Over the past decade, Lee Smith has worked alongside Christopher Nolan as the director has climbed to the highest peaks of Hollywood, with “Batman Begins,” “The Prestige,” “The Dark Knight,” “Inception,” and “The Dark Knight Rises.” I recently had the chance to speak to Smith about his approach to editing, Nolan, their relationship, and their change of pace (both literal and figurative) that is “Interstellar.”
Coming from an Australian family deeply involved in the film industry, Smith started his career working in sound. In the editing realm, he cut his teeth on genre films like “The Howling III” and “RoboCop 2” and soon began a collaboration with Peter Weir on titles such as “Fearless,” “The Truman Show” and “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (for which he earned his first Oscar nomination). While working in Hollywood on “Master,” Smith was first asked if he was interested in meeting Nolan, who had just been hired to film the rebooted Caped Crusader franchise at Warner Bros. “When I flew back to Australia, I got a call that I'd got the job,” Smith recalls. “And the rest, as they say, is history – and a lot of grey hair!”
Their relationship has deepened over the past decade. “As a filmmaker, he was pretty amazing right from the get-go,” Smith says of Nolan. “He's great to work with as an editor because his memory of the footage is, I think, second to none. He's recalling the camera angles basically in his head. It's very helpful as you're trolling through a million feet of footage. Something about his memory is truly extraordinary. I've never worked with anyone like it.”
Notwithstanding Nolan's extraordinary memory and vision, he recognizes the role of an editor and has “a great editorial mind,” Smith says. “He's interested working together as I put something together. If it isn't how he's conceived it, he takes joy in seeing another way.”
Smith has not noticed a change in Nolan's approach to filmmaking over the years, except to the extent that studios now put a tremendous amount of trust in him. If anything, the main change is an external one, he says. With the success of his blockbusters, Nolan has the ability to make a film that a stdio normally wouldn't even greenlight. “A film like 'Inception' is a very expensive non-franchise film to make,” Smith says by way of example. “He's non-compromising in the intelligence of the film.”
With “Interstellar,” Smith got aboard the film early. Nolan let him know only that there was “something large” on the horizon. “I read the script and got very excited about it, as I normally do when I read one of his scripts,” he says.
One of the interesting things about the film was the fact that time played such a key role in it, not unlike “Inception” (for which Smith was rather surprisingly overlooked for an Oscar nomination). “I think it's a fascinating thing dealing with time in movies and the non-linear structure that Chris generally likes,” he says. “Chris has got a love of non-linear films and so do I. It was completely built into the way Chris imagined it and scripted it.”
One thing that was undeniably different about “Interstellar” when compared to Smith's earlier collaborations with Nolan was the pace of the film. It was rather dictated by its narrative and, as Smith puts it, “the film did not like to be sped up. It moves a lot quicker than '2001: A Space Odyssey' but definitely slower than other films I've worked on with Chris, where we would normally tighten the movie. On this film we just couldn't do it. It didn't make the movie more enjoyable.”
This of course led to some concern about audience response, particularly given the differences between the pace of the “Batman” movies and “Inception.” Smith never got the feeling watching the film that it was overlong, but he notes that you're always trying to make a movie that is going to entertain and enthrall. “Unlike the ‘Batmans' and “Inceptions,' even though you could wind the pace up, this particular movie just did not like it,” he says. “Having said that, the rhythm and pace of this movie is not slow. There's a lot going on and if you did it any quicker, it would be incomprehensible.”
This gets at what Smith describes as his biggest challenge on the film: “It's a big, epic movie and the challenge was to not let the audience disengage through the length of the movie.”
Particular scenes also posed particular difficulties. While the docking scene certainly comes to mind, Smith was most overwhelmed by Matthew McConaughey's character's final ejection from his space ship with “lots of flashing lights” and many many cuts making it extremely difficult to get just right.
In order to accomplish the look, feel and pace of the film, extensive collaboration was required with other below-the-line artists. Smith, Nolan, visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema would meet daily to discuss the progress of the shoot, and build the look of the film. “It's a really good, old school way of doing film,” Smith says, adding that “Chris is a master of catching everything with the camera, even if we know we're going to help it with CG.” Smith recalls the film's water planet as being a particularly important scene with important visual effects that required working intimately with Franklin. “We'd put it together as best we could but Paul had to get going on that gigantic wave,” he says. “It's the mother of all visual effects. There was an enormous amount of collaboration.”
The film also had a personal angle for Smith, as well as a tone he loved. When he was a kid, he says he couldn't think of anything better than being an astronaut. He counts “Interstellar” as a very optimistic film in that regard. “Man has to survive and continue on and there's something about that that makes me want to make films that are optimistic,” he says.
“Interstellar” is now playing everywhere.