An Interview with Somewhere's Sarah Flack

Scott Macaulay chats with film editor Sarah Flack, a prot'eg'e of Steven Soderbergh who has cut three movies for Sofia Coppola, including her Venice winner, Somewhere.

As Somewhere editor Sarah Flack tells it, her professional career owes something to the fall of the Berlin Walle.

Let me back up. Flack was a political science major at Brown University in the ‘80s, studying U.S.-Soviet relations. “I was really interested in Prague and the Czech Republic — or Czechoslovakia as it was called back then,” she says. “I was taking film classes just for fun, and I got really interested in [cinema]. I graduated in the Spring of 1989, and a few months later the Berlin Wall came down. Suddenly, everything changed, and it became possible to go to all these countries that I had only studied.”

Okay, but how did Flack move from being a film fan to a professional editor? “After college I had a boring secretarial job at Orion Pictures, and I read the trades every day,” she continues. “In the Spring of 1990 I saw this tiny, one-paragraph piece that Steven Soderbergh was doing a film in Prague. I had been interested in editing from my film classes, so I called everyone I knew and found my way to Prague, where I worked as a P.A. on Kafka.”

That confluence — communism’s collapse and securing a job on Kafka — launched the career of one of today’s most versatile and sensitive film editors, whose credits include not only Coppola’s Somewhere, Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette but also Away We Go, Block Party, Swimfan, and Soderbergh’s The Limey.

For Coppola’s work, Flack has helped realize the director’s masterful, precisely calibrated capturing of people at crossroads in their lives. Coppola’s characters are affected by relationships, place, and history as they subtly transform ambiguous, uncertain moments into life changes. In Somewhere, an emotionally adrift movie star, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), stays at L.A.’s Chateau Marmont while doing press for his film and recuperating from a minor injury. When his ex-wife unexpectedly drops off their 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), Marco must be not only the groovy best friend that is his own conception of fatherhood but a real dad too. With long takes and a gaze that is both objective and compassionate, Coppola draws us into Marco’s world, and Flack’s editing captures a seemingly languid lifestyle while highlighting the quiet drama lurking underneath.

The patient rhythms of Somewhere could not be more different than the kinetic, time-and-place-shifting cutting she brought to Soderbergh’s hit-man drama, The Limey. What’s even more remarkable is that Flack cut this masterfully edited film quite early in her career. Flack explains how her relationship with Soderbergh, who has been something of a mentor, developed. “I was 22 when [Soderbergh] was shooting Kafka, and he was only 27 or 28,” she says. “He was really wonderful about encouraging young people, perhaps because he started in the business as a young person himself. One thing Steven taught me was that no director is going to want an editor who only agrees with them. Always state your opinion, but do it in a nice, constructive way and the directors are then free to take or leave it. In my classes at Brown and, later, the Rhode Island School of Design, we learned how to give and receive constructive criticism. I had no idea when I was taking them that they’d be a massive part of my job. I was really glad when Steven gave me that advice.”

Something else Flack attributes as essential to her career: cinema’s transition from editing on film to editing on the computer. “I was at exactly the right age to have benefited from the change,” she says. “For my first five to seven years working as an assistant editor, everything was cut on film. So, I first learned the ‘old-fashioned’ technology and the fundamentals of film editing on the original medium. But then I’ve also been lucky to have cut all my features on the Avid.”

The Avid, a computer editing system that is still a dominant platform while it has also influenced desktop systems like Final Cut Pro, turns out to be a key player in Flack’s transition from assistant to editor. She was an assistant on films like the Jean-Claude Van Damme thriller Double Impact and learned this new system as soon as it hit the market. “Five years after Kafka, when the Avid was just starting, I heard from mutual friends I had worked with, including sound designer Mark Mangini, that Steven was looking for an assistant to help him with this new technology. So, Steven hired me to be his assistant editor in 1995 on Schizopolis. I digitized all the footage and set the project up for him to edit. But then he wound up being too busy, so he started feeding me individual scenes to cut. He liked what I did, so he let me edit the whole movie. And then it all went from there.

A few years later Flack worked again with Soderbergh on The Limey, one of the most creatively edited features of the last two decades. But, remembers Flack, it didn’t start out that way. “The film was completely written and shot linearly, except for two scenes that were not written in a nonlinear way,” she says. “Steven had just come off Out of Sight, and he was really happy with that famous non-linear love scene he did with Anne Coates, the editor.” Flack says for The Limey Soderbergh shot five scenes that were essentially doubled in two different locations. “We had access to all the lines of dialogue in any of the locations so we could be completely nonlinear when I was doing the rough cut,” Flack remembers. “It seemed obvious that Steven wanted [that approach], so I cut these scenes like he did the scene in Out of Sight. He loved it, said to take it even further, so I did.”

