Locarno: Oscar-Winning Editor Pietro Scalia on the “Existential Crisis” of the Hollywood Strikes, Working With Ridley Scott, Oliver Stone and Michael Mann

Locarno: Oscar-Winning Editor Pietro Scalia on the “Existential Crisis” of the Hollywood Strikes, Working With Ridley Scott, Oliver Stone and Michael Mann

There is one thing that strikes you immediately about Pietro Scalia. The ability to chisel his answers in an interview into the right timing, the right pauses, the right gestures. Not too long, not too short, not too fast, not too slow, as if he was seeking, even in a dialogue, that perfection he seems to be obsessed with on the big screen. It’s the obsession with finding the right moment and space for every shot, scene, sequence and word.

The two-time Oscar-winning editor is at the Locarno Film Festival to collect the TicinoModa Vision Award, one of the most coveted career awards at this event, which has the merit of not forgetting those cinema professions often sacrificed on the altar of the performers’ and directors’ fame.

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Scalia, who has helped shape the cinema of masters such as Ridley Scott, Oliver Stone and Bernardo Bertolucci, and who, in little over a month, will be in Venice with Michael Mann’s Ferrari, is one of those who changed the history of his art by mixing art and craft. He ended up editing masterpieces like JFK and Black Hawk Down, as well as beloved films like Good Will Hunting or Spider-Man, not to forget Little Buddha and Stealing Beauty.

Some say editing is the heartbeat of a film. Others say it is the third draft of the screenplay after writing and directing. What is it to you?

They are right if you look at it in terms of rhythm. But in my opinion, it is not just the heartbeat of it, it is the soul of the film. Think about it: it is with editing that you discover the essence of storytelling, it is a unique art, not just a craft, a job, or a specific talent. When all the arts already existed — photography, dance, music — cinema entered their ranks thanks to editing, without editing there can be no Seventh Art. Editing gives life to a story and gives it meaning. Without it, cinema is just something mechanical. Instead, a work of cinema is something living, or at least it becomes so when it is shared with the viewer, it is, precisely, its soul. You understand it when the viewer relates to the characters, to the story, when he feels emotions. And even if good editing is the kind you don’t see — like the soul, again — and so it doesn’t get the same attention as photography and costumes that are visible and acclaimed, it has an indispensability and urgency in itself that you can’t escape from.

When did you realize you wanted to be an editor?

The first time I made the first cut. I was in New York. I had shot a 16mm film about a young female violinist who goes to practice in a specific place, and to save money and because I liked to be in control of everything, I decided to edit it, too. When I found myself making a choice between shots, when I understood when and where to cut, the right point to cut off, I felt something inside me, as if I had taken a leap. It was a very powerful feeling, to see images take shape and meaning because of me. I felt an explosion of creativity, inside me, a physical feeling of beauty.

Ridley Scott, Oliver Stone, Bernardo Bertolucci, Michael Mann – you have worked with so many great directors, and you are often identified with them. What did they give you and what did you give them?

Well, maybe they gave me competence and freedom, as well as the knowledge that I can do this job well. Even though they are auteurs with deeply different languages. Oliver Stone is more muscular, Ridley Scott more epic, Bertolucci more poetic. The biggest lessons, because I was young and inexperienced at the time, I probably got at the school of Oliver Stone. I was coming from documentaries, from socially-critical films. That was at the root of works like Salvador and Platoon. That’s probably why I was picked up as an assistant on Wall Street and from there I climbed several rungs up to The Doors (where I worked as an additional editor.) Oliver certainly challenged me and showed me that I could work at a frenetic pace and still remain at a level of excellence. To measure myself against Robert Richardson’s cinematography, with actors as good as those in his casts, with his direction that had different speeds of thought and vision, was a crazy challenge. We were working up to 70-80 hours a week. Then came Bernardo, who one summer in Rome offered me Little Buddha. I was excited about going back to Italy, with a master like him to boot. And realizing that I had just gone from hell to heaven, from supersonic speed to quiet, stress-free work was almost disorienting. No more battles with the studios, no huge and difficult workload to untangle. Plus, a director who trusted me. I remember this editing room in Nepal: It was him, Vittorio Storaro and several other giants next to me and there I was, intimidated and still very young, asking him what I should do. And him saying “You are the one who has to choose, who has to discover the bigger picture.” A generous man, Bernardo. He choose me after seeing JFK (which earned Scalia his first Academy Award for editing; the second would come, 10 years later, for Black Hawk Down, 10 years later, in 2002).

