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Steven Rosenblum:
Editing Birth of a Nation

Gordon sits down with Steven Rosenblum to discuss the editing of Birth of a Nation. They talk about lack of footage and how to tackle a battle sequence. All this and more on this episode of The Cutting Room.

Go to aotg.com/cuttingroom for more interviews.


The Cutting Room: How did you get involved with this project? How did you get brought on?

Steven Rosenblum: Well, my agent called me, and he said, "This guy called. He's doing this project called Birth of a Nation. It's about Nat Turner." And I said to him, "I'll do it." He said, "But, they have no money." I said, "Okay, well send me the script." (Laughter) Because I'm familiar with the Nat Turner story and I'm a history major, specifically American History, especially the Civil War era. So I'm real familiar with all that stuff. And I read the script, and I really, really liked it. It's a great read, you know, what's not to like? He expresses my politics, I mean, it's really, really good. But, they had no money (Laughter).

Literally, the next night I'm still thinking about it, and I get a call on the phone, it's Nate. And Nate's like, "Listen, I really want you to do this with me." And he says, "I know you don't know me, but this is who I am... " And we had a conversation for about an hour and it was just really wonderful. And I got off the phone, and I'm thinking, "God, I really want to do this movie, but I'm working on something, I'm about to start something at the end of August or September. I don't even know what times I've got." Nate has just told me, he says, "I don't care what time period you have open, I'll take you for as long as you've got. Whatever it is. You have to leave, fine, but I want you to do the movie as long as you can."

I was talking to my wife and I said, "I don't know what to do, you know? It's like I really was looking for a little time off, and they have no money, but I really like this material." And she looked at me and said, "How often do you read a script that you really like?" And I of course, drew a blank, because it's very rare. And she said, "So do the movie, and forget about the money, and just do it." I said, "Okay." (Laughter)

The Cutting Room: (Laughter)

Steven Rosenblum: And I did it. I just said to Nate, "I can be on it until I have to leave on September 3rd. I can be on it until September 1st," whatever it was. And that's what we did. I think I was only on it for 10 or 12 weeks. I got into more than a cut. I did a cut on my own and then Nate came in and we worked together, literally, every day. Which included, you know, long discussion everyday about the world, as well as cutting, and real collaboration, meaning, Nate would say, "You know, I want to try this, this and this." Working with Nate, it was an eye opening experience on many, many, levels. He said, "Look, we come from different worlds, and there's so much bias that you're not even aware of." And he says, "And I have it to, but you have, specifically, a middle-class white bias, that you're not even really aware of." For example, we were at a screening, and after the screening, it was at William Morris, and Nate said, "You know, I only invited two African Americans," and I said, "Yeah. I didn't even notice." And he said, "No, of course not." It was like, "Oh, okay. I see. I get it."

When we came to cutting material, similarly, you know the dinner table scene, right? That's a good scene, you know? And it's a big drama moment. My cut of it was a drama about this white plantation owner who was trying to get back on his feet, and be powerful in the community again, and so we he could have some money and so his family would have a place live, and it wouldn't go to ruin. Nate looked at me and said, "You know, I should have told you this, but I really want to play this entire scene from the point of view of the help." (Laughter) It's like, "Duh! Of course! That's what the movies about!" I mean, as an editor, sometimes you go right to the drama, but the subtext is actually the drama. And in this situation, that was the case. So, I constantly was trying to be aware of my own hidden prejudices and biases, including in how you tell the story, and what the real goal of the film is. Nate was really instrumental in reminding me how that works.

His help reinforced stuff I had learned as an assistant when I was coming up. And I remember cutting this scene for an editor, and it was this scene where Richard Pryor was a veteran who returned from Vietnam, and found that his wife had left him, and the film's called, "Some Kind of Hero." He's out on a step watching this family, two kids playing with their mother, and there's his wife coming down the street, and I cut the scene, and Chris Greenbury, who was the editor, looked at it and said, "Huh. This is a scene about a guy watching a family walking in the street. I want to see a scene about a guy who sees his wife and understands what he's lost." You go, "Okay." These are building blocks of how you look at the material and put it together. (Laughter)

The Cutting Room: You mentioned that you had done your first cut by yourself, and I had seen in a couple of articles that Nate gave you freedom for the first cut, and then worked with you closely. So, how much did the perspective change? How did you go about working the footage so that it comes from the perspective of the slaves, instead of the owners?

