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Five days of 'Her': Editing Samantha in (and out)

By Steven Zeitchik

1:23 PM PST, December 30, 2013

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As smoothly as it plays on the screen, making “Her” was hardly an easy feat. As our interviews with the Spike Jonze film’s costume designer, production designer, cinematographer and assistant director over the past week suggest, there were conscious efforts to avoid so much of what came in previous futurist movies — a decision that had implications for everything from clothing to camera shots.

In the final installment of our "Five Days of 'Her'" series, we talk to editor Eric Zumbrunnen, another longtime Jonze collaborator who helped him cut and make this movie — and faced the particular challenge of a film in which we never see one of its main characters.

Movies Now: Editing a movie about two people in which you can’t cut away to one of them has to be one of the biggest challenges imaginable. How did you navigate that?

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Eric Zumbrunnen: With a film about two people in conversation you do kind of want to see the other person. And the fact that you couldn’t do that—well, it wasn’t easy. You could go to the shot of the device. But we were very careful about how often we did that.

MN: Why is that?

EZ: One of Spike’s big goals with the film was to make sure you really felt this relationship, and whenever you cut to the device it reminds you of Samantha’s inhuman nature. There are times we specifically cut to the device, but that’s to show the gulf between them. We really only tried to do it only in those cases.

MN: I’d heard reports that there was actually a woman hired on the set to play Samantha as Theodore saw or imagined her — not Samantha Morton, whose voice  of course was on set, but someone just to appear physically. 

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EZ: Yes. There was someone like that. There would be shots of the back of this woman’s head, or you’d see this woman receding into the background, or the camera following her. You’d never see her face.  The idea was that this was Samantha as Theodore imagined her, a person who you can’t quite see their face, can’t quite reach.

MN: Why was it never used?

EZ: In the edit room we played with all of these things for months, and it was very interesting. But in the end it felt like people didn’t want to see a physical representation of Samantha. What we took away from some of the reactions from people we showed the footage to is that it makes the movie smaller. It’s much better if everyone imagines Samantha for themselves. So we took them all out.

MN: Then of course there’s the other big postproduction challenge — Scarlett Johansson coming in to do the voice part that Samantha Morton initially shot. How did that work?

EZ: Scarlett began coming in [to the ADR (automated dialogue replacement) booth], working around her schedule shooting "Captain America." And Joaquin [Phoenix] would come down whenever we needed him or to read with Scarlett or to act with her. So Scarlett would be in this soundproof booth, and sometimes Spike would stand just inches from her directing.

MN: It’s kind of amazing that in the end it all fits together so seamlessly given that you were basically inserting a new performance.

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EZ: Part of the reason I think it’s successful, besides that Scarlett’s a great actress and Spike’s a great director, is that Spike was constantly rewriting the Samantha character. When we were in ADR the dialogue was tweaked substantially. Scarlett wasn’t trying to repeat a performance that had been done months before.

MN: But then you had to go edit all of the new material back into a movie that was made with a different performance in mind, no?

EZ: We did. But we also had help. Joaquin would do something new if it didn’t fit. And if it still didn’t work, we would sometimes tweak the picture so that it did.  It’s really rare to be able to do something like this in ADR. Usually you’re there for reasons that are technical, or maybe have to do with performance. This we were doing for story.

MN: I think maybe the most effective scenes in the movie come at the end — and, slight spoiler alert here — particularly when you loop Theodore’s writing of the letter to Rooney’s character as he’s coping with everything that happened with Samantha. What was that process like?

EZ: Actually that wasn’t originally the ending. Originally the letter was written before. But it felt like the film had two endings. So the other editor, Jeff [Buchanan] and I, said "Let’s intercut them." And Spike came in and we said "You’re not ready for this." And he looked at it and said ‘You’re ruining the movie,’ kidding but also serious. But we kept it in our back pocket, and then later on the process we said let’s explore the idea, and that’s when we settled on doing it this way.

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MN: It makes the movie feel much more subtle, because it brings all these relationships together.

EZ: I think that multilayered feeling suits the ending of the movie so much more. It’s much more resonant that way,

MN: And of course the Arcade Fire score at that point helps too.

EZ: That wasn’t even originally the music for the ending. During production we sent them a bunch of footage and they sent us back some music that could have been for any section. And then as we got further along Spike and I and everyone else just looked at each other and said ‘this would be great for the ending.’

MN: So much of the movie works because we go from close-ups of Joaquin’s face to the vast Los Angeles of the future. It’s editing from in close to out wide that I think some people would have been scared to do, or scared to do that often. Why did you make that choice?

EZ: Because you’re fairly close on [Joaquin] in those scenes, it’s important to see the larger world and give you the scale of the wider world. You want to feel the sadness and the melancholy, but you need something to contrast it with do it doesn’t feel oppressive. Those cuts to the world outside are important. He’s lonely but the world isn’t a bad place. We want the audience to feel how bad Joaquin’s character feels. But we don’t want the audience itself to feel bad.

ALSO:

Five days of 'Her': The Samantha Morton and Adam Yauch effect

Five days of 'Her': How to shoot the future

Five days of 'Her:' How Spike Jonze created the future

Five days of 'Her': 'Building a future to feel like the present

Follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

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