Jeffrey Ford on shaping the Avengers from the edit suite
Updated: May 26, 2020
Jeffrey Ford, editor of films such as Public Enemies, Crazy Heart and a number of Marvel movies including all the Avengers and Captain America films, talks to us about his career, advice for new editors and filmmakers starting out, and the influence on the MCU director Robert Altman never knew he had.
Over the last 12 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has transformed the Hollywood blockbuster landscape, culminating in the highest grossing film of all time Avengers: Endgame. There are not many editors who can say they've helped shape an expansive and sweeping cultural phenomenon, but Jeffrey Ford is one of them.
Few could have predicted how the MCU would impact the world stage so entirely. Fewer still, would have guessed that some of the remote working processes developed during the making of their films would go on to benefit post-production during a pandemic years later. Processes that are helping Ford continue his work while in lockdown.
"It's been really therapeutic for me to have something to focus on. I'm working on a CBS miniseries about James Comey and Donald Trump. We finished shooting in Toronto mid-February so we got back just before things started to shut down. Now, we're approaching picture lock and getting ready to figure out how to mix and do a score in the pandemic world, which is a pretty interesting problem to solve.
"We perfected some of this on the Marvel movies where we had to work remotely in a few cases. I remember on Age of Ultron, which was shot in England, we were filming at Shepperton Studios but had a big location shoot in a town called Hendon, where we had this giant standing set which was basically Sokovia. Getting there was sometimes a three-hour affair because the traffic could be brutal. We built a portable system with portable storage so I could cut with director Joss Whedon while we were out on location. The system wasn't connected to our network, but we still had access to the media that we were working on. That's the first time we really had to build a portable edit room with a lot of media."
The debate between shooting on film versus digital is often the focus of the digital revolution. However, there is no denying that the editing process has entirely benefited from the advancement of digital technology. Ford notes that working remotely is something that many directors have always wanted, even from the time he started out on features in the mid-90's.
"Many years ago I was an assistant on As Good as It Gets with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt. We were shooting in Brooklyn and the director James L. Brooks wanted to be able to work on the cut while he was on set. We had to build a couple of Avid edit suites into the back of a grip truck because they didn't really have portable systems back then. You had these giant 'scuzzy' SCSI drives which were huge but delicate, they couldn't take a lot of bumps. The idea of portable systems or editing off your laptop was way in the future at that point.
"This crisis may see the creation of a lot of new technology to make it possible to do this remotely, which will give everybody more flexibility to work together when they can't necessarily be together."
There is a certain irony that one of the first films he worked on was called As Good As It Gets, because clearly it would only get a whole lot better for Ford over the years. The industry is a different animal now in many ways, but the route into it seems to be as relatable now, as it was when he first started out.
"Really, it was being in the right place at the right time, and making friendships out of mutual interest in film that grew and allowed us to all help each other get into the business. When I was in film school there was always this question, 'How am I going to get over this big wall they've built around Hollywood and break in?' I came to LA to go to USC film school in the late 80's. I didn't have any connections in the industry, no family in the industry, nothing like that. The friends that I made at USC were the ones who helped me forge a path. We were all trying to figure out how to get in together, and I think it helped us all to share that experience.
"There's a lot of people I owe my career to but one of the most important people is a director named James Gray, who has gone on to be one of the great directors of my generation. He was a good friend of mine in film school, and we loved working together. When he got his first feature, a low budget feature called Little Odessa that he was making in New York City, he wanted me to come on and work on it. I didn't have any credits, so I couldn't be the editor but I said, 'I'll be an apprentice editor and sync dailies, I'll do anything I can to be on your film.' That's how I was able to get on that crew."
What follows are some incredible insights and advice for young editors, but advice equally applicable to any role in film production for those looking to launch and pursue a career in the industry. Lessons learned from his own experience as an assistant on films such as Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead, Assassins and As Good As It Gets.
"I think being an apprentice or assistant is an incredibly important part of coming up in the industry, no matter what you're doing. I think seeing the job that you're going to have someday up close, without having the responsibility of doing it, allows you to understand what those responsibilities will be. You learn these fundamentals about film that you have to understand on a granular level, that as an editor you will then always have in the back of your mind.
"I'll give you an example. Edit assistants are almost entirely devoted to getting dailies ready during production, making sure the material that comes in from set gets put together, quality checked and put in front of the editor in a timely fashion so that they can cut it. It has to be organised, you have to know where everything is, and you have to sync it up. Just the notion of understanding 'sync', the relationship between sound and picture, is a fundamental part of editing. You can manipulate it by changing it.
"You can manipulate the level of the sound, you make it louder and make it softer. You can have the sound occur earlier or later. You can have the sound on the cut or before the cut. You can have dialogue overlap. All these incredible techniques that involve sound and pictures sync relationships are things you use when you're an editor, and I think you develop the understanding of that when you have to literally sync up the dailies at the beginning of the project.
