There is no shortage of epic stories found in history, born out of conflict and human resilience. This Oscar season has seen more than its fair share of historical epics, taking place all across the world.
The Woman King takes a look at the all-female Agojie warriors from The Kingdom of Dahomey in 18th century Africa. Based on the 1929 novel of the same name, All Quiet on the Western Front shows a much less heroic side of war and the trauma faced by young men tricked into joining the German frontline. Emancipation is loosely based on the story of ‘Whipped Peter’, an escaped slave from Louisiana whose scarred image went global in the early 1860s.
The Woman King
Editor Terilyn A. Shropshire was thrilled when director Gina Prince-Bythewood referred to The Woman King as “our” next movie. “That was music to an editor’s ears, when you hear ‘our’ instead of ‘my’,” Shropshire says. After hearing the story, she was excited by the chance to show an epic with a focus on a strong female character. “With Nanisca, there were levels of who she was when we were able to peel those layers away and show that vulnerability,” she says. “Often, I found myself wanting to bring the audience into those private moments with her. I try to serve the moments, because as an editor, you always have to be that audience to your film.” Showing that vulnerability is important when working on an “intimately epic” film, as Shropshire calls it, where you begin by building out the characters before the world. “If you can start with that and then build outward, it really does help the storytelling.”
One of the scenes that really sets the tone is at the beginning of the film when the Agojie warriors rise out of the tall grass. Shropshire says that scene was not originally scripted that way. “When we started to go in and really look at characters in the editing room, we decided the best way to bring the audience in was through a sense of mystery and discovery.” Before any of the characters were introduced, the women rise from the grass and attack, which establishes a tone for the warriors that allows the audience to start a journey of discovery.
The most important thing for Shropshire was to make sure the film was more of an epic than an action film. “Some of the greatest historical epic movies are really character-driven,” she says. She maintains that the best way to achieve that is through building the world out to be as historically accurate as possible. “Even the subtleties of being able to honor each person’s work, the production designer, the costume designer… they spent a lot of time researching this particular moment in time and it’s my responsibility, as part of the storytelling, to make sure that I’m also bringing the audience in not only visually, but viscerally to a world that they have never seen before.”
All Quiet on the Western Front
Whereas The Woman King told a story of triumph, All Quiet on the Western Front tells a very different story with its brutal depiction of young German troops in World War I. Editor Sven Budelmann was excited when director Edward Berger approached him for the film, but he also felt a great responsibility to get the story right. “Every German comes into contact with either the novel or the 1930s film adaptation during their school years,” he says. “However, I thought it would be important to make a new, modern version of it… The fact that the film is told from the German point of view, from the point of view of the losers, also means that it has nothing heroic about it. The whole thing is just excruciating and pointless. I think it’s important to keep showing how terrible war is and what it means to fight in a war, especially in light of the current world situation.”
After some discussion with Berger, Budelmann decided to take an almost documentary-like approach to the editing, keeping the style observational while still creating an intimate view of the war through the eyes of the protagonist, Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer). During that time, young men like Bäumer joined the war voluntarily and were met with the terrible reality of battle. “We wanted the audience to experience reality as shockingly as Paul Bäumer did,” he says. “We wanted to show the brutality of war as authentically and brutally as possible. Not to make it sensational, but to make it real and tangible. The most important thing was not to make the film heroic. We wanted to show the war as it is—insane, brutal, random.”
The biggest challenge for Budelmann was to find the right balance between the “violence and moments of silence”, he says. “Otherwise it would have been too hard to bear.” Scenes of battle are contrasted with shots of nature to create moments of rest for the audience. That makes the impact of the violence even greater. One of the most impactful scenes of the film was a long shot where Bäumer stabs a French soldier with a knife and then witnesses his agonizing death. “As an audience, we enthusiastically follow him into the war, but we quickly realize what it means to be in the trenches and to fight on the battlefield,” he says. “For me this is the most intense scene in the film. When I saw the first take from the raw footage, I was truly affected and felt uneasy for hours after watching it. We didn’t want to spare the audience either, they had to experience the same emotional development that Paul goes through. That’s why we played out the scene in real time, without shortening anything.”
For Emancipation, director Antoine Fuqua relied on longtime collaborator Conrad Buff to edit the historical epic. While the film was being shot in Louisiana, Buff was working from home in California, which he believes allowed him to take a more objective look at the material. “Traditionally, the first pass for most editors is up to us to make the decisions,” he says. Fuqua gave him few notes before the first edit, which gave Buff a lot of freedom, especially in the second act. “There’s a certain absence of dialogue, particularly in the second act area where Peter (Will Smith) and the gang escape from Jim Fassel (Ben Foster) and the railroad camp, which turns into this pursuit.” Since there is little dialogue during the pursuit, Buff leaned into choosing which visual moments would have the greatest impact, and in which order. “There isn’t a roadmap, editorially. It was more documentary-like in that regard, up to me to tell a story.”
The chase through the swamp was also shot without sound, leaving Buff and the sound crew to create the Foley work for the setting. “Normally in any action sequence, the sound is frequently useless and has to be recreated,” he says. “Because of the conditions of physically being in swamps, radio mics wouldn’t necessarily work while people are wading into the water.” While Foley work for this kind of film is normal, Buff says they needed to take it to a higher degree to create the subtle sounds of the environment. “The neat thing about it is that it’s not obvious work. It’s not like Top Gun where you are actually seeing jets flying. This is a quieter and a different kind of challenge to Foley… every branch, every footstep, every bit of cloth rubbing against a body all has to be built up. Our sound team was phenomenal in that regard.”
Although the story could call for gruesome scenes of violence, Fuqua opted to have the camera pull away from those moments and instead focus on how Peter reacts to the scene. “There’s such an intensity and sadness in those moments, and I don’t think Antoine was interested in getting any more graphic than what you see in the finished film,” he says. “It’s such an intense film and I’m quite happy that it was no more graphic than it was. It’s already so potent.”
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