certainly seems to be living the dream. A favorite of the indie scene as an editor and director for over a decade, his true breakthrough came with 2013’s neonoir western Ain’t them Bodies Saints, starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. He parlayed that success into a gig directing the Disney CGI/live action mashup Pete’s Dragon last year. He’ll soon return to the big sandbox, directing a live action Peter Pan adaptation, but first he went small again with this year’s Sundance film Ghost Story. It was, in fact, Paste’s favorite film of this year’s festival. After an Adobe-sponsored filmmaker panel at the fest, we sat down with Lowery to discuss his style of editing, why Adobe products are crucial to his process, and why sometimes it’s okay to take performances completely out of context.
David Lowery: Coming from an editorial background, it’s always fun to be able to talk about editing. I kind of get to indulge in my tech geek side and to combine that with the narrative presence that directing takes. So we talked about the tools we have at our disposal, how we use them, how we work with editors. And talking about the perspective that we have as directors, now that we are running the show, so to speak. How we work with editors now, how we sometimes still edit our own projects, so on.
Paste: I always love to ask directors who have come out of editorial – and I know you’ve been directing for awhile – but when you first started directing, tell me about how your editorial background made you see things differently as you were actually shooting.
Lowery: It does definitely affect it. Over a period of time, you gradually start to think in terms of cuts. You think about how you’re going to end a scene, and how, you know, maybe you don’t need to see that person exit the room, to use a classic throwaway example. So that saves you a little time on set. Nowadays, it gets even more complex, because you’re thinking in terms of all the little tricks you do. I’ll be directing a scene on set and the take might be perfect, but I’ll wish that the actor had said the line a certain different way. But I’ll also know that they did say it that way in a previous take. So I think, OK, I can take the dialogue from Take 3 and drop it into Take 4, because their mouth movements are close enough. It gets even more complicated now when you think about split screens and how you can combine Take 3 and Take 4, and don’t need to get Take 5. So that’s where things really start getting crazy.
It’s such a luxury to have the same guy doing both. I wish I had come up through editing for that reason.
Lowery: And it’s fun. Editing, to me, is the best part of filmmaking; it’s where the magic really happens. And having that start to intrude more and more on the production side, and even on the screenwriting side, just makes the whole process feel more cohesive.
One of the biggest surprises to me in the editing room on my first scripted feature was that we ended up creating some moments, and even some lines of dialogue, that we kind of Frankenstein’ed together…
Lowery: Yes, yes.
And it took a little shift of thinking for me, not really ethically, although it’s in that general area. Like, is it really okay that I’m taking this performance by this actor, and slicing and dicing it?
Lowery: I believe that the movie you’re making is 100% malleable, the pieces you have are 100% malleable until you have it in theaters. So I’m always looking for new ways to use things. I’m looking for ways to make things better with the tools I have at hand. Not just the editing tools, but the footage too. In Pete’s Dragon, there are so many scenes we made out of other scenes. I knew that I could take that one little reaction shot and use it for something else. And it’s the same for all my films.
In Ghost Story, which is playing here, there are a couple of scenes that are wholly fabricated form a shot-reverse shot that were never intended to be the same scene. But we created new moments out of them. And that’s a wonderful thing to learn, that you can take that footage and use it in new ways.
And one of the most exciting things.
Sometimes the way in which you might use a shot that wasn’t originally intended to be used in a certain way trumps the fact that there might be a continuity change. Even the fact that someone’s shirt might change from one moment to the next, sometimes might not matter because what you’re gaining is so important.
And the audience is so caught up in the moment…
Lowery: …that they never even notice. Exactly. And finding those moments is really fun and exciting. You can get a little carried away with it. Sometimes I try to build something out of nothing a little too egregiously, just to see if I can do it. And if people call them out, I’ll cut them. But a lot of times, they work and they help you make the film better without having to reshoot. It’s really easy to get caught up in the preciousness of intent, thinking I can’t use this moment because the actor wasn’t feeling it. But ultimately what they’re giving you is 100% plastic. The plasticity of the footage is there for you to take advantage of, and I always will take advantage of it.
And if they’re good actors, in the end what they want most is for their performance to work in the context of the film you’re building.
Lowery: Exactly. Completely.
Let’s talk about Adobe for a second. Why do you think it is that – I think the statistic is that over 80% of Sundance directors this year edited using Adobe products?
Lowery: I think 97 different films, right? It’s crazy. I think a big part of it is that it’s accessible. There is a low barrier to entry in terms of cost. I think a lot of editors and filmmakers of my generation learned how to edit on Final Cut Pro, and then it ceased to be the tool that we had learned to use. It’s still doing what it’s doing and they’re doing interesting things, but because of the way in which I and some of my peers learned how to edit, we needed software that picked up where that left off.
“So many filmmakers who are here at Sundance are in the same shoes as me. We don’t have a lot of money for cutting. A lot of us are cutting the films ourselves.”
Adobe was the software that did that. It had been around for a long time before, but it hadn’t been doing what it’s doing now. Now they’re filling a need. So many filmmakers who are here at Sundance are in the same shoes as me. We don’t have a lot of money for cutting. A lot of us are cutting the films ourselves. And a lot of us have learned how to use tools that began with what Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere were doing back at the turn of the century – 2001, 2002. Being able to grab a clip and drop it into a timeline is something I can’t live without. I can’t use Avid very well because I can’t do that action. Avid had great features as well, but that basic thing, having the flexibility to pull something around, like you can reach out and touch it, is something that Adobe Premiere, the whole creative suite, is really pushing forward and taking to the next level.
Is it a boon, too, that Adobe has this huge suite of other products besides Premiere, that play well with it? It seems like anything you could ever want to do with images, you can.
Lowery: Yes. From Day One I was using Photoshop and After Effects, and now, using Premiere as well and having that connectivity between each piece of software is absolutely vital for my process now. It’s just great, being able to send something to After Effects and back again without having to find a project file, and open it, and go from one piece of software to another. Even though you actually are doing that, it’s all so seamless that you feel like you’re keeping that creative flow going. And that’s really important for me.
You seem like you’d be very strong in both left-brained and right-brained functions -
Lowery: No. I’m really bad with spreadsheets and numbers. I’m better in thinking in abstract terms. When I’m looking at a timeline, it needs to feel like a river flowing, as opposed to a bunch of blocks fitting together like Legos.
So sustaining that flow is not only important, it’s crucial. If you kept having to think, “Which dropdown menu was that? Which file folder was that in? Which program does this or that?” you’re constantly being pulled out of your creative mindspace.
Lowery: The more intuitive it is, the more I can feel like I’m using my hands to do it. I’m not entering the number of frames I want in a shot. I’m just dragging it out until it feels right, through the digital effects process, through the compositing, bringing in matte painting. It’s great to not have to stop too much to do those things. Premiere makes it a very intuitive process.
Interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
Michael Dunaway is Paste’s Movies Editor.