Steven Rosenblum: That scene in particular, it's actually really, really easy. Every time the slaves came into the room to serve, rather than see what people were talking about around the table, we watched the people serve. You still hear stuff that's going on, but it just makes the difference in the lives of the two classes become more apparent by the lack of ability of the hidden, quiet, unseen class, to even speak their desires. And that alone, is enough for the scene to play. That's what the power of the scene is. And, I'm not even sure it's the most successful scene in the movie. I know it isn't, for varieties of reasons. But, it still functions really, really well. When Nate gets to do the blessing in that scene, it's the first time the help gets to speak. And what he says is powerful. Really, really powerful. Much more powerful than anything that came before. So, it just has a structure that plays, I think, in a really, really terrific way. So that's, you know, the way that happens. (Laughter)

And that's about build up too. It's like, you see all this stuff going on, and servants don't say a word, and one guy plays the violin, or the fiddle, and to me, movies are that. They're actually more about visuals and music, and less about what is being said. Because what is being said is only, often, a component, as opposed to the component. I don't like movies that are cut strictly for dialogue, because all of a sudden, you're losing a lot of behavior, and the behavior is really what sells the scene, and what makes characters worth while, and why you like them or why you don't.

The Cutting Room: I also noticed, throughout the movie, we are primarily on extreme close ups of the face of the slaves and not the owners. So we're almost always really tight on them. And then, seeing their P.O.V as opposed to that of the other people in the scene, the owners...

Steven Rosenblum: You know, it's funny, I hadn't thought of it in those terms. But, you know, when I cut, I try to cut intuitively, I don't really over think it, strangely. (Laughter) This feels right to me, so I do it. I don't question the instinct, because the instinct always seems to have much more thought behind it than I'm actually thinking. (Laughter) So I don't know if it's true or not true but I've always been very comfortable with my instincts on where is the power in the scene? Without being too specific, because I can't be, I often like conversation where the angles aren't matched. I like very often, when you can throw a scene to somebody [in the scene], not by where the dialogue is coming from, whether it's them or the other person, but by the size of the shot, for one or the other person. And I like mismatched conversation quite a lot.

The Cutting Room: I've read, in many places, that Nate's a perfectionist, and is very obsessed in making sure everything's perfect. So, with such a tight deadline for you, before you left, how did you work with him to make sure you got him what he wanted, but that you weren't spending too much time on one area or the other?

Steven Rosenblum: I don't actually have that knowledge of him as being any different than I am. So, that was, you know, perfection was not really an issue. We were always on the same wavelength, talking about what to do, trying different things. He likes to experiment quite a lot, as do I, so that was never an issue. We just kept on going, kept on going, until we were happy with the sequence. We didn't put it away unless we were happy. Now, that doesn't mean we didn't come back to it a week later, or two weeks later, and re-do it. But we never put it away unless we were happy.

And that meant a lot of stuff. He would say, "Let's try this," and I'd say, "Wait, let me do this," and he'd say, "Fine, but what if we do this," and that's just how we worked. It was a very easy working relationship because everything he said made sense. In my opinion, the directors entitled to make things better, or make things different. That's his role. He just can't make things worse. Nate never made things worse. Sometimes we'd try things that were worse, because it was a good idea that wasn't working, and I have the same kinds of ideas, but we never left it there. We always went to something that worked better. And that was the goal.

The Cutting Room: That's interesting, that means you guys really connected. Nate said, he felt that he was reaching his perfectionist, sort of, peak in editing. And finding that...

Steven Rosenblum: When did he say that?

The Cutting Room: At Sundance. But I think he was saying... I don't think he was saying he was having a bad time. I think he was falling in love in the editing process.

Steven Rosenblum: Yeah, he's a very quick learner. I couldn't go to Sundance, because I was actually in Spain. the producer of this film, one of the producers, Ralph Winter, called me from Sundance to say "Your film is blowing up here." (Laughter)

I'm just like, "What?!" you know? And it was just truly wonderful to hear. But, you know, Nate, we love working with each other. If he wants to do another film, I'm happy to sign on. I don't even have to read it. I'll just sign on. His learning curve is spectacular. His ideas are really good. People forget, you know, and especially with the somewhat under performing, I'm not... It, truthfully, it's not even an under-performing movie. It only cost 10 million dollars to make. It's just that Fox put so much money into it that it feels under-performing. It's his first movie, you know, I don't think he's ever really directed anything. And the ambition and the scope of what he accomplished on that time frame and that budget, it just, to me it's magnificent, you know, on that level. I don't even feel like it's under-performing, but people have that in their heads, that it is.

