Film editor Christopher Rouse on Paul Greengrass, Oscar nominations and 'Captain Phillips'

Posted by · 10:19 pm · February 7th, 2014

Filmmaker/editor relationships may not have the iconic status of relationships between directors and certain actors or producers or even cinematographers, but there are exceptions to this. For instance, no one has been as integral to Martin Scorsese’s career as Thelma Schoonmaker. Much of Steven Spielberg’s work has been shaped by the great Michael Kahn.

Usually these sorts of collaborations are marked by something special at the core of the relationship, and over the past decade, a similar one has begun to blossom in this light: Paul Greengrass and Christopher Rouse. Rouse has worked on nearly all of Greengrass’ films, dating back to 2004’s “The Bourne Supremacy,” and even though their collaborations number just five, to think of one artist without the other is now a bit difficult.

Rouse recently earned his third Oscar nomination for Greengrass’ “Captain Phillips” and Friday night, he picked up his second ACE Eddie Award to date. HitFix recently spoke to him about the on-going collaboration with Greengrass, the Academy Awards and the journey of his latest.


HitFix: How did you get into film editing?

Christopher Rouse: I’m the third generation of my family in the film business, and I grew up with a deep passion for movies. I made my own Super 8 films when I was a kid, and always loved the editing process. When I left high school, my dad was directing a film and I went to work for him as a PA. There were two wonderful editors, Bud Isaacs and Bernie Balmuth, working on the project, and every chance I had I would go to the editing room to watch and learn from them. I was really fortunate, because Bud took me with him on his next film and got me my first union job.

How did you first get to know Paul Greengrass?

I had worked on the “The Bourne Identity” and was close with the film’s producer, Frank Marshall. When Paul was hired for “The Bourne Supremacy,” he told Frank he was interested in working with a few key crew members from Hollywood because he wanted a different experience from what he’d had on his independent British projects. Frank recommended me, and one afternoon Paul gave me a call. We spoke on the phone for quite some time, and I guess I made a reasonably good impression because he hired me sight unseen.

How would you describe your relationship with him after five films?

It’s the richest and best creative relationship I’ve ever had. And it’s not just a working relationship – Paul and I are also close friends. I have the great privilege of working with someone who is an exceptional filmmaker with a powerful world-view, chooses tremendously interesting projects, and is a great guy besides. Like any strong friendship ours is based upon trust, so we’re very open when we speak with each other, and that has great creative benefits.

To what extent is he a hands-on director in the editing suite?

I suppose that depends upon what your definition of “hands-on” is. Paul’s vision and strong point of view drive every aspect of his process, so in truth his hands are on everything. But Paul’s process is incredibly inclusive, and just as he encourages his actors to explore the deeper, truthful aspects of the drama through improvisation, he gives me great creative freedom to engage with his material. And that’s why I love working with Paul. He always wants to see the version I think works best, whether or not it’s something that’s close to what was scripted or shot. He encourages me to make bold choices and think out of the box, and that always leads me into interesting creative territory. It’s a very fluid process that’s rooted in months of work and conversations we’ve had.

So it’s structured, but it’s loose. Paul likes to describe what we do as “playing jazz together.” As Paul shoots, I send him cuts regularly and we speak every day, talking about how the piece is developing. After production ends, Paul comes in to watch my cut. We’ll talk about it at length, and then he’ll go away while I make changes. When I’m done he’ll return, we do it all again, and so forth. We work very closely through every aspect of post-production until we’re finished.

Is there any sort of unique challenge in editing his films given their docudrama nature?

Paul’s process is rooted in his documentary background and his love of cinéma vérité. And so he relentlessly searches for dramatic truth, no matter where that takes him. He likes to shoot long takes with his actors, often resetting several times in order to allow the actors to discover the situation more freely and deeply. And he encourages improvisation. So what makes Paul’s material so rich and exciting also makes it pretty labor-intensive for me. Sometimes a scene will arrive in the cutting room as it was written. Sometimes it’ll be very different than what was on the page. And depending upon what Paul and the actors discovered while they were shooting, the material from later in the day can be quite different from the earlier takes. So trying to meld that material can be challenging.

