In the onslaught of awards season, it’s a rare thing to see a horror film make it to the upper echelons of contention. This is a shame, given the way in which films in the genre are put together. As execution-dependent as anything, a standout horror film requires a visionary director, committed performers and a team of extraordinary below-the-line artists who can mine each moment for the unexpected.
This year, Get Out bears the spoils of these triumphs on the part of Jordan Peele and his collaborators—among them, Blumhouse editor Gregory Plotkin, who has become a frontrunner in this year’s Editing competitions. A lifelong horror fan, Plotkin bonded with Peele over his passion for the genre, and finding new ways to subvert expectations, a challenge the director knew intimately from his time spent in comedy.
Below, Plotkin draws an analogy between editors and magicians, explaining the tricks he employed to sustain one of the most original and powerful horror films in years.
How did you learn the craft of cutting horror films?
I grew up loving horror. What I found with horror is—and I think it’s much like comedy—it’s all about timing. If you set up the scare, if you set up the joke properly, it’s going to pay off. If you underplay it, it doesn’t pay off. If you overplay it, it doesn’t pay off. But my style with horror has been, if the audience expects you to stay on a shot for four seconds, I’m going to stay on it for ten. I like to subvert expectations.
Especially with Get Out, the performances were so great, the settings were so great, Jordan and I sort of bonded on that. I was able to stay on shots; I was able to milk it.
With the Paranormal series, we had all these wide shots and it was: How do you make it scary? I sort of took the idea of: I’m a magician. I’m going to tell the audience in a wide shot I’ve got nothing up my sleeves. I’m going to make them as comfortable as possible—and then I’m going to hit them.
I think it’s easier to cut than to not cut, so I’ve always taken pride in trying to hold things a little bit longer, make people uncomfortable. They know something’s coming. Sometimes you’re able to actually defuse it, because if you think it’s coming at five seconds, after ten seconds you’re like, “All right, nothing’s going to happen.” And then at second 12: Boom, something comes out. It’s just one of those things that’s trial and error, and it’s so much fun to craft.
What did Jordan talk with you about in your early conversations?
Our initial conversations were us bonding on our love of Rosemary’s Baby and Kubrick, Stepford Wives and all these classic films that he was using as a model for his thought process. So I automatically had a sense of how I wanted to cut it. Hearing those films referenced put me at ease that we were on the same page about how to put the film together. We just have similar personalities.
Sound is always an integral component of horror. How you do tend to work with it?
I’m very biased towards what we do as picture editors, but I do believe that sound and the music is what makes a film. When I first got on the Paranormal films, we had no music, and I was kind of petrified, thinking, how am I going to do this? Plus, you didn’t have a lot of sound effects.
But I actually found—and it’s been a good model for the rest of my editing—that I liked to cut on very hard sounds from the dialogue. I like to cut in the middle of thoughts, and so forth. I found it very jarring, and I found it made the audience have to do a lot of work.
With Get Out, or some of the traditional films with coverage, I don’t like to go crazy with the sound. I think there’s certain edits where you’re going to sting certain things. There’s a lot of horror films today which employ stings and so forth so well. It’s their thing. With sound and music, I just like to give us a bed to lie in, and let the performances take us.
There’s this great scene in Get Out where it’s a dinner table, everyone’s having their meal. Missy says, “I’m going to get the dessert.” The camera pans over and there’s Georgina holding this dessert, with this crazy look on her face. I think most every editor would have put a huge sting on that moment, and I didn’t want to sting it. I felt like, it’s such a great shot. It’s so weird. It’s like putting a hat on a hat. Why tell the audience more than what this great image did?
Sound is hugely important, but the lack of obvious sounds is sometimes equally effective. Music is huge. I think my first temp on Get Out was almost completely replaced. That was one of Jordan’s big first notes to me, that I got the music wrong. I think all the music was in the right place, it just wasn’t what he was looking for.
Is your workflow within the horror genre any different than it might be in another genre?
I don’t treat it any differently. I don’t cut to the beat. I’ll recut my music to match my picture, but I’m never going to cut my picture to match the music or the sound. I watch a lot of my dailies MOS, just to take in the performances, and I put the scenes together without music. I’m always kind of hearing the soundtrack in my head as I’m cutting, and then I put it in. One of the first things I was taught was, the scene has to work dramatically before you add sound and music; otherwise, it becomes sort of a band-aid.
