Maintaining the mystery: editor Kirk Baxter on Gone Girl

Editor Kirk Baxter has worked with David Fincher on such projects as House of Cards, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, winning Oscars for those latter two films. With Gone Girl, Baxter continued his association with Fincher, helping to sell the suspense as to whether the character Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) killed his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) in a small Missouri town. fxguide caught up with Baxter to discuss his process on the film, including how he launched into using Adobe Premiere Pro CC for its first ever outing on a major feature.

***Note: this interview contains plot spoilers***

Kirk Baxter at the 84th Academy Awards where he won an Oscar for Achievement in Film Editing for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with Angus Wall. Photo credit: Darren Decker / ©A.M.P.A.S.
Kirk Baxter at the 84th Academy Awards where he won an Oscar for Achievement in Film Editing for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with Angus Wall. Photo credit: Darren Decker / © A.M.P.A.S.

fxg: The film’s running time is about 145 minutes, but it just doesn’t feel like that at all. How did you approach building up the story and the tension?

Baxter: I was very conscious of the time all the way through editing. It ended up being five minutes longer than David said it would be, which is pretty close. We could have got it to length, but the movie suffered. We got it to the length that best served the picture, and to make it any shorter is just chasing arbitrary numbers, rather than delivering the best film. David’s always interested, as am I, in reducing the screen time as best you can and not have any unnecessary frames in there and be attacking it at all fronts, at all sides, to really boil it down to the essential ingredients.

Screen time is a massive part of it for me, I feel very responsible for that. The first act of the movie was the main thing we wanted to attack in terms of the screen time. Until you get to the vigil you’re very much behind the story as an audience member, and you’re being shown clues – and it’s tormenting you. Why are you showing close-ups of the cat?! Anything you hold on for a second, someone’s trying to work out if that means anything. But if you torment the audience for too long, they’ll resent it. So we knew we had to be very aggressive in getting to that part of the story where now the audience member knows more than other characters in the film.

fxg: Part of the tension you create, too, comes from the character’s actions. For example, when Nick reports his wife missing and the detectives come to his house, he isn’t really panicking. Part of that might be because he is hiding something, but it also felt like the pace of the edit reflected that – things are procedural and flow naturally.

Baxter: Yes, there was actually a lot more material there in the house. David shot it where Nick went upstairs and looked in the master bedroom and called down the hall – there was three times as much searching around the house. One thing was we had to reduce the screen time, and also we had to work out how much do we want to say about Nick discovering this for the first time? Let’s be aloof about it – we don’t want to say that he’s innocent, we don’t want to say he’s guilty. The less we were on him and the more is he yelling it out for the neighbor to hear or is he yelling it out?

Even when he’s taken through the house and they’re discovering the blood – is he nervous because there’s blood on the cabinets or nervous because the cops have seen the blood on the cabinets? So it’s that whole thing of, where do we stand? That to me is the fun – the opaque nature of it that I very much enjoyed.

Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) is interrogated about the disappearance of his wife Amy.
Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) is interrogated about the disappearance of his wife Amy.

fxg: How much coverage was there, how much footage was shot?

Baxter: 500 hours.

fxg: What was your process in working through that and cutting that down?

Baxter: We always go through the long way around – each scene is cut as if it’s the only thing that exists – as if it’s the movie. I’ll be editing as David is filming – I’m usually three or four days behind what he’s doing. There’s a bunch of back and forth with David during this. The hardest part of the assembly is that David’s usually somewhere else and a lot of coverage comes in. It’s not just the volume of takes, it’s finding the road map of how to tell a scene, and where to be, how to move through it and how much we want to present to the audience. It’s mostly the mathematics I have to work out first. Once I have that in place I get to the nuance of what are the best pieces of performance.

With David, so much of it is locked off that we start cutting within the frame as well. It’s not just the best take but in a two shot it would be, like, Detective Boney’s great here but let’s use a different performance of Officer Gilpin next to her, and let’s use the audio from the close-up where she nailed it and add that into the wide. All moving parts are up for grabs and everything’s being manipulated. All that granular stuff comes later in time, but at first it’s about working out the mathematics of it.

