Squaring Up to Ken Sallows
by Trevor Holcomb, 2003

Ken Sallows ASE, recent winner of the IF award for Best Editing for Gettin’ Square, is back home in Melbourne before embarking on another feature film in January. He talks here with Trevor Holcomb (ASE Vic Committee) about his experiences cutting Gettin’ Square and Missing Tom. |

Ken, you've just cut two very interesting films in the past 12 months, Gettin’ Square and Missing Tom. Can you tell us how you got involved in these projects?

I was very lucky with Gettin’ Square because I was approached to do it while I was in Sydney polishing the edit of a film called Rage In Placid Lake. I got a call from Director Jonathon Teplitzky, asking me if I was interested in reading the script. I’d never worked with Jonathon before so we met at Spectrum where I was working at Fox Studios and I said I’d love to do it. It was already financed and in November they started shooting on the Gold Coast for nine weeks, and I started the main edit after Christmas and worked on it until the start of April at Soundfirm at Fox.

Missing Tom was a different scenario. I met Alkinos [Tsilimidos] after attending a couple screenings for two of his very low-budget films, Everynight…Everynight and Silent Partner, which is a true ’credit card’ film shot on a ratio of 4:1. He shot that in Sydney and was cutting the film himself out of his flat in Sydney on an old 4-plate Steenbeck. He brought it to me to work on for 3 weeks but we basically got everything done in a week because there wasn’t much coverage. I got along well with Alkinos and he was now trying to get Missing Tom up with a reasonable budget. He finally got finance for 2 million dollars, which is a low-budget film these days, and it actually was a struggle to make it for that – 27 day shoot in Melbourne starting every afternoon and finishing well into the night for the cast and crew.

Missing Tom is a totally different film to Gettin’ Square. Gettin’ Square, you could say, is a light, fun sort of film whereas Missing Tom is a Daniel Keene script. I call it a resurrection film. It’s about an Architect (Colin Friels) who decides after being told by his boss to take a year off, never to go back home again. He’s got a wife (Rachel Blake) and 2 kids at home. It’s a descent into hell, meeting various people and it’s as if he’s trying to persecute himself. As a result of that he changes.


I heard you had to edit the old-fashioned way with Alkinos?

Alkinos really likes the process of cutting on film due to his previous experiences cutting Everynight…Everynight and Silent Partner on super 16mm. However, Missing Tom is 35mm, and for about a year beforehand I was trying to convince Alkinos that it wasn’t the best approach. Alkinos kept saying, "No, I really want to cut it on film." He really wanted to do it this way because of his past experience and because you’re supposed to see the pictures more clearly and have more time to contemplate things. Non-linear is actually now cheaper than cutting on film - the biggest cost of cutting on film is magnetic sound stock because it is so hideously rare and expensive. In the end I agreed and whilst he was in preproduction I went up to the Gold Coast and Sydney and did Gettin’ Square on a Touch, the wonderful new Lightworks machine. I then came back to Melbourne and worked on a Steenbeck out of the Joinery in Albert Park.


I understand that you didn’t exactly enjoy cutting the old-fashioned way.

There is a whole "romantic notion" to cutting on film. The last time I actually cut on 35mm was 6 years prior to Missing Tom. The romance, this time, lasted for about an hour and a half! Then I just started whinging endlessly! The only advantage to cutting on film was that we had film rushes with the sound each day because Tim Lewis [The Joinery] hired and operated the projector. This is nice, but there are so many disadvantages to cutting on film now that makes it pretty redundant. After about 4-5 weeks on Missing Tom, we telecined the film and put it on Lightworks so that we could do a decent soundtrack.

These days Producers expect the sound to be quite worthwhile, but cutting on film we only had one track. There were scenes in the film that needed a minimum of 4 tracks to make them work. We constructed the sound on Lightworks and then transferred back to film and screened it as a film version.


Do you think if you had of cut on non-linear it would have been a different film?

