Directed by Jon Favreau and shot by Matthew Libatique, ASC, Cowboys & Aliens is a delicious melding of two favorite American film genres. Starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Sam Rockwell and Olivia Wilde, the movie pits the cowboys and Indians against a common foe: merciless aliens from outer space.
Creative COW’s Debra Kaufman had a chance to speak with the editor of Cowboys & Aliens Dan Lebental, who was also Favreau’s editor on Iron Man and Iron Man 2.
Creative COW: You’ve worked on a number of Jon Favreau films in the past. Are you his go-to editor?
Dan Lebental: I would say I’m his guy. It started with his first movie as a director, Made. They were done and had cut negative but they were having problems screening it and asked me to look at a few things. I made some corrections and I’ve done everything for Favreau since then, as his main guy. Even when there’s another editor, I’m his lead guy. We’ve covered a lot of ground together and some pretty big successes. Our favorites are these under-dog films like Elf that wasn’t supposed to be big. It’s a lot more pressure when you’re working on something that’s supposed to be a hit [like Iron Man]. Then, of course, you do it and if it rocks, it’s really something.
Which camp does Cowboys & Aliens fall into?
We really don’t know. We’ve always considered it an underdog. There really hasn’t been anything like it. You’d think it’s what the world wants—it’s what I want—something I haven’t seen before, but you just don’t know if people will respond. We don’t know if it’s going to be a big hit. There are signs in both directions at this point.
When Favreau brought you onto Cowboys & Aliens, what did he tell you about the film and what he thought the challenges might be?
At the end of Iron Man 2, I was pretty discouraged with what had gone down with that movie, in terms of the fact that we were fighting the lack of a coherent script. In post, we were doing everything we could to play as a unified story and have the characters look good. I found that quite frustrating. Towards the end, Jon said, I’ve got our next film. I said, Jon, right now, even though we’re buds, I can’t do anything until I see the script. He told me what he was going to do and I thought it was interesting. Then he gave me the script and it was great. It floored me right there.
We knew that the challenge was tonal with this kind of movie. The things that have been done before that tried this kind of thing were Wild Wild West and Jonah Hex and, what was a modern Western at the time, Silverado. But Jon and I, as it turns out, are classic film people, and a little purist. I think part of that is why Iron Man worked. There wasn’t any excuse that it was a comic book movie. In Cowboys & Aliens, there is no wink in the camera saying, just put these together, you know you’re in a safe seat. It’s not that way at all. Although the film has humor, it’s probably the darkest film we’ve made. What I’m so pleased about is that it seems it’s got more of everything Jon and I really love: more emotion, more action. It’s just layered. The characters are all nicely developed, and sometimes sacrificed, so it’s pretty cool on that level.
What have the challenges been in editing Cowboys & Aliens?
Luckily very early on, we found the tone. What happened was that we had to get ready for ComiCon and Jon shot in such an order that he’d have something to bring.. They tried to have an outside trailer company cut the ComiCon piece but they didn’t understand the tone. And meanwhile I was in the editing bay, hammering it out. Taking a cue from all the great Clint Eastwood Westerns, we discovered early that we would play this guy straight. The movie starts out classically Western and, all of a sudden, it gets derailed by this other genre blasting into it.
The actors were fantastic, all of them without any baggage. If anyone had baggage it would have been Harrison because he’s such a classical figure, but even he put out a level of hunger into it I don’t think anyone has seen in awhile. These actors are really going for it. It’s a lot of fun for me on that level because then I’m not fighting the idiosyncrasies of the process. I’m just mapping out performances and figuring out when to reveal this or that.
(L to R) HARRISON FORD as the iron-fisted Colonel Dolarhyde and DANIEL CRAIG as a stranger with no memory of his past in an event film for summer 2011 that crosses the classic Western with the alien-invasion movie in a blazingly original way: “Cowboys & Aliens”. Photo Credit: Timothy White/Universal Studios and DreamWorks II Distribution Co. LLC
The challenge for me then was that, whenever you do a big VFX film, it’s such a leap of faith. As editor, I can control actors talking or doing physical effects or stunts or delicate dialogue scenes, but I only have so much control once it goes into all these effects. So you map it out, and then it’s a leap of faith that we’ll get there on the VFX level.
The dialogue and performance level came together so well and quickly that when we hit post production, Jon and I didn’t spend huge amounts of time on the kind of actor-oriented scene work. He liked what I had on the box. We had to knock out 45 minutes for ComiCon last summer, which ultimately became the first 25 minutes of the movie, and people were gaga over it. But that didn’t involve visual effects. Then we had the screening in December of the first 40 minutes of the film, a straight-ahead western without visual effects. That part was going quite well.
What happened once the story shifts into all the visual effects with aliens?
At the end of the movie is this huge set piece, a massive battle that we knew was too long and unruly. That’s when Steven Spielberg [one of the movie’s executive producers] came in and really helped us. The movie was at almost 2 hours and 40 minutes, and after a week with him, we got the time down 35 minutes.
