Bogart and Bacall. Tracy and Hepburn. Welles and Toland.
Lee and Squyres? Plenty of film names come to mind that complement
each other perfectly. And while Tim Squyres’ name may not be as
recognizable as others, some of the features he’s edited in the
past decade surely are: Eat Drink Man Woman, The Ice Storm, Sense
and Sensibility and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (for
which he received an Oscar nomination) are just four of Squyres’
collaborations with director Ang Lee. Moviegoers can see his most
recent cutting work in Robert Altman’s Oscar-nominated film, Gosford
From the editing room of Ang Lee’s The Hulk, where
shooting is about to begin, Squyres spoke with MM about the
director he is most often linked with, the chance to work with Altman,
and how Crouching Tiger turned his world upside down.
Jennifer Wood (MM): Did you always wanted
to work in the film industry?
Tim Squyres (TS): I came from a family of scientists
and that’s kind of where I always thought I’d be going, so I never
took the idea of a career in the movie business seriously. But I
always had a strong interest in it. When I was in college I got
on the advisory board for the Cornell Cinema, which is the entity
that schedules all the movies in the film program. At that time
we showed 400 films a year, so I started scheduling what I wanted
to see. I was at the movies constantly ,and when you see that many
films, you can’t help but see the process.
MM: How did you first meet Ang Lee?
TS: The first film that I edited was called Blowback–you’ve probably never heard of it. The first AD
was Ted Hope. Ted went on to found Good Machine with James Schamus.
They produced Ang’s first movie, Pushing Hands, and they
were looking for an editor. Tim knew me from Blowback, so
that’s how I met Ang.
MM: What are your criteria for accepting
a new project?
TS: I’ve made eight films with Ang Lee, so one
of my criteria is, if Ang’s going to make a movie, I want to work
The first thing is always the script. The script has
to be something that appeals to you; something you think you can
understand and have a proper feel for. There are a lot of good movies
made that I wouldn’t be the right editor for. So you can just tell
from a script if it’s something that, for lack of a better word,
speaks to you. The next criteria is you meet the director and see
if you’re feeling the same way about the script, but you’re also
trying to get a sense of the chemistry because…
MM: You’re going to be stuck in a room with
that person for a long time?
TS: Most jobs on a movie, you’re sharing the
director with a lot of people and it’s business and there’s a lot
of pressure. With an editor, you’re in a room with a person for
months and months and collaborating very directly on something that
they’ve already put their heart and soul into and invested a lot,
emotionally and professionally. The dynamic of that relationship
needs to be the right amount of respect and trust and those kinds
of things. And of course you can’t tell all that when you first
meet someone, but you can start to get a sense. It’s very important
that that relationship works properly.
MM: When you first read a script, do you
have any process that you go through? Do you make notes? Do you
visualize the film while reading it?
TS: I don’t try to shoot it in my head while
I’m reading it, I just read it. With a well-written script, images
will come into your head whether you’re trying to figure out your
shots or not. Of course, as an editor, I don’t get to shoot it,
so those images are all wrong, probably. But often a script will
suggest things like that and the more a script makes you think in
terms of cinema rather than literature, that’s a real good head
In reading the script, I concentrate on the story and
character issues. And often in meeting with the director, those
are the biggest things we talk about.
MM: Do you like to spend time on the set?
TS: It’s always interesting visiting a set–at
least it’s interesting for 10 minutes. That’s always everyone’s
response after seeing a movie set. They want to ask ‘When is something
going to happen?’ It’s interesting meeting the people involved,
but it doesn’t help you edit. At best, knowing what the director
is going through to get performances out of the actors and knowing
how cold it was that day and knowing who the camera operator is
having an affair with–it makes life more interesting, but it doesn’t
help you edit at all. At best, it doesn’t hurt. At worst, it could
If the director is having a hard time with some particular
thing that an actor is doing, it’s better for me not to know that.
If I know that then I’ll go into the material thinking Œthis
is bad and we have to work around it, rather than watching the material
itself. I am a real believer in working independently. And that’s
kind of been forced on me — it’s not a theory I developed — for
the reason that on most of Ang Lee’s films I haven’t been in the
same time zone as where they’re shooting, so it hasn’t been a possibility.
I’ve never screened dailies with him.
MM: How much contact do you have with him
TS: I have almost none. During the entire five-month
shoot of Crouching Tiger, I think Ang and I spoke twice.