So specifically with “Captain Phillips,” how would you describe your approach to this material when you got your hands on the footage?

I think I approached “Captain Phillips” as I would any project. I always try to understand the story, characters, and themes as deeply as possible, and then work as hard as I can to make those things come to life. Because the plot of “Phillips” falls into thriller territory – it’s a heist-gone bad – it was important to serve the needs of that genre. The film had to be exciting, suspenseful, and deliver a strong narrative conclusion. But Paul also saw “Phillips” deeply as a deeply character piece, a tale of two captains carrying out the orders imposed on them by the first and third worlds. And so it was important to set up and develop stakes for the characters that not only advanced the plot but also advanced the thematic ideas in the film.

It was also important to build a growing sense of tension over the entire film, but still allow room for the characters to express their emotions in complex, nuanced ways. There were also many smaller “builds” in the film, and depending upon what was going on with the story and the characters, each build needed to be approached differently. For example, in the scene when Phillips is kidnapped in the lifeboat, the characters were highly reactive to each other, and it was important to feel like anything could happen. And so the growing tension there is the result of unpredictable rhythms building to a confrontation that then explodes in a surprising, aggressive series of events. But in the sequence that ends with the SEALs rescuing Phillips, it was important to feel the power and inevitability of the U.S. Navy gradually bearing down on the situation in the lifeboat. And so the tension there is the result of a long, slow build that ratchets up as time is running out, and climaxes when the situation reaches critical mass.

All along the way, we had to keep our emotional connections with the characters. The film not only had to build to an exciting ending, but one that felt emotionally complicated and cathartic as well.

What was your biggest challenge on this one?

I suppose it was in trying to deliver the film Paul wanted, trying to create a piece that was simultaneously exciting, richly characterful and thematically resonant.

Was there anything on “Captain Phillips” you hadn’t done before in your career?

I’m always in early on a project with Paul, but on “Phillips” I spent much more time with him during script development and pre-production. Paul brought me in six months before shooting began. We went over the script in great detail as it evolved, discussing every aspect of it. A lot of problems that might have come up during shooting were solved before the cameras rolled. And needless to say, I was completely in tune with what he was looking for long before I started cutting the movie.

What does it feel like to be nominated for an Oscar?

It’s absolutely incredible. When your peers acknowledge your work to this degree, it’s far beyond flattering – it’s overwhelming. And being nominated affects me deeply because it reminds me of my dad [producer/director/screenwriter Russell Rouse], who won an Academy Award in 1959 [Best Original Screenplay for “Pillow Talk”].

How would you compare the feeling of this nomination to the ones you received for “United 93” and “The Bourne Ultimatum?”

Each time it’s been really special. Because “United 93” was my first, the ride that went with it was new and wild. “Bourne” was special because I had such a deep connection with the franchise, having worked on the first three. And because I’d spent so much time on “Phillips” – from script development through pre-production, production, and post-production – the “Phillips” nomination means a great, great deal to me.

With that in mind, what does it feel like to be going to the ceremony without Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass as fellow nominees?

It’s extremely bittersweet. Obviously I’m over the moon about my good fortune, but am crushed for Paul and Tom. It’s been a very strong year for directors and performances, and I have great respect for everyone who was nominated, but I can’t reconcile them being left out of their categories. Paul directed a tremendously powerful film with thematic complexity and resonance, which also played as great entertainment. He shot in very difficult circumstances – it’s exceptionally tough to shoot on the water – and got great performances from his actors, including a group of young guys who had never acted before but were key to the success of the film. Tom’s performance was nothing short of stunning. The commitment, the choices, the nuance… His emotional arc was monumental, and left us breathless at the end of the film. Of course I’m biased, but I think they should have been acknowledged.

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