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Evolution in the Edit Bay: Post on the Political Thriller ‘The East’

Director Zal Batmanglij’s The East caught the buzz at the Sundance and SXSW film festivals. It was produced by Scott Free Productions with Fox Searchlight Pictures. Not bad for the young director’s sophomore outing.

Ellen Page as Izzy and Brit Marling as Sarah. Photos by Miles Aronowitz

The film takes its name from The East, a group of eco-terrorists and anarchists led by Benji, who is played by Alexander Skarsgård (True Blood). The group engages in “jams”—their term for activist attacks on corporations—which they tape and put out on the web. Sarah, played by Brit Marling (Arbitrage), is a corporate espionage specialist who is hired to infiltrate the group. In that process, she comes to sympathize with the group’s ideals, if not its violent tactics. She finds herself both questioning her allegiances and falling in love with Benji.

Marling co-wrote the screenplay with Batmanglij.

The film’s production encountered some interesting twists along the way to completion. First, it was shot with an ARRI Alexa, but unlike most films that use the Alexa, footage was recorded as ProRes 4444 to onboard SxS cards instead of ARRIRAW to an external recorder. It is one of just a few films in mainstream release to do so. ProRes dailies were converted into color-adjusted Avid DNxHD media for editing.

Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page and director Zal Batmanglij

Second, the film went through a change of editors partway through. After the production wrapped and a first assembly of the film was completed, Andrew Weisblum (Moonrise Kingdom, Black Swan) joined the team to cut the film. Weisblum’s availability was limited to four months, though, since he was already committed to editing Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. At that stage, Bill Pankow (The Black Dahlia, Carlito’s Way) picked up for Weisblum and carried the film through to completion.

Weisblum explains, “When I saw the assembly of The East, I really felt like there was a good story, but I had already committed to cut Noah. I wasn’t quite sure how much could be done in the four months that I had, but I left the film at what we all thought was a cut that was close to completion. It was about 80 percent done and we’d had an initial preview. Bill [Pankow] was a friend, so I asked if he would pick it up for me there, assuming that the rest would be mainly just a matter of tightening up the film. But it turned out to be more involved than that.”

Much of the film takes place in a dilapidated mansion members of The East use as their home base. After an extensive location search, production designer Alex DiGerlando selected the Ogilvy Weiner Mansion in Shreveport as the East’s ramshackle headquarters. The mansion had no electricity.

    “Without electricity, we had to use a lot of candles and lanterns all over,” says DiGerlando. “Roman [director of photography Roman Vasyanov] really helped make this not feel like a haunted house from a horror movie. He chose candles and lanterns with different color temperatures. Some were kerosene and some fluorescent that gave off a very green light that is more modern and plastic. And some lanterns have a more antique look that goes into gray. Everything in this movie seems to straddle the time periods.”

Pankow continues, “I came on board in June of last year and took the picture through to the locked cut and the mix in November. After that first screening, everyone felt that the ending needed some work. The final scene between the main characters wasn’t working in the way Zal and Brit had originally expected. They decided to change some things to serve the drama better and to resolve the relationship of the main characters. This required shooting additional footage, as well as reworking some of the other scenes. At that point we took a short hiatus while Zal and Brit rewrote and reshot the last scene. Then another preview and we were able to lock the cut.”

Like nearly all films, The East took on a life of its own in the cutting room. According to Weisblum, “The film changed in the edit. Some of what I did in the cut was to bring in more tension and mystery in the beginning to get us to the group [The East] more quickly. We also simplified a number of story points. Nothing really radical—although it might have felt like that at the time—but just removing tangents that distracted from the main story.”

Pankow adds, “We didn’t have any length constraints from Fox, so we were able to optimize each scene. Towards the end of the film there were places that needed extra ‘moments’ to accentuate some of the emotion the Sarah character was feeling. In a few cases this meant reusing shots that might have appeared earlier. In addition to changing the last scene, a few other areas were adjusted. One or two scenes were extended, which in some cases replaced other scenes.”

Brit Marling as Sarah, Toby Kebbell as Doc and Alexander Skarsgård as Benji

Since the activists document their activities with video, The East incorporates a number of point-of-view shots captured with low-res cameras. Rather than create these sequences as visual effects, the scenes were shot with low-resolution cameras. Some video effects were added in the edit and some through the visual effects company. Weisblum has worked as a VFX editor (The Fountain, Chicago), so creating temporary visual effects is second nature.

He says, “I usually do a number of things either in the Avid or using [Adobe] After Effects. These are the typical ‘split screen’ effects where takes are mixed to offset the timing of the performances. In this film, there was one scene where two characters [Tim and Sarah] are having a conversation on the bed. I wanted to use a take where Tim is sitting up, but, of course, he’s partially [obscured] by Sarah. This took a bit more effort because I had to rotoscope part of one shot into the other, since the actors were overlapping each other. I’ll do these things whenever I can so that the film plays in as finished a manner as possible during screening. It also gives the visual effects team a really good road map to follow.”

Brit Marling as Sarah and Alexander Skarsgård as Benji

Bill Pankow has worked as an editor or assistant on more than 40 features and brings some perspective to modern editing. He says, “I started editing digitally on Lightworks, but then moved to Avid. At the time, Lightworks didn’t keep up and Avid gave you more effects and titling tools, which let editors produce a more polished cut. On this film the setup included two Avid Media Composer systems connected to shared storage. I typically like to work with two assistants when I can. My first assistant will add temporary sound effects and clean up the dialogue, while the second assistant handles the daily business and paperwork of the cutting room. Because assistants tend to have their own specialties these days, it’s harder for assistants to learn how to edit. I make a point of involving my assistants in watching the dailies, reviewing a scene when it’s cut and so on. This way they have a chance to learn and can someday move into the editor’s chair themselves.”

Both editors agree that working on The East was a positive experience. Weisblum says, “Before starting, I had a little concern for how it would be working with Zal and Brit, especially since Brit was the lead actress but also co-writer and producer. However, it was very helpful to have her involved, as she really helped me to understand the intentions of the character. It turned out to be a great collaboration.”

Pankow adds, “I enjoyed the team, but more so I liked the fact that this film resonates emotionally, as well as politically, with the current times. I was very happy to be able to work on it.”