, then they trust what I did the last time, they understand what it is that I bring to it. So I don’t have to establish that. Somebody that you haven’t worked for — I always feel like the assembly period is kind of a long interview because they’re off shooting, so they don’t have time to sit with you very much. They’re just trusting and hoping that you know what you’re doing and they’re looking for results.
I think that’s where the real difference is. The second time you work with somebody, the third time you work with somebody, during the production period they naturally have a lot more faith in me because you’ve been there before.
HULLFISH: Is there a way that you find that you need to develop trust with a new director?
GROTH: I’m not doing anything special to develop a trust. I’m really just doing the best I can. Working as hard as I can and trying to make the best decisions.
My goal is always to pull out more from the footage than maybe the director knew was there. My goal with an assembly is to surprise the director in a good way.
With the world of non-linear editing, it’s a non-destructive process as long as you save everything. There’s plenty of times directors have gone back and said, let’s look at the first cut of this. And I don’t know if it’s ever been better, to be honest. You just don’t have the context the first time. That’s the thing that always makes me the most nervous especially when you’re shooting out of order and you’re cutting out of order — a lot of the time — and you don’t get a chance to have context for several weeks, really. You don’t necessarily know who the characters are yet, you’ve read the script, but the script is really just a blueprint that doesn’t show you what the whole thing looks like or sounds like.
The first scenes that I’m showing I’m always nervous because I don’t have the context yet. We’re building the context as we go along.
HULLFISH: Even in those rare instances where the first cut is the best cut, there’s still benefit to going through the process of exploring the other possibilities.
GROTH: Absolutely. If you just lucked into the best thing the first time, you’ll never know it if you don’t explore other options.
HULLFISH: What is your approach to dailies? What are you doing when you look at your takes and your setups for the first time?
GROTH: I typically read the notes — whatever notes there are — and if there are preferred takes, I’ll watch those first. That’s where I start, and then I watch everything else. Typically I’ll watch it backwards because you know if you have nine takes, a lot of times the preferred take is somewhere in between seven and nine. But then there might be something valuable to pull from take two.
As I’m watching, I’ll pull stuff out and drop it into a timeline. So I essentially end up with a large timeline full of selects out of any given scene. As I drop it on the timeline, I keep it in some sort of order so that I can then go back — once I watched all the dailies — and watch the timeline that I created and see what bits are there.
From there I really whittle it down and say, “OK, that looked good when I was watching it the first time, but given what else I pulled here, that doesn’t apply anymore.” So I’ll pull that out. But I always save a copy of that first timeline because it has all of the things that I liked in it. From that first timeline, I’ll work and whittle it down to a series of moments. So I’ll find the moments that I want to build the rest of the scene around and there’ll be multiple alternates of the things that are in between those moments and I just watch those again and again until things start to naturally fall out.
HULLFISH: Totally make sense. Did you get a chance to talk to the director before you started editing about ideas about character or what he wanted to get accomplished? Or did he kind of just unleash you and say, “Show me what you got and we’ll see what works?”
GROTH: This project is a little bit of a special case. I thought the script was so good and so clear as to the movie that he wanted to make. It was really kind of unique. I’ve never seen a script that was so clear. We didn’t have a lot of discussion about it prior to just jumping into cutting, just because I didn’t feel like I had a lot of questions. It was really well laid out.
And then once we did get into it, I will show Todd things either that he asks for — because he wants to make sure that we got the scene — or things that I’m just excited about. If we get a scene in and I’m really excited about it, I’ll show him that cut.
HULLFISH: With this character specifically — the Joker — it seems like the temperature of the performance for a specific delivery — over-the-top, crazy, whatever it is — would play a big part in the editing. Were you getting a lot of variety of performance?