With Ridley, there was great trust from the beginning. I’ve always loved his films, even if I was always a little disturbed by his overly sharp, clean and precise aesthetic. With him I learned to confront, to empower my work and opinions, which is now what many filmmakers appreciate about me. But we always trusted each other blindly. He and I put together The Gladiator, Hannibal and Black Hawk Down in 2 years. You can only succeed if there are no shadows in the relationship. He would shoot and I would edit while he started shooting the next one. It was a grueling job. With Ridleyyou can have up to 200 hours of footage to watch and select!

Do you only come in after shooting, or do you want to read the script as well?

I read the script, of course, but then I still watch all the material, there is no one else who does it, not even the director watches it all. I have to watch it all. When people are surprised that editing can take up to a year, consider that even if with a crew of 300 or 400 people, in the end, the editing is the chokepoint. You can’t delegate it. That’s why there needs to be a real intimacy between the director and the editor. It’s a rare relationship of trust. The director in fact puts himself at the mercy of the editor.

When you edited JFK did you sense that you were going to make history?

I didn’t know, because during the process we were looking at a very dense script: We are talking about 170 pages, so much that our first edit was four hours long. Oliver liked it. He had final cut and he wanted to present it that way, maybe in two chapters. The studio had no bargaining power and Oliver knew this. He kept saying: “I’ll do whatever the fuck I want” but he was skeptical and honestly so was I. I kept telling him, he couldn’t expect that between driving to the cinema, finding parking, and getting popcorn, viewers would be willing to devote a whole day to him. He wanted it to be his David Lean, his Lawrence of Arabia, but when I figured out how to do it, when I found the key, we were able to take 45 minutes off at once and he liked it. We put it all on different levels, at a speed that many thought the viewer might not accept, but the reality was that people watching the film understood every moment, every character, and entered the flow of the story with us. That’s what cinema is, the magic by which image and word create something better, higher than either of them would be individually.

Your last film, Ferrari, was with another master: Michael Mann, someone who gives editing enormous importance. It will bring you to Venice.

If they invite me! I have known Michael for years, and pretty much as long as we have known each other he had this project that he wanted to do with all his heart. He confessed to me that he first thought about it 30 years ago. And periodically he would call me, tell me that he had found a way to do it, and then nothing would come of it because his production team was not coming together according to his wishes or because I was working with Ridley. But I’ve always loved his cinema, from Heat to Collateral to The Last of the Mohicans, and the chats with Dante Spinotti, his cinematographer, increased my esteem for him. Then, two years ago he called me and just said: “It’s done.” And I was free, I could do it! I had a great desire to work with an auteur, a filmmaker, not just a director for a studio. He sent me the script and it was beautiful. He’s in control of everything: It’s impressive. It was not easy to get into his method of working, although on the screen the story looks quite simple and straightforward, it actually has a remarkable level of complexity, you have no idea of the many levels in which Ferrari is structured, shot, thought, written. And he holds the reins on everything and has expertise in every artistic and creative aspect of the film. In spite of that, he left a lot of room for my points of view as well, to tame the various time periods he constructed. We did it by exploring different kinds of editing, with a rationality that clashed with my method, which is more often based on pure instinct. We really managed to find a synthesis, he and I. I think the film is extremely well-done, and I hope the viewer will see that.

What’s your take on the writers’ and actors’ strike?

I find that we are really facing an existential crisis of cinema, which has profoundly changed, a process that started many years ago, because of new technologies. This is a power struggle to determine which side the scale tips in this battle. It’s not just about wages, rights and artificial intelligence.

I’m a little confused about the union giving these waivers, that is allowing independent films to go ahead with productions. In my opinion, that’s against the idea of the strike. Because the only power, the only weapon you have is to have a work stoppage. Now, if you allow a way out, everybody will soon know how to go about it.

Are you afraid of AI?

No, I think there are so many parts in my work that are entrusted to the human soul, to a sensibility that cannot be mechanically reproduced. I won’t be worried until they find a way to clone me.

This interview was edited for length and comprehension.