INTERVIEW: Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos Talk About the Challenges and Fun of Editing ‘Baby Driver’

When “Baby Driver” hit theaters last summer, it was something of a surprise. This quirky film about a getaway driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort) turned out to be more than just your average summer action flick.

But after audiences realized there was something just a little different about this action/car chase movie set to great music, the buzz started to build.

Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos, who edited “Baby Driver,” were nominated for an Eddie Award from the American Cinema Editors. They won the Critics Choice Award. They’ve been nominated for an Academy Award. And they just won the BAFTA for Best Editing.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with them via telephone in what proved to be a fun and insightful interview with two really great craftsmen.

Karen Peterson: I want to start by saying that I’ve had several conversations with other editors throughout the past couple of months and so many conversations seem to come around to the work the two of you have done on “Baby Driver.”

Paul Machliss: Really? Is that right?

KP: Absolutely. Can you talk about what the year has been like for you? What has your experience been like in the last year?

Paul: The reception has been incredible and I think people have been…You know, it’s the funny thing about editing. It’s usually the sort of thing that’s in the background that nobody notices. Not that you want this work to be particularly noticed. But this time around it’s something that everybody seems to have picked up on. I’m completely thrilled to be getting the feedback and the reception. And also to have done so well at the box office. I’m just thrilled for Edgar [Wright]. Whatever happens from this point on is just a bonus, I think, but a wonderful one.

Jonathan: It’s an interesting one. I think people just haven’t quite seen a movie like this before. It’s not just about the editing in this particular movie, of course. There’s a lot that goes into the pre-production. This film was kind of almost edited in Edgar’s head as he was writing the script, because there are all kinds of detailed notes in the script. So, I think it’s all of those kind of…the incredible technical element even before they start shooting, and it goes on through the shoot. I think people can’t quite work out how it was done. Obviously it was an incredible achievement by Edgar and all the crew and Paul. And yeah, it’s been amazing.

KP: I don’t remember ever having an experience before where I’m watching a movie in, like, June, and I think, “This could get an Oscar nomination!” And it wasn’t even a film I was necessarily that excited to see. But it was cut so well and I thought it was amazing. Congratulations to you both on that.

Jonathan and Paul: Well, thank you.

KP: How did you go about dividing up the work load? To edit the film together much have been a challenge.

Paul: It was by its nature. The workload was a little different for this one in this case. It was, given my background with Edgar, given the amount of prep work in the years prior. He and I were doing prep for almost five years before we ever shot a frame. We were actually putting music sequences together, overlaying them with sound effects just to get an idea of how the music was. We ended up doing a long form sound file where we took a table read Edgar had done in 2012 and we made a radio play of the whole film. It was a very good indicator for Edgar and anyone else of how it would feel in a sound sense.

When it came to the actual shooting, my involvement was actually as the one that went out to Atlanta and did a lot of this on-set editing. Which is basically how Edgar and I worked during the course of the shoot. So I had tried to get everything assembled at least to a degree before we came back to the UK. There were unresolved issues and things I couldn’t advance just because of time and the need to move on to other scenes. And when we got back to England, that’s when John got involved. Not that I need to speak for John because he’s right here. But John came on board because he’s an absolute master of putting action sequences together. So the division was back in the UK where John and Edgar went through a lot of the big set pieces while Edgar and I basically looked over the whole body and the arc of the film. Would you say that’s about right, John?

John: That’s absolutely correct. We worked together on “Scott Pilgrim [vs the World]” so I think we all have a shorthand. Paul’s worked with Edgar on on “Spaced” and I worked with him on “Hot Fuzz.” We have a sort of long history and a kind of an understanding between us all of what our abilities are and how we can best use those to make the film as good as it can possibly be.

Paul: And then, that’s something Edgar knows very, very well, John’s strengths and my strengths. He very much gets us in for these particular tasks. But then we’re always reviewing the work and they’ll do a scene and I’ll come in to watch and review and then John will come in to watch something Edgar and I have done. So it was sort of fairly fluid in that respect. We’re always giving each other feedback. But we were there in this instance for a specific…to work to our specific strengths, which is a little different from the way “Scott Pilgrim” worked. Which I think worked incredibly well, depending on, you know, doesn’t matter the fact that we actually worked a little differently. And we were still able to realize Edgar’s vision. And, at the end of the day, that is, of course, the main thing.