GROTH: Yes. And it was all good. From the first day, just watching the footage, I was kind of in shock and in awe about how talented Joaquin is. Day one I’d never seen anything like that in front of me. And it continued. He’s an amazing professional. He would do things different ways. would mix things up in the middle of the scene to kind of wake it up. When we would turn around and do the other side, he would repeat all those same things. So I was really never trapped with a performance that I had on one side and didn’t have on the other. He would remember everything he did. Even down to the fact that he smokes a lot in the movie, and I felt like he knew where he was smoking a cigarette at any given time — all the time. That’s just continuity. That’s in addition to the amazing acting that he was doing.
So while there’s always continuity things that you’re cutting around it was an afterthought for me to have to deal with that because the performance was so engaging and commanding.
HULLFISH: You’re obviously shooting out of order. You’re cutting out of order. So where he is in a given performance or what level of intensity he’s at in one scene has to match or play into the next scene. Were you finding that “Oh, I loved this performance. I cut it this way because this is awesome.” And then, “Now I’ve got to choose a different performance because of the character arc or the story arc?”
GROTH: Yeah. Sometimes we did have scenes that played two different ways. There was a scene that might play quieter and then we had another version of it where we played it more intense. But they were both good. So it was actually something that we could modulate really well because he would do it multiple ways and everything that he did was valid. Then it was a matter of: “Where are we in terms of that intensity?”
In terms of cutting out of order, the interesting thing about this is that while I did start by cutting out of order, once I wasn’t up to camera, I was cutting in scene order. So for example, if on day one they shot scene one and scene thirty-five and then day two they shot scene three and scene fifty-seven, I would start with scene one. And then I would continue to scene 3. No matter what else was later I worked forward through the performance during the shoot.
So if something new came in — let’s say two weeks later scene two came in — I would just work on scene 2 so that we would fill in those gaps. So reel one was done a long time before reel 7..
HULLFISH: I’ve never considered taking the scenes in order as they come in. I’d always pick the one I thought would be most challenging or easiest or whatever I was in the mood for.
GROTH: I’m not sure if it was his idea or my idea but he wanted to do it that way. Joaquin did come in a couple of times during shooting, which I never had before either because it was such a huge task we went through things kind of in order and he could see where he was at. He could see where he was about halfway through shooting. He could see where everything was landing, which I think was helpful. If anybody were to come and look at it, they’d be looking at it from the beginning.
What I like about that now is that when we watched the movie — it’s called Joker, you know where it’s going — you know who you’re going to have at the end of the movie, but if you’re looking, say, 20 minutes into it, you say to yourself, “I don’t know how we’re going to get there. I don’t see how this guy is going to become THAT guy.”
It happens naturally. At least I feel it develops and it happens naturally throughout the course of the movie. If anything, I’m extremely proud of that progression. You don’t know how you’re going to get there, but you do get there and you get there in a way that satisfies you.
HULLFISH: Did you find when you were going through the process of the director’s cut and subsequent sets of notes that you needed to rearrange the structure to be able to make that organic?
GROTH: We rearranged. We did some rearrangement in the structure. Whenever you’re rearranging, it’s always about the release of information and how far away things are from each other. And that’s really what it ended up being. The script was there. It was great, we just shuffled it in a way that there are several threads that are going on and maybe something was a little too far away. So he would be reacting to that earlier, so we would move the scene so that we see a reaction earlier, so it doesn’t seem unusual that he hasn’t dealt with this problem or this person.
HULLFISH: The trick is in preserving the character’s trajectory as you’re moving that stuff around.
GROTH: Absolutely. It’s trying to protect the journey and let the performance come through because he was really modulating stuff all the way through. We don’t want to get crazy too quick because how does he recover from that? If he’s agitated in one scene and the next scene he’s not, then how did he get back here? Just the feel of the scenes sometimes mandated the order in which they came.
HULLFISH: On other movies did you start building that assembly as soon as you could?