I don’t treat horror any differently than I would another film, but I like to show the director what I would consider a release-quality scene or first cut. I do like to attempt it with sound effects and music, even if it’s not the right pieces, just to see how it compliments the film.
How did you work with Jordan to create The Sunken Place, as we see it on screen?
It’s funny, it was something that I thought I understood on the page. I got the dailies and they were beautiful. They were mostly just Daniel [Kaluuya] in front of a black background on cables, floating through.
I put together a version of the scene, and the big thing Jordan brought, which I wasn’t quite getting on the page, was the sense of Missy, and the TV of it all. But it was one of those things that came together fairly fast.
We played in the Avid a lot with resizing the image. As he gets deeper into the Sunken Place, I was able to make him smaller, and do a little bit of a temp cleanup on picking the cables out. The only CGI in the sequence was adding that particulate, that created that almost underwater landscape in the Sunken Place. Everything else was really just wire removal and the practical of it all. I found that the simplicity and the stark nature of it all was what really made it terrifying.
Sound and timing aside, what other editing tricks did you employ to amp up the audience’s sense of dread?
What I always am drawn to is that negative space—the space that isn’t being occupied by a character. The sequence in the beginning where Rose and Chris hit the deer was a tricky one, in that we wanted it to really pop. We wanted it to really be a scare, but I didn’t want to just go to that reverse angle at the moment the deer hits.
I felt like, as soon as the audience saw that, they would say, “Oh God, something’s happening,” so I made sure to cut to that angle once, potentially twice, before that, just to set up, “Here’s where the danger could come from. But I’m not going to hit you with the danger yet.”
The big thing we did there was try to have the deer hit mid-laugh. Don’t let any of the air out of the scene. Keep us at the high moment. Totally subvert expectation for the audience, and then boom: Hit them with the scare. That was the fun thing with the timing there, and the framing of it all.
Walter running was one of those where it was, “Let’s establish those big, wide, empty spots.” We’re cutting to him for a reason. The audience doesn’t quite know, but they’re a little bit uncomfortable. They know things have been a little bit off in this house. It was, again, one of those sort of ideas of, “Let’s show it; let’s milk it a little bit.”
Our original version was seeing him run all the way around the corner, running at us. Then, we decided that for the jump of it all, and for the impact of it all, let’s just stay on Chris’ face a little bit, see a little bit of the horror on his face, and then when we cut to his POV, Walter’s already at us midway. It’s just one of those great jumps for the audience. Having established a space, now showing them a space in a much different context, I thought it worked really effectively. It’s all sort of subverting expectations.
Famously, Jordan shot multiple endings for the film. What was it like working with him through the process of finding the right conclusion for Get Out?
The original ending was one in which the Chris character kills Rose. He chokes her out, police come, and it was great because as soon as the police grab him, I cut to black, we pick it up and we’re in the jail. It’s such a gut punch. LilRel [Howery] was so good in that sequence. I always think comedic actors can do drama so well, and he proves that.
But what we found with audiences was, they loved these characters, and it was too much of a downer. They had gone on such a great journey with them, and it just didn’t pay off the way they wanted it to. But I think even with the changed ending, the scores didn’t go up like a million points. It’s a movie that resonates. It sits with you. I think that’s why people are still talking about it.
What Jordan did so well was, he didn’t sacrifice message. He didn’t sacrifice theme. One of our larger conversations was, how do we reveal the police when Chris is choking Rose? To me, the key to the scene, whether he choked her or not, was seeing the red and blue lights on Chris’ face. As soon as you see that, you know what’s going to happen to him.
If you choke her or you don’t, you’re still going to be caught, and you’re still going to be accused—that’s unfortunately the way our society works right now. That was the brilliance of the scene, and we never had to sacrifice that. We were able to sort of have our cake and eat it too, and keep all the poignant images, all the poignant themes.
I think the ending was, we’ve gone on this great journey with Chris. Lets try to give the audience a little something to cheer about, but don’t ever sacrifice the fact of what he’s gone through, or what he’s probably going to go through after he backs to the city. And it just worked out. It was really smart and still poignant, which I loved.