Editing films was not something that Jonathan Alberts had planned as a career. “I had gone to McGill to do my undergrad in English literature and was hired by an internet company in New York. I worked with an incredibly talented editor, Jonathan Oppenheim, who has done a ton of great theatrical documentaries like Paris Is Burning, Streetwise, Sister Helen, and Children Underground. That was my first exposure,” Alberts tells us.
Through the recommendation of a producer, Alberts met with filmmaker Drake Doremus. “We started with Like Crazy in 2011 and seem not to be able to stop working with each other!” says Alberts. Unlike his editor, Doremus went straight from high school to studying directing at the American Film Institute. “It seems like almost everybody I end up working with on the production side are AFI graduates, whether we were in the same class or not, which is what makes the program so special and spectacular,” Doremus tells us. “I didn’t know much about filmmaking. I was passionate about it in making shorts. In my first year I got my ass kicked and failed a lot. I did all of this crap and was essentially trying to find my own voice. Being in my early 20s, it was a really formative time for me.”
“Drake and I have done things in the same way for Like Crazy, Breathe In, and Equals, where I’m not cutting during the shoot,” explains Alberts. “Drake will be shooting and then will cut a montage of things that he likes. I take that material and start cutting from scene one. By building it from scene one onwards you get a real sense of how the narrative is evolving. Eventually, I would look at all of the reels for those scenes.” The nontraditional linear approach assists with scene transitions: “You know where the last scene ended so there are certain places where the next one can’t start. Your brain is watching the movie unfold and you can feel there are problems as it goes along.” Alberts notes, “It’s rare that scenes end up being preserved in their initial cut. Transitions sometimes can be preserved, as it’s mostly within the scene that you’re changing.”
“Often, on set, actors will leave a lot of space and never overlap their dialogue for technical reasons,” explains Alberts. “As an editor, you’re constantly manipulating the rhythm and pacing of a scene to make it work.” Most of the time, the production team utilized one or two cameras. “Generally when making your selects, you end up cutting the footage down to half. You’re starting to understand what that scene could be. Drake may start with a wide shot and by the sixth take, he’ll change the blocking completely. This happened to us a lot in Like Crazy and Breathe In, because there wasn’t a script involved in terms of where the scene was starting and ending,” Alberts tells us. “I loved some of the pieces Drake did in these early takes. He told me to forget about continuity and to follow the emotional through-line of the scene. What was interesting for me was throwing out all of those rules, finding the little gems I wanted to use, and asking, ‘How do I make all of these things work together?’ It created an opportunity.”
Alberts points out that Breathe In and Like Crazy had an outline for every scene, whereas Equals had a full script, by Doremus and Nathan Parker. “Drake stuck to that script, but there were a lot of moments that were improvised,” he tells us. Equals revolves around a dystopian emotionless society in which two people, Silas (Nicholas Hoult) and Nia (Kristen Stewart), become infected with feelings and are drawn toward each other. “When the actors were ‘switched on’ there was so much more improv than when they were ‘switched off,’ which was a cool way to have the structure follow the function of how we did things,” says Doremus, who at times would let the camera roll for 30 minutes. “I liked working from a script.”
During the film’s editing process, Alberts’ assistants created index cards with scene stills and one-sentence descriptions. “We put them all up on the wall, and that’s when we’re getting into the real editorial structural work of trying to find the best narrative arc of the film,” Alberts explains. “Those scene cards move around. With Equals we ended up chopping a lot of scenes out. Drake always wanted the first act to be a slow burn in order to explore the push and pull of Nia and Silas seeing each other, understanding they’re both sick, and the tussle they go through before having the moment in the bathroom when they touch each other for the first time.” Doremus adds, “That’s a cool scene. That was one where we would run for 30 minutes at a time. The moment was so charged and filled with so much anticipation. It feels like it’s happening for the first time.”
Ridley Scott, the director of sci-fi classics like Alien and Blade Runner, served as an executive producer of the project. “He gave me notes from time to time,” recalls Doremus. “It was awesome being able to have that wealth of knowledge and experience, especially when you’re jumping into a genre for the first time.” Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966) served as Doremus’ main cinematic reference for Equals. “That was definitely a movie I love and that inspired me. If you watch that movie today it has a 1960s vibe, but at the same time it doesn’t. It feels like any time and place,” Doremus tells us.