GROTH: On this one, as soon as I could put scene 2 next to scene 1, I did in a very linear way. I was trying to assemble as linearly as possible. I haven’t done that in the past. Typically, I might do sections, so it might be a 15-minute run. I build sections as I get to like them. So if I’m excited to put scene 2 after scene 1, I’ll put it together and then enjoy how it plays. If there’s something not working about one of those two scenes yet, I’ll leave them apart and work on something else and come back.
HULLFISH: Do you think you’re going to change your methodology for future movies because you felt like it did something for you? Or was it just a change in methodology because you needed to know the character flow or the ebbs and flows of the performance in this particular movie?
GROTH: I’ll change depending on the movie. If the next thing that I’m working on is a character study in this way, then it’s a great way to do it because you get a sense of how things are progressing. If it’s more of a non-linear story, there’s no reason to do it that way. I might work on the same story beats if it’s intercutting between multiple stories. I’ll work on one story and then the next story and the next story. A lot of times they’re shooting it that way, too, because of locations and actors.
I’ll do five scenes of one story even though those scenes might be scenes 10, 30 and 75. I’ll work on them all at one time so they’ll have a consistent feel.
To some extent, it probably happens a lot of the time naturally because that’s how you’re getting dailies. So just keeping up to camera will force you to cut this way sometimes.
If I get behind camera and it’s not a scene that people are hot to see I’ll let it sit there and just keep up to camera and work on that in my spare time or maybe during some weekend days.
HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about temp music for this. I haven’t seen the movie but it seems like it might be a hard one to temp.
GROTH: In a way, it wasn’t a hard one to temp. Our composer, Hildur Guðnadóttir (who just won an Emmy for “Chernobyl”) is fantastic. She had done about five or six test temporary cues and we loved them. So basically I temped the entire movie with those six cues. She’s got albums of her music as well and there’s a lot of cello, so we only used her music for it. We got to the point where we had an assembly that had really only five tracks of music that got used over and over because it was all so good, We liked the score so much that there were times they played it on set, because she really just nailed the vibe of the movie with that score. Ultimately we had to adjust and change the score because you can’t just play those same things over and over, she sent us more stuff as time went on throughout shooting and then even after. We’d ask for things. Even before we had it in the camera, we’d ask her to look at these three pages in the script and see what you come up with. Sometimes it didn’t fit that scene that she scored it for, but it almost always fit someplace else.
Just about everything I was temp scoring with was original. I think I temped with one piece of Sicario which was a score that she played on and a few pieces of her music from her albums and beyond that, it was all original.
HULLFISH: A lot of editors talk about the value of temping with the same composer: their previous scores if possible or other albums.
GROTH: We did that with War Dogs. The composer was Cliff Martinez on that one. Everything we temped with was his. We just had a huge library of his stuff.
HULLFISH: I did the same thing on the last movie I cut. We used all of the composer’s previous work – except when nothing he’d done before worked.
GROTH: Yeah. A lot of times, especially with action sequences, those scores tend to be so tailored to those sequences, it’s difficult even for a music editor to really get something out of a particular composer’s score, so that’s when we’ll go outside.
HULLFISH: What’s your setup like? Your room?
GROTH: We were off the Warner Brothers lot. We had a private room — really just a fairly large comfortable room with a coach. We were not in the same location as the rest of the crew, so it was just Todd and me in one room. We had a remote Avid working. We had our in-house visual effects team and visual effects editor, music editor, two assistant editors, and a post supervisor. One of the producers was in another office and we also had a cutting room there, so when we needed to get business done with everybody else we would go over there. But when we were cutting, it was just the two of us.
HULLFISH: And what about monitoring for picture and sound?
GROTH: For sound, we were just left-right-center. About as traditional of an Avid set-up as you would ever see.
My first job in the industry was at an Avid training center. I got used to a very stock Avid way of doing things.
HULLFISH: I just talked to Tim Squyres and I was jealous that he’s cutting with a 12-foot screen and in 5.1.
