Editor Claire Simpson Talks ELIC

One of the most intricately structured Oscar contenders, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, was totally dependent on cathartically conveying the aftermath of 9/11 — in particular, the sensitive portrayal of nine-year-old Oskar (played by newcomer Thomas Horn). I recently had an illuminating email exchange with editor Claire Simpson (Academy Award winner for Platoon) about the challenges of the film.

You previously worked with director Stephen Daldry on The Reader. What has your collaboration been like?

Stephen’s pioneering work has been primarily in theatre. He is very meticulous about text and performance. Since these are the areas that I am most comfortable, I find it really exciting and enjoyable to work with him. He uses a late Stanislavski technique when creating a scene with the actors, which revolves around action and intention. He likes to see a cut of a scene as soon as possible while he is shooting just in case he needs to modify or rethink the dynamics. It requires working very fast and understanding the nuances of the text. There is a constant dialog between us and because I had already worked with him on The Reader, we had developed a very honest and straight forward rapport

What were his priorities about what we should and shouldn’t see about 9/11 as well as Oskar’s tricky portaryal?

Oskar, our young protagonist, has a condition bordering on Asperger’s syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum. His behavior is very particular: obsessive, compulsive; highly intelligent but without social skill, which sometimes make his interactions inappropriate. Before principal photography began, Stephen and his team researched the available studies on Asperger’s syndrome and were very well versed in the behavioral patterns and symptoms. Oskar is not an easily accessible child and his way of processing information is through rigorous analysis as opposed to empathetic evaluation. Paradoxically, his imagination is so fertile it generates paranoia and fear of everyday things. This is exacerbated by the loss of his Dad [Tom Hanks]. Given the nature of his father’s death in the WTC on 9/11, which is still so raw to us, one had to be very careful that there was authenticity to both character and events and that 9/11 should never be a background but a principal player. We were very sensitive to the feelings of the relatives of those who perished that day and we had many discussions with both support groups of the families and many of the families themselves, as to what they felt was appropriate and honest.

What was it like balancing the emotional needs with the reality of the events depicted? 

The biggest challenge was how much of the actual news footage from 9/11, if any, to include in the film and whether or not to use the image of “the falling man.” The content of the answer machine messages was also a matter of concern. Some viewers and critics have found the use of these images prurient.  We had early private screenings for some families who had a child or parent killed in WTC and for some support groups of these families. All without exception had insisted that we not shy away from using these images. One sibling told of hearing a prayer group in the background of his brother;s final message. A mother spoke of the generosity and thoughtfulness for his friends and family that her son had shown at the hour of his death. Others spoke of the fear and panic. One gentleman, whose son had died, heartbreakingly described the effects on his grandson. Many of the children of the victims obsess about whether there parent was “a jumper”; they examine photographs downloaded from the internet.. And those who had no recovered body to bury, which is the vast majority, are left to imagine the unimaginable. In the child, Oskar, we tried to express the pain of that catastrophic loss, in particular. Grief is universal. if we can understand the legacy of pain from this kind of catastrophic event then perhaps we will be less willing to allow it to be repeated anywhere.

Talk about balancing the fictional aspects of the story with the real events.

Obviously, the idea that a child would find a lock for a key in a metropolitan area as big as New York is pretty farfetched and so the impulse is to make the search as interesting as possible without portraying New York as a city populated by ridiculously colorful eccentrics and therefore removing any sense of reality from the boys journey. So there is a delicate balancing act between “magical realism” and the emotional force of the narrative that the real events evoke. The events are told through the perspective of an emotionally challenged child who has lost his father, mentor, and guide through life in a catastrophic event. Oskar’s mother struggles through her own grief to take care of him but the relationship does not have the same symbiotic dynamic as father and son.

There is a scene where Oskar has locked his mother out of the bathroom. She knocks on the door begging to be let in. Oskar asks her why she wants to come in and she answers from behind the glass, “To tell you that I love you.” There is a companion scene to this where Oskar, after leaving the apartment, whispers, “I love you,” on the other side of the door where his mom is standing.  She has broken down in tears but he cannot hear her and is left to speculate on what her reaction might be. So you have two scenes about two people who are so emotionally broken that they are incapable of reaching each other. This culminates in a heartbreaking fight between them where Oskar, expressing his anger at the incoherent tragedy, declares, “I wish it were you, I wish it were you in the building instead of him,” and she responds, “So do I!” Sandra Bullock is masterful in these scenes. In a very restrained performance, she bravely portrays a mother who seems cold and remote, but it pays off in the end because it enables her to have an incredibly powerful scene of reconciliation at the end of the film.

What was the post process like?

We entered production with a very long script. To try and consolidate the story into a reasonable length and maintain the integrity of the script was very challenging. Fortunately, I had worked with Stephen before and we work very quickly turning over ideas and the performances were all really tight. Thomas Horn was extraordinary. He could sustain his performance through a five minute take and I never had to stitch together a scene. His focus and intensity were ever present. We use montage as a short cut in telling the story of the journey and meeting “The Blacks.” There are also a lot of flashbacks because the story revolves around memory and how we restructure events in our brain.

It came down to the wire right before the Christmas release.

Sandra Bullock’s scenes were the first to be shot because of her availability. There is a scene where she is looking through Oskar’s expedition diary, which has photographs of the people Oskar meets on his quest. But those scenes had not been shot yet. Indeed, many of the people whom Oskar was to encounter had not even been cast at that point. The book was compiled at the end of production and we shot inserts of Oskar making the book and inserts of it’s content when Thomas Horn came to New York to record his ADR

What are your favorite moments?

Working with Max Von Sydow was one of the best moments of my career. He was so generous in his performance and had such great comic timing. He played The Renter with such delicacy. First of all he doesn’t speak and so all the communication is by written notes and gestures. There is some editorial ellipsis necessary when writing the notes to reduce screen time and he had “Yes” tattooed on his left hand and “No” tattooed on his right hand which provided a kind of semaphore.

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Below the Line, Editing, Events, Movies, Oscar, Tech, Trailers

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