Just before the U.S. release of the movie, in the winter of 2000, I talked with editor Tim Squyres about his work on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Squyres has partnered with Ang Lee on every one of the director’s films except “Brokeback Mountain”.
Our discussion first appeared in EditorsNet, which continues to be a great source of information for motion picture editors.
The Tao and The 10,000 Takes: Tim Squyres
Edits “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon“
Tim Squyres edited Ang Lee’s first feature, “Pushing Hands”. Since then the two men have collaborated on a total of seven films. Their latest is “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. The grand scope and exhilarating action of this taoist epic, shot in China and edited in New York, might seem impossibly divergent from the sensibilities of Ang Lee’s “Eat Drink Man Woman” or “The Ice Storm”, but the collaboration between Tim Squyres and Ang Lee seems to be as versatile as it has been long-lasting.
Squyres talked with Neal Romanek about his process, the challenges of an American’s editing Mandarin dialog, and the puzzle of assembling scenes from overwhelming numbers of takes sent from a location on the other side of the world.
TS: I’ve grown up as an editor, editing his films, and he’s grown up as a director having me edit his films. As far as features go, that’s really been the bulk of my career. It’s been interesting to see from one film to the next, early on especially, how it was a matter of really developing and growing and learning. And the footage was so much better from film to film as he got better and as his budgets got bigger and his actors got better. It was really nice to get better and better material to work with. The first film–and even the “Wedding Banquet”, to some extent–was at least half about avoiding the problems. And it was only with “Eat Drink Man Woman” where the the job became bringing out and refining the good stuff, rather than avoiding the bad stuff.
NR: For “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was there any change in the way you work together?
TS: I had to adapt it a little bit. “Crouching Tiger” was shot somewhat differently–many more takes than usual and a very short schedule. Between the assembly and locking picture we only had seven weeks, which is quite tight, so there were some steps that we usually go through that we condensed a little bit. Normally we don’t work on the weekends. But during those seven weeks we worked at least one day every weekend.
NR: What kind of planning was there in terms of cutting the action scenes? Did Ang let you know what he was going to do?
TS: No, not at all. There’s two types of action scenes in the film. There are fight scenes and there are chase scenes. And sometimes within a scene some sections are fights and some sections are chases. A chase scene is much less choreographed. You have a bunch of shots and there is maybe an order intended, but you can rearrange a chase scene generally. With a fight scene it’s much harder. The way that these fights are choreographed, it’s really very tightly planned. You can sometimes omit sections, but it’s really planned to go together a certain way. Now the problem on this film was I didn’t know what that way was. We had some communication problems with the set, them being so many time zones away and language problems. I was getting the notes very, very late, and there was not much in the way of explaining the choreography to me. Sometimes they would shoot in sequence, and sometimes they wouldn’t, and sometimes I had indications about what order the shots were supposed to go in, and more often I didn’t. So it was really kind of a jigsaw puzzle. It’s an intellectual exercise rather than an artistic exercise, in a way–just trying to figure out what the choreography was supposed to be, especially when sometimes some of the pieces were missing.
NR: Did you ever have any situation where Ang looked at the scene and said “No, that wasn’t what I meant at all.”?
TS: No, I figured them all out. There were some places where I left some things out intentionally. I changed some things around a little bit, because things didn’t look good. With martial arts, that’s ultimately what makes you decide whether to keep it in or take it out–whether it looks good. So there were some things that I had removed because I didn’t think they were up to the same standards as the rest of it. And we generally agreed on all of that.
NR: What was the most challenging sequence to cut?
TS: The most challenging part of cutting the film was cutting the dialog scenes. When Ang came back from China from the shoot, and we started working together, the first thing we did was the fight scenes. And we did that because of all the effects work that had to be done on those scenes, all the wire removal. Normally we would cut in sequence, but in this case, because of the scheduling problems and because of all the effects work we isolated the fight scenes. That was a couple weeks, and then the last five weeks we really just spent on story. Story-wise there were a number of things that had to be moved around and changed and rewritten and shorten and deleted. And that really took more time. It was more difficult, in a way. The action scenes I had fairly close before Ang ever came back from China. They certainly take a long time to put together. Some of the fight scenes had more than 200 set-ups. And many, many takes of a lot of these set ups. I mean, you’d have a scene with 700 or 800 takes–(laughing) which is not what I’m used to. I would get a tape full of dailies with 400 takes on it.
TS: And all of them are six, eight seconds. It takes a long time to wade through a scene like that, to just wade through all the dailies, figure out the sequence of events, figure out for every one which one is best. But then the scene goes together pretty quickly.
