Tracing the Immigrant Experience: Jake Roberts Edits 'Brooklyn'

"This was not going to be a film about landscapes and vistas," explains the editor. "Quite simply, it’s all about [main character Eilis]."
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Directed by John Crowley, Brooklyn follows the moving story of Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), a young Irish immigrant navigating her way through 1950s Brooklyn.

How did you get involved with the film and what attracted you to it?

Jake Roberts: My agent, who is with the same agency as John Crowley and Nick Hornby, sent me the script about which I knew nothing and told me they wanted to meet me. I read it thinking it was going to be a hipster rom-com, so I was very pleasantly surprised. It was so subtle, so sophisticated, so funny, so moving and so unlike the type of films that are being made that I read it three times to make sure I had something to say. I got along well with John—meeting a director is very like going on a first date, so there has to be some chemistry—and was really inspired by his take on the material, so by the end of the meeting I was desperate to get the job. Plus, of course, there was the prospect of Saoirse, who I was a huge fan of, and I’d loved Yves’ work on Dallas Buyers Club. (Actors and DPs are the first things I look for after script and director.) Fortunately, I must have said something at least partially intelligent.

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Emily Bett Rickards as Patty, Eve Macklin as Diana, Julie Walters as Mrs. Kehoe, Nora-Jane Noone as Sheila and Saiorse Ronan as Eilis in Brooklyn. Photo by Kerry Brown.

What were your discussions with John Crowley about the direction of the film editorially? Did you have any interaction with Yves Belanger, and if so, what was that?

During our first meeting, John talked about the “focal depth” of the film, by which he meant how close to Eilis he wanted us to be. This was not going to be a film about landscapes and vistas. From the moment she walks out of the door at the beginning, we’re just going to follow her. Quite simply, it’s all about her and feeling what she’s going through. That note applied, almost exclusively, until the day we locked the picture. While shooting, John is a confident and experienced enough director to trust his casting process and let you find your own way through the material as you assemble. When something is being shot with a clear sense of vision, it’s usually pretty obvious how it wants to be put together, so it’s not necessary to say, “I want to start with this shot, then cut to this...” etc. The material tends to speak for itself. The editing process on this film was really about us calibrating Eilis’ emotional journey in forensic detail rather than having an overriding visual or stylistic agenda.

There are distinct times and emotions and two separate places that correspond to them.

As an editor, I’m entirely responsive to the material, so I just cut it the way that feels right to bring out the best in the scene. Other departments like camera, set design, costume, hair and makeup and of course the actors and director work very hard to make the footage tell the story of the various times and places. My approach remains the same, but thanks to their work, those contrasts and transformations are wonderfully told.

Did something present itself in the edit that surprised you or changed the direction for you?

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Domhnall Gleeson as Jim and Saoirse Ronan as Eilis. Photo by Kerry Brown.

I guess it shouldn’t have been a surprise but on about the fourth day we shot the dance hall scene in Ireland, where Eilis is saying farewell to Nancy and everything she’s leaving behind, and there’s the close-up on Saoirse’s face that’s in the film as she watches her friend dance. It was like watching clouds pass over a sunny hillside. The changes were just so beautiful and subtle but said so much and I knew then that her face was going to be everything. Just cut as little as possible when she’s doing her thing, why would you?

The other thing was that because we filmed both Irish sections before the U.S. section of the film, we had the entire Jim story in the can before we’d even met Tony. After the scene at the wedding where Jim effectively proposes, I was really worried that Tony wouldn’t be able to top that emotionally and our story would fall flat. When we got to Montreal, pretty much Emory and Saoirse’s first scene together was them outside Brooklyn college, where she tells him she loves him. Their chemistry was just extraordinary and any worries I’d had instantly vanished.

Were there any technical challenges?

Technically it was very straightforward. I’m a bit of Luddite at the best of times, and the filmmaking approach was pretty traditional across the board, so we just cut on Avid and left it at that.

I have quite a big sound effects library I bring onto each film and I created a fairly detailed soundtrack even at the rough cut stage. This evolved through the editing process until by the time we locked the picture there was a pretty complete guide to how John and I thought the film should sound. This guide track is my primary communication with the sound editors as it articulates our intentions more eloquently than I’m generally able to.

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Saoirse Ronan. Photo by Kerry Brown.

However, Glen Freemantle, the sound designer, also came and met with John and me to talk through the film and we went into all the areas where our guide track fell significantly short of our ambition, of which there were many. What he and his team at Sound 24 then brought to the table took the film into an entirely different realm. Sound is such an enormous part of any film, and even on a film like ours which has none of the obvious showmanship of their work on something like Gravity, there is a huge amount going on beneath the surface which really helps to tell the story. The sound mix is the final creative process on a film and you can do so much good in it—scarily, you can also do immense damage. Thankfully, we were working with the best in the business.

Did you read the book?

I didn’t. I discussed it with John at our first meeting and we decided that I shouldn’t. Everyone else in the creative process had, so it wasn’t as if that agenda wasn’t being served, but my role was to make the film. Nick had already done the adapting, so best not to cloud my judgment.