"As an assistant you also hear the conversations between a director and an editor and what that sounds like. You hear what they talk about, how the director might be anxious, how the editor might be anxious, how they handle that anxiety. The director might complain about the crew, about the difficulties of the shoot. You hear all those things which are all kept in confidence because that's the relationship you have with every director. When you become an editor and you work with the director, you're kind of their shrink [laughs]. "Sometimes they tell you things that they'll only tell you as you're sitting there putting their movie together, and a lot of times they're living with the mistakes that they've made which you can help them solve. It's a pretty cool relationship, and that's really a lot of the job in terms of feature film editing, developing a collaborative relationship. I think as an assistant you can learn that with training wheels on."
Ford's first outing as editor on a feature was with his friend and collaborator James Gray on The Yards, a collaborative relationship already established. He has since gone on to work with directors such as Joss Whedon Shane Black, David Ayer, Russo Brothers and Michael Mann - all of whom have their own ways of working.
"Every director has their own personality and idiosyncrasies, which is why they're able to make their own movies which you can identify as one of theirs. People I've worked with have a specific style and their personalities are different, so you have different ways of working with them. Some directors like to sit in the room with you while you're editing and are present for a large part of the process. You're having a conversation with them all day long and that can be really fun. I actually really love working that way.
"Then, there are other directors who come in and give you notes, and then leave, and then come back to see what you've done and make little adjustments. I'm okay working that way too but I like the one-on-one collaboration a little bit more because from those conversations you can do really cool stuff that you might not have done on your own.
"Directors who really get under the hood with the script are the ones that I seem to gravitate to. Certainly, someone like Joss Whedon who has an super understanding of writing and is really into the details and has a specific technique. I would include the Russo Brothers in that group too because their involvement in the screenplay phase of the movies that we worked on is so unbelievably intense."
Which brings us back to the aforementioned Marvel Cinematic Universe. How did he get involved with the epic series and did he have any idea it would go on to have the success that it has?
"Well, I can answer the second question right away, which is, none of us knew it was going to do what it did [laughs]. We were working towards it, but I can tell you we never, ever, ever expected it to do what it has done. It's all been amazing and very humbling. "I was working on Public Enemies directed by Michael Mann, which was another one of the most incredible creative experiences I've ever had. Working with Michael is exhausting. He is a relentless, unbelievably tireless director who works incredibly long hours and never quits. I learned more from that movie probably than any other. Paul Rubell was my co-editor on Public Enemies and left a little bit early to do a Transformers movie that he had already committed to, so I was left alone to finish with some other editors who rotated through. Then, after his Transformer movie Paul went on to edit Thor at Marvel.
"I went over for lunch with Paul at Marvel and he said, 'I'm having a good time, these guys are really fun to work with and they seem like they're going places. This is their third movie but they've got more. I'm probably going to do another one with them. They're doing this movie called the Avengers, maybe you could be my co-editor on it.' I said, 'That would be awesome. Let me talk to my agent and see if I can get a meeting at Marvel so they can see if they like me and then I can go through the process of campaigning to be your co-editor.'
"My agent arranged a meeting with producer Victoria Alonso. This was late 2010, they were finishing up Thor and had just finished photography on Captain America: The First Avenger. I thought it was a general meeting just to say, 'Hey, could I maybe work with you guys someday?' In fact, Victoria thought I was coming in to meet about Captain America. They'd come back from England and were trying to crew up for the post-production in the United States and were looking for an editor. She said, 'Well, you should go downstairs and meet Joe Johnston. He's the director of Captain America." I said, 'I was here to meet about The Avengers. I didn't even know you needed someone for that!'
"I had an interview with Joe Johnston and really liked him, but I didn't know what to say because I really hadn't planned to campaign for this movie. Then as fate would have it, Joe E. Rand, a great music editor I'd worked with on Public Enemies, was also working on Captain America. Joe Johnston and I walk down the hall and run into Joe E. Rand who says, 'It's Jeff! Joe, you should hire him. He'd be great on this picture.' Joe's like, 'Great, you can start Monday.'"
Returning for work on The First Avenger the following week would be the first step in a journey that would see him go on to edit Avengers: Assemble, Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and ultimately, Avengers: Endgame. Huge films with a lot of characters and arcs that all needed servicing. No mean feat.
"As a movie fan, my approach to that was to think about other movies that accomplished certain things, and to go back and see how they did it. For me the solution to balancing an ensemble with that range is Robert Altman. If you look at Nashville or Short Cuts or M*A*S*H, movies that have central characters, but also have this wide range of supporting players that come and go, and weave in and out. They relate to each other in different ways. The one that was most informative was Short Cuts.
