Trevor Hogg chats with the editorial team of Joe Walker, Jeremiah O?Driscoll, and Mako Kamitsuna about the challenges of bringing Blackhat to the big screen?
When it comes to putting together his movies Michael Mann (Manhunter) employs multiple film editors as was the case with his cyber thriller Blackhat (2015) where Chris Hemsworth (Rush) plays a convicted computer hacker recruited by the FBI and Chinese government to assist in the apprehension of a malicious cybercriminal responsible for disrupting financial markets and causing a nuclear reactor to explode. A number of high profile talent assisted in assembling the footage from John Gilroy (Nightcrawler) to Zach Staenberg (The Matrix). The core members of the Editorial Department were Stephen Rivkin (Avatar) who previously worked on Ali (2001) for Mann, Joe Walker (Hunger), Jeremiah O?Driscoll (The Walk), and Mako Kamitsuna (Anesthesia).
?Michael hired me to begin the day after the 12 Years a Slave  cutting room closed, so it was well ahead of the Oscar hullabaloo,? recalls Joe Walker. ?Michael really knows his European cinema, and on the strength of Shame  he talked to my agent Devin Mann about me. I?d already decided to settle in L.A., I?m from London originally, so I leapt at the chance to work with a legend.? It was case of déjà vu for Jeremiah O?Driscoll who had helped out on The Last of the Mohicans (1992) which was helmed by Michael Mann. ?I was the apprentice editor and Arthur Schmidt [Back to the Future] was cutting that. When my agent called and said, ?Michael Mann wants to have a meeting with you.? I was floored because I hadn?t worked with Michael in 23 years. We discussed certain scenes in Flight  and the way they were cut. Michael had looked at how the relationships were handled and wanted some of that sensibility imparted into his movie.? A later edition to the editorial team was Mako Kamitsuna. ?I had worked with Michael Mann previously on Witness, a HBO documentary miniseries on conflict photojournalists. This was back in 2011-12. So, in his mind, I?m a ?documentary? editor, but I actually started out cutting narrative. Being able to cut non-fiction makes me a better fiction editor and vice versa.?
When it comes to contrasting his frequent collaborator Steve McQueen (Shame) with Michael Mann, Joe Walker notes, ?They?re very different filmmakers so it?s fruitless to compare them. Certainly the scale of the project is vastly different. 12 Years a Slave was shot on film, on one camera in 35 days, and our cutting room team was just me, my assistant Javier Marcheselli, and our post PA, with sound and VFX coming on-stream much later in post. I was keen to work on a large-scale Hollywood film. Blackhat certainly falls into that category, with corridors of film folk working round the clock ? editors, assistants, music editors, sound teams, and VFX teams, with a sizeable crafty bill. It?s a different way of working, with many moving parts, but I get it now and couldn?t have had a better opportunity to adapt to that kind of process with such an amazing team. One thing: you have to develop efficiencies in communication you could probably get away without needing on smaller projects.?
Jeremiah O?Driscoll often works with Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump). ?Bob is brilliant about leaving doorways open and covering what is needed because he knows we are going to need to tighten everything up. Michael shoots a much broader spectrum of the scene. When I am working on a movie or doing a film doctoring job I?m always asking the film, ?Who is telling me the story and why?? Every line that is said, I ask, ?Why am getting this information? Do I need it now? Who is informing me of it?? Usually that is from the main character or whoever the observer is. You may not know who is telling you the story at every moment but someone has to tell you the story. In a Michael Mann movie if you go about it like that you don?t get what Michael wants out of the film. You realize that the choices you make are Michael?s choices.?
Along with being an editor Mako Kamitsuna is also a writer-director; the project enabled her to learn a lot from Michael Mann. ?His absolute non-complacency. His intense conviction to keep forging the steel to make it just right. His tireless effort to keep asking questions as long as there is a hint of any doubts. In a way, Michael Mann is his own harshest critic. Also, his sense of ownership to his creation is remarkable. Michael Mann taught me to be aware of the difference between ?scene vs story? and how to steer my craft to benefit the whole, not just components. Last but not the least, his underlying love and passion for making movies.? Kamitsuna adds, ?I came aboard the project mid-stream, at a time when Michael Mann was developing a major structural change. I remember offering notes about creating ?sonic signatures? for our protagonist and antagonist. Also for me, it was important to make Hathaway [Chris Hemsworth] and Lien?s [Tang Wei] romance credible for the film to hold up its last act so I might have given him notes on scenes that could benefit from re-editing in the first act. The same goes to the relationship between Hathaway and Chen [Wang Leehom], Lien?s brother. Reinforcing their bond was something I offered up to investigate.?
