Justine Wright: Editing with Reality and Cutting with Style
by Peter Morris
On the crest of releasing her fifth collaboration with director Kevin Macdonald, editor Justine Wright has become one of a rare breed of modern day editors, she edits documentaries and fiction films, and she edits them conversely tackling the documentaries like fiction films and the fiction films like real life. This unique ability shows the true range of capacity and experience needed by an editor who works across both fields of her discipline. Being the creative force of the post-production aspect of her films, Wright brings her own unique style to the films she edits, be they for Kevin Macdonald or whomever else she is cutting for, however out of the nine feature films she has edited, five have been with Macdonald, the fifth of which Eagle of the Ninth will be released early this year1. The truth being that their understanding and insight combines to the success of their work; the four films released together earning a number of Oscar nominations, and winning two.
Wright utilises both the aspects of realist and formalist styles to her cutting, threading a fine line between the two across her career. The first feature she edited was Kevin Macdonald’s One Day In September (1999) which recounted the horrific events of the 1972 Olympics in Munich, West Germany at which a group of Palestinian terrorists took eleven Israeli hostages, eventually leading to the massacre of both groups in the bloody finale at the Munich Airport. The film cuts between stock footage from the numerous cameras present at the games, along with key interviews with some of the victim’s relations, police and even one of the surviving terrorists. Added to these documents of the event is a re-enactment of the scenes inside the hotel where the Israelis were being held hostage. These re-enactments serve as the backbone for getting inside the tragic event and putting faces on the victims and the perpetrators, an important if somewhat formalist approach to the documentary, first utilised in the form of Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line in 1988. These elements combine and with the hand of Wright, come together in a unique and absorbing way. The opening shot of the documentary, in some people’s eyes the most important cut of all, is an advert from German television in which happy people celebrate the coming of the Olympics to the city of Munich. This opening shot cuts to black, and a voice is heard saying, “Well, nobody could foresee what later on happened.” And as the opening credits role, voices from archive interviews is heard telling of the brutality and shock of the incident. Wright sets the documentary up from the start and throughout the viewer is engrossed by, not just the story, but the visual medium by which it is told. The film jumps quickly from interview to archive to re-enactment to rostrum to interview again, sometimes employing a split-screen technique in keeping with the timeframe of the events that happened. This highly stylised structure to the film further augments the role of Wright as a master of her craft. Despite the horrific nature of the events the viewer is witnessing, the speed and volume of information thrown at them allows the film to become so much more accessible to audiences who would not usually watch documentaries, the formalist style of the editing combining with the arduous subject matter. The film was not without criticism, with Wright and Macdonald’s decision to show a montage of action shots of the dead bodies of the Israelis and Palestinians after the bloody shootout against the sound of Deep Purple’s Child In Time was described by Roger Ebert as a “tasteless conclusion2” to the film. Regardless of this criticism, One Day In September went on to win Best Documentary at the 2000 Oscar ceremony.
In 2003 Macdonald and Wright’s next film together was released, a documentary re-telling the events that led to an inspiring fight for survival for two climbers in the Peruvian Andes. Touching The Void again proved that Wright had a great aptitude at cutting documentaries in a very formalist style, with the majority of the film being composed of a re-enactment cut between interviews with the two survivors. This is the truly remarkable thing about the editing done by Justin Wright in this film; the viewer knows the two men survive but as the climax approaches she builds the tension to breaking point, where the stress levels the viewer feels is mirrored by the overwhelming emotional anxiety of the images on the screen. The tension mounts and mounts even though the viewer knows the two men are alive and well nearly twenty years after the event has taken place. The pacing of the film is also worth note. As the film draws ever closer to the inevitable catastrophe that cripples the climbers, the cuts become shorter, and lines of voice-over from the interviews are sharp and direct, and at one point when one of the climbers is cut loose and falls into a crevasse, he literally disappears from the screen; there are no images of him from the re-enactments or from the interviews and his sharp and direct lines of voice-over are bleakly absent, and then as he re-appears and tells his individual story of survival, the images of the other climber vanish and his voice goes silent. The pacing slows down as the horrible plight of the men becomes a struggle of endurance rather than adventure.