KP: So what was it like when you got the call from Edgar? Were you excited to work with him again?

Paul: That’s the thing. It’s always a challenge. When you know Edgar’s getting ready to do a new project you know you’re going to get challenged. New challenges to rise to and new techniques to explore. And certainly Edgar is not one to repeat things. He’s always after trying new things out. And certainly the way we did “Baby Driver” was different from anything we’ve done before. For me, it’s always exciting. Like I said, we’d started some prep work. And then I went off to do “World’s End” with Edgar, and, but “Baby Driver” was always in the background. Whenever we had some time we’d chip away at it. But then, it’s always exciting to hear the green light is being lit and it’s on. So even these things you knew, “Wouldn’t it be great to do this?” Suddenly it’s going to happen. So there’s always a nervous excitement on that. And I think that’s a very exciting way to work. Can we do this? Will it work? And it’s excitement to go and make it happen.

KP: What is one of the best things about working with Edgar?

John: For me, he’s kind of a unique director. There’s no one else out there who’s pushing the boundaries of editing and giving his editors every single tool they could possibly need to do the job in an amazing way. So Edgar is just a phenomenon to me. It’s incredibly exciting to work on one of his projects. It’s like every day coming to work and there’s an enormous chocolate box delivered to your desk and inside is an incredible array of chocolates. And yeah, I feel incredibly blessed to have been able to do two pictures with him. I still get letters about “Scott Pilgrim” and both have given me just so many opportunities, and I’m incredibly grateful.

Paul: I think as an editor, you’re incredibly lucky if you get someone like Edgar coming into your life and really pushing you into a direction you never thought you’d go into. Because no one really does work like him and no one has those visions and those kind of ideas. You realize you’re more than a central part of actually realizing his vision because he relies on editing through the whole process. Pre-production, production, post, everything is editing to him. And so, you always know you’re going to be in for an incredible experience. So as an editor you feel very lucky to count this among the work you do because it’s unique and it gets noticed and it’s remembered and you feel very grateful to be part of that journey of his.

KP: With “Baby Driver,” music is so important. In some ways the film functions like a musical. How did you go about getting the timing just right?

Paul: Of course, that was a very big part of being on set and making sure it all worked on set. Because as John pointed out, a lot of this had been worked out. We had a choreographer and a stunt coordinator, and all the songs were chosen and, indeed, we’d got all the rights cleared before hand.

John: Did he actually choose a song before he’d write the scene? Is that actually true?

Paul: Well, certainly, yeah. That actually, he always knew there were certain songs that were going to fit certain scenes. And there were songs he had in his head that he said, “Wouldn’t it be great to cut something to this?” But, you know, on set, once you set out to do something like this, you really don’t take anything to chance. That’s why I was there. And once we were cutting things to music, shot by shot we’d be putting this together. I’d have the music track on my editing system and literally after every take we would be dropping the shots in to make sure they’d work. And if they didn’t, we could problem solve as we went because we couldn’t get back to the edit 6 months later and go, “Oh, gosh, we missed that or hadn’t foreseen that.” So really being on the front lines with the crew, the DP, and the choreographer and Edgar meant that we could sign these edits off based to the music as we were going. Because that’s something you don’t take to chance… You have to make it work at the point of inception or indeed conception. There was a wonderful little mix of production and post-production informing the other over the course of the shoot.

Naturally when you get back to the edit you’re still faced with the usual kind of problems. You’re trying to put a square peg in a round hole and that’s true of most edits. We had unfinished issues when we left the shoot. But I’m pleased to say, John, I think we more or less resolved them to a degree of satisfaction by the end?

John: Absolutely. I think it’s kind of, when you’ve already got the music and everything is working in sync and in time and when you bring that level of polish from the shoot into the edit, that’s when things can literally go to another level. And that’s what people really responded to with the movie was this level of syncopation. And you could never get that with just cutting some images to music. Everything has to be built around the music. And that’s where this syncopation and that’s where the thrilling experience of “Baby Driver” truly came from. And people look at the editing, but it’s all these other elements which came in the planning, which really have made it truly phenomenal.