?I had a happy weekend re-watching Michael?s movies before I started, and boned up on how data travels inside computer chips,? remarks Joe Walker. ?Michael makes copious notes on the dailies; it?s quite incredible the detail he goes into. He often shoots on three cameras and would still patiently go through each angle and treat it as a separate entity, identifying better performances, suggesting editing strategies and cracking the occasional joke.? Jeremiah O?Driscoll recalls, ?One scene I spent a lot of time on was a back and forth in a Korean restaurant in Los Angeles where Tang Wei [Lust, Caution] slaps Chris Hemsworth on the side of the head verbally and says, ?Wake up. You have to respond in real time now. These people are dangerous.? She refocuses him. There was a lot of coverage, options and great performances. A lot of the shooting was at night time. The actors would sometimes be exhausted and Michael uses that energy. Everything funnels into this creativity and vision of his. I did about 200 to 300 versions of the scene with Michael over the six or seven months I was there. Michael would keep all of them in his head and say, ?Go back to the December 12th version. What I loved about it is that the scene is so natural and flows so well. The story seems to impact her here but I what I don?t like???
?We sent Michael daily assemblies during the shoot but the editing really began in earnest when he returned from Hong Kong in September 2013,? states Joe Walker. ?Michael has a fox-like, inquisitive mind, so discussions were wide-ranging. Most concerned fine-tuning the architecture of the story, but some of my favourite chats were at weekends ? there were fewer distractions. Michael would talk about life in the 60s when he was a student at the London Film School. My use of an antiquated English word ?ha?pence? provoked a fantastic recollection from him of a brush with the law, riding his motorbike in the rain from Old Compton Street to Chelsea [it has to be said, two of the coolest places on earth in 1967, Haight-Ashbury aside]. That?s why I took the job!? In regards to how the work was divided between the different editors, Walker remarks, ?It was a collegiate atmosphere, but we tended to gravitate towards certain scenes rather than whole reels which is another common practise. Steve Rivkin and Jeremiah O?Driscoll worked alongside me for perhaps the longest period; they are phenomenal editors and it was a real honour to share trenches with them.?
?I went in and did all of the relationship material between Hathaway and Viola Davis? character, between Hathaway and Tang Wei?s character,? states Jeremiah O?Driscoll. ?As far as I?m aware all of the action related things were Stephen Rivkin?s cutting and he nailed it.? Mako Kamitsuna remarks, ?I had my fingerprints all over from start to finish, but Michael Mann mostly had me explore scenes that are more dramatic. For instance, virtually all scenes that had to do with Hathaway-Chen, Hathaway-Lien and all three of them. Sometimes it was a matter of me finding a better performance take and a better combination of moments to maximize dramatic effect. Michael Mann would say to me, ?You?re good at finding moments that are authentic. Go find it.? And I would comb through dailies, looking for performance that could elevate the scene or sequence.? Not everything had to be perfect visually. ?If the two cameras are running at the same time you have a grouped clip that you can watch in the Avid,? notes O?Driscoll who worked on a fight sequence in the Korean restaurant. ?Sometimes it was almost as if the action was playing to the main camera. I found that if you went to the camera that?s right next to it it seemed much more real. It had this energy to it. Sometimes you find a piece and say, ?Technically it?s not as polished as the rest of the movie but it has this raw element that Michael wants. That entire fight is somewhat degraded and the colour balance is a little different from the rest of the scenes but it gives you a real energetic boost.?
?Initially the nuclear power plant hack happened in the middle of the movie and Michael moved that forward,? reveals Jeremiah O?Driscoll. ?The original attack was on the commodities exchange in Chicago which put the story in motion. But this is a much better way because the stakes are immediately higher. It?s a brilliant move by Michael. The material that I dug up that?s in there is all of the HAZMAT stuff and emergency personnel. It had been rejected by other people because technically it wasn?t up to snuff but was emotional. I was like, ?You can?t blow up the plant and not have someone react to it other than official stuff like meetings in the government.? Not a whole lot of green screen was used. ?Michael has his aesthetic so believe it or not most of what you see is the real deal. There is certainly set dressing. In some shots of the safe house in Hong Kong you could see all the way down the street. There?s something special for an audience being so use to green screen and fake stuff added in later to see a movie that is real and in real locations. Michael puts his lead actor into a helicopter over Hong Kong and shoots a scene. Nobody does that! For every other director it would have been a green screen.?
?There was a strong team of composers and music editors working alongside us,? states Joe Walker. ?Michael?s scores have obviously been much admired. On past projects, like everyone else, I?ve plundered them for temp tracks. Who hasn?t relied upon The Insider OST at some point? It?s nearly as common in an editor?s clutch of temp tracks as Hans Zimmer?s Journey to the Line soundtrack, or John Williams? Encounter in London. I had a bit of an out-of-body experience during the early stages of Blackhat when we plundered Michael?s own enormous back catalogue, a moment of auto-cannibalism. Naturally all this has been superseded by fantastic original music. Atticus Ross? [The Social Network] tracks really stand out for me. A huge amount of ideas were generated in the music department.? Mako Kamitsuna remarks, ?I worked closely with music editors. Michael Mann often had a very specific idea on how scene action and music are choreographed together. Sometimes creative discussions had to do with how to make the physics work between musical metric and physical action. Other times the discussions were about emotive quality of music and whether or not it over-serves or under-serves the scene.? The music continued to evolve up until the premiere of Blackhat. ?I was surprised to hear a totally new rendition of music in one of the key scenes. Just another example of how tirelessly Michael Mann works on his film until the 11th hour.?