It has been described as a “pseudo-documentary3” due to the use of these re-enactments and thus is seen as a stylised documentary, taking its cues from the real world but presenting them as a fictional film would. Wright skilfully utilises this docu-drama style to allow the film’s tension and heartbreak to manifest itself fully. With this shift from traditional documentary cutting, which was already evident from One Day In September and furthered by Touching The Void, it was not surprising that Wright and Macdonald were going to move away from the documentary and into the world of fiction.
They worked together three years later on The Last King Of Scotland (2006), a dramatic retelling of the relationship between a Scottish medical graduate and Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, and again in 2009 on State Of Play, Wright and Macdonald’s first foray into the Hollywood machine. State Of Play tells the story of a traditional journalist who tries to help solve a riddle regarding the death of his best friend’s aid. It’s a taut complex thriller which is based on the gritty BBC drama of the same name; however this time set in America. Macdonald approached the film from his British and European background and along with Wright they created a resolute and definite style to the film. Through Macdonald’s direction and the work of Wright in post, State Of Play stands out as a Hollywood film born of the reality of Britain, with long cuts and little music, a slow and honest pace, allowing the film to breathe, unlike so many Hollywood films before it and after. Here, Wright cuts the fictional film as though it was reality and the stylised approaches she took to One Day In September and Touching The Void are left out and to great effect. Rather than seeing this film as a plot based thriller, she saw it as a human based story of betrayal and honesty, against the backdrop of changes in our society. These were elements of the story that needed to be exposed but not forced, and if Wright was to start cutting the film like, say, One Day In September, with split-screens and speed, then these definitive elements would be lost. The gritty realism of the film is its most crucial asset and without the knowledgeable Wright this would have been an impossibility.
It is obvious that Macdonald and Wright have a close relationship, with Wright and composer Alex Heff being his only two regular crew members4, working on his five major features. Their common knowledge of the differences in style transcends the entire outlook of their finished films. Without Macdonald, Wright could not choose, and without Wright, Macdonald could not complete.
Justine Wright is an important editor in our time, as she can tackle both drama and documentary in unexpected manners, resulting in some of the most prominent films of the last ten years. Using style for reality and reality for style Justine Wright’s abilities as an editor are worthy of further examination, allowing us an insight into the variations and choices we have as editors, not just in what we are cutting but in what we can do with the cuts that have been given to us.
- Internet Movie Database (Online) http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0942549/
- Ebert, R (2001) One Day In September (Online) http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20010309/REVIEWS/103090303/1023
- Urban, A.(1997-2010) Touching The Void Reviews (Online) http://www.urbancinefile.com.au/home/view.asp?a=9004&s=Video_files
- Blair, I. (2006) Kevin Macdonald: The Last King of Scotland; Shooting some of the film on 16mm saved enough for a "proper" DI (Online) http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0HNN/is_11_21/ai_n27098590/
· Ralske, J (2010) Touching The Void Review (Online) www.jadwin.net/268/facts/touching.doc
· Landmann, D (2004) Touching the Void (Online) http://www.moviefreak.com/dvd/t/touchingthevoid.htm
· Young, N (2000) The Filth and the Fury and One Day In September (Online) http://www.jigsawlounge.co.uk/film/filth.html
· Haneke, T Distilling the Documentary
· Eagle of the Ninth (2010) Dir. Kevin Macdonald
· One Day in September (1999) Dir. Kevin Macdonald
· The Thin Blue Line (1988) Dir. Errol Morris
· Touching the Void (2003) Dir. Kevin Macdonald
· Last King of Scotland (2006) Dir. Kevin Macdonald
· State of Play (2009) Dir. Kevin Macdonald