Pietro Scalia. Photo by William Stetz.

May-June 2010 : Volume 31, Number 3

The Service of Story
An Interview with Pietro Scalia

By Garrett Gilchrist

Born in Sicily, Pietro Scalia lived in Switzerland before moving to Los Angeles to attend UCLA, where he received an MFA in Film.  After serving as an assistant and an additional editor on several Oliver Stone films in the late 80s and early 90s, he was promoted to editor and immediately won the Academy Award for Best Editing (shared with Joe Hutshing, A.C.E.) in 1991 for Stone's landmark film JFK.  Scalia received his second Oscar nomination for Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting in 1997, the same year he began his 13-year collaboration with Scott on G.I. Jane.  Among the seven films the director-editor team created were Gladiator (2000), which won five Oscars including Best Picture and earned Scalia his third nomination, and Black Hawk Down (2001), for which he won his second Best Editing Oscar. They also worked together on American Gangster, Hannibal, and Body of Lies.

A decade after Gladiator, Scalia and Scott re-team with actor Russell Crowe for another larger-than-life heroic epic, Robin Hood.  On the eve of the film's release, Scalia talked to Editors Guild Magazine about bringing this legend to life, as well as his collaborations and his career.

Russell Crowe in Robin Hood.  
Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

What was your mindset when editing Robin Hood?

PS: It seems like a progression, ten years later, to do another grand scale heroic epic. From Gladiator to Kingdom of Heaven to Robin Hood, Ridley's interest in history has taken him from ancient Rome to the end of the third crusade. The character of Robin Hood is very different from Maximus. It's an adventure story, and a romantic story. The heart of the film is the relationship between Robin and Lady Marion. Russell and Cate Blanchett are two fabulous actors who fit those roles perfectly. There's a lot of humor.The story is very rich and complex. The struggle was to streamline all these storylines into a focused and cohesive whole, with Robin at the center. What appealed to me is that it's a story we haven't heard before. Oh god, another Robin Hood, we've seen so many. But it's a completely different take, an origin story going back to the historical context of the character, how this persona was built. There is no true historical story- he's a construct. We know the adventures, but we don't know the man. Why has this story survived 700 years? It's that initial spark to explore that world, to see what happened before the myths, the ballads. It's refreshing to find the reality, while keeping the tone of adventure and legend.

How does Ridley approach the process as a director?

PS: From the production design to costumes, working with Arthur Max or Janty Yates or John Mathieson, they've worked together before, and there's a shorthand as they communicate. Russell is very prepared. He's very involved in the development of the story- they've had endless discussions about character. But once they shoot Ridley concentrates on actually getting the shots done. and its extremely complicated. So Ridley expects everybody to be ready on the set, to bring their own research and background. He leaves a lot of freedom of interpretation to the actors. We get a lot of good performances. It isn't, "Oh this is absolutely the correct take for this performance," or "This is the right reading." When I see the material for the first time, and do my first cut, I have my own interpretation of the performances, and after this many years Ridley and I are usually of the same mind. But for us the editing process is a way to discover the characters anew, and to be able to shape it according to where the story takes us. We finesse it, making continuous adjustments to character throughout the editing process. He seemed angry in this take- let's try a slightly less angry take. We can't be afraid to eliminate a lot of additional dialogue in order to improve the character. Not to diminish him, but rather build him- concentrate the character and the story.

Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett in Robin Hood.  
Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

You started your career as an assistant to Oliver Stone on Wall Street, Talk Radio, The Doors and Born on the Fourth of July.

PS: Great, wonderful films- a lot of work and a great experience. After my MFA at UCLA, Oliver Stone was my school after school- the school of reality. I was fortunate enough to be taken in by his editorial team, Claire Simpson and David Brenner. As a mentor he taught me to be truthful and honest. He's extremely intelligent, well read and worldly. He speaks fluent French and has a somewhat half-European background from his mother's side. He's an excellent writer- he loves language. He's a driven and passionate man- like Goethe, all sturm und drang. My background in film school was documentaries. I loved his Salvador, his sense of social realism, which reminded me of the neorealist films.

Pietro Scalia. Photo by William Stetz.

Within five years you'd moved up to edit JFK with Joe Hutshing, 1991, winning an Oscar in the process, and creating the famous scene deconstructing the Zapruder film of the assassination from multiple angles- "back, and to the left."

