Paul Barnes | Editor

Paul Barnes served as principal editor on Thomas Jefferson, assisted by co-editor Kevin Kertscher. Barnes collaborated previously with director Ken Burns on Statue of Liberty, Baseball, and The West.
 

PAUL BARNES

Courtesy of Florentine Films

“The first cut, in the case of Jefferson, was almost seven hours long. The final film, in two parts, was only three hours long. So in the process of whittling the film down we lost over four hours worth of material.”

  What do you do as an editor on one of Ken's films?
Essentially the role of an editor on a film is to piece together a final film out of all of the bits and pieces that have been gathered in production. Generally, much more is shot and gathered than is necessary.

Ken will start with a script that might be two or three times as long as the final film, so obviously the script gets cut down. Three times as many interviews are done, and often two thirds of the interviews aren't even used. And then the one third that's left is also cut back by about a third to three quarters from what was originally in the interview. A lot of stills and live footage--in this particular case at Monticello. Again, about 20 times as much was shot as was actually in the final film. So the whole editing process is to go through what was gathered and shot and pick out the best shots, the best interview pieces, the best tapes of actors' readings of the voice-overs, the best tapes of the narrator, Ossie Davis, and piece that all together into a final film.

And it's an ongoing process. The first cut, in the case of Jefferson, was almost seven hours long. The final film, in two parts, was only three hours long. So in the process of whittling the film down we lost over four hours worth of material.

In terms of editing, it's not something I do on my own. Ken is very instrumental in the editing process, he's a very good editor himself, and he is instrumental in shaping the final film, both in terms of the visual and the narrative story line. And I often go by his cue. If he feels like something's not working then we'll immediately get rid of it. There's also a very good back-and-forth between the two of us, where if we're not sure about something, we'll talk it out and hash it out, sometimes argue about it, and come to a final decision about how some things should be played.

And visually, he's very sensitive visually as a director. He leaves a lot of it up to me, but if there are certain spots we hit and he's not happy with the visuals and what I've done, we'll go through the out takes and he'll select new shots and I'll work those in according to what he feels is going to work best for him. As an editor, generally you're always deferring to the director. The film is ultimately the director's statement, and so how Ken wants to approach the material, how he wants to present it visually, he always has the final call on it. As an editor what I try to do is realize his vision for him.

... you could almost look at the role of an editor like a conductor conducting a composer's symphony in terms of how the rhythms go, where you have the stops, where you pause it out, where you slow it down, where you speed it up.

  But are you also bringing an aesthetic vision, a sense of pacing and timing and your own instincts for drama, to the process?
Yes, that's definitely true. Sometimes the potential of a scene on a page is something that's not going to be quite realized unless you choose the right piece of music, unless you pace out the shots properly, unless you pause out the narration properly. It's all a question of orchestrating the material. In fact you could almost look at the role of an editor like a conductor conducting a composer's symphony in terms of how the rhythms go, where you have the stops, where you pause it out, where you slow it down, where you speed it up. All of that is really in the hands of the editor.

  How is Ken a different filmmaker from others you've collaborated with?
He's an extremely hard worker; he's very disciplined and very, very focused. Before we start a film he usually has an extremely good idea of what the film should be in his own mind, how he wants to approach a character or a subject, what the theme of the film is. It's very clear for him.

And in terms of focus he's always looking to narrow it down to that original intention. So in that sense he's extremely disciplined and very easy to work with. There's not a lot of anxiety or doubt on his part in relation to the material. So it makes putting something together a lot easier from that end.

And also he's got a real appreciation for what works on film. He knows what will work and so he can really zero in on those moments when he wants a real cinematic or filmic moment to occur. It's very easy to produce it for him because he knows exactly what it is he's looking for.

Other directors can be much more unsure about their material. They're not quite sure what their film is, they have a lot of doubts about their own abilities, they tend to question whether a scene is playing correctly or not. And with Ken there's just much more of an assurance of how he's going about making the film than with a lot of other directors.

We feel that if you've got a shot up on the screen that the audience ought to be allowed to savor that shot.

  Do you or Ken have a philosophy about editing?
We do, and it's something that Ken and I have developed over the years of working together. We don't particularly like a fast pace. We feel that if you've got a shot up on the screen that the audience ought to be allowed to savor that shot. If we can tell a particular part of a story with one shot instead of three shots we'll go for the "less is more" theory.

When I first began to work with Ken on the Statue of Liberty I was cutting some of the still photograph sequences and I was tending, having not worked on a film with still photographs before, I was tending to cut them a little bit too quickly. And after he looked at a couple scenes I did, he said to me "Look, you're using too many shots and you're not holding them long enough. I want people to feel as if they can live in this photograph, allow the photograph to breathe, allow the audience to live in it, allow them to explore it with their eyes so that the photograph becomes in a way a real live scene as opposed to a still photograph."