The Cutting Room: Well, it's crazy when you think about the budget, and 27 days, and it's a period piece. (Laughter)

Steven Rosenblum: Yeah. It's unbelievable, right? So, he often didn't have time to turn the camera around and shoot the other direction. So it just creates issues that you have to deal with.

The Cutting Room: How would you deal with that? If a scene didn't have it's coverage.

Steven Rosenblum: Well, you know, like the scene where they come to the one plantation, the guy with the dogs. Until the guy comes with the dogs, when Nate pulls in, Armie Hammer gets out of the wagon, goes up to the door, and Nate's coming out of the wagon and starts to do stuff with his horse, a lot of which I cut out, that's really only 2 angles of one shot, there's no coverage there. (Laughter) And you just try to find ways to cut it so that you can get rid of all the down time and keep the scene in tact. The scene works pretty well. Would it have worked better if he could have shot it with coverage? Yes, it would have. Because you would have pieces that go together, that cuts almost invisible because they're smooth and they tell you where you want to be. But there's just no time. You've got so little time to shoot so much film. You just say, "Okay, how do we make this? How can we cut the film, even though it's one shot essentially, how do you cut it? And you can. You just can.

The Cutting Room: Now, you've brought up the scene with the dogs, and it gets a little more gruesome later in that scene, I would love to know, how do you tackle a scene where it's so gruesome and hard to watch? Where do you draw the line? Because you don't want people to get up and get frustrated, or leave because they're grossed out, but you also want to make sure that you're telling people how it was, or you're showing people how it was.

Steven Rosenblum: When I started getting daily's from Nate, I was finishing "Blood Father," Mel Gibson's film.

The Cutting Room: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Steven Rosenblum: It, came out this year. Didn't do any business, but he got universally great reviews, because Mel's great in it. But I was working on "Blood Father," when I had to re-cut the whole picture, because it just really wasn't playing. But I had this one afternoon where I just had time, and I said, "Okay, I'm going to cut something from Birth of a Nation, because I haven't cut anything yet, and what would I like to cut?" Now, I haven't cut anything yet, and I said, "I think I will cut the uh, what I call the dental scene."

And you know (laughter). I sat down to cut it, and the thing about those kinds of scenes is, like all good editing it's mostly visuals and what to me feels like music, although in this case it was the rhythm of the chisel hitting the teeth, so it took me a while to get that rhythm to function properly, but if you actually just listen to the sound of the chisel hitting the teeth, you'll hear it. Don't even watch the scene. You'll hear... it's sort of a, it's rhythmic and then it, it bothers you.

So, the key thing is to just do it early in the scene. Because once you've seen it, you hear that noise, you see it in your head a million times. (Laughter)

The Cutting Room: Yeah (Laughter)

Steven Rosenblum: You just want to get that out of the way so that, and for people... That lasts for the whole movie. That scene.

The Cutting Room: Yeah.

Steven Rosenblum: It's just is so, I don't want to look at that. I had to tell my wife when we went to see the screening of it, the first screening I was going to see with the finished product, I said, "Debbie, when the guy goes to the shed to get a tool, close your eyes." (Laughter) And, you know, and that's what she did, because she very much doesn't like violence. It's a really hard scene to watch. And it's amazingly redeemed by the speech he gives afterwards, I think.

Steven Rosenblum: Might be the high point of the movie, because it's just so powerful. To me, that's, you know, that was the first thing I cut for him, and then I called him and said, "I'm sending you this." And Nate called me when he saw it and he said, "You know, I don't know what to say. I'm speechless." And I said, "I think you've got something special here." So, that was it. From that point on, when I had time I cut, and then all of sudden I was working on it full time.

The Cutting Room: I saw in one of the interviews I read, that Ed Zwick suggested to Nate a alternating narrative rhythm for the film. I was wondering if you could sort of explain to me what he meant by that? And how you approached tackling that?