As the shoot progresses, scenes begin to join together and now you get movements and you might get a piece of music that glues three different scenes together and once they become one idea instead of separate scenes, you can find ways to speed things along and you don’t quite need that wide shot to bring you into the scene at all and you can overlap the dialogue into it, and you find all those little ways to nip and tuck.

With David, the scripts he’s worked on are so well vetted you really are 95 per cent of the way there when shooting starts – he’s never a director who starts shooting and works it out on the go. There’s a plan and he’s executing that plan. So I really just have to follow the bouncing ball of the script. And pretty much with every film so far, we’re a long way along and my job becomes ‘craft’ – applying the best craft to the ideas. In this particular case, it was mostly about screen time – about four or five scenes we thought we could do without, and then losing tops and tails of scenes to help push it along.

For some of the flashbacks, it was so intriguing watching the procedural elements that in some cases it became distracting to constantly pull yourself out of it and go back to the eroding marriage story, so we joined flashbacks together in one moment and stayed with the present-day story, so there was less ping pong-ing. That actually saved screen time and made the film a bit more enjoyable to watch.

fxg: One of those flashbacks is the party where Amy and Nick first met – how did you construct that scene because it seemed like a chance to show what Amy, and Nick, are really like?

Baxter: I was very self-conscious about the party scene. After you’ve seen the movie you have an understanding that you’re seeing someone’s version of the story. You’re witnessing Amy’s version of the truth. But before you’ve got that understanding, that’s coming at you like fact, and the dialogue is very clever and clippy and witty. It’s unlike things David’s done before – it’s almost rom-com-y. But you’ve got to set up this relationship and let everybody begin to get to know each other.

Watch a clip from the party scene.

We looked at ways of reducing that scene and then all of a sudden it was: hey, they meet and they screw. But there’s got to be a little bit of sparring and some believability to it. The best way for me to embrace all of that was the knowledge that it’s someone’s version of the story – it can be that clever because it’s written down that cleverly in Amy’s diary. I don’t take it as a point of fact that they said all those things to each other when they met – I take it that Amy wrote herself as being that clever.

fxg: In the novel, of course, you find out that they’re unreliable narrators of their own actions.

Baxter: Yes, mid-way through the movie you get an understanding of, oh, are all these flashbacks reliable? Is this a version of the story or is this the truth? Who has the truth? But you’ve got to start off somewhere cute. When it’s fallen from grace, it’s fallen from somewhere. My kind of awkwardness with it was spending time on things that are lovely. There’s little drama where things are all going so swimmingly. In order for things to be interesting there’s got to be conflict. But you’ve got to have those things so there’s somewhere to fall.

fxg: There’s so many great moments of humor and absurdity in the film. When you’re editing, how much are you thinking about those moments?

Ben Affleck and director David Fincher on set.
Ben Affleck and director David Fincher on set.

Baxter: There’s so much humor in it! Those moments are the most fun things to do because a laugh is so enjoyable. When you screen those things and the laughs hit, they feel like giant successes for you. I find all of David’s movies funny – this one more so because it walks the satirical line. At first it’s really about decaying marriage – and you can see a little bit about relationships and the self-loathing towards mass media – but the moment it takes its very twisted dark turn, you’re let off the hook as a viewer and you don’t have to compare it to yourself anymore and it becomes easier to laugh at, I think. That’s why so much of it is very amusing towards the end.

A lot of it comes with timing. The moment you get the timing down more precisely, the funnier it gets. I thought The Social Network was that way. It wasn’t until the last months of doing it that we really started giggling at everything. The joke has to be well-timed in its delivery to land.

fxg: This film has several key locations – Nick and Amy’s house, the sister’s house, the police station and the town. How do you go about constructing scenes and making sure the audience knows spatially where they are, both in the town and also in each scene?

Baxter: Well this is what David is masterful at, which is blocking and staging. He will constantly move his characters within scenes – so you’re not in a scenario where everyone walks in, sits down and then you’re in close-up coverage of everybody. Part way through a scene he’ll stand someone up and they’ll move over to another point in the room, and then when those sorts of movements happen you’re always tending to go wide so you can witness them and follow them. It allows you to go wide and then slowly move your way back in for close-ups for key, pivotal movements.