And that's kind of the method that we try to employ, as well as the fact that we try to bring a kind of feature film technique when we shoot a photograph. There'll be a master shot, and then we'll zoom in, let's say, to a close shot, and then we'll cut to a two shot, and then we'll pan across from close-up to close-up. So we try to break down a photograph as if you were doing takes on a set in a feature film, which also helps the photographs to come alive for people. When you accompany that with the sound effects that are taken right from reality, many people have the impression that they were watching stock film footage and not photographs at times, which pleases us no end because that's the whole intention.

  Could you run through a typical afternoon or morning at your editing room in Walpole for us?
Well, it can run two ways. Often, our method of working is that Ken and I will sit down with the script and the footage and we will map out ideas. We'll go through footage and he'll say, "You know let's use this shot for the beginning of the scene and then let's go to this interview to carry the rest of the story." So that we kind of map it out together. And we'll also go through and pick a piece of music that might be appropriate for a scene. So we might spend the morning doing that, mapping out two, three, four scenes of the script that way.

And then he will go away and I will get to work and figure it out in terms of timing and pacing and rhythm. If I have to cut the music shorter, I'll cut the music shorter; if a shot doesn't quite seem to work, I might go and find an alternate. And then, once I have kind of a rough cut of the scene put together, I will ask him to come back and we'll take a look at it. It may not be the same day, it might be a day later or so. And then we'll screen it, and generally he has quite a few comments. A shot he liked doesn't seem to work--he wants to replace it. He thinks something is being read too fast and asks me to slow it down just by pausing it out a bit. He'll rewrite some narration to clarify the story line and we'll change the narration. We'll take an interview and maybe cut it in half because it's just too long. So that's kind of the process we go through.

  I've heard Ken say that when he's in the editing room he's often asking the question, Where are we? What do you think he means by that?
Well, it's a strong visual orientation that he has. In order for history to come alive for him, he wants to make sure that he's comfortable in the place that we're at. And often when he gets confused at a screening it's because we haven't visually presented where we are very clearly. So he's very hard about that. When we enter a new scene, he wants to make sure that whatever the first few shots are, it's very clear what the scene is that we're setting up. So it is a very common question that he comes up with.

  With Thomas Jefferson, did you all face any new challenges?
It was very challenging because of how much Jefferson's life contains. Not only was he a politician, he was a statesman, and he was a scientist, and he was interested in literature and architecture and in farming and in agriculture and in anthropology and archaeology, as well as his personal life having so many ups and downs. So the biggest challenge was to pick and choose what aspects of the man to present. And of all of the biographies that we've done, his life has been the most complicated and most full. So the difficulty was really in what to include and what to exclude.

  Did you try anything new with the film filmically or cinematically?
Well, the biggest challenge for us is, in the past, we've always had tons of photographs or newsreel material to utilize. Jefferson is the first film we tackled that's pre-photographic. Ken had had a little bit of that challenge with the Shaker film, for the first part of the Shaker film, where there were no existing photographs. But it was a short part of the Shaker film.

With Jefferson, everything was pre-photographic. So what's new in this film is that he utilizes live material extensively. And that was a big challenge, to make a film that's perhaps 90 percent live material work in the same way that our films have worked in the past.

... we saw Monticello as kind of a living evocation of the man, of Jefferson himself. So that the place, the building that he built and the spaces that he occupied, became a metaphor for us visually .

  Did you do anything in particular to make all of the live footage work?
I think we just looked at it slightly differently. We were sort of using a lot of material the way we'd used photographs in the past, and we were using photographs almost the way we used live material in the past. So it was kind of switching gears and thinking about it in that regard. And again if we set up a scene we would try to explore it in the same way of, start with a wide shot, and then go in for a medium detail, and then do a close-up detail that would give you a real sense of the place.

One of the things that was operating for us is that we saw Monticello as kind of a living evocation of the man, of Jefferson himself. So that the place, the building that he built and the spaces that he occupied, became a metaphor for us visually to use in presenting aspects of his life. Obviously, they're all empty rooms. But the other thing we're always thinking about is that the ghosts of these people still exist there. And if they're shot right, and edited right, hopefully these ghostly presences will come alive for the audience, enough to imagine Jefferson or his wife or John Adams inhabiting these spaces. And that's what we were trying to achieve in using the live material.

  What is your favorite scene from the film?
I'd have to say that my favorite scene is the writing of the Declaration. I still find it very moving when I see the film, and I've seen it 8 million times. And it has to do with the fact that I think it's done rather simply. We, you know we set it up by the Continental Congress assigning Jefferson the job, and then we immediately go to his room, the little room in Philadelphia where he wrote the Declaration, which is still preserved. And in that particular scene, I think that Allen Moore, the cinematographer, did a beautiful job of lighting that room and the objects in the room, as well as shooting it, the design of the shots with the wide shots, the closer shots of the pen across the empty paper, and the quill pens that are laying on the paper and casting shadows across the paper. The images themselves were very evocative. And we chose some very simple music to use during the scene, which I also think helps a great deal. It's a simple instrumentation of "Be Thou My Vision", which then becomes "My Country tis of Thee. " And I think the simplicity of the music helps a great deal. And the narrative was written very simply as well.

I just think the simplicity of all the elements worked out very nicely to create a real mood and gives you a real sense of him being there writing it.


Declaration of Independence, Signed by Congress