PS: At first sight it looked like a daunting task. We weren't working digitally, we were still working with 3/4 inch tape and film, and we had every single format you can imagine. Super8, 8, 16, black and white, color, regular 35, 1:85, 2:35, videotape, 2 inch videotape... it goes on and on. Perhaps the editing stood out because it was visible editing- we needed the viewer to see all the elements, and the construct of the edit, a multiple viewing of the same thing in different ways, until you can actually deduct your own conclusion. It was a huge amount of information to condense, for us as well as for Oliver. It's putting things in focus- if it's not necessary, if it doesn't make a point, you must eliminate it. It's removing everything to find what's essential. That's something that I carry with me throughout all the pictures. Some things you can't describe in a script- they can only be shot. Like the slow motion, what Bob Richardson did with the printing. The original version was 4 hours and 20 minutes long, and it had its own pace and its own growth. The challenge was to get the same experience in a shorter amount of time. How can you be most economical and most effective in telling the same thing? The structure of the story is everything, creating the solid base upon which you can actually build the story and develop the character. You need to be able to visualize the structure in such a way that it has different anchors, points of reference that the character can react to, and that the viewer can hold onto. The investigation starts in New Orleans. He meets Donald Sutherland, the famous Mr. X, who tells him to go back to Dallas. Later he meets Mr. X again, who says he's ready now to go to trial- but to be clear that the trial is not necessarily winnable. But the shifting of structure allowed us to remove an hour of material without losing the story. It's condensed; scenes overlap; multiple actions happen simultaneously. The New Orleans and Dallas investigations happen at the same time. He meets Mr. X only once. A similar thing happened on Robin Hood. [laughs] We had so much story, and it was over three hours. First cuts are always too long, even if the scenes are cut to proper length. We lost an hour- not saying "Oh god, we really have to sacrifice this scene"- it's clarifying things, simplifying. Reducing subplots and substories, but then reinforcing them somehow in a different way that gives the same point. It's about the economy of storytelling. Taking out everything that you don't need just makes everything so much better around it. So why don't we do it the first time round? Because you don't know- it can only happen as the film evolves. It's an organic process of rewriting and rewriting. I might recut a reel fifty, sixty times, because if we change something within a scene it affects the scenes down the line later. Every change you make affects the story. Again with Robin, it was structure and character- defining the movement of the character within the structure, to reach those story points. So many millions of decisions have gone into shooting this footage, and you have to sacrifice all these beautiful shots, all this work that has been done. How can you do that? We are at the service of story, and character. If it doesn't help the story, it doesn't matter how beautiful it is, or how many ways you shot it, or how great it works. You just have to trust your instincts and think, this is what we like. This is what we want to say. And, how can we be entertaining?

You worked with Bernardo Bertolucci on Little Buddha [1993].

PS: That was my next experience with a master, a completely different experience. He was the opposite of Oliver- very calm. Just as passionate, but expressing this passion in much gentler ways. There was no rush, nobody with a gun on his back. He would take his time. It was a homecoming to Italy for me, to a world of filmmaking that I had admired for so long as a child. He enriched my life with stories of great European directors from Rossellini to Pasolini to Godard and other French directors he had worked with. It was about living in the moment as much as the film itself. That was important; that was the driving force for him.

How would you describe your working relationship with Ridley Scott?

PS: Ridley is a cinematic virtuoso, a fine artist with a great visual gift. He has such a richness of ideas, an endless well of creativity, and he is absolutely capable of creating whatever he visualizes, on a grand scale. With Ridley I found just as driven and passionate a filmmaker as Oliver and Bernardo, with a vast knowledge, but especially someone that would give me a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence and trust, right off the bat. He recognized my hard work, my dedication to the craft. My job is to be honest- to speak my mind. We are sorting through hundreds of ideas which could be contradictory, but which are all valid in certain ways, as different facets of the same idea. We have to capture the essence of the story. He trusts my tastes, and we are able to enter into straightforward dialogue about what works, and in what direction that takes us. It stimulates my creativity. We need to always be surprised, to push that idea further, into something unexpected, and to build on that idea. We also communicate in shorthand, now. We both love film, and we're willing to try different things at any time. Nothing is necessarily sacred. Once we see it, and sense that this is it, we don't waver after having found it. We only perfect and clarify it even more, even down to ADR where we might have to change a word. It's always to focus the story into a unified whole as a moviegoing experience.

Ridley Scott directs Cate Blanchett and Russell Crowe in Robin Hood.  
Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

Do you prefer a handheld, shakier camera, or more classical camera setups with smooth, sweeping motions, and locked down angles?