I find so often in movies that close-up coverage or over the shoulder coverage will be shot at a certain point within a scene, and then a character moves somewhere else but the close-up coverage remains in the same place and not from the new perspective from where the character’s moved to. So what David will do is that no matter where somebody is standing, you’ve always got the perspective of that person talking to the other character. You’re always able to be quite dynamic in how you present the material – you can keep moving. And I think that enables dialogue heavy movies to be presented in exciting ways because the angles keep changing.

fxg: That seems to be what you had to do in one of the scenes at the police station where Nick is being interrogated and asked about his wife’s blood type, and there’s the line at the end by the officer asking if he should know his own wife’s blood type.

Baxter: Yeah, I was actually guilty of trying to remove that! I had it from Ben standing up and exiting the room and just cutting the shot there, but when you stay with it it follows him walking down the corridor behind the glass and lands back in a wide shot on both of the detectives where Gilpin says, ‘Should I know my wife’s blood type?’ and Boney says, ‘No, of course not.’

Well, Gillian Flynn (writer of the Gone Girl novel and the film’s screenplay) sent David an email which he shared with me where she was campaigning to get that moment back in. She said it was a scene that speaks to a theme in the movie on how much are we supposed to know? Are you supposed to know your wife’s shoe size? Those are the questions about relationships that people do wonder. And it gives you a laugh and it’s a laugh because it’s such a relief. I think every man in the audience is going, ‘Jesus Christ, I don’t know my wife’s blood type – am I supposed to?’

Watch a clip from the interrogation scene.

So that’s the knowledge of the author coming through. I’m looking at it as a filmmaker saying we can live without this line, we need to make this first act shorter, let’s move on. I love the fact that Gillian was like, ‘Woh woh woh, wait a minute. You just trimmed off a key thing!’ I’m glad we put it back. And the way she presented the facts in the email – I was like, absolutely – and I raced to put it back. That’s the back and forth of filmmaking that’s essential. David is also absolutely willing to listen to the key people around him, and none more so than the writer. He’s always been incredibly inclusive and supportive and feels responsible for the source material.

fxg: This is a film where you used Premiere Pro CC for the first time, its first use on a major feature – how did you find it?

Baxter: That decision was made because it was the best tool for us to use to bring a lot of the effects in-house, to be doing a lot of After Effects work and for that to be seamlessly integrated into the process of editing. If somebody updated a visual effects shot in the building it just went straight through into my timeline. It was more about workflow than it was about what I prefer to work with. And I was more than happy to work with it. As an editor, the interface is very much like Final Cut was and I assume you can tailor it to what Avid’s like. I went from Avid to Final Cut to Premiere, and I find all of them take about a day or two to get used to so that your fingers do the work without your brain having to think about what your fingers are doing. And for the editor, that’s the main goal – just focus on doing.

– Find out more about the editing process on Gone Girl with these Adobe interviews.

fxg: The film was shot at 6K – did that make any particular difference to you at all?

Baxter: It made a difference in the fact that David was able to overshoot the image – that part was really handy. Because I can move a shot around to change headroom or affect the camera move on it, means that we’re choosing all things based on performance, not based on camerawork. To me that’s the best element of it.

fxg: The film opens with Nick caressing Amy’s head and you can really consider that a bookend moment – how did you you address that in editing?

Baxter: Well I think that’s more of a writing thing, and David made it very similar in the treatment of the shots and also with Nick’s voice over. I find that there’s actually a lot of bookending throughout the film with the journey of the two main characters. You visually see it blocked and staged the same way. For example, Nick is getting cornered by the media and you even see a moment when he comes to the front door and is nervous and the surprise comes bursting through the back door for him. Then you see very much an identical scene with Amy coming to the door and wondering what’s outside. These are all set up. Both characters suffer similar things. There’s a suffocation that Nick felt from his relationship with Amy that then later in the film there’s a suffocation that Amy’s getting by her choice of salvation. A lot of it is – everybody’s getting their turn.

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