GROTH: The 5.1 would probably slow me down because I’d spend a lot of time figuring out where sounds should go. For me, I like the left-right-center. I can keep the dialogue out of the music and then worry about the rest of it later. In the past, I cut in stereo right up until we get to the first temp mix and then I’ll go into left-right-center. I like to keep it fairly simple. I don’t like having a huge amount of audio tracks living down below either. I like being able to see the timeline top to bottom.
HULLFISH: When you get away from your little editing monitor and your Avid and to a screening room or test screening, does the larger screen size change your timing or pacing? Do you find any of that happening?
GROTH: No. I try to be pretty conscious of it when I’m working on a small screen. So my Avid set-up is very traditional. I’ve got the computer monitors and then I got my third monitor and then we have the larger monitor. My third monitor’s the one that’s closest to me and I find that one is a pretty good representation of what that big screen will look like because I’ll get closer and it fills my vision.
When we do finally get to a theater I’m looking for those things but I don’t generally find that I need to make a lot of adjustments to translate to a larger screen.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk a little about the process of discovering the film or finding your way to what the final film is. What are some of the things that are happening and changing and the evolution of the film?
GROTH: We have the board with the cards on it. I do that on all my movies and we actually had those cards in both cutting rooms. In terms of finding the structure, we go through it from the beginning. But just being able to look at that board and see the movie as a whole in just these little paper representations gives you a better idea. You can kind of get lost in your timeline. Then you look over the board and see your whole movie sitting there and it gives you ideas. For that board, it’s also very important what frame you take from the movie. We will reprint those cards multiple times to make sure we’re getting the right frame to represent the scene. The right frame might make you think of something different. Because it does spur so many ideas, it’s actually quite important.
HULLFISH: I used a board with all of the scenes on the last film I cut and we spent a lot of time in front of that board talking and pointing and pulling cards off the wall and sticking them someplace else or — we had a row of deleted scenes at the bottom. It does make a difference and it’s a way to discuss the film that I don’t know that you can do in front of the Avid.
GROTH: You can’t have those conversations in any other way because you’re taking a representation of large chunks of the movie and potentially moving it around and rebuilding it. It’s harder to keep in mind what came before it and what came after it If you’re just doing it looking at a small timeline. But when you’re able to see the ebb and flow the movie represented in pictures that way, it makes you think about it differently and then we would spend time looking — nobody saying anything — and then somebody would say, “OK, how about if we try this?” Even if you were a little lost, having a good look at the board is always helpful.
HULLFISH: Is that something you started on a documentary?
GROTH: No, actually. That’s interesting because it’s so much harder to define. As you’re going you’re coming up with new scenes and so I feel like it would be a difficult process to keep up with the board. At least when you’ve got a script and clearly defined scenes you have a place to start with the board and you can put it all up during the assembly and then it evolves and moves with your cut.
The documentary — unless it was a clearly defined thing, where you knew what you were shooting and you were shooting that over a period of time — I think that the scenes in many ways flow into each other. So it’s really hard to define it and build that.
HULLFISH: The last documentary I interviewed was the guy that cut Apollo 11 and he talked about how important the boards were in his room, but as you said, that’s a defined event. Maybe that’s why that’s different.
GROTH: Sure, when I worked on Religulous there were three editors on that and the board we used for that was the biggest board that I had ever seen. It took up the space of two walls. We ended up moving the cutting rooms and that board moved with us. The number of pictures that had to get taken to recreate it was astounding.
That board wasn’t pictures so much as it was topics. It was a board of words and we were taking these topics and moving them around.
HULLFISH: Any other interesting topics we haven’t covered about Joker?
GROTH: There’s a scene where Joaquin makes an appearance on The Murray Franklin Show. That show is a live talk show. So they built an entire set — like the Johnny Carson Show — there were four TV cameras and then there are the film cameras and the four TV cameras were all running. During each take, those four TV cameras were running. We also had somebody doing a traditional line cut like you would on Saturday Night Live.
