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Interview : Lee Percy on How His Acting Experience Helped Him Edit The Mountain Between Us

Lee Percy’s work as an editor can be seen in films as varied as Salt, Year of the Gun, and Single White Female. In The Mountain Between Us, Percy and I met to talk about how working with director Hany Abu-Assad was of great appeal to him. In the film two strangers are stranded in the middle of nowhere after a plane crash. Played Kate Winslet and Idris Elba, the lone survivors must work together in perilous freezing conditions to find their way out alive.

Percy says his experience as an actor always helps guide him in the editing room, taking hours of footage and understanding how to cut the performances carefully, weave the story together seamlessly, and help deliver the poetic vision Abu-Assad had in mind for his film. Structuring a film is important and Percy discusses how four hours of rough cut they shot was condensed to a film that runs just under 100 minutes. He also talks about the economical opening of the film and how that initial edit would serve them later in the film.


Read our conversation below:

As the editor, what appealed to you most about this film?

Working with Hany is the first thing that appealed to me. He’s made five great movies and I knew he was a talented and experienced filmmaker which was a big plus. The icing on the cake was having Kate Winslet and Idris Elba on the film.

The first time I met Hany was on Skype and we had a great conversation. We had the same point of view about filmmaking and story and structure right off the bat. There were a few moments of chit-chat and then we got right into this deep conversation. At that point, they were in a rewrite of the screenplay and he was wrestling with the ending of the movie. We got right into the details of that ending. The last act of the film is really about it focusing on the love story. We discussed what happens in a relationship and what pulls people apart. How can these ideas be used in our film. Within minutes of meeting we were already in this great discussion and Hany was a great draw for me.

I’ve worked with a lot of first-time writer/directors, they’ve been rewarding experiences and there’s a lot of explaining things to help them and getting them to trust me. Hany and I were able to work so quickly, we had a common experience and attitude and it was just so great.

You have only two actors in the film. How do you as an editor create and maintain that interplay when there’s no third character to cut to?

It’s a challenge. There’s no cutting to other characters that you’re working with. As you say, I can’t cut to another actor in New York. There are two emotional strands you’re working with — survival and romance as it begins to spark and grow — but it’s really a matter of how do you pace those things. There’s a lot of time, effort and later I was working with Hany, we spent time on how to keep it interesting.

There are sections of the screenplay designed for them to be separated. They’re separated when she goes off on her own when she has an accident, and those are periods that the audience, interestingly enough found the movie to be slow.

We would find it fascinating that you see the emotional anguish that Ben is going through there. It was interesting but you really had to pace those sections because when it was just one of them, it was harder to keep the audience engaged.

The moments when they were apart, we got as much emotion as we could and then we brought them back together.

Talk about the final cut of the film, where you made those choices?

There was a lot of improv and expanding moments from the screenplay. I think there was a lot of concern on the part of the script supervisor that the film being shot was longer than she had timed the screenplay. I think she thought I was going to come after her, but not at all. A lot of the time was being spent to get to the nugget of the scene, building to the pieces that we would use that would be the gem that we needed.

The film that we shot was probably four hours long. Hany wanted a solid cut from me and told me not to show it to him until I was completely done. I excised a good half hour with what they had delivered from the set. We worked so fast, and I did my first pass within a week and usually the first pass with the director takes at least two weeks. I didn’t have to discuss why anything needed to be cut, as he had already told me that if one scene didn’t lead to the other then that scene didn’t need to be there and that’s how we worked through the material.

I’m all about performance because I started out as an actor, so bringing that performance to the forefront was my priority. We very quickly had it down to two hours. As we worked with the studio and Peter Chernin we got it down to just around 100 minutes.

Never once did I have the goal to make it shorter, and I’ve done those jobs and it was agony. Both Hany and I saw a clear path from the adventure to the love story, and it was that where we focused on the structure and pace. As you said, it’s about the relationship between those two people and that’s all you have to build around.

I liked the opening sequence of the film because it sets us up immediately rather than build character. 

It’s very economical. Most movies, especially in Hollywood will spend a lot of time on introducing the characters, and this screenplay did too in early drafts. Hany and everyone felt that you really just wanted to get to the incident. I think Hany would have dropped those scenes too in the airport if the audience was behind it, but in the end, we expanded those scenes a bit and repurposed a few scenes just to make some of the moments clearer.

I really liked the economy of the opening.

That’s what I liked, we could learn about those moments later in the film.

Right, because they’re together for so long that a lot of those details that you might have in a conventional setup are woven into the rest of the story and that was an advantage we had.

Were you in New York or were you subjected to the freezing conditions?

The great thing about editing is that it’s all digital, so we’re cutting sound and we’re cutting effects and music. Other people will come along and do that, but in the first pass I’m doing that putting in some sound and music. We have a visual effects palette available to us but the thing that’s amazing is that there is no green screen in this film, it’s just the actors up on that mountain as you know in minus 30 degree weather, helicoptering up the cast, Hany, and Mandy Walker. The best part was that I got to stay in New York where it was warm so if you hear someone saying New York was warm, you can imagine how cold it was up on that mountain.

Was there a scene you enjoyed editing the most?

The adventure scenes are fun editing and I love that stuff. I started in acting and those moments where you feel the connect was what I enjoyed. That scene in the cave where they find shelter was a great moment and they’re coming to terms with realizing how much they need each other. It’s a key scene because there’s so much going on under the surface and there’s so much care that each character is taking and how much emotion they’re letting out. It’s their first connection. It solves one problem but sets up other problems. They’re letting their guard down a bit, seeing how far to go and where to pull back. In the scene that follows, they have a fight.