- “Oppenheimer” editor Jennifer Lame, ACE speaks with “The Rough Cut” host Matt Feury about working with writer-director Christopher Nolan.
- Lame’s priority while editing “Oppenheimer” was constantly moving the story forward by “cutting all over the room” rather than “lingering on a shot because of its quality or composition.”
- The “Tenet” and “Marriage Story” editor wasn’t phased by all the talking in rooms, in fact, these are her favorite sequences to cut.
- Lame has sympathy for Robert Downey Jr.’s character Strauss because she can see in him the moral failings of any of us.
For a film in which there are a lot of men talking in rooms, Oppenheimer seems to move at a propulsive pace. Writer and director Christopher Nolan seems to challenge himself in creating a thriller out of a biopic with scientists and politicians, but achieves it with the skillful work of editor Jennifer Lame, ACE.
She edited Nolan’s previous film Tenet, as well as Marriage Story for Noah Baumbach, and says that her priority while editing Oppenheimer was constantly moving the story forward by “cutting all over the room” rather than “lingering on a shot because of its quality or composition.”
“When you’re dealing with a three-hour biopic based on a ginormous topic, and a ginormous book, pacing is a problem,” she tells Matt Feury in an episode of the Avid-sponsored podcast The Rough Cut.
“Honestly, a lot of people felt earlier drafts of the movie were too fast, which is hilarious, because it was obviously longer than three hours for quite a long time.
“[The challenge was] how do you make people feel like they’re not being rushed through something but also not make this a four-hour movie?”
Fortunately, Lame finds dialogue scenes among her favorite to craft. “I like scenes with awkward human interactions. That’s my special thing. There were so many amazing scenes for me in the movie that I could have spent like three weeks cutting.”
She picks out the scene in which Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) is being none-too-subtly interrogated by an army officer played by Casey Affleck as one of these. Another is the scene in which Oppenheimer meets President Truman (Gary Oldman) in the Oval office, plus all the scenes in room 2022 — where the tribunal deciding Oppenheimer’s security clearance post-war is made behind closed doors.
“Every scene in room 2022 I love. I also love every scene with Lewis Strauss [the US businessman and naval officer and played by Robert Downey Jr.] because Strauss is my favorite character,” she says. “He performs one way, but then reveals himself in a different light so the question was how sympathetic do you want people to be about him?
“I found the different onion layers of his personality and his psychology to be incredibly fascinating. And I actually feel for him. I don’t see him as a straight villain as some people do. I have so much empathy for him. I see him as like the Willy Loman character [from Miller’s Death of a Salesman], who thinks that he’s good at playing this game but actually he’s so not good at it.”
Part of the reason why Oppenheimer feels like it barrels along is the time-hopping structure that is the Nolan’s signature storytelling mode and thematic preoccupation.
“Chris spends a lot of time structuring the script before it’s shot. The intimidating thing about scripts like that is making that come to fruition because — since he spent a lot of time writing it and he knows that he shot it — he expects that it’ll be great.
“Oppenheimer” trailer, courtesy of Universal Pictures
“I also tend to work with writer-directors because it’s like their baby, but also weirdly, I feel like they are kind of okay with killing their babies to some degree,” having the film reborn, in other words, in the edit.
Also in the interview, Lame expresses her appreciation for the efficiency of a Christopher Nolan movie. Even with a massive budget and the freedom of an auteur he sticks to deadlines.
“The whole thing is tight, he’s kind of obsessed with time,” Lame says. “What I also love working about with him is that dates never move. We hit our dates. He’s just so efficient on every level of the process, not just with shooting, but also all the way to finishing the movie. We have screenings every Friday, like it’s this adrenaline rush. It’s, like, hyper focusing in a way that I’ve never hyper focused on a job before, which is just really fun.”
One visual and sonic element that pervades the film is that of particles and waves which we learn exist simultaneously as characteristics of matter at the quantum level.
“Those were written into scenes,” says Lame, “But there was a creative process of figuring out when and how to cut those in. And like I would say that montage was very, like free flowing. It’s very hard to talk about editing on some level, because you try things in terms of rhythm, and it’s like trial and error.”
It’s also why the editor does few interviews, because she finds talking about editing like “talking about playing the piano. You just practice a lot and you get better at it but sometimes it’s kind of boring to talk about.”