HULLFISH: Live switching between the cameras using a switcher.
GROTH: Yes. So, for each take, we had three film cameras, but in addition to that, we always had these four TV cameras that were running and the line cut. That sequence was shot over the course of a week to 10 days. So as it was getting shot I was building. I was actually on set for those days on a portable Avid and I was bringing in footage from digital assist that my assistants would then overcut.
We would get each take as a line cut and then I would make what we called the master line cut. So each day we’d have favorite takes, but all from the TV camera perspective. So if you were to watch it on any given day, it was the current version of whatever his appearance on that show looked like.
HULLFISH: That’s a huge amount of media and options.
GROTH: It was a lot of keep track of but we were building this every day, so when there were times — let’s say — when you were shooting from behind the curtain you didn’t have to recreate the entire show on the front side of the curtain; we could just play what the current line cut was through the monitors.
So, there was a show going on out there even though there’s nobody in the audience, there’s nobody on stage and you’re just dealing with what shooting back there. So as we went through, this linecut would build and build and build to ultimately the full appearance. But it allowed you to know what you had — even though I was only using the TV camera coverage and in the final movie, we don’t use much from the TV cameras.
Then I had this 10-minute-long sequence, so when it came time to actually cut that, we had grouped (multi-cam) all the TV cameras with the film cameras, and the very first thing I did was to take that performance and flip it to our movie cameras. It looked terrible but at least it was a place to start. Then I could begin to shape it. For a long time, it was very watchable just with the TV cameras.
HULLFISH: What was your decision-making process as you chose to be on a film camera or a TV camera in that sequence?
GROTH: In the movie switching to the TV cameras is more to remind you that it’s going out to a larger audience. When this happens, everybody is watching.
Those shots from the TV cameras come up in 4:3 aspect ratio, whereas the rest of the movie is wider. When it was all said and done, we went back and shot it on a TV monitor, so it actually has a legitimately TV look. We reshot every shot that shows up in a TV – we actually shot off of a TV.
HULLFISH: So you’re saying that if there was something that Joker said or the DeNiro character said that you wanted the audience to remember is being broadcast, you would cut to the TV cameras.
HULLFISH: It’s always an interesting story question in a scene: when do you use this angle for a specific reason?
GROTH: We actually thought that there would be more TV footage because that master linecut played so well.
HULLFISH: Was there an overall philosophy that was driving your editing?
GROTH: Our number one goal — just given what Joaquin was doing — was to kind of stay out of the way. And then just kind of making sure it was in the right order.
An interesting side note on titles — which is something I’ve wanted to do for years — of course, we’ve been working with digital titles for a long time, and I don’t know how many other people do this but — but what we ended up doing with our titles is putting them to film and then scanning it back in. The reason I have always wanted to do this is every time I look digital titles in DI, I always see those jagged edges and there’s just no replacement for the kind of chemical blur that comes from the interaction of chemicals on film. So by making that intermediate between the color of the title and the color of the picture behind it, it gets blurred in a way that’s very specific to film.
For our movie — the titles are yellow — it created some chemical edges that we just liked. It had a very classic look to it — very much of the time that the movie happened. I’ve never seen any real substitution for it.
HULLFISH: Congratulations on a great project.
GROTH: Thank you. I’m excited for you to see it.
HULLFISH: Before I let you go, what was the length of your first cut?
GROTH: Around 2:45. We started working in a reel one before the ending was really finished, so we never quite had a full assembly before we started refining earlier parts. That’s an estimate. I didn’t think we’d ever get below 2:20, but we released at 2 hours. To me, it’s an ideal length. Not too long and not too short.
HULLFISH: Perfect. Thank you so much for talking to me.
GROTH: Thank you very much.
The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.
Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors
This article is reprined by kind permission of Steve Hullfish. You can also read it at the ProVideo Coalition.