Taking on Molly’s Game, Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, without ever having cut a project the scribe had written, editors Alan Baumgarten and Josh Schaeffer were challenged with learning to cut Sorkin’s long, fast-paced, dialogue-driven scenes, while confronting a narrative of great structural complexity.
Brought on to the project by editor Elliot Graham, an Oscar nominee who had previously cut Steve Jobs, the editing duo quickly noted a “very rare” quality of Sorkin’s that they feel should be called out more—his experimental streak, which comes out in Molly’s Game in the form of multiple timelines, all of which were interwoven meticulously in his script, moving between a pivotal moment in Molly Bloom’s skiing career, her time as the underground “poker princess,” and her trials and tribulations in court, as she is accused of shady dealings and knowing collusion with the Russian mob.
Going where none had gone before, Baumgarten and Schaeffer worked with Sorkin in fleshing out a visual experience of the scribe’s own creation that would do justice to his words.
What compelled you about Aaron Sorkin’s script for Molly’s Game?
Schaeffer: I feel like the things that I respond to as an editor are things that are non-linear. I knew there were going to be challenges where we had these 10-minute dialogue scenes that had to be very linear and tight, and that’s a different muscle. But also, because of the voiceover there was an ability to really…
Baumgarten: Jump around a bit, and tell this story in a radical, experimental way.
The first act of this film sets a rapid pace and involves a lot of rapid-fire montage. What inspired the film’s bold introduction to Molly’s world?
Schaeffer: It’s interesting because people talk about how the first half feels a little bit different. The voiceover drives the first half of the movie and goes away as the movie goes on, so a lot of the reasons to use these images came as a way to pull out the voiceovers, so you could stick to what he was he was saying.
Baumgarten: Punch it through in a more impactful way, because the words are very rapid-fire. As you know, there’s a staccato rhythm to Aaron’s dialogue. It’s been talked about a lot as being very percussive and musical, and it drives the pace that we try to follow in our edit. I think Elliot and Josh found early on that going to some quick pops of sports—the Brazilian sports team, the soccer, the LSATs, the graduation—to highlight them quickly visually as you’re hearing it just makes it more exciting, compelling, memorable and it gives it a drive and an energy, a pace that actually follows the pattern that he’s established in that voiceover.
At the beginning of many films, it’s a lot of setup, and it’s always the stuff where you’re trying to figure out, how can we get through this more quickly? How can we have less of this? In this film, we didn’t have that problem at all because things were told so succinctly, powerfully, compactly and with dynamic energy, and it just kind of rips through.
What was the thinking when it came to the skiing sequence early on?
Schaeffer: Elliot really took the lead on the ski scene. What surprised me is the way that we tackled that scene. We both cut the scene completely separately, and then Elliot combined the best of what we did, in a way, and we kind of went through different lists. Then, there was also Aaron’s component because I did a version that was a lot more stock that’s in the movie, but Aaron was very specific.
The stock footage at the beginning in the first pass showed more of both sides of the team—showed the Cubs winning in Game 7 of the World Series. Seeing that inspired Aaron to be like, “No, I want it to be these quick hits of the frustration of the players losing.”
Baumgarten: Defeat, agony and frustration amidst celebration and cheering going on around them—the real pain of somebody experiencing a devastating loss.
Schaeffer: Having not worked with Aaron before, there were two things in the movie, having him see and react to the cut, where it was really like, “This is going to be awesome.” The one for me was the operation with her, being able to use footage of the open operation, because it was a moment where we were a little bit like, “Is this going too far or not?” You don’t know, because it’s one of those things that where it’s gory. It’s like, is that over the line or not? And really from the first cut to the end, that’s always been the same.
I was like, “Wow. There’s boundaries, but we can really try.” I think he recognized that the idea of that was you have a physical reaction to what that little girl went through when you see it. It’s like when she falls at the end—you’ve kind of seen enough that it makes it hurt more.
