Showcasing films at the Sundance Film Festival is becoming par for the course for veteran editor Brian Kates. In his eighth trip to Park City for the 2010 fest, Kates saw his latest project Jack Goes Boating—a film from first-time director and Academy Award-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman—get its world premiere. 

Though Kates’ presence at Sundance has become as consistent as the quality of his productions (which include films like Nights in Rodanthe, Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages and Lee Daniels’ debut film Shadowboxer), he still understands how blessed he’s been to work with some of the most talented artists in the industry. This is the type of humility that maintains the best of careers, and it’s already given longevity to the career of this 37-year-old New York City native. Fifteen years in the business has rendered him both knowledgeable and prepared, and Jack Goes Boating is the most recent result of his persistence.

Kates took the time to tell MM all about working with Philip Seymour Hoffman the actor-director, his life at the Sundance Film Festival and the editing technique used in Avatar that he decided to try on Jack Goes Boating.

Michael Walsh (MM): Taking Chance (which earned you an Emmy in 2009) premiered at Sundance last year as Jack Goes Boating is doing this year. The Savages premiered in Park City as well three years ago. Is Sundance sort of becoming routine for you?

Brian Kates (BK): This is my eighth Sundance, so the routine’s been developing for awhile. It’s really about the directors I work with and the world they occupy, where a Sundance premiere is still one of the best opportunities for exposure. I especially appreciate that we got to premiere here the three television films I edited for HBO—The Laramie Project, Lackawanna Blues and Taking Chance. They eventually played on TV, but they were shown here the way they were intended: On 35mm, on the big screen, in front of an audience, with great sound.

MM: Philip Seymour Hoffman has established himself as one of the finest actors of his generation, but Jack Goes Boating is his first-ever directorial effort. You were the editor on the film The Savages, which Hoffman also starred in. How is it different working with Philip Seymour Hoffman the actor-director as opposed to just the actor?

BK: I barely knew Phil when we did The Savages. I met him on set a couple of times and then in ADR, and then at the premiere. So even though I felt intensely connected to him, I was really more connected to his character in that movie. So when I went in for my interview, I didn’t know what to expect, and in walks this completely warm, totally funny sweetheart of a guy. And he was exactly like that throughout the process: Emotionally open, a great communicator, exact in his intentions and eager to make you feel safe—no doubt connected to his extensive experience as a theater director.

When we started editing Jack, I was sensitive to the fact that Phil was directing himself and I wanted to keep a clear separation between Phil the director and Jack the character. I would always refer to Jack as “Jack” not “Phil” or “you.” But we were sitting in the editing room and he would say, “I remember I did it this way” or “When I’m saying the line like this…” So I had to throw that agenda out the window!

MM: How was the film created—what was the editorial workflow? Did you face any unique challenges in telling this story that the post solutions helped you overcome?

BK: Whenever you’re cutting an adaptation of a play, there are challenges. I’m always wondering if I can play a moment with fewer words—if I can exchange a line of dialogue for a simple reaction shot, or get in and out of scenes deeper than in the script. But eventually your conception of how wordy the film should or shouldn’t be butts up against the organic rhythms of the text. Bob Glaudini’s script for Jack Goes Boating is full of such delicious miscommunication and odd turns of phrase and at the end of the day it’s your job to preserve that uniqueness.

Phil taught me to trust silence when it’s right. The rhythm of a scene between [Amy Ryan’s character] Connie and Jack is entirely different from the rhythm between [characters] Clyde and Lucy. People who’ve been married 15 years banter differently than two people afraid to expose themselves emotionally to their new lover. The perception of fastness or slowness in this movie, as in any movie, isn’t only determined by the speed of the edits—it’s [determined by] whether every moment, noisy or silent, is emotionally true for the characters in the moment.

In terms of editorial workflow, we shot 35mm and had HD digital dailies that the assistant editor, Ali Muney, digitized on an Avid Media Composer system at [New York City’s] PostWorks. Then we did a 2K Digital Intermediate at Technicolor. It was the first time I edited in HD with Media Composer and it was a dream. I could build visual effects and know exactly how they would work at full resolution, because we were almost there already. There’s a shot in the movie, a very long, beautiful take inside the front of Jack’s limo, when Clyde is unloading a story about a cannoli. It’s a gorgeous shot, with snow dripping down the window and we didn’t want to cut away from it—the whole scene plays in that take. However, there was one 15-second exchange of text that felt unnecessary and we wanted to remove it. So I did a jump cut and then built a very elaborate animate, which splits the screen in two and slows down one side and not the other, then jumps 15 seconds ahead so that the seam is totally invisible. That kind of thing supposedly happens in Avatar all the time, but it was a little crazy to try it in a film as modest as ours. But we knew it would work because we could see it in HD the first time around in Media Composer. It was incredibly liberating.

MM: Throughout your career you’ve served as the editor on a variety of both documentaries and works of fiction. Do you enjoy working on one more than the other?

BK: I mostly edit fiction. One exception is the documentary Tarnation, which I was asked to co-edit. I can’t take any credit for the style, which was director Jonathan Caouette’s own dazzling creation. But, I worked as a sort of dramaturge.

What I love about editing fiction is how many variations there can be within the parameters of the script. You can change the meaning of one line of dialogue by changing the inflection of just one word. You can change the tone of a scene by favoring one person’s point of view and not another. And you can alter the flow of information by thinking of a group of scenes as a unified sequence and not just scenes. The psychiatrist scenes in The Woodsman, the cooking montages in Jack Goes Boating, the reading of the letter at the end of Taking Chance—all of these began in the script as unique scenes and ended up as more complicated sequences with several events happening at the same time. This is one of the greatest joys of editing fiction.

MM: After working on so many successful projects over the last few years, what hopes do you have for the rest of your career as a moviemaker?

BK: I’ve been lucky to work with incredible directors: Tamara Jenkins, John Cameron Mitchell, Lee Daniels, George C. Wolfe, Ross Katz, Nicole Kassell, Moisés Kaufman and now Phil. My goal is to get to work with some of them long enough to develop a kind of shorthand that we can use from film to film.

I worked on a second film that’s playing here at Sundance called Last Address directed by Ira Sachs. It’s a seven-minute, beautifully photographed montage of the apartments of New York artists who died of AIDS. Ira made it for virtually no money and convinced all of these amazing crew members to work on it. It’s exactly the kind of project that reminds you why you’re working in film—that ideally there’s a kind of community that shares aesthetic interests and works together often, and knows you, and has your back. That’s the kind of thing I also want to cultivate.