My favorite thing he said was, “You shouldn’t be showing your 4s and 6s. Only go with your Aces and Kings.” So it was about finding our Aces and Kings and saying bye-bye to the other stuff. Once we knew what we were doing, some of that stuff found its way back. But it was a major lesson: don’t water it down with the lesser things. That was from the master himself.
At what stage in the editing did Spielberg come in?
Before we showed a whole cut to the studios, he spent this week with us. In the past, it had been such a long process. Taking a 3-hour Iron Man to a 2-hour Iron Man was very painful, especially for Jon. But, with Steven, it ended up being a joyous session for all of us. Even Spielberg said it was the most fun he’d had in a while.
I felt I really had to be on my game with him sitting on the couch. This was where the career has landed and I better make this really flow, so I tried to make the button pushing be invisible to him, and make it a free flow of conversation with me executing before they finished their sentence. I was so exhausted at the end of each day because I was so determined to keep the ball rolling at full speed. It was really a career highlight. He was so nice and to see his way of thinking was so nice. Steven would always say, “Listen, you guys should do what you want to do, but here’s what I think. Take from it what you will.” We never felt like anyone was [forcing us]. He was in a happy search with us.
Because we took out inferior shots, it showed we had a few holes, and we had to get back and reinvent stuff that would be aces and kings. A lot of the scene work that got taken out was beautiful, but certain things had to go for overall pacing, to make it a tighter story.
[Producer] Ron Howard was also in the edit room with us a bit. What surprised me was, for the number of big powerful people we had, it didn’t feel that anyone was pushing us. They were gently nudging us to see things where things could be better, and it made Jon go beyond his game. I always say that a lot of the journey of editing a movie is the journey for the clarity of what you’re trying to express. Sometimes being nudged—the right way or wrong way—helps focus you and make you clear.
Daniel Craig stars as Jake Lonergan in Universal Pictures Cowboys & Aliens. Universal Studios and DreamWorks II Distribution Co. LLC
What is Jon’s style of working? How early do you get involved?
A director is all about their own taste. Some directors have very firm visions of exactly what their angle will be. Jon’s strong suit is that he reacts off of things and then nudges you the direction to go. He’ll have the DP set up angles and get a variety of things that will probably work. As he gets them, he comments and directs the cinematographer to a place.
Likewise with me, I’d get the footage back—he shoots a fair amount of footage—and he lets me loose to put it together the way I think it should and then he reacts off it: I thought it would be this but after seeing it, perhaps it should be this…which might be what I showed him or a combination of what he thought and what I did. On Cowboys & Aliens, he visited the editing room probably half a dozen times during the four-month shoot. And I visited the set and tell him if I saw a problem, as well as what I needed, and we’d go through this. So there’s an awful lot of trust between us. Once he understands what I’m doing, he makes it his own and expands on it. I always get a better understanding of what I’m doing from him.
It’s a very collaborative way to work, but it’s not all smiles. Jon doesn’t want that from me. He wants me to challenge him, and to say that there’s a better way, and then watch him. It’s a quest for clarity. If he’s clear and said, no this is exactly going to be, then I’ve done my job. He suspects he wants something, but it’s vague. We keep working it until it’s crystal clear—not every scene, but every cut. Each cut expresses something and has a reason. That’s the clarity you’re trying to get.
That sounds pretty rigorous.
That’s why it takes so long to edit a movie. In some ways, the cart is leading the horse, because you have to get the visual effects, and they take so long. But the flip side is, once you get them, you just keep cutting. You end up with twice the amount of cutting time than a simple dialogue picture. But some things you put in motion become their own train. It’s irresponsible to get things in motion and then say you don’t need, it but a certain amount of that is just the process. We were told we were way over budget for certain effects. Within three hours I had cut a lot of it out, before [the visual effects house] was finished. So we didn’t sped money on visual effects that were 4s and 6s.
Tell us about your choice of tools – you cut on an Avid, correct?
I’m an Avid guy. I’m a power user; I bought my first Avid in 1992, when I was working on music videos, and it was first able to do heftier projects. Cowboys & Aliens had nine of them. I own ten of them myself. The Avid is my musical instrument. It’s what I play.
I hate to focus on this fiasco with the new FCP but I feel awful for those guys. People don’t realize [editing systems] are like musical instruments. When you say, here’s your instrument and now you’re no longer a violin player, you’re a bouzouki player…people spend years getting down how they work. I really feel horrible for all those people who spent all that time on FCP who just had the rug pulled out from under them. These companies don’t seem to realize that. Apple could be right that this is the future, but in the now, people have to make a living and keep going.
For a while Avid was in grave jeopardy of doing the same thing. There was time they said they would discontinue Avid on Mac and we Hollywood editors rebelled. I think Apple is such a big corporation that these decisions are made on a level that doesn’t weigh the human cost. A lot of people will be scrambling on which way to go.