Weeks later, when the edit was finished, Soderbergh and his team screened it for the first time. “It was a linear version of the movie as it was scripted except for the nonlinear scenes,” she says, “and it was completely flat. The next day, Steven came in with a yellow legal pad and had handwritten everything that became the movie as now edited. Overnight, he had reconceived the movie. Then, for the next seven weeks, we treated the film almost like a pendulum, swinging it from more non-linear to less non-linear until it found its place. So, yes, the whole film was completely devised in the editing room.”

Flack’s relationship with Coppola began following another macro-change in the editing community: the merging of the different branches of the editor’s union, allowing a West Coast editor to easily move and pick up work again in New York. After working in L.A. for a few years, Flack says she “realized that the kinds of films I like to see are being made more in New York.” She moved to New York in 1999 and her agent sent her out on producer meet-and-greets, one of which was with Lost in Translation producer Ross Katz. Later when Coppola’s second feature was crewing up, Flack met the director and was hired the next day.

“Working with Sofia — it’s a joy,” Flack says. “It’s so easy and effortless. Our working relationship has been amazing from day one.” Flack, who says that Coppola’s first film, The Virgin Suicides, was one of her favorites of 1999, has cut all of the director’s films since. One reason editing for Coppola is such a dream job, she says, is because of the director’s vision and ability to maintain control over her features. “She has the ability to make creative films that are not necessarily influenced by people other than herself.” Flack says she also deeply connects with Coppola’s creative vision and shares her tastes.  “A friend of mine said after seeing Lost in Translation, ‘You found a home for your sensibilities,’ and I think that says it really well. I think if I had seen Lost in Translation and had never worked on it, it would still have been one of my favorite films ever.”

What’s the process of working with Coppola like? “Her directions are so minimal yet so crystal clear,” Flack says, “And until I heard other people say the same thing about her, I just thought we had this amazing, psychic artistic direction! But after listening to other people describe their collaborations, I have realized that she manages to convey what she wants in the simplest, most elegant ways. And she combines that with choosing her collaborators well; she picks people for the different departments who share her tastes and sensibilities.”

As an example of their creative synergy, Flack cites a moment early on from Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. “There’s a scene in the script referred to as ‘the dressing ceremony,’” Flack remembers. “Kirsten Dunst, playing Marie Antoinette, gets dressed by other people every morning. It’s a ritual, and it’s repeated throughout the film. The first time I saw the scene I wanted to cut it to the Vivaldi music that was used in All that Jazz. Vivaldi was a contemporary of Marie Antoinette, and it would also be an homage to that film. But I wouldn’t do that as early as my rough assembly, so I cut the scene without music. Sofia watched it and emailed me: ‘Why don’t you drop in the Vivaldi music from All that Jazz?’”

Discussing Somewhere, Flack says, “It was a new experience for me in the editing room. Because of the way Sofia and Harris designed the shots, there wasn’t traditional coverage in many of the scenes.” (Editors generally like “coverage” — multiple shots from different angles of the same action — as it allows for more choices in the editing room.) “But the length of the shots brought with it a wonderful sense of realism. So there were decisions about how long or how short some shots would remain on camera, such as the opening shot of the car going around the track, or Johnny smoking a cigarette alone in his hotel room. That was a new thing for me, and I really liked it.”

While there may be fewer cuts in Somewhere than in other films Flack has edited (exponentially less than The Limey), there are many scenes in which the sensitive, delicate cutting helps convey worlds of meanings. One such scene is a “morning after” in Venice, where movie star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) has attended a premiere with his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning). Over a nearly wordless breakfast, Cleo matures before our eyes as she sizes up her dad and her dad’s co-star lover. “I think that was my favorite thing to cut in the whole movie,” Flack says. “I love being able to, with the director, tell a story where there’s no dialogue. That scene, with all the looks – his looks, her looks – I loved it.” Flack cites as another favorite scene the montage scored to the Strokes “I’ll Try Anything Once” in a low-fi, demo version. “I love that scene,” she says. “Sofia sent me the song early on, and it dictated the montage. The images worked so well with [that music].”

Throughout the interview, Flack and I try to pin down the style of Somewhere, which feels different than Coppola’s other films. I suggest “observational.” “’Observational’ is a good word,” says Flack. “It is observational, but at the same time, you feel like you’re within Johnny’s world. So it’s observational combined with the subjective, and it shifts throughout the film. But we never talked about Sofia’s specific intent like this.”

Now that Somewhere is finished, would Flack ever be interested in cutting a very different kind of film — say, a Hollywood special effects extravaganza? No, she says. “I’m very, very fast and proficient on the Avid. I compare it to playing a musical instrument —you only have to think about the music if your hands know where the notes are. On the Avid, I don’t have to think about how to make the ideas work – they just come out from my brain through my hands onto the footage. If I had to do an effects film, with something that was using a technology I was not as accustomed to, it would be more about figuring out where the notes are instead of what the music is.”