'American Hustle': Parallel Storytelling and Shared Postproduction

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Hot off his success with Silver Linings Playbook, writer/director David O. Russell is back with the year-end release of American Hustle. The film (co-written with Eric Singer) was inspired by the FBI’s true-life Abscam sting operation of the late 1970s. It tells the story of con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who are recruited by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) to pull off the operation targeting corrupt public officials. While the film incorporates many facets of actual events, Russell deepens the characterizations and refocuses events to get at a deeper truth about reinvention and survival. The film is not as much about the politicians who take bribes as about the people who develop the con at the heart of the sting operation.

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Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) at their company offices, London Investors. Photo by Francois Duhamel.

I interviewed Jay Cassidy, ACE, Crispin Struthers and Alan Baumgarten, ACE, American Hustle’s editing trio, at the beginning of November, just a few days after the cut was locked.

Jay Cassidy points out the film’s compressed time frame. He explains, “American Hustle had a longer shoot and shorter post schedule than David’s films typically do. This project was always intended as coming straight on the heels of Silver Linings Playbook, which Crispin and I had both worked on. In fact, we read through the first draft of the script while still cutting Silver Linings. Thanks to the awards season and the success of that film, the transition into this film became more compressed with less prep. However, the actors that David wanted for American Hustle were scheduled, so if the film was to be made this year with this cast, then the production company had to move forward. They started shooting in mid-March and wrapped in mid-May after a 42-day shoot schedule. We’ve been in post since then. I started at the beginning of principal photography, Crispin came on board four weeks later and Alan six weeks later.”

This accelerated schedule with a December release target was facilitated by the postproduction sound team getting an early jump on things. Headed up by supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer John Ross, dialogue cleanup, sound design and music editing began in May and continued during production; therefore, it wasn’t a matter of starting final sound editing and mixing from scratch once the cut was finally locked in November.

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Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence in

American Hustle

. Photo by Francois Duhamel.

Bucking the digital trend, Russell shot American Hustle on film. Cassidy explains, “David likes to shoot 2-perf 35mm. Film was the right look for this drama and 2-perf gives him 22-minute runs on the camera. This means he can keep rolling with fewer stops, so he gets more production time before the magazine needs to be reloaded.”

Cassidy continues, “Film’s days are definitely numbered. We used Fuji stock and during the filming were informed by Fuji that they were discontinuing film manufacturing. Of course, they did reassure us that there would be enough negative stock available for us to complete the film without any worries.”

Deluxe Labs in New York handled film processing. Company 3 in New York transferred the film for dailies and then delivered digital files to the editing team on hard drives for editing.

Struthers says, “David likes to dive right into post after production. We don’t watch a first assembly of the full movie, as many other directors do. We tend to cut individual scenes and then David reviews those and works with us to build the scenes moment by moment. David is very confident about the editing process, so he’s covered himself [during production] in order to have options. He likes to shoot the performances with different ‘calibrations’ to the actors’ emotions to give himself choices in the cutting room.”

Cassidy adds, “With David, we’ve all learned that you can’t presume to know which is the best version of an actor’s performance, because of the context around it. It’s usually better to take a scene with three variations to the performance and cut three versions of the scene. This gives David a good starting point with the dialogue and lets him see how the options work.”

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Richie DiMaso messes up Irving Rosenfeld’s combover. Photo by Francois Duhamel.

Editors often face creative challenges stemming from a film’s length or structure. Baumgarten says of American Hustle, “We used a pattern of parallel and overlapping action to condense the film. Rather than drop whole scenes, we found that many of the important story points from those scenes could be preserved by inserting pieces of them into other scenes. This let us tell a more succinct and better story, plus frame the information in a context that makes sense for the audience. Once we did that on a few scenes and saw that it worked well for this film, we decided to find other sections where we could use the same pattern.”

Visual effects were handled in a unique fashion. Cassidy explains, “This film has a surprising number of effects, including greenscreen composites and period fixes. Also, the characters wear sunglasses—many of those shots ended up needing some touch-up to remove unwanted reflections. The production company set up an in-house team and hired the compositors to do most of the effects. They were divided up into two groups, running [Adobe] After Effects and [The Foundry’s] Nuke software. This proved to be very cost-effective because they handled both temp effects for screenings and final effects. Toward the end, some of the more time-consuming or complex shots were sent to outside vendors, but the bulk of the work was done in-house. We had quicker turnaround for effects because the compositors were right next door. It was a very interactive process. You could ask for an effect in the morning and have it by the end of the day.”

American Hustle was edited using Avid Media Composer systems connected to an Avid ISIS shared storage network. There were seven Avid systems in the cutting rooms for editors and assistants, one for visual effects, and one in the mix stage. John Ross also used Avid Pro Tools connected with the video satellite system.

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Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) walk down Lexington Avenue. Photo by Francois Duhamel.

Cassidy offers his take on the technology: “It was great working with the ISIS system. It’s Ethernet-based, which makes it easy to add on more machines as needed—like my laptop for editing. We were cutting with version 6.5.3 of the Media Composer software and I really like the improvements Avid made. For example, the ability to copy-and-paste audio keyframes and the new ‘select-to-the-right’ function that doesn’t also grab timeline filler media.”

Jay Cassidy concludes, “I’m a big proponent of [Avid] ScriptSync. Our first assistant [editor], Mike Azevedo, did a great job getting this all loaded and organized. ScriptSync was a real time-saver on this film. Sometimes the media was organized by the script and sometimes we had to use transcriptions. There was a lot of coverage on the film mags, and this was often not in scene order but, rather, all over the reel. Using ScriptSync made it possible to have all of the performances grouped together by the dialogue lines of the scene. In the past, David had been used to the little bit of time it might take to find some of the coverage when he’d ask for alternates. With ScriptSync, it was all right there, so David could be assured that he had truly seen all of the available coverage for a scene.”

Final digital intermediate post and color grading is being completed at EFILM with supervising digital colorist Yvan Lucas. American Hustle goes into its United States release in December and international distribution begins in January 2014.

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