DANIEL CRAIG stars as Jake Lonergan in Universal Pictures and DreamWorks’ “Cowboys & Aliens”, directed by Jon Favreau. Photo Credit: Zade Rosenthal. Universal Studios and DreamWorks II Distribution Co. LLC.
Are there any features, new or not, on Avid that make it easier to cut a VFX-heavy movie?
When we started, we were on a beta version of the 5.0 software and then we cut most of the movie on 5.3.6. Then the 5.5 came out – I put it on but had to take it off. I had 5.5 on this side project I’m working on and it has these great features of voice recognition that can instantly find what you’re looking for. I love it. But we did the majority of the film on version 5.3.6.
I’m really excited about the new things in 5.5: the controllers, the find features are stellar. I had it on for a month and they had some problems with the Unity so I couldn’t use it. There is no way to test for a massive Hollywood movie with ten people and massive amounts of footage moving through it.
What about on the skills side? You’ve cut a number of movies with lots of visual effects, including Iron Man and Iron Man 2. What are the skills that an editor has to really hone to edit VFX movies?
Because I had done Iron Man and Iron Man 2, I knew the routine, what I was going through and where I was going. So it was a lot less scary for me. There’s always an inherent tension between the visual effects and editorial departments. We have this built-in love-hate between the two departments. From the editorial side, the amount of our day spent servicing VFX is up to one-third of our day: getting things ready for them, going through things with them, looking at them, checking and giving new notes. We have the frustration of starting things and then waiting for them.
You start to get the skills of being able to look at things and saying what they could be rather than what they were intended to be or what they are. For the massive battle sequence at the end—which was cut by [co-editor] Jim May—Jon said that this would be the scene that kids would mimic when they play cowboys and aliens. That made me realize that we were not really there. We had to go bigger. In Jon’s way, he said, show me what you mean.
We had cut out this other part of the scene and I realized we could take all the backgrounds and re-engineer the cowboys and aliens shoot-em-up, making it four times as grand. My colleague Jim May took it on. It was like a lab experiment. When we presented it to Jon, he realized this was it. Then it was completely off my plate; he and Jim raised it up another three notches. I’m proud of helping to originate the thought.
Here’s where the visual effects department hates us. This is late in the game, and they like their long lead-time. They have to look at a whole sequence, go to the studio and get a budget and permission to do it. We always have one sequence like that, late one in all our movies.
ILM’s inside visual effects supervisor, Roger Guyett, is a brilliant, fun guy to be around, but he had sweat on his brow, looking at this scene that was originally 15 seconds long, and is now this action-packed minute and a half, 100 percent visual effects. What we did was took parts of plates and parts of backgrounds we’d cut and put the alien here, the cowboy here: basically, a lot of inter-frame work. Rather than just editing with footage, we were editing within the frame. Avatar had 20 layers of that stuff. It was late and expensive and utterly worthwhile.
You won’t miss this scene. It’s the big set piece in the subterranean environment. It’ll definitely pop out for you. There’ll be a lot bigger body count than elsewhere in the movie.
You’ve been an editor for 25 years. How did you learn? What was your breakthrough movie?
I came out of art school and was doing low-budget music videos. Then this young director attending UCLA asked who cut those videos and asked me to edit for him. The second video was for a then-unknown artist MC Hammer, for MTV’s new rap show. Then, somehow, me, this white suburban kid ended up being “The Man” in that world of urban music hip hop. I was doing everybody’s videos. No rockers, just urban music.
I met these young director twin brothers, the Hughes brothers when they were 19 and did their second video. We hit it off. They liked the way I treated them. I learned early how a professional should behave towards people no matter what their age or level of experience. And they brought me movies. Dead Presidents in 1994 was only my second movie, but it was my breakthrough, and I never looked back. The first hit with Jon was Elf, a fairly low budget movie that wasn’t supposed to be a hit but became a major hit.
Any advice for up-and-coming editors?
If you’re starting, you need to edit. You can’t sit on the sidelines. If you get paid to do it, edit. If you don’t get paid, do it. Edit, edit, edit, and things will take care of themselves. When I was in music videos and knew I wanted to get into narrative film, I volunteered to edit anything narrative.
I have different advice if you’re a bit further along in your career. The important thing once your career is under way isn’t the “yes,” but the “no.” Say no to things you don’t want to do. And sometimes you can get treated better and paid more because you’re not just a given.
Last thoughts about Cowboys & Aliens?
I think it turned out really, really well. It’s my favorite film that I’ve worked on so far. It’s right up my alley, because it’s the kind of thing that I grew up loving. I loved Clint Eastwood movies and I’ve certainly always enjoyed alien invasion movies. Putting them together makes me think of it as a peanut butter cup. It sounds like it’d be awful, but it’s delicious.