It probably would have been slightly different, but you can never really tell. The frustrating thing with cutting on film is that it is hard to make changes; you’re always delaying making changes because the process is so time consuming. On a computer you just do it straight away. When we were on the Lightworks doing the sound work we also did some picture trimming at the same time. If we had stayed on film the whole time I probably wouldn’t have made those changes. The other weird thing about cutting on film is that you’re supposed to the see the pictures more clearly because it’s a workprint as opposed to a digitised image on a computer. But images on Steenbecks bounce so the picture quality is degraded anyway.

On many of your recent films you’ve travelled all around Australia to cut. For Yolgnu Boy you went to Arnhem Land, for Gettin’ Square it was the Gold Coast and Sydney, and your next feature Irresistible will be cut in Adelaide. Do you think an aspiring editor has to be flexible these days?

You always have to be flexible. I think its lovely to actually be in a situation where you can go to different places to work; it’s like paid holidays. You’re put up somewhere for around three months and with Yolgnu Boy being in Arnhem Land was extraordinary. The fact is if it weren’t for my career, I probably would have thought about going there but never got around to it. It was also a great time to get out of Melbourne because that was the day Essendon lost to Carlton in the preliminary final by one point.

Working interstate is generally good fun, and a good thing these days is the portability of computers. On Gettin’ Square we were fortunate to be able to use Lightworks Touch. Roger Savage who’d won the quote was originally going to supply a Heavyworks, but rang me up and said, "Ken, what do you think of the idea of using Touch?" I replied, "That would be fantastic Roger, but I know you can’t alter your quote. I’ve got nothing to do with the money there. It’s your deal with the producers." Anyway, he got it through, which was fantastic. Because we were initiates on the film using this equipment, we had assistance from Michael Henderson from Soundfirm in Sydney, who is a bit of a techno wiz as well as a good mixer. I hope to be using the same machines on Anne’s [Turner] film in Adelaide.


What was it like working with Jonathon Teplitzky?

When you start working with someone you don't really know it doesn’t take long to get to know each other pretty well in the cutting room. Gettin’ Square is primarily a comedy/heist film. My line to him when I first read the script was two things: I told him I thought it was a series of ’shaggy dog stories’, and there was one scene in there (Spiteri courtroom scene) which is about seven pages of script, and if we didn’t get that right we didn’t have a movie. It was fortunate that Jonathon got Wenham to play Spiteri, primarily because I think he had a relationship with him as a result of Better Than Sex, Jonathon’s first feature. Jonathon wanted to try and do things differently. He and the cinematographer he usually works with, Garry Phillips, were trying to alter the normal idea of framing.


Slightly off kilter?

Yes, so that freed me in other areas because we’re not making a conventional film with a lot of talking heads. It allowed a different way of treating lots of the talking going on in the film. Jonathon is one of those people who likes ideas and if you’re just going to sit there and not offer any ideas there was no point working with him. He encourages that which is great.


The film was produced by three companies: Freshwater Pictures (Trish Lake, association with Chris Nyst), Mushroom Pictures (Martin Fabyini), and Working Title Australia (Tim White). Mushroom of course had access to a lot of music and Adrian Murray who works for Mushroom Music just inundated us with hundreds of CD’s. We thought, "Okay we can use all that but we still have to pay for it." Then in the editing room when we were cutting the film all of a sudden we’d be delivered another box of CD’s. We didn’t have time to listen to all of them. There are a few bits and pieces of music that we sourced from Adrian, then Machine Gun Fellatio came in as the composers of the film and they hadn’t done a film before. We also opened and closed with Groove Armada and had a Nick Cave song in the middle. The Nick Cave song was probably the most difficult thing to handle because if we had Groove Armada type music before him, his song stuck out like dogs balls. We always had this idea that if we were to get rid of music for about 10-15 minutes before it, the Nick Cave song would work.


From all reports, Teplitzky knew the script back to front. Did you feel any pressure to do the same? Or was it a case of "throwing the script away" when the cutting began?

No, he worked on the script from the first version that he read, which was 150 pages long, and he worked with Chris Nyst on cutting it down. It was still very long when it was shot, but the script is always going to change on a feature drama depending on your performances and whether they’re working or not. The great thing about working on location is that if something wasn’t quite working, Jonathon would pick this up very quickly and fix it.

