Interview with Bill Lattanzi

The editor makes it all come together.

Bill Lattanzi, Editor

Hi, I'm Bill. I'm the editor of the second part of Grant. And the editor's job is to collaborate with the producer in the production of the documentary. Every film project is a collaboration and the editor's job is to serve the vision or help the producer create a vision that they want on the screen.

I was a philosophy major in college and after that I was very interested in theater and I did theater for a while, long enough to know that it was very difficult to make a living at. And I got interested in film kind of out of that and went to film school for it -- graduate school for one year at NYU and then I started looking for work and I was very interested in editing because editing is the place in the film process where the story all comes together. And that's something that very much interested me from the beginning. How do you tell a story coherently in film? Production is fascinating and exciting and kind of thrilling, but it's all very piecemeal. It's very hard - it's a different kind of problem. How do I make this exact moment work? And editing is putting all the moments together.

I've been editing films now for long time. I've been at WGBH for about 10 years and the first AMERICAN EXPERIENCE I edited was Reagan, which was a great film to work on. And since then I've done several others. The last one that was on the air, at this point, was The [Secrets of a] Master Builder, about James Eads.

The Editing Process
The first day, you come in on the job and you look at the footage and you immediately think there's no way I can ever make a film out of this material. It's impossible. It can't be done. And you kind of go into despair and then you start cutting and you think -- or at least I do, I think, "Well I've done it before but I'm never going to be able to do it this time. I just don't know what I'm doing." And then you get something that works, like maybe one thing and you think to yourself, "Oh yeah, I can do this. This is going to be fine." And the producer, in general, will have a script, a rough script, treatment, and I'll work in the space with Elizabeth Deane and we talk together and try to rough something together according to the original plan. That takes any number of weeks. And then we'll look at that and invariably some of it works, a lot of it doesn't. And it's a lot like writing a paper in school. You write the first draft and you look at it and you go, "I like some things about this but it's a little confused," and then it's just a process of revising, really -- and revising and revising and revising and revising and revising until you get to where you're happy with it.

In putting a film together, as the editor, you have a number of elements to work with. First of all, you've got the picture, which is the base of everything. And if you have original photography, that is, scenes that we have shot, like a dinner sequence, that's great because it's live, it's happening, you can cut it together and it's a scene. In these historical films, you have to build a lot of stuff out of almost nothing. You have an interview with a historian who will tell you a story. And then you have the historical record which, in our case, these are things 100, 150 years ago, are very, very early photographs, which are not always in the best of condition, and lithographs and then anything you can think of to make it work -- a picture of the moon, a picture of the sun, a picture of the stars, who knows what? The American flag. And the goal as the editor is to try to put all those together to tell a coherent story.

Editing Grant--Part One
The first thing that I did, the first day I started on the Grant job was to sit down and begin to go through the interviews and learn the story by hearing it from our interview subjects, our experts. And, little by little, piece by piece, I begin to get an idea of what the story's about. Then I'll sit down with the producer and we'll talk about the film, what in general she wants to get out of it. And then we'll begin to - we'll choose a scene and we'll begin to work on it. And we start hacking from there.

Planning Dinner Party 
In planning the dinner party shoot, we knew what we were after. What we wanted was this feeling of incredible luxury and elegance and Grant, who had had such a hard life with his wife Julia, suddenly landed in the lap of luxury. So the first thing we did was we went to look for examples. So we went to the video store and we rented all the movies we could think of that had luxurious dinner scenes in them from the 19th century. And we learned a lot from that. We learned a lot about what worked, what didn't work, and what we might be able to do.

The First Cut
So then Katha and Terry and the rest of the crew went out and executed this thing brilliantly. And when it came in, I looked at it and I just thought, "Oh, this is going to be a piece of cake. I'm just going to adore cutting this scene." And I put it together the first time very, very simply, I remember. Just one or two cuts. Just kind of long and flowing. And I thought it was pretty good. And I showed it to Elizabeth and she said, "Well it's good but it's not quite there yet." And I remember for a couple of weeks we were working on other scenes, I didn't know quite what to do with it. And then I started to think about filling it up. I was going for this idea of, again -- I was going for this idea of elegance and luxury and richness. That everything would feel soft and wonderful and warm and being like near a warm fire. And I thought well, that's really about plenty. That's really about having a lot of things. And even though you're seeing a lot of things, they're not close to you and there's no cuts. So I thought well what if I take a lot of little pieces and put them all together. And I didn't want to do cuts because that would have been kind of severe feeling, like cut, cut, cut, cut. So I wanted it to be all one, long continuous flow so I dissolved from one to the next to the next to the next. And then that seemed to work.

