Suspense with a Camera: Jeffrey Michael Bays Talks Building Suspense with Oscar-nominated Editor Saar Klein

“Building suspense is an intuitive process that is hard to verbalize.” – editor Saar Klein

When I teach suspense workshops a common topic that comes up is the use of music. Should a tense scene be accompanied by music, or is silence a better option? In my new book Suspense with a Camera: A Filmmaker’s Guide to Hitchcock’s Techniques I interview Saar Klein, editor of The Bourne Identity about these difficult choices. In that film, there is a notable scene in which Jason and Marie enter a Paris apartment prior to an attack. There is no music score, letting the ominous sounds of the setting creep in.

Saar Klein is a film editor, nominated twice for Academy Awards: first for his work on Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line and again two years later for Almost Famous. Saar began his career in 1991 working for editor Joe Hutshing on Oliver Stone’s JFK. In 2014 Saar made the leap from editor to director with his debut feature, the Wes Bentley-starring crime-drama After the Fall.

What surprised me in speaking with Saar is that most of the tension in The Bourne Identity was shaped late in the process. Here’s an excerpt from our chat:

Jeffrey Michael Bays (JMB): The music scoring in After the Fall was quite minimalistic. Very often you would let the ambient sound of a location breathe and fill the dramatic space. How important is silence?

Saar Klein (SK): In film, silence is as important as sound. The lack of sound is a powerful tool to dramatize, highlight and often to immerse the viewer into the eyes of a character to experience the world as they do. In my opinion, there’s an overuse of sound in recent Hollywood films. Both music and effects are pushed, creating audio fatigue for the viewer. For very practical purposes it is important to remove and simplify sound, so when you need to use it and you want it to “pop” you have the room to do so. To badly paraphrase Spinal Tap: your amp doesn’t need to be at 11. With After the Fall I tried to push these ideas to the next level. The intent was to place the viewer into the environment of the characters in order to create immersion.

JMB: How did you decide where the music goes?

SK: I hate watching a dramatic scene and hearing the music start at the beginning of the emotional moment to “help it”; it doesn’t help. Music placed in that manner takes me out of the moment and makes me feel manipulated. Some films try to push the music when they don’t trust the drama or the humor or action. It’s like over salting a tasteless dish. It remains terrible, but now it’s also salty. I feel like music can elevate and augment, but it needs to be placed on a solid foundation. So first of all, the scene needs to function without any music. I often try to start music in the “wrong” place to see what happens. It’s surprising how shifting its placement can add complexity and highlight details you hadn’t noticed. Ultimately it may not be the right starting point, but it can inform me where the music should start.

JMB: A notable sequence without music was the first time Bill Scanlon (Wes Bentley) breaks into a house. No music score until after he’s finished robbing the people inside. He’s driving away and you have this compelling, long, tight shot on his face. He begins to regret what he did, having a panic attack as the music swells up.

SK: That refers to exactly what I mentioned before; I wanted to save the sound and music for a monumental moral crisis in Bill’s life. Even though the “action” is Bill entering the house and robbing the people in it, the greater drama is when he’s driving away and realizes that he’d betrayed his own moral code. The reason I refrained from any score in the house was to build tension. It may seem counter-intuitive, since in horror films they always prime you with “something bad is going to happen…” music, but I have found that people are so used to music in these types of scenes that it creates more tension to intentionally play it dry. This is unfamiliar ground for a viewer so it puts them on edge. I used this same technique in The Bourne Identity when Jason Bourne first enters the Paris apartment. There is no music when you would expect it, just natural sounds: the creaking wooden floors, the street sounds permeating the apartment, water running in Marie’s (Franka Potente) bath, until the fight begins.

Wes Bentley and Jason Isaacs in After the Fall (2014). Courtesy of Absolut Video

JMB: The flow of The Bourne Identity is heavily reliant on tension and release. How much of the film’s pacing was discovered in the editing room rather than in the script? Any big changes?

SK: Much of The Bourne Identity was discovered in the editing room, which led to some reshoots, re-editing and some more reshoots. The script was always a work in progress and Doug Liman is a director that likes to discover things as he goes along. He’s not scared to change things on the set or in the editing room so our approach was very loose and dynamic. This is a technique that I love since it provides the editor with the freedom to reinvent, repurpose and hopefully elevate the material.

JMB: As an editor, how do you keep the material fresh after you’ve seen it so many times? By the end of the process, how do you know what’s tense and what isn’t?

SK: That is the greatest challenge to the editor and the director. The only trick I have is to remember how I felt about a scene or a performance the first time I saw it. I try to remember what made it work, and focus on that as everything else constantly changes. This is especially challenging in comedy; have you ever heard a joke a thousand times that still made you laugh?

JMB: Looking back on The Bourne Identity, what did the process of editing the film teach you about suspense?

SK: Building suspense is an intuitive process that is hard to verbalize. You have to feel your way through it and develop your own personal language rather than rely on technique or mimicry. But there is one important thing to keep in mind; the only way suspense can work is if the viewer fears for the safety of their protagonist. Meaning, that the viewer needs to care for the protagonist. An extreme stunt, camera work, or editing will amount to nothing if your viewers don’t care about the fate of the character experiencing it. So in a way, so much of the hard work needs to be accomplished when the protagonist is not under duress. This dynamic is earned throughout the film when you build a character that’s believable and worth caring for. MM

For the full interview, along with Q&A’s with director Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum) and Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane), pick up Jeffrey Michael Bays’ new book Suspense With a Camera: A Filmmaker’s Guide to Hitchcock’s Techniques available at all major booksellers.

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