Steven Rosenblum: What he meant by that, you know, you can not string together three scenes which have the same sort of ex-positional rhythm. You have to change rhythm from scene to scene, so audiences don't get complacent and a little bored, and feel like it's a little dull. And, Nate of course was like, "Huh? I want to write that down." Because whenever you tell Nate something, he'll be writing down stuff less and less. When I was on the phone, he'd say, "Hold on a second, I want to write that down." But, he took it to heart.

The one thing, when I was doing my cut, the area of the film where the eclipse occurs, that whole section of stuff where they're getting ready, there was a scene where the house slave came to talk to Nate, and there was that stuff [exposition], and there was working on the cotton, and there was a bunch of stuff, and I just felt it was not the right time for exposition. You know, what are you doing? Why are you going? Who do you think you are leading this uprising, kind of stuff from the house slave. So I montaged it. I just decided to make a non-linear montage using the house slaves speech, and his conversation with Nate, as the spine. I really like that kind of montage, because it ties together things in an emotional way, as opposed to in a linear way. I tend not to want to be linear often. I tend to like that stuff.

Now, sometimes directors don't like it, and sometimes it feels too modern. Yet, Nate was never concerned with the, anything feeling too modern. In fact, the movie actually feels modern, and not only in the inclusion of the song at the, at the end. It all tends to give the movie a life force that I really like. So, that's an example of taking three expositional scenes, and it's late in the movie for exposition. You want to get on with whatever is going to happen. And, making it feel of a piece. Nate of course, you know, I was always wondering what he was going to say about that, when we were working our way through the picture, because we were just working in order, and when we got to that section he said, "you know, I always really liked this. I thought it was a really, a good way to overcome some of the problems we were going to have if we kept those scenes in order." I was like, "Oh, thanks." Cause I was thinking, "Oh, what am I going to have to do here?" Sometimes that kind of work of taking all that apart, leads to the same realization, but you've just done all the work again. (Laughter)

The Cutting Room: (laughing)

Steven Rosenblum: So I was real happy about that. That changed a little bit when, later down the line, I was gone, but the idea of it stayed pretty much the same. And it got us to the conclusion of the movie in a way that it needed to get to. It needed to get there faster. You know, it had to.

The Cutting Room: The battle scenes are phenomenal in this film. So, you tend to have this amazing talent of cutting battle scenes that, keeps us geographically situated, so we know where everything is, but also shows us the chaos. How do you approach editing battle scenes?

Steven Rosenblum: I do it exactly as you now described it. For me, I don't understand battle scenes. Number 1, I'm geographically challenged as a human being, so, I tend to walk in circles to get to where I'm going. Everybody who follows my directions says, "You know, I could have just walked straight down this road and would have gotten to where you are." I said, "Oh, well, this is how I do it. And I, for some reason, need that. In battles, if I don't know exactly where everybody is, at some point, and that could be a recurring thing in them, in a battle, I get uncomfortable, because then I feel like it's all a big cheat. I call them truth shots. Those, those wide shots that set up where everyone is. Once you have that happening you can cut all over the place, as long as you reorient the audience at another point, say, "Now here's where everybody is, and here's what's happening."

I make really sure to do it so whenever I feel uncomfortable, like I don't know where anybody's coming from, unless I don't have it, I reorient as best I can. But also, I like to play ... The battle scenes for me are never just, like a Micheal Bay movie, the battle itself becomes more important than the characters. And in the movies I work on it's the, how the battle effects the main character that seems to be the most important part, so I try to have everything reflect off of the main character. Or refract, or bounce, or ... I, I want to know the main character is going through all this stuff, so I understand. And, so then you've got these two forces always at work, orienting the audience, and then orienting the audience to what the main character is feeling, and what he is doing. And if you can do that, I think battles are very, very satisfying. If you can't do it, you seem to be like, "Okay, I guess this is just, oh you know, this is what happens somehow." And I don't like that, so ... (Laughter) I've seen it in a lot of movies where they've done that, and to me if a lot of things are all in close up, I just get lost. I don't know what's happening, so I get bored.

The Cutting Room: Thank you so much for letting me in to interview you again.

Steven Rosenblum: It's been a pleasure, Gordon.

The Cutting Room: Thank you so much.

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