?I had a lot of discussion with the VFX team; it?s the first time I?ve worked with a full-time VFX editor [the fabulous Ray Bushey],? states Joe Walker. ?Some day, I?d like to shake the production designer [Guy Hendrix Dyas] by the hand. When I first met Michael, I sat down to read the script in a large room in Santa Monica filled with location photographs. My eyes were bombarded with extraordinary colours; things like the boats on the docks of Jakarta, home of the original ?bogeymen? or buganese pirates. I remember thinking, ?If they capture only ten per cent of this stuff the movie is going to look magnificent.? One of Michael?s masterstrokes is setting a truly contemporary story, feeding on much that agitates the first world, against some of the most ancient, foreign backdrops.? The imagery was capture by Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano) who was responsible for the cinematography. ?Stuart and his operators John Grillo, Duane Manwiller, and Roberto de Angeles provided a grittiness I loved to cut. The skater cam stuff is stunning. Another department I hold in high regard is the helicopter team; the shots over Hong Kong harbour are phenomenal. I could have edited a whole film out of them. For some reason, the one shot that I really love above others is Chris Hemsworth holding a blue tooth transmitter up against a background of neon signs. It?s from a Hong Kong scene set under an ancient tree which seems oddly harmonious with the vast wattage being consumed in the city square around it.?
?My biggest challenge was whether or not I could meet the expectations of Michael Mann!? reveals Mako Kamitsuna. ?After all, he directed The Insider , one of my top 10 favourite films. To me, he?s one of the living masters of film directing today. You can imagine the psychological stress, and the pressure to deliver expeditiously. But on the other hand, I knew I had to trust that there is something in me that I need to access and make available to him [otherwise, why would he ask me to come edit his film when he can get any first-rate editors in the industry?]. So I looked for room in the film where I could make my contribution, and when I found it, Michael Mann was generous in letting me explore. As a film editor, sometimes you wrestle with two kinds of loyalties: loyalty to your director and to your director?s film. The two don?t necessarily coincide happily all the time. It was hard at times but in hindsight that was the best part of participating in his film: to be given that chance to take your best shot at a director whom you have a profound respect for.?
?We all worked in different ways,? observes Jeremiah O?Driscoll. ?When you are an editor you sit with a movie and have your own relationship with it. There was nothing where I would go, ?Hey, Joe. I?ve come into a place where I can?t figure my way out of it.? You?re used to being the one who has to figure it out.? O?Driscoll remarks, ?When you see that spark on the screen you want to save it, put it in the right setting and make everything go around it. It?s a discipline in Michael?s movies because you can find that and make a great juxtaposition. He might respond to it or not. Michael might respond to it three weeks later. ?Go back to that thing you did.? I would find myself cutting by the notes the best I could although I wasn?t the best interpreter of them. If there was something I felt was a lost opportunity in that version of the scene I would go back and do my own experimental version. Sometimes I would say, ?Michael if you have a moment and could wrap your mind around it I could show you this crazy thing that I did.? Sometimes you would show him that and if there was something that clicked with him he would respond to it.?
Joe Walker was fascinated with the scene that shows what happens within the computer. ?Michael?s concept for the chip sequence is mind-blowing. I think of my laptop completely differently now that I have a better idea what might be going on inside it. In terms of integration, Michael is going for something photo-real, so visually it belongs to the same world as the film. The tricky bit is trying to convey the vast warps of time and scale between the two worlds. There?s been a monumental effort from the VFX brains to get things right.? Jeremiah O?Driscoll was pleased to see the final theatrical cut. There?s a lot of energy in Blackhat. There is a lot of shooting and the usual Michael Mann stuff too but there?s vitality in the middle of it. Emotionally Blackhat is well calibrated.? Mako Kamitsuna was equally impressed. ?I love the overall trajectory of the film, i.e., starting out hyper contemporary with digital age and by the end, we are in a totally foreign, exotic primitively tribal and mesmerizingly tactile world. The art of the film exemplifies, to me, who Michael Mann is as a film director and as a human being.? Kamitsuna adds, ?I thought it was extremely courageous and ambitious of Michael Mann to set the film in foreign Asian locations with Asian actors playing seminal roles that are outside stereotypes. I think that?s edgy. That?s another thing I admire about Michael. Even after long becoming a major Hollywood director, he still hasn?t lost his renegade spirit. That?s why there are loyal fans to see his films, often in spite of what critics say.?
Blackhat images and videos © 2014 Universal Pictures and Legendary Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Many thanks to Joe Walker, Jeremiah O?Driscoll, and Mako Kamitsuna for taking the time to be interviewed.
To learn more visit the official website for Blackhat.
A Matter of Luck: Stuart Dryburgh talks about Blackhat
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada; he can be found at LinkedIn.Powered by Sidelines