The first assembly screening of a film after the shoot is always the most disastrous. I always tell directors that this screening is going to stress you endlessly. They always say, "Nah it won’t worry us." When they see it their faces drop, not because the film is bad, but because all you’ve done is assemble the film as per the script. And from there you actually make the film. The difficult process is to get the director to forget about the shoot and using all the ’babies’ they’ve shot (the ones they spent the most time setting up). They must forget about the shoot all together - here is the film and this is what we’ve got to play with.

Missing Tom, in comparison, was a fairly ordered script. Alkinos storyboarded the entire film because he had a short amount of time to shoot it in - 150 scenes in 27 days. That was the first time I saw the film, every scene, and it was his blueprint for the shoot. I had a copy of the storyboards before we started shooting and his line was, "If it looks like I’m missing out on anything just tell me." I had a look and said, "Ok that’s fine" and then I never looked at them again. It’s a kind of restriction, you can’t help but think, "Well this is what we thought we were going to do but it’s not actually what’s appeared on screen."


Were there any editorial challenges for you on Gettin’ Square and Missing Tom?

Because there are so many characters in Gettin’ Square, the challenge was to establish who was the lead as quickly as possible so the audience knows what’s going on. I guess the opening sequence doesn’t help because the characters have all got balaclavas on!

On Missing Tom, it was great coming back to Melbourne in winter cutting a film about a tormented man whilst your football team is playing like shit! (laughs) It was a wearing process on this film. Missing Tom is an episodic film of around six chapters. In the four chapters in the middle, the lead character is associating with different people. The challenge with this structure is that we set up such a pace with the Loene Carmen section, the third section of the film, that when we got to the next one [Bill Hunter] the film slowed down. To pick up the pace again we cut back a bit of Bill’s stuff. It was a decision we had to make not because Bill Hunter wasn’t any good, he was fantastic, but we were doing what the film dictated. This was just something we had to work out how to fix in the editing room because we couldn’t see that happening in the script.


Any favourite sequences?

My favourite Gettin’ Square sequences are the opening because I was quite involved in selecting the music for it, and the Spiteri courtroom scene which everyone will talk about endlessly. The coverage on that scene was extraordinary! When you get a marked-up script with lines down the page – you know you might get 5 or 6 lines down the page means you’ve got 5 or 6 alternatives from different camera angles. There are some pages in that scene that had about 30 lines down the page. It was a bit of a battle to get through it initially but it didn’t really change from the first assembly to the way it is on the screen, which is extraordinary. I think everyone was scared of opening up a can of worms if we did.

Also the end sequence starts when they've pulled off the robbery, we’re in the van, we realise that Spiteri is alive and as soon as we realise he’s alive we have to quickly go through all of the characters and find out what happens to them. The film finished in the van then there was another seven minutes of stuff going on and because we had to link this all together in some way. It was fortunate that we got the second Groove Armada track, which has a nice repetitive rhythm, and we just raised and lowered the level of it all the way through to link the whole end sequence together. Other than that I always perversely say that my favourite character in Gettin’ Square is David Field because he is just so bent! (Laughs)

In Missing Tom I'd probably actually say the Loene Carmen section of the film is my favourite because it is brutal. There is no scene in particular I like, I guess it's just all the junky Espy stuff. Surprisingly, David Field is a protagonist in this section of the film too!


What do you think of two-day film schools?

It's a big promise. I've been working in the film industry for 30 years and there is stuff I don't even know! I think they are okay to learn the basics. I think it's a nice idea though.

The silly thing about the Australian film industry at the moment is that, since finishing Missing Tom, my next official job is in January next year (Irresistible). And of course nothing happens and then all of a sudden a lot of stuff happens. You have to be prepared to be out of work for awhile and practice your golf game!


How is your golf game going by the way?

It's a lot better when I don't play with you! (Laughs) I tried to get Anne Turner and Franziska Wagenfeld involved in golf, but they don't seem terribly interested! Franziska came up with a great line the other day - "There is no exercise in golf!" I said back to her, "Yeah you only walk about 10 miles!"