"That was an Altman movie based on Raymond Carver short stories. It was a really interesting cut by Geraldine Peroni, she really threaded those relationships. All throughout the film you felt an incredible sense of balance. That was how I approached balancing the characters. We talked a lot in the writing phase about how to do this and that was helpful too, because we could talk in the writers room before we shot anything. Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are great at this too, the way they write these characters. The script already had a sense of balance to it. I think that really helped."
Ford says how the endpoints for each character were decided some 4 or 5 years before the film was complete, and those endpoints never changed. Details leading up to those endpoints were a little more fluid, however, particular when it came time to create the final end battle as the climax to Endgame.
"The movie got altered in many ways editorially, and we did a bunch of re-shooting. Most of the re-shooting was the final battle sequence, which we hadn't really completed because we felt we needed to see how Infinity War was going to be received. We had to construct and complete that part of the story before we knew how to finish Endgame completely. We had pieces a lot of Endgame shot, but we held off on the very end battle and the last moments because we wanted to make sure we dialled in properly, didn't repeat ourselves and also serviced the character development that we had discovered in editing Infinity War.
"The biggest change, I would say, was probably to the sequence where Natasha [Black Widow] sacrifices herself. That was an idea that came as we were editing Endgame and realising that Natasha's arc was really beautiful and interesting. We went back and changed her last moments so that it was more grounded on her relationship with Hawkeye. Previously it had been more of an action scene where she made the decision in the midst of battle, and we decided there's something more powerful if they both have the option to make the sacrifice and they fight for the right to do it. Having Natasha make her sacrifice in the midst of battle didn't allow us to have the character interaction we desperately wanted in there."
One of the more significant changes made in post-production led to a famous re-shooting of what would become an iconic line of dialogue that echoes across the entire franchise. 'I am Iron Man.' It's inclusion in Endgame was another result of collaboration in the edit, the credit for which has been laid at Ford's door.
"I appreciate Joe Russo throwing that to me but we have these conversations in the edit room all during post-production and while we're cutting the movies we all throw out these ideas. Sometimes we say, 'Hey, here's a bad idea, but maybe it'll lead to a good one.' Everybody has a chance to throw out what they think is either a good or a bad idea and the good ones get applauded and the bad ones get shut down.
"To be perfectly honest, the idea for that exchange came from a mocap session with Josh Brolin. We were trying to figure out what his last line would be because we felt Thanos needed an exit line. We were trying different techniques with Brolin to deliver his line and we thought, 'Hey, what if he calls back 'I am inevitable?'. He says it at the beginning before they chop his head off, he hears himself say it in the playback when he's watching Nebula's memories. I thought, 'Well, this is perfect'. The Thanos of the past hears Thanos of the future say 'I am inevitable'. He basically convinces himself that he is inevitable.
"He says that line to Tony [Robert Downey Jr.] and that creates this sort of symmetry which makes Tony's line 'I am Iron Man' even more heroic. Then, of course, the audience intuit it as a line that represents a summation of everything that Tony Stark has done in the whole story. It gives the line incredible power, but again, but I would say the movie figured that out for us more than anything because the movie's rhythms gave it to us."
The resulting re-shoot to capture that line would also perfectly circle a couple of other real life stories for both Jeffrey Ford and Iron Man himself.
"When we shot it there was this weird feeling I just won't forget. Obviously, it was something we did late in the game and was one of the last things we shot. We did it at Raleigh Studios, near Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, and there were a couple things in my mind that day that were awesome.
"One was that we were going to finish this movie with Robert filming this line on the same soundstage where he had his very first screen test for Iron Man. That was a goose bumps moment, that he was ending it where he began, there was something really poetic about that. In Robert's reading of that line, there was half a dozen takes that he could do. He's very emotional. You could hear a pin drop on that set. Downey is one of the great actors. He's supremely underrated at what he does. He's so good. By the way, he was in that Altman movie Short Cuts I was talking about [laughs].
"Then for me, we were shooting it on the lot about 100 yards away from where my very first editing room was for Little Odessa! I had my first editing job on that lot, and now I was there finishing up this massive movie. There was something really awesome about that day. I definitely carry it with me."
And with that MCU chapter of Ford's life brought to a close so fittingly, what advice would he go back and give that assistant working on Little Odessa before he started out?
"Oh, boy, that's a good question. I would tell myself that you don't have to wait for people to give you permission to do what you want to do. You can just do it. I think that was one thing that slowed me down, or at least kept me from pushing forward in a way that I wished I had a little bit earlier.
"Filmmaking is like anything else. You don't have to have a license to do it. You can go out and start making films. The more films you make, the more stuff you shoot and the more stuff you edit, the better you get at it. It's not unlike being a musician. If you practice and if you have a connection emotionally and spiritually to the material, people are going to listen and watch and enjoy it, and you're going to get great satisfaction out of it.
"I just say, go do it. Don't wait for somebody to tell you it's time."