NR: So what is it about the dialog scenes that makes them more challenging?
TS: Well, one thing that makes it challenging is that I don’t speak Mandarin.
NR: What is that like? What do you cut on when you’re not necessarily listening to the dialog as a cue?
TS: I am listening to the dialog. You know on a film like “Eat Drink Man Woman”, which is in Mandarin also, I had a good English version of the script. I know a fair amount of Mandarin vocabulary. I have no concept of Mandarin grammar at all. I know individual words here and there and usually, sentence by sentence, I can tell what’s being said. What I can’t tell is things about inflection. To a certain extent, the emotional meaning of things is often held in the little details of a performance that I can hear in English, and I can’t hear it in Mandarin, and there’s no point in pretending I can. I’ve heard a lot of Mandarin. I know what it’s supposed to sound like. It’s a complicated language. There are all of these different tones, different ways of accenting each syllable that affect the meaning and I’m familiar with the sound of that. And if an actor messes up a line, if they know they messed up the line, I know they messed up the line also, because if there’s any kind of hesitation or break in the rhythm or something, I’ll always catch that. If they just mispronounce a syllable or say the wrong word and just keep barreling on like it was no problem, I might not catch that. But a performance is about a lot of things besides that, and I just do my best. I pick based on the variables that I have access to. And once Ang comes in, we go back and look at the alternates, but we actually don’t change very much more. When I work in English, we change some takes from what I picked. When we work in Mandarin, maybe we change a little bit more, but not much.
NR: Did Ang ever completely surprise you?
TS: You know, one thing that surprised me was we have these choreographed fight scenes, with many, many, many takes, many set ups. But there were some dialog scenes with a lot of takes, and there was rarely anything like a master. It was an interesting way of shooting and blocking the scenes. He really went piece by piece and moved people around in the room. In a dialog scene with two people in a room talking, it was very normal to have fifteen set ups.
NR: So Ang doesn’t shoot a lot of regular coverage.
TS: Yeah, and more so in this movie than any one he’s done before. He really kind of broke it up. He was limited in the scenes with Michelle Yeoh because she injured her knee fairly early in the shoot, and she couldn’t really walk. Pretty much she would be in one position, then at some point in the scene, walk across the room and sit down and pour the tea. That was about as much movement as she could do. So the scenes with her are a little more static just because she was physically limited from moving around, but even so he rarely parked her in one place. There are really only two scenes where she just stays in one place, and I wonder if she had been able to walk if they would have done things differently.
NR: The music’s very important in the movie. How much did you keep music in mind? Are you aware of what the music is going to be doing while you’re cutting?
TS: Yes. I think about music a lot. Normally I do a pretty thorough sound edit. Even during the assembly, we put in sound effects. On this film I wasn’t able to do as much of that, partly because a martial arts fight scene they shoot all MOS. In order to make any kind of plausible sound I’d have to build up everything from scratch, which means voices which I didn’t have and foley and weapons hits and all that. It would be a huge amount of work that then would get torn to pieces the first time we started cutting into the scene, and you have to do all of it to make the scene realistic enough to have it worth being in there. So we quickly decided that we weren’t going to do that and we were going to rely on music during the picture edit for those scenes. And you know the heavy drums that we use on two of the fights?
NR: Yes. Yes.
TS: In the first big fight between the two women–and then they fight again at the end of the film–those were some Japanese drums that I really liked, that I had actually used before for other things, and it just seemed to me that it would work really well. I assembled the scene without music, but very, very early on I put the drums in and it really helped those scenes a lot. We screened the assembly with those drums in and we never considered other directions to go. That just seemed obviously so right. I was also the music editor on the film. I cut the music in ProTools and the film on Avid. We had a pretty elaborate temp score. That was really one of the ways that we communicated emotionally with our composer, Tang Dun. For the most part–not entirely–but for the most part, he chose what he was doing based on discussions we had that were based on music I had put in.
NR: What kind of temp music did you put in?
TS: Things from other soundtracks. Some Chinese traditional music. I had a lot of things to choose from and we tried out a lot of things. But I think it is very important to work out your musical ideas during the picture edit. I think it’s a real mistake to leave it till later because then you have this new element that you haven’t really integrated into your conceptual idea of how the film is. Not that you ever want to have your composer feel limited by the music, but if you can work with the music a lot in the picture edit, it really helps you to understand how your music is working with the film, so that then you don’t suddenly get this new music to put into the mix and have it change your idea of what the scene is about. Emotionally, it’s good to already have that kind of figured out and make that part of the picture edit process rather than leaving it till later.