Christopher Rouse

From bringing the world’s last pregnant woman to safety in a post-apocalyptic London to sniffing out a rat in Boston’s Irish mob, this year’s collection of Oscar-nominated editors were faced with a host of tough obstacles. But no editor had as difficult a challenge as Clare Douglas, Richard Pearson and Christopher Rouse, the trio of editors who were tasked with the delicate duty of cutting Paul Greengrass’ United 93.

The film, which portrays the events of September 11th as they occurred in real time, may have underperformed at the box office, but it’s finding new life on DVD. Its two recent Oscar nods—one for Greengrass for Best Director and the other for Best Editing—are helping the film reach new audiences every day.

Shortly before this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, MM caught up with Rouse to discuss his ongoing collaboration with Greengrass, the difficulties in tackling the events of 9/11 and how life has changed since Oscar came knocking.

Jennifer Wood (MM): First off, congratulations on the Oscar nomination; it’s well-deserved. How has life changed for you in the weeks since your nomination?

Christopher Rouse (CR): Thanks for the compliment. I’ve gotten a fair amount of attention the last couple of weeks, and it has been incredibly flattering.

MM: It’s interesting: We just ran a story in the latest issue of MovieMaker about the box office performance and critical acknowledgement of 9/11-themed movies. The question we asked was “Are we ready? Will we ever be?” A few people predicted that United 93 would receive one or two technical nominations, but not receive the Best Feature Film nomination it really deserved. Do you think that the still delicate emotions surrounding the events of that day have created a bias in some people toward the film? That it didn’t reach as wide an audience as it could have—or should have?

CR: I do think that, understandably, people will color United 93 with their preconceptions of the film—and I think that everyone involved with the project was well aware of this possibility. I’m sure that some people still haven’t been able to watch the movie because of its subject matter, and that may have affected its chances for other nominations. I’ve spoken with quite a few people who were initially reticent to watch United 93—but then finally did—and I’ve yet to meet one who said that they regretted having done so.

MM: You know, I have to admit that even I had some reservations about seeing the film, but I came out really moved. What impressed me most was the subtlety of the entire film—which is really a direct result of the editing. What sort of conversations did you have with Paul before shooting began about the feel of the film, the pacing, etc.?

CR: I remember having spoken with Paul early in his process of developing United 93, just after he had sent me his 13-page outline of the piece. It was a remarkable document—powerful and captivating—and Paul described in great detail his overall vision for the project.

He wanted to capture the events of that day as they occurred—as faithfully and in as close to real time as possible. He wanted to show how information—both good and bad—was received, transmitted and acted upon by the various entities depicted. He wanted to show how pre- and post-9/11 perceptions of life collided on that day. And specifically in the case of the plane, [he wanted to] show how the passengers and crew (and by extension, America) chose to act when confronted by this most horrible situation.

That was the first of many conversations he and I would have as the piece developed over the next few months. So when I finally started working with the footage, I felt as though I knew how Paul perceived United 93—and I believed that I would be making pretty good editorial decisions to support his ideas.

One of the wonderful benefits of working with Paul is that he allows me great freedom to contribute to his films. Initially, he doesn’t tend to speak to me about specific choices or pace—he lets me react to his material and give him what I think works. In the case of United 93, the rhythms seemed clear to me from the outset: As the day’s events unfolded, the editorial pace would generally evolve as well.

Regarding the subtlety that you mentioned, Paul’s footage had a strong sense of realism built-in—along with actors, he used many people who were actually in the civilian and military air traffic control environments—so for us it was a matter of finding and marrying those moments that felt believable and, at the same time, compelling.

MM: Again, considering the sensitive nature of the material, was it helpful to have Clare Douglas and Richard Pearson there with you, to bounce ideas off of, etc.? Were there any particular scenes that you really struggled with?

CR: It was very helpful to work with both of them—less because of the content, more because of the schedule (the film began shooting in November 2005 for an April 2006 release). We had a large amount of material that was largely improvised and, in almost all cases, eight tracks wide with dialogue.

I didn’t know Clare before United 93, but I admired her work on Bloody Sunday. Rick and I became friends during our days in television; we met on the HBO miniseries From The Earth To The Moon, and later we cut The Bourne Supremacy together. He and I have a great working relationship: We bounce ideas off each other regularly, and have a lot of fun in the cutting room. He is a superb editor.

In terms of tough scenes—there were many. Because the improvised material was rich but in many instances unwieldy, the civilian and military air traffic controls were very labor-intensive. But perhaps the most difficult was the sequence when the passengers and crew of United 93 were making their final telephone calls. No matter how many times I watched the material, I would find myself emotionally drawn into it. And we struggled with that balance that you mentioned before—how to remain “subtle” at a very unsubtle time. It was difficult to draw a line between acknowledging the weight of the moment without overly sentimentalizing it.

MM: What is the main difference between working as the sole editor on a project and working with other editors?

CR: Obviously, working as the sole editor gives you the latitude to put your stamp on the entire film, whereas collaborations could reflect collective editorial choices. But multi-editor scenarios vary from project to project, and where one might be a balanced effort between editors, another might have a very different dynamic.

MM: Do you prefer one method over the other?

CR: I enjoy working in both realms. I love to learn from other editors and like the camaraderie of group situations, but I need my own turf, so I enjoy having a project to myself as well.

MM: You obviously have a great working relationship with Paul Greengrass—working on 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy and the upcoming The Bourne Ultimatum in addition to United 93. What is the key is to a successful director-editor collaboration?

CR: Communication. It is the key to everything in a collaborative art form.

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