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!'