KP: It all comes together so well, which is why we’re still talking about this film in January. One of my favorite sequences of any film this year was the scene toward the beginning when Baby goes to get the coffee. Was that actually one take or was it edited to look that way?

Paul: That was one, continuous Steadicam shot that took us all day to do. And I think we shot 28 takes of it and used the 21st one. But once again, I can’t say that’s some of our best editing work, as it’s one continuous shot. But that’s a perfect example of how everything from stunts, the vehicles, the supporting actors, Ryan Heffington who managed the choreography, the way Ansel moves, the way the Steadicam moves. It all lines together perfectly. And I think that was certainly the contrast, when you have a manic opening scene and immediately go into a 3 ½ minute continuous scene. We did some pick ups to see, “If we have to cut in should we try to do it?” But we realized that take 21 had it all. So what you see is what was actually shot on the day.

KP: Wow. What was one of the most challenging scenes to edit?

John: There were a few. Brighton Rock—.

Paul: Yeah.

John: —at the end was a big challenge for all of us for many reasons. But it was kind of, I think we…how do I go into describing this? We certainly have problems with duration at the end. And a lot of times we didn’t want to edit the music of the tracks. And we resisted editing the music for a long time. I think at the end with Brighton Rock, it was the one time we had to edit the music in a more significant way to try and make the picture fit the audience expectations of an ending. It was slightly over-long and some things weren’t quite working and there were certain elements to do with audience satisfaction that we weren’t quite hitting. So we did some pickups to try and kind of fix those issues. So I think that ended up being, without a doubt, the area where we had to come up with the most solutions.

Paul: But even in that, you see, in all scenes, but particularly Brighton Rock you have those challenges. You want to cut an action scene. And normally, in an action scene, if you want to tighten something, you just lop 2 or 3 frames off of that as is any editor’s God-given right. “If I just cut that a little bit tighter it’ll be fine.” But as soon as you do that, of course, there are scenes further down that are locked, anchored to certain points in the music. So you can’t just take 3 frames off to speed something up because the whole rest of that scene will suddenly go off three frames from the track. In this case, the Queen track. So I need to speed this section up, but somewhere along the line you have to invisibly counter for those frames you took out. Because you can’t edit the music.

Normally, of course, you’d edit the scene to your satisfaction and you’d send it off to get scored and they’d score it to the way it’s cut. This time around, it was already scored and you can’t just go back to Queen and say, “Can you just take out half a beat there? It just wouldn’t work musically.” So if you have to tighten up, the big challenge was how to keep it in sync, but also keep the timing 40 seconds down the line. There was always something you had to be aware of. You had to be sure you hit a down beat or a guitar riff. You had to be thinking about the whole scene the whole time. Quite a challenge.

KP: What is the biggest lesson or takeaway you gained that you will take with you into future projects?

Paul: Ooh. John, while I think of an answer, you can go first, mate!

John: I was just thinking of answers too! It was all so good for me. There’s always things you learn, but it sometimes takes awhile to figure out what the big takeaway was.

Paul: I think what you take away from this…obviously, you realize you’ve been challenged. We managed to do this. You can say there was no option NOT to get it done.  But to get it done in the way we managed to do, the end result was worth all the effort—the gargantuan effort. But you take away things like, you know. You learn from every project. And every project has something different. Not that every film that Edgar will do will always feel like “Baby Driver,” but it broadens your outlook to the craft. And you can still learn. And that’s the fantastic thing. You never go in thinking “Oh we’ll just be able to do this.” Because I don’t think you really set yourself up psychologically that you’re gonna do a good job. It’s almost like the first day of school. How are we gonna do this? And there are lessons you learn and new techniques and problem solving and you add that to your arsenal of tricks that maybe something will come along and that you think “Oh, this is similar to something we did on ‘Baby Driver.’” But the fact that you never stop learning, You never, as an editor, think it’s just the usual thing. It was a new way of doing things. You add to your experience and you add to your craft. And hopefully, you come out just a little better that you were at your profession than going in.

John: I don’t have anything to add. That was it exactly.

KP: Well that sums up pretty well. Thank you both so much for taking the time to talk to me!

Both: Thank you!

Many thanks to Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos. “Baby Driver” is nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Editing.