He was in China and I was in New York. Typically, I have very little
contact. I get the notes and I get the film and I cut scenes and
I send tapes back for them to look at, but in the case of Ang or
Robert Altman, I get almost no feedback from those tapes. If there’s
a specific problem, then I make sure that I talk to them about that,
but otherwise I just cut the scenes and send the tapes off and they
just disappear into a void–which I guess is a good sign. If there
were a problem, I’m sure I’d hear about it.
MM: How did you get the job on Gosford
TS: Just through my agent. That job was available.
MM: You talked about being a fan of film.
When given the opportunity to work with Robert Altman, does all
your former criteria matter? Does the script even matter to you
when you’re working with Altman?
TS: If you told me in 1979 that I would be editing
a Robert Altman film–especially a Robert Altman film that was going
to get nominated for seven Academy Awards–it would have been just
shocking and wonderful. The opportunity to work with him was so
great and when I met him, it was the most relaxed, pleasant interview.
It was a film that was going to cut in New York and it seemed obvious
that this was a film I could be doing. I liked the script and my
meeting with him was great and the time we spent discussing the
film and what he thought about it was all just terrific. That was
an easy choice.
MM: When I think of your filmography, I can’t
help but think of it in terms of directors. Up until Gosford
Park, you had worked almost exclusively with Ang Lee. Lee and
Altman seem like two very different directors to me. Though
both of them are character-driven storytellers, Altman’s vision
is a much larger one. Are they really that different as directors?
TS: Yeah, they’re quite different as directors.
With Altman, you think about the word ‘director’ in the literal
sense. He takes all these people and he wants them to bring their
own energies and their own ideas. Then he takes those ideas and
just kind of gently directs them so that they’re all working in
the same direction. He told me that as a director, he is not really
interested in an actor who will tell him ‘Okay, tell me what to
do with this scene.’
It’s the same thing with cinematographers and composers
and wardrobe — he gives you a lot of space. Ultimately, there’s
no question that he’s in charge. It was really an interesting approach.
And of course, Ang Lee is a great collaborator also. Any director
has to be, but not on quite that great a level. Ang has much more
of a clear vision.
MM: Both Gosford Park and a film like Crouching Tiger are fairly action-oriented, though I would
assume Lee’s version is a much more closely choreographed kind of
chaos. Did you have to adapt your editing process in any way to
fit the style of these movies?
TS: On both Crouching Tiger and Gosford
Park, I had to adapt my techniques a little bit. Everyone has
his own technique to get from three hours of dailies to a four-minute
scene. So I had to adapt it somewhat. On Gosford Park, the
adaptation was that the footage, the coverage, was quite unusual.
It wasn’t master, two shot, single, single, reverse — it wasn’t
that kind of coverage at all. He generally kept the cameras in the
same part of the room, and there were very few singles except in
scenes with only two people. The cameras drifted around were always
moving, so I couldn’t really break down the coverage in terms of
this shot is for this line and this shot is for this line–it was
more just kind of sections. In order to accommodate that, I had
to change my way of attacking a scene, which was interesting.
Crouching Tiger was a whole different issue.
In some of those fight scenes there were over 200 set-ups, and just
to wade through all the footage took days. One scene took me four
days to go through the dailies.
MM: Did the fact that the film, like Eat Drink Man Woman, is in Mandarin make the editing process
more difficult? I assume you didn’t understand the language.
TS: No, I did not understand the language (laughs).
It’s certainly easier when it’s in English. For me, and I don’t
really know why this is, but in looking at a performance and choosing
takes, there are some things I have access to in a foreign language
and some things that I don’t. The expressions on the face, the tone
of the voice, the tempo–all of those things I can evaluate just
as well in Mandarin as I can in English. But there are certain other
things about the inflection and the pronunciation and what syncs
up with what syllable that I just don’t know in Mandarin. And I
don’t pretend I do, I just do my best. And my best is probably not
as good in Mandarin as it is in English, but they tell me that the
results are pretty good (laughs).
MM: Now you’re back working with Ang again
on The Hulk. Did you learn anything in taking a break to
work with Altman that you can bring back and use in your work with
TS: Well this film has a lot of new elements.
It’s a massive budget and a big special effects extravaganza,
which I haven’t done before, so there’s a lot to learn. Gosford
Park, as great as it was, wasn’t any help in learning any of
this. Gosford Park was a very comfortable job. It was a new
relationship to work out, but that was easy. And the film itself,
it was complicated, but the process of editing it, especially after
production was finished, was very pleasant and painless and it was
just a very enjoyable, low-pressure job. This one we start shooting
March 18th . (2002). There’s a lot to learn, and a lot
of complications. It’s just a big movie.