From “Barbie,” written and directed by Greta Gerwig. Cr: Warner Bros.
- The editing team on “Barbie” and writer-director Greta Gerwig talk about throwing lots of ideas at the wall to find the right combination of humor, emotion and anarchy.
- Some of the ideas were “completely abstract works of art that could be in the Tate Modern or in a ‘70s avant garde screening,” which is why some of it survived and some of it didn’t.
- “The whole fun of this job is trying crazy ideas,” says editor Nick Houy. It might be terrible and you’ll do six things and one of them will be great.”
The art of the edit is about selecting which material to keep out as much as what to retain, and so it proved with the year’s runaway hit, Barbie.
“I felt blessed every day to have such a magical group of editors figuring out this movie. It was a very sweet group, very diligent and talented, but I think the thing I remember most about it is that everyone had such heart,” Gerwig said in an interview with CineMontage’s Kristin Marguerite Doidge.
The project took 14 months for the editors to cut, revealing the complexity of the film.
Doidge writes, “That tireless work paid off when it came to achieving the right tone and pacing to keep the story moving during both the poignant moments and the hilarious ones.”
The normal challenge of rhythm and pacing becomes even more acute with a story that is as intentionally arch and anarchic as the one written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach. Since every joke had to count and had to work while the film is moving at speed, it was important for Houy to stress-test them over and over again.
“Barbie was so much more a comedy than Lady Bird and Little Women,” Houy told IndieWire’s Sarah Shachat. “So we were just, like, ‘Let’s put it in front of people and see how they react.’ Everyone’s different and every screening’s different and we’ve definitely learned, over the years, that you really have to let things have their fair chance and then act accordingly. Once you know it’s dead, you have got to get it out of there.”
Houy also spoke with Matt Feury at The Rough Cut, where he again picked up the idea. “The whole fun of this job is trying crazy ideas. It might be terrible and you’ll do six things and one of them will be great,” he said.
The editor relates one experiment where Kate McKinnon, who plays Weird Barbie, is looking down at Barbie who is laying on the ground.
“She’s like, ‘Hey, how’s it going Barbie.’ And then we flash to like a Weird Barbie with makeup all over her face and this like horror music sting. You know, it’s such a weird idea. But it was so great. And that ended up in the movie.”
The beach scene near the beginning of the movie where the dialogue is basically lots of “Hi Barbie” apparently went through more than 50 iterations.
“Some of them are completely abstract works of art that were worked on by multiple people with multiple different ideas like literally things that could be in the Tate Modern or they could be in a 1970s Avant Garde screening. We went there with everything. And so that’s why some of it survived and some of it didn’t. But it was all kind of amazing.”
Houy agreed that the main challenge of editing Barbie was providing clarity over the course of a number of turns across the film — some of which hinge on expressive internal realizations of Barbie confronting the reality of women in the real world.
“There’s always some person that has an issue with these structures. Getting it down to that one person instead of half the audience was a big challenge,” Houy told IndieWire. “But it’s worth it. We get excited by that. We’re always talking about Charlie Kaufman movies and trying to do [things like] that in a way that feels like our own voice.”
There are roughly 1,500 VFX shots in the film, which added wrinkles to the post workflow, VFX editor Matt Garner explained to Feury.
“We had to basically turn over everything once early on so that the executives could see it without blue screen in it. And then we had to redo all the work again. So tracking and managing that with all the various vendors we had was quite an undertaking, the most I’ve ever had to deal with.”
Gerwig screened several reference movies for key crew including The Wizard of Oz, Singing in the Rain, Saturday Night Fever, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, The Red Shoes, Oklahoma, Wings of Desire, and Philadelphia Story — even Rear Window. Obvious homages in Barbie include the entire 2001: A Space Odyssey pre-title sequence and The Godfather.
“All of those were done at a movie theater in London while they were shooting,” says Houy. “So it was like every Sunday, they would go do that. Our whole crew was in New York, but we watched them all. And those are all things that we talked about early on. I would often just sit and watch a scene of The Godfather, and be like, ‘They’re not cutting at all… we should really should do that.’
“The tone of things like Singing in the Rain were very helpful to understand this crazy dream dance sequence.”
The non-stop jokes and surrealism of much of the movie gives way in a couple of places to contemplative pauses that are in many ways the film’s emotional core.
The final montage, for example, began life as a script note along the lines of “a Terrence Malick-esque sequence occurs” and went through various iterations in the edit before the filmmakers agreed to try selects from of home movies from the people who worked on the film.
Houy told Feury, “We just tried a bunch of stuff. We tried stock footage and never did [find anything] that ever quite worked. And so we started using old Super 8 footage and our own footage. It was a constant evolution. In that sense it was like a film school where we’re all just putting together little pieces of footage and trying things out.
“And where we landed was ultimately the right place where it’s just women. It’s telling the story of becoming human and becoming a woman. And that was what we needed to tell at that moment.”
Houy told CineMontage, “We ended up actually using personal videos of everyone who worked on the movie. … And whenever I see it now, and I see all the people that worked on the movie and their families, and my own family, it just hits so hard.”
“Even though we don’t have a sign up that says, ‘This is footage [of] the people who made the film,’” Gerwig adds to IndieWire. “I think in some unconscious way, it’s a reminder that films are only ever made by people. And these were the people that made this one.”