When “Joker” made its public debut at the Venice Film Festival, it received an eight-minute standing ovation—and the editor who deserves a fair share of that ovation is Jeff Groth.
On the latest episode of “The Rough Cut,” I spoke with Jeff about his collaboration with writer and director Todd Phillips, their creative process editing “Joker,” and his career advice for aspiring editors.
Listen to the full podcast episode or read the highlights below.
Matt: You’ve done something uncommon in this modern era of reboots and franchises. The tone of this film and the style of Joker here is a lot different.
Jeff: We were always thinking of this as just a movie. It wasn’t a DC movie, it wasn’t necessarily the Joker movie—we were just trying to make a good movie. And then it has this overlay of Joker on it. The biggest thing is that it’s a character study.
One of the things I’m most proud of with the movie is that you see him at the beginning, and you wonder, “How am I going to get to this point? How am I going to see this guy?” And then when you do finally get to the point where the Joker appears on screen, you look back and say, “Wow, how did we get here? That’s amazing. I can’t believe that we got here from there.”
Matt: Todd Phillips is co-writer of the film as well as director. Does that make it any harder in editorial in that he might be a little closer or a little more protective?
Jeff: Todd knows editing; he knows how to run an Avid. As both the director and the writer, he’s very willing to cut things—in fact, I feel like he isn’t happy until he’s cut something from the movie to begin with.
Especially with directors who are also the writer, I use the Script tool, because they’re always very specific about their words. When we get, you know, four months into it, then I have the tool to say, “I know you have this line that you wanted to say in this way. Now let’s go back and look at every one of those.” And you have it for the entire script. With a writer-director, it’s of paramount importance to have that because they put those words on the paper.
The other thing with Todd as a writer-director is that he is extremely talented at re-utilizing dialogue. If we’ve cut a piece of the dialogue, he still finds ways to use those lines and rearrange the dialogue in a way that I’m always learning from.
Matt: A film like this is an evolution of a character over time. When you’re shooting it nonlinearly, does it get tough to keep track of where he is in his arc from semi-tragic figure to evil villain?
Jeff: We’re shooting out of order, but what I ended up doing was cutting in order. As soon as I got scene two, I would go and cut scene two. As soon as I got scene three, I would go and cut scene three. And I would leave things in later reels until I got there.
This isn’t necessarily a thing that I’ve done on other movies. In this one in particular, it seemed like it was a good idea because then if you were coming in and watching, you could watch the progression of the character up to that point.
Matt: This is a character that’s been played out many times theatrically, but when you think about those other films, certainly there are great performances, but you think of the big set-piece moments. “Joker” is really more of a character study. Did you find it more fun to work on the smaller, more intimate scenes?
Jeff: The action definitely does take a backseat. Once we had the action scenes assembled, they didn’t change in a significant way. Where the debate definitely was was character and story. Has he gotten to this point yet in terms of intensity? If he has gotten to this point, and the next scene is not as intense, how did he recover from that? That was most of the discussion.
Matt: Do you have any tools or techniques that you use to keep track of how those elements are balancing out story-wise?
Jeff: Three-by-five cards on the wall, those are hugely important to us. We would reprint those cards throughout the editing process as the scene changed to better represent what was there. We actually had an identical board in the larger office and then one just like it in the satellite office.
Matt: For a lot of people the first job they hope to achieve in filmmaking would be an assistant editor or an apprentice editor. What is it you’re looking for in a good assistant?
Jeff: The number one thing for me is management of the cutting room. I don’t like to do too much managing of the cutting room—I kind of get stuck in my own world of putting things together. So the most important thing an assistant can do is manage and anticipate what the editor will need.
As an assistant, if you’re looking to move up into an editor position, one of the things that you can see as practice is to think, “If I were to be cutting, what would I want? What would I like? How would I want things set up?” And then doing those things for the editor and learning what the editor wants. Thinking in that way, even if you’re not doing all that work with the footage, puts you in the mindset of the editor.