Baumgarten: There was also great coverage of the ski sequence. The DP, Charlotte [Bruus Christensen], did a great job, and was telling stories about being on that icy hill with freezing conditions and Aaron there, everybody trying to get as much coverage as they could. Some of that was also done on stage—like the crash, when she flips and hits her head—with green screen and wires, so there were a lot of visual effects in that opening sequence. They were shooting on snow, but there was not snow falling—and all the ESPN banners, crowd enhancement and stuff like that, filling out some of that.
So it was a complicated sequence, and we continued to work on it. It’s a big action scene. It’s probably Aaron’s first one, and I think he even said, had he really known what goes into putting it together, he might’ve thought twice about writing it. Which is a good thing that he didn’t know, and now he knows. He writes this great sequence, and then to actually have to create it became an entire undertaking that he was unfamiliar with. But I think he rose to the challenge.
From an editorial perspective, what work did you go through to support the world of high stakes poker Sorkin set up in the script?
Schaeffer: The one thing about the script that was a challenge was that there’s a whole culture to this world that he’s writing about. On paper, you use your imagination, but he didn’t want to talk about who these real people were. There’s a culture behind this whole thing, and I made the joke with him: “It’s one thing to say a writer’s coming in to work with you. It’s another thing to say Aaron Sorkin’s coming in to work with you.” But when you don’t want to use people’s names, you still have to create that environment…
Baumgarten: The illusion that you buy that these people are the best at what they do—the famous people, the wealthy people. That was one of the biggest challenges and fears that I felt when I read the script—is that going to be able to be pulled off? Some people have read the book, it’s been in the news, people know who some of the real people are, even though the book didn’t really name any names. The stories have come out.
Schaeffer: You want all the accoutrements that come with those people—the fact that this is a girl from Colorado who’s thrown into this game that’s not just a high money game. The quality of people at this game are intimidating. So that inspired a lot of the stock.
Baumgarten: It was told editorially through stock. Aaron didn’t know how he would shoot it. He thought about that when he was writing, blurring the faces. What are you going to do to create the illusion, to sell people on this? Basically it’s a conceit. You’re faking it but you want people to be on board and accept it.
What was the process in working with and retaining Sorkin’s dialogue, while finessing the film’s rhythms?
Schaeffer: He has this rhythm to the way he sees the movie: “We can break that up, we can jump that, we can take the beginning and the end and lose the middle of that.” Some of it’s written into the script, and there are overlaps, but we’d also find those after the scene was together. He was very conscious of liking long scenes, but you cannot check out because it’s going to grab you. Then, once you have those six major scenes that are at this really intense rhythm, the rest of the movie has to keep up with it, or relax to allow you to digest that.
So it finds it own rhythm. I have a comedy background, and what I found really interesting is that I felt like it played more for the comedic editing style because you’re cutting at every line. You are really manipulating the performances and doing what you can to keep it musically to the rhythm of what he hears.
To me, the way Aaron Sorkin hears people talk is special because he hears that people don’t really listen to each other, and there’s this sense of that—that you don’t need a line to be clear before the next line starts, but sometimes you do.
Baumgarten: We worked very carefully with those overlaps. Sometimes he’d want the last word that somebody said to be on top of the first word, but you would still hear enough of it that you would understand what they were saying. Your mind would feel like you’d know what that last word was, and we have to be careful because at times, we would clip it too tight, and it would be too doubled up, and you couldn’t quite hear it.
Schaeffer: Sometimes, we would find that, “Oh wow, this sounds right, but now that we’re introducing the fact that the audience is reacting, we need to let it breathe.” Something that I’ve heard people comment on which I think is super cool is the park bench scene. There’s a moment where he’s like, “I can’t hear what you said,” and it just shows how effortlessly he is in sync with how people are following his dialogue, because that was the way it was written, and it was the way it was performed. It’s finessed, but it was pretty effortless to get the audience to follow that track where they miss it, and then they are with her. It’s very seamless.
The most fun part for me was to be in the room with Aaron, looking at the movie and trying to chip away at it a little bit. It’s hard because you’re trying to make the movie as tight as it can be, both rhythmically and in duration. But because it was so well crafted in the way that it was written and acted, it was never taking things out because they were bad. It was taking good things out because the movie could be better, and that’s a real experiment.