Editor John Axelrad has worked with director James Gray on five films. That relationship certainly came in handy when the time came for Axelrad to edit Ad Astra. Shooting in 120 degrees, shooting blue screen, visual effects, sound design and an incredible Max Richter score. John Axelrad reunited with co-editor Lee Haugen, a frequent collaborator to edit Gray’s thrilling and immersive film starring Brad Pitt.
I caught up with Axelrad and Haugen to talk about their process and how they created the art of cutting Ad Astra.
There’s so much about Ad Astra and the editing; the score, the sound design, and everything. It’s a lot in the editing room, but let’s go back, what was the first thing James said to you about the film because you’ve worked with him before?
John: I’ve done five films with James including Ad Astra. He’d been talking about a space movie since our third film together. It was always in the works. I’m a science geek myself and I just was getting so excited about it. I said, “I don’t care what’s happening in my life at that time, I have to be working on this film.” It finally came together after Lost City of Z. Brad Pitt was personally very impressed with the filmmaking, he agreed to do Ad Astra with Plan B (his production company.)
I couldn’t believe it was happening. I had to go to some pre-production meetings, and I saw the artwork on the walls and an office full of 50 people all running around doing stuff. I thought, “Wow, this is really happening.”
Lee and I had previously co-edited Lost City of Z together with James, and Lee and I co-edited Papillon, so it was just a natural fit that the two of us would co-edit this one as well.
What is that collaboration rhythm like for the both of you now that you’ve worked together on three movies?
Lee: Our working process is extremely collaborative. Having worked on three films with John, we’ve got a very close relationship on shorthand and how much we are all going to be working together. We don’t split up the scenes. We all have a hand in making the film come together and making each scene as impactful and as powerful as possible.
John: Having worked together, we developed a shorthand communication. I enjoy mentoring, and I enjoy working with people. Lee rose up through the ranks, he worked with me before in an assistant capacity and I just knew he was an excellent editor in his own right. He went off and edited Dope which won the editing award at Sundance, so it was just a natural fit to bring him back with James.
We tend not to just say, “You do the first half and I do the second.” It’s very collaborative. We’d work on a scene and have the other person comment and give notes. I’d throw a scene I did to Lee, and he’d give notes on how to improve it and vice versa. James worked with us that way too. He’d jump between rooms while he was working with us.
That opening sequence was great. Talk about cutting that and how that came together.
Lee: It was one we enjoyed working on and gave us the opportunity to expand the view of what the audience would experience throughout the entire film. I remember getting the first shot of dailies and as the camera follows him over the edge as he’s going down the ladder. It was ten rungs down and blue screen we could imagine what it was like seeing the earth below him and how grand it would be on a big IMAX screen to get the audience in the mood for the epic journey. We also had the technical side of things which was something amazing to explore. We worked with the VFX department who made it very realistic, and they created all these hectic environments and put you in the mindset of what Brad is going through. That was our goal, to stay and experience it through his eyes.
John: As he’s falling to earth and we see the horizon, that was VFX and that heightened the intensity of the scene so much. We cut it together and then later VFX came in. The scene played so well for people that they wanted more, so we sent the skydiver out some more again so we could extend the scene. I think it worked out so well in the end.
And that did play so well, but you also have the Moon Rover scene.
John: I think that was the most complex scene in the film. It was a big sequence and the stunts were shot by the second unit initially. I got sent out to Death Valley to be on set. It was in the middle of Summer and 120 degrees because they needed to find a desolate area that had sand dunes. They shot with infra-red cameras which darkened the sky, but every shot in that sequence had to be a visual effect to refine the sand dunes to make it look like a lunar surface.
I was there for six days and I was in an air-conditioned trailer, and by that I mean 91 degrees. These poor guys were out there in space suits. I edited the material as it came in. Lee was back in Los Angeles. The main unit was shooting the fight. There are these two action sequences going on at the same time.
The chase came together slowly and was stretched out over a four-month period. I cut the stunts in, James then directed the principal actors to guide them through their part of the process. The actors brought really interesting ad-libs and new lines and actions. They added an element to the sequence that required us to go back on the sound stage this time. We didn’t have to go to Death Valley, but we brought the stunt doubles back in and they did more stunts.
Finally, the VFX had to kick in and Allen Maris our VFX supervisor helped us with some overhead shots. The scene was feeling claustrophobic, and we needed to establish geography. We had some overhead angles, and it just added to the tension of the scene. Finally after working with post-viz, finally getting in the effects, the music and sound design, the scene came together and after four-months, it was all working.
James puts a great deal of humanity in his films, how did you manage to reflect that in your editing.
John: James is so character-driven and so story-driven that even in a big visual effects film like this, it was always the narrative that came first. We’d be sitting in VFX sessions, and some directors are like kids in a candy store, but James said, “I want to finish this up and get back to editing.” He wanted to focus on the nuance. We knew that this was an existential film about mankind’s place in the cosmos and reflections of who we are as a human race about identity and how we relate to ourselves and to each other. Those subtleties are the hardest thing to really make resonate in spite of the visual effects, in spite of the excellent sound design.
Lee: James is always character-driven. It’s always, “What is going through Brad’s mind? What is the feeling and what exactly is he feeling at this time?” We have to make sure the audience understands that and is going along with him even though he’s a very internal character and doesn’t emote too many emotions. The subtleties we had to find in the editing room to convey the emotions. We had to balance it with the action scenes and this epic journey, and we had to keep the audience engaged enough in our character but open their mind to a not so distant future.
John: Brad brought so much to the film. I always like to work on the adage that less is more. I think you can shape the best performances around what is not said and more through nuance, cue, facial expression and gesture. My proudest moment as an editor is when I can craft something that transcends what is written and photographed. So, achieving a compelling synergy of sound, music and performance to create heightened emotions in a film is what fueled my passion for editing.
Brad brought those nuanced looks and we built the performance out of that. As editors, I think that’s one of the most challenging things to do. You can easily cut dialogue and verbalize something, but to do it more through expression is very rewarding when it works.
You talk about the music, what was that relationship working with Max Richter and his score?
John: We worked with Max’s score early on. Personally, I’m a huge Max Richter fan. I’m a fan of minimalism. On We Own The Night, we worked with Wojciech Kilar, and he has since passed away. Wojciech Kilar’s music was so hauntingly beautiful and minimalist. Max Richter was a natural composer to go to. Max’s themes are so emotive and so personal. James likes to temp score classical music and opera. He likes Wagner and we did temp with a lot of Wagner in the film. Max started adding his themes and we worked off of that. The heart of the film is Max’s score and he elevated it to a whole new level.
Lee: Once Max delivered the score, we knew we had something special. His theme worked anywhere we put it and that’s when you know you have something special when it does that.