Catherine Zeta-Jones: Chicago

Depending on how you look at it, scoring the gig as
editor on Rob Marshall’s Chicago didn’t come easily to Martin
Walsh. “I was actually on a boat halfway across the Atlantic when
I learned there might be a chance of me doing Chicago,” he
recalls. “I was sailing from the Canary Islands to St. Lucia. I
phoned home to let everyone know we hadn’t sunk yet and my wife
told me my agent in LA needed to speak to me. It kind of ruined
the trip, really. The rest of the way I was constantly interrupted
by mad calls and questions. ‘How can we get a script to you—can
we e-mail it to the boat?’ was my favorite.

Several months and his first Oscar nomination later,
Martin Walsh may not consider an interrupted vacation such a high
price. Here, he discusses the challenges—and comedy—of cutting a
musical and catching Richard Gere with his pants down.

Jennifer Wood (MM): Especially on a film
with this much constant motion, I know there’s a mindboggling array
of editorial decisions. What do you believe was the biggest challenge
for you on

Martin Walsh (MW): Just keeping it moving!
The dance sequences were mostly standalone in the script and we
found that when we stopped for people to talk, the pace dropped.
Rob had always used His Girl Friday as a benchmark for the
kind of pace he wanted, so we started sliding pieces of dialogue
further and further into the numbers. I guess the best example of
this is “Good to Mama,” Latifah’s introduction to the story. What
began as a song with a chunk of dialogue in the middle became a
kind of patchwork of lyrics and dialogue woven into each other.
Sounds easy, but we were dealing with a musical structure, which
would have sounded horrible had it not been done right. I think
we got it there. Once we’d gotten through the first three songs,
we were on a roll. Ha! It only took months.

MM: The "musical" is one genre
that is very rarely done successfully anymore in film, with
Chicago being one of the recent exceptions. Did you reference any other
films with Rob Marshall before (during or after) going through the

MW: We’ve moved on so much in the last decade
or so in terms of pace and technique, so there really wasn’t much
point in my looking back at anything past Moulin Rouge, which
I’m not a big fan of as a movie. I’ve no idea what Rob watched when
he got home at night, but I will confess to sneaking a look at Cabaret and All That Jazz a couple of times. Most of the other stuff
is pretty old fashioned in its storytelling technique. You know,
people suddenly bursting into song, which is what they did in the
stage version.

By the way, All That Jazz (which was the last
musical to win a Best Editing Oscar) was one of the most influential
films on me as a fledgling editor. Until Fosse, nobody really worried
too much about transitions. Rob really worked hard in the planning
and shooting of his transitions, and almost all of them survived.

MM: In total, how much footage did you have
to go through? How long did the editing process of the film take?

MW: Fucking miles! I must have sat through
two or three hours of dailies every day for three months, so you
can work it out for yourself. We shot with at least two cameras
and always four on the numbers. I’ve never really understood why.
By the time you get to cameras three and four, the shots are usually
of camera two’s arse. I guess it’s a way of getting maximum coverage,
which is lovely for the boys and girls on set, but then they don’t
have to sit through several miles of out of focus wobblyvision before

As a result, editing takes a long time because you’ve
got to watch it all again to prove to the director that you’re not
lying and there really wasn’t a usable frame on that take on that
particular camera. Sorry, did I just go off on a rant? Drives me

Seriously though, the editing process was longer than
normal—at least in my experience—simply because of the amount of
footage and the nature of the process. We’d literally break down
each song into a couple of bars at a time and look at all the material
pertaining to those two bars. You couldn’t take in much more than
that before you forgot who you were. We’d work on that bit until
we liked it, or lost the will to live, and then move on to the next.

MM: So obviously the editing of this film
was very different from all your previous work

MW: Totally. Nothing before has been as intense
and concentrated; it’s a completely different kind of filmmaking.
There was so much to look for in every frame. Rob would point out
that in take three, the girl fourth from the left was late on her
step. We’d search around for something better, another angle, a
different take of the same angle. If we couldn’t find anything else
we’d try slipping the shot a frame or two, improving her sync. It’s
one of the reasons the film is so impressive from an editorial point
of view. It’s so precise. Often Rob and I would disagree on the
timing of a cut. On the beat? Just ahead? Just behind? Every single
cut was examined with equal scrutiny until we were both happy. And
that’s just the musical sequences! Cutting a dialogue picture will
be sooo easy.

MM: Did Rob’s background as a choreographer
help in keeping the material more manageable? The feeling of the
movie is so quick-paced and full of energy; what was the atmosphere
in the editing room?

MW: You must be kidding. See my answer above.
Rob’s a great choreographer, but he hadn’t really made a film before
so there was much prevaricating. “Frame fucking,” we call it here.
A clever person could probably calculate the number of possible
combinations of images there could be. I think we exhausted most
of them. There was a lot at stake.

Luckily I had a fantastic support group in my fellow
travelers Dave Rogow, Andy Weisblum and Eddie Nichols, who kept
it as light as possible even when the pressure was on. And just
being in New York made up for a lot. Eddie always made an extra
effort to make us all fatter than we already were by providing sweet,
sticky things at around four in the afternoon. Or was it to keep
the energy up?

MM: One can only imagine the number of outtakes
you came across in the editing room. What was the most memorable
piece of footage you recall from the editing room?

MW: Late one night I was watching dailies and
eating sushi and Richard Gere’s underpants fell down before he got
to pull them off.

MM: What are you working on now?

MW: I start Thunderbirds in a couple
of weeks at Pinewood Studios here in sunny England. It’s a big live
action version of the ´70s puppet show. Lots of visual effects,
rockets and stuff. Minute after minute of computer generated sequences
I just have to slot in and put some music on, right? And no playback
and no dancing! Then I want to do a western, or cowboy film as we
called them when I was a kid. A musical, a western and a big action
picture: film editor nirvana. Then I can sell up and go sailing.

Filmography for Martin Walsh
Chicago (2002)
Iris (2001)
Cocozz’s Way (2001)
Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
Whatever Happened to Harold Smith? (1999)
Mansfield Park (1999)
Hilary and Jackie (1998)
The Mighty (1998)
Welcome to Woop Woop (1997)
Roseanna’s Grave (1997)
Feeling Minnesota (1996)
Hackers (1995)
Funny Bones (1995)
Backbeat (1993)
Bad Behaviour (1993)
Wild West (1992)
Hear My Song (1991)
The Krays (1990)
Courage Mountain (1989)
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1988)
Sacred Hearts (1985)