PS: They're both valid forms of storytelling- they just create a different perception of reality. It's the director's choice. Bernardo Bertolucci glides the camera in long uninterrupted takes because he has within the camera movement a sense of storytelling. You can be lyrical. Shooting handheld, you're grabbing instances of reality. It's a cubist form- you see the same shape from many different angles and still get the sense of what the actual shape is. It's a construct. What I don't agree with is when the camera moves for no particular reason, no purpose in telling the story. The camera is shaking because this is a documentary- it becomes a cliche. Movement is essential- it guides the eye, keeps the mind interested. Gladiator was a little bit more classical, while Black Hawk Down was shot documentary style with multiple cameras. The action took the place of dialogue. This is a combination- we see those beautiful images that only Ridley can create, and the raw physical in your face battles, shot with multiple cameras. It's hand to hand combat, on the ground, with large amounts of troops. You can break that down into many small parts but it becomes mechanical, or unreal. In order to capture the reality you have to actually orchestrate it. We may add the arrows in afterward but it's all real people doing the fighting. It's old-fashioned, in a way- thousands of extras rather than CGIed horses or people.
Pietro Scalia, A.C.E.
Selected Editing Credits
Robin Hood (2010) @
Body of Lies (2008) @
American Gangster (2007) @ ##
Hannibal Rising (2007)
(co-edited with Valerio Bonelli)
Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)
Ashes and Snow (2005)
Levity (2003)
Black Hawk Down (2001) @ * + ##
Hannibal (2001) @
Gladiator (2000) @ ** + #
Playing by Heart (1998)
Good Will Hunting (1997) ** ++
G.I. Jane (1997) @
Stealing Beauty (1996)
The Quick and the Dead (1995)
Little Buddha (1993)
JFK (1991) % * + #
(co-edited with Joe Hutshing, A.C.E.)
The Doors (1991) %
(additional editor)
Born on the Fourth of July (1989) %
(additional editor)
Talk Radio (1988) %
(assistant editor)
Wall Street (1987) %
(assistant editor)
Shy People (1987)
(assistant editor)

    @     Directed by Ridley Scott
    %    Directed by Oliver Stone
    *     Academy Award Winner
    **    Academy Award Nomination
    +      ACE Eddie Winner
    ++     ACE Eddie Nomination
    #     BAFTA Winner
    ##     BAFTA Nomination
Ridley, John Mathieson and the production team have created an environment where a lot of action happens simultaneously in the foreground, middle ground and background- a lot of moving parts, very complex choreography. My task with the huge amount of coverage that's been shot is to make sense of it not only for the characters, for the movement and action, but also so the viewer understands it geographically. The viewer should be inside the battle, immersed in it. Quick movements, dynamic cuts with energy and impact- it's a selection process of finding the visually percussive moments that best illustrate the action. What is the story? What is essential? On Black Hawk Down, there was a lot of material. It's not a given what is shot #1, shot #2, shot #3. Ridley is a master of that, creating the backdrop and placing the cameras in such a way to capture the reality. The RPGS, the explosions were actually happening, and the actors react to that- to the sound, to all the weight on their back as they're running. To the guns, the helicopters above, the dust blowing up. It feels real because it was.

You also worked with Sam Raimi on The Quick and the Dead [1995], who breaks every action down into its own shot.

PS: Absolutely. It was a wonderful experience working with Sam, and you're right. It was a different way of making films. He had organized every shot with detailed and specific storyboards. I remember the first time we spoke on the phone and he told me how many cuts were going to be in the film. [laughs] "Can you handle that?" It was hilarious! I said, "How can you possibly know how many cuts you have?" But he had it all figured out. He's just like Hitchcock. He knew his cuts, knew his story, knew exactly what to shoot. But film is unpredictable. You have to improvise and things change. An actor doesn't want to do this, or does that. My greatest enjoyment comes when we rediscover the film in the cutting room and leave the door open to the unexpected, let the film show us. The directors are always open for that moment, for that spark to happen. On Gladiator, we had a good opening, but once we were done with the film, I saw this image of a hand over wheat, a great, poetic image. I'd learned from Bernardo to use images as poetry, even in an action film. It was an essential image, a thematic image. It's open to interpretation, but for me it says, this is an internal journey. Like any hero's journey it's an internal transformation of the person. When Ridley saw it he said "That's it! You see it!" That's what's unpredictable and magical in the cutting room. You never know what will happen.

During the shooting of Gladiator, Oliver Reed sadly passed away. The team were faced with completing his character's story arc with only the footage already shot.