During production of Equals, the team used an LED board to manipulate the colors from cool to warm to underscore the emotional state of the characters. “We wanted the look of the film and the camera movement to be peripheral to mirror what was going on inside Silas.” Stark environments and clothing populate the screen. “We wanted to have something that the colors would reflect off of,” explains Doremus, who did not want viewers to be distracted from watching the cast. “For me it’s not really a futuristic or sci-fi movie. That stuff is there, but it is about the performances and the slow burn of this relationship. I definitely wanted that to take center stage.”
Principal photography took place in Japan and Singapore. “The Tadao Ando buildings we found in Japan inspired us. These are museums and colleges. They play such a big part in this world, which is cold and concrete but also organic, green, and Zen-like,” Doremus tells us. A morning jog even led to a change of location for a space launch scene: “We were going to shoot that in a park in Singapore. I found this coliseum and shot it there.”
Equals features around 300 visual effects shots. “I’m proud of the way the visual effects look in the movie,” says Doremus, who made use of rear projections for window views and had a number of screens requiring computer graphics and content. “We had a couple of days when Teddy Dibble of MK12 came in and was using After Effects and Illustrator to help us to visualize certain scenes,” explains Alberts. “Silas works at a place called Atmos, which uses large electronic drafting table screens. In postproduction we had to figure out not only what the screens were going to look like, but what the content was going to be. My assistants and I created mock-ups in the Avid. That’s a blessing and a curse because you have the power to manipulate the narrative with what’s happening on these screens, but the ability to change it all of the time creates a lot of work editorially. MK12 ended up doing all of the work on the screen content.”
“When cutting a scene, I want to know that it is working at an emotional level without any music,” Alberts tells us. “Once the scene is working, you can amplify things by using music. I’ll get a playlist from Drake with a variety of music. For certain moments he will say, ‘Here’s the music I gave the actors. Here’s the music that inspired me when we were writing it.’ We talked a lot about music.” While Sascha Ring (known by his stage name, Apparat) and Dustin O’Halloran composed the score, Katherine Miller came on board to serve as the project’s music editor. “Katherine was this invisible third person who took all of the music stems and worked with them in interesting ways, which is something that goes way beyond what music editors normally get to do.”
The sound design for Equals was guided by the creative expertise of re-recording mixer and supervising sound editor Paul Hsu. “We were asking fundamental questions about how the sound contributed to this world. Drake didn’t want the sound trope of sci-fi films to be there. We made the sound much more naturalistic, as we had with our other films,” Alberts comments.
“One of the biggest challenges was that we ended up doing two days of additional photography in Los Angeles,” reveals Alberts. “We picked a few pieces when Silas is in the shower and tasting his food for the first time early on in the film. We added some things, like him looking at his hands and seeing the beads of water fall down his hands to make the scene more powerful.” The unavailability of a particular actor complicated matters. “We wanted to beef up those scenes when Beth [Jacki Weaver] talks to Silas. Then we got news that Guy Pearce couldn’t do the reshoot because he was growing his hair for another film. We had to use the original support group scene, add to it narratively, and additionally shoot Kristen Stewart, Nicholas Hoult, and Jacki Weaver. We had to combine the old and new footage in a way that felt seamless.” The reshoot included an additional emotional scene: “It is toward the end of the film. We needed this moment where narratively Nia says to Silas, ‘You have to try to remember.’ That’s one of my favorite scenes and it wasn’t originally scripted.”
Alberts’ next project is Lean on Pete, a film written and directed by Andrew Haigh. “We’re shooting two months in Portland starting in August. I’ll finish cutting that in London in the fall and winter,” Alberts tells us. Reflecting on his career, he remarks, “I feel incredibly lucky that Drake and Andrew have asked me to work with them on more than one project. It’s an enjoyable thing working with a director more than once, and we’ve developed a shorthand.” Alberts notes, “I gravitate to dramatic subjects. I’ve never cut a studio film and that kind of operation is a different thing. At some point, Drake and Andrew may do a studio film. As a career I definitely think a slow burn is a good thing. I would love to work on something like Children of Men, which is a hybrid of drama, action, and sci-fi.”
Doremus is also keeping busy. “I’ve got a couple of different things that I’m working on right now. I have a project that I’m excited about which we will hopefully be shooting soon. Then I’ve got this cool book that is coming out next summer that we are going to turn into a TV show. I’m trying some different things, but at the end of the day I’m still trying to tell dramatic love stories.”
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Images courtesy of A24