Video Transitions
Everything is getting from one shot to another. And there's a couple of ways that you can do that. The simplest way is a cut, which is simply one shot runs for a certain number of frames and then it stops and the next frame is a completely different shot. And there are some editors who love cuts. There's a famous editor named Dede Allen. And, if you look at a film like Bonnie and Clyde, which is an old film, or The Wonder Boys, which just came out recently, there are almost no dissolves in that film -- in either one of those films, because Dede Allen believes you get a tremendous amount of energy from a cut that's lost in a dissolve. A dissolve is when you see it go from one to another -- you know, like Mike Myers in Wayne's World -- that's essentially -- they're making a dissolve. And it's where one picture kind of melds into another. And that gives you a completely different kind of feeling. It's a little dreamy. It's a little softer. You see it in romantic montages when the couple walks through the park. And it was appropriate, I think, to use in the dinner party scene.

What transition you want to use depends on the effect you're trying to get. A dissolve is good for a sequence where you're trying to create a feeling of -- a softer feeling of a dream or time passing or what we call a montage, which is a whole set of shots that may show different aspects of a single event. And a cut is better for action and just general storytelling.

Dinner Party Transitions
The dinner party scene is actually made up of a couple of different kinds of visual elements. One is the recreation footage and then there are interviews that come in and come out. And where I did want dissolves for this dream of luxury, let's call it -- when you go to the historian, that's really in a different world and the cut helps you make that distinction. If I dissolve into the historian and out of the historian, it would be an interesting effect because suddenly you might have the feeling that that historian was back at that dinner party and it might feel -- it's a different kind of film than the one we're making. It might be kind of an interesting film, actually, to do that.

One of my favorite things that you can do on the computer easily is turn shots around and make them go backwards. So in the dinner sequence, there is one shot that runs in reverse. It's this shot with the candelabra in it and I made it run backwards so that the direction of all the movement would be the same throughout. It would be terrible if it went the other way because you'd have a feeling of going back and forth and back and forth.

Deleted Scenes
These shots of Julia getting dressed is kind of heartbreaking to me because they were absolutely gorgeous and I love them, especially here where Julia's dress kind of swings in slow motion and the maid has just done her perfect job. I had cut that scene several times and tried to put it into the film in several different places. And while it was beautiful every time, sadly it didn't fit the story and it had to come out. It was just like an extra piece. And when we took it out, we missed it, but the story moved better.

Dinner Party Music
In the dinner party scene, I had the idea that this would be a big party -- that the music would be movie music. Not necessarily the music that being played at the party, but music that was commenting on the scene. I imagined a big, full orchestra. I took some movie music that was very luxurious. It had 40 strings going and it was quite rich and lovely. I played it for Elizabeth who said, "Yeah, it's a little too much I think." And I realized what she had in mind was music that would be played at the party that would suggest the kind of perfect world that Julia was trying to create there at the White House. So I got a different piece of music that was pretty much a solo violin and it gave the scene a very different feeling -- a nice one -- and more in accord with what Elizabeth had in mind.

Editing with Music 
Music has an amazing ability to change the mood of a scene. In the dinner party scene, if you had driving, energetic music, you might get the feeling, oh, things are really going up and up here. If you had sad and mournful music, you might have the feeling that something terrible has happened and this is maybe a funeral. If you had the kind of music that's inPsycho, for example, or if you had horror movie music set to the dinner party scene, you'd suddenly get the feeling that something was terribly wrong. And it's possible to make music choices that are just completely off the wall and completely insane and that just don't match at all.

Pulling music out of a scene can sometimes really kill the scene. Some scenes really need music. It would be great if you could rent a movie like Die Hard and pull the music out of it. Suddenly you're not so thrilled anymore. Suddenly everything looks a little fakey. Music helps you suspend disbelief. Music helps get you into the mood. Music sets an emotional tone. Music cuts across all barriers of language and culture and age. There's an expression, "music is the highest art," and that's why.

Dinner Party Ending
At the very end of the dinner scene, we were looking for a way to visually express the narration idea that Grant was transforming himself from this kind of shy country bumpkin into a man about town. And I found these two photographs where he was seated in exactly the same position but in one he was in ruffled clothes and looking down and reading a book and in the next he was in a tuxedo, looking up. And I thought well we can have him transformed in a second if we do this flashbulb effect as if poof, he turned from one to the other.

Click next for an interview with composer Michael Whalen.


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