PS: He had done such a great performance. It was really sad, and at the same time sad for his character. Everyone was obviously panicked but we wanted to save the character, save the performance. From the day we heard the news, Ridley and I had to say, what is essential in this story for this character to be complete? We had the last scene in the movie, which was a symbolic image of Proximo burying the wooden sword of freedom, in the arena where Maximus died. But we said, it's okay if we don't have that. We can have Juba, Djimon's character, bury the figurines, symbolizing that Maximus has joined his family in the afterlife, and at the same time there's an uplifting note for him to join his own family.

Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett in Robin Hood.  
Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

He's also sort of free at that point. In terms of story it worked really well. We wanted Proximo to somehow redeem himself, freeing Maximus from prison. I looked through every single piece of footage we had. At that point we weren't too sophisticated in terms of CGI, but we asked John Nelson, our visual FX supervisor- Can we change this from day to night? Can we put a shadow here? Can we change his clothes, change his hair? "Yeah, we can do that." The writers were writing in the cutting room. The producers, Walter Parkes, Doug Wick... everybody was involved. He's gonna walk over there. We're gonna use a double for this. It's not a scene unless the character talks. The line "you will win your freedom" became "you have won your freedom." Russell said, "That's not enough, maybe I should say something." A perfect line, on the spot- "Proximo, are you in danger of becoming a good man?" Oliver goes "Ha!" and walks out of the frame. And at that moment we had a scene. It's miraculous, how that happens. And it was worth it, for Oliver's character.

You worked with Gus Van Sant on Good Will Hunting [1997].

PS: You always worry about work, and when the next job is coming... but I wanted to wait, and find the script I'd fall in love with. Not just take anything. I wanted to work with the great directors- like Stone, Bertolucci, Raimi. I'm a great fan of Gus's work, since his first film, Mala Noche. I really responded to the script- the rhythm of the dialogue. Just hilarious. I was laughing throughout it, and such a good story. I loved the way they speak- the words jumped off the page. I thought, "Wow! Great! This sounds like real people talking!" It was like a Billy Wilder movie- light, comedic drama, based on sharp, witty dialogue. But it wasn't a given. Gus was considering other people at the time. I met Gus in Toronto- he liked my background, from working with Oliver, and it turned out he was a big admirer of Bertolucci- La Luna and The Conformist are two of his favorite films. He said, "You wanna hang out? We're gonna go see a movie, go see the guys." Matt, Ben and Casey were all sharing the same condo. Observing these guys talking in real life, it was like stepping into the movie. I said, "Gus, this is amazing. It's right here." He said "Yeah, isn't it?" [laughs] I flew back to LA and I was offered the picture, and I was really, really happy. Gus shot the material giving the actors freedom to improvise, to keep the takes fresh. Having written the script, they knew the material so well that they could easily change the text and still stay within the characters, and within the essence of the dialogue.

Cate Blanchett in Robin Hood.  Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

It wasn't a documentary, but for me that editing process was capturing something that felt real. The accents, how they spoke on top of one another, my love for language. Since we were working digitally at that point with the Avid, I was able to splice words together from different sentences, different takes, with different inflections.  You could do a lot more finessing- with mag it was much more cumbersome. You couldn't try as many variations- you'd have to ask for retransfers. And you'd always hear a click on the cut- it couldn't really be smoothed out until later in the mix. The Quick and the Dead was the first film I did digitally. To me Good Will Hunting was a dialogue picture- the opposite of Black Hawk Down, which was almost no dialogue, all action. We hear people described as action editors, dialogue editors, comedy editors, and it's ridiculous- we're all just editors.

What do you feel is your personal style and approach to editing?

PS: It's a hard question. We're all faced with the same problems, and we go through the same process. Every film is a different challenge, with its own set of difficulties and problems. I just love film, and think anything is possible. As an editor you can distill the best from the material to the point that you completely transform it, and the initial footage is no longer recognizable. Through sound, music, color, movement and visual effect, you affect the storytelling. I want to get lost in movies. I don't want to think about the technical and artificial aspect of it. I want to enjoy it, to be immersed in a real 3D word. I like films that feel real in terms of dialogue, that feel authentic in terms of setting and costumes. I like films that move me. Film has all the art forms combined- drama, theater, photography, dance, music, architecture... but editing is very specific to film. It was born out of film; it didn't exist before that. I enjoy the creative process of editing. There's no other art form like it.

Garrett Gilchrist is a freelance writer, filmmaker and film editor. He can be reached at orangecow.org.


Articles written by Garrett Gilchrist and (c) The Motion Picture Editors Guild Magazine, 2008-2011.
Website design by Garrett Gilchrist.