Dartmouth Park Film club: Oscar-winning editor on cutting Shakespeare’s most famous lines from Macbeth
PUBLISHED: 08:00 16 June 2016 | UPDATED: 10:48 16 June 2016
Imogen Blake spoke to Chris Dickens, the latest in a line of Hollywood elite to give up their time for a local film club.
Dartmouth Park is often overlooked in favour of its flashier cousins, Hampstead and Highgate, but this quiet, residential neighbourhood is home to a surprisingly large number of film industry elite.
It’s what prompted Lizzie Gillett, Matt Hird and Christo Hird to start up the monthly Dartmouth Park Film Club last year, a free community event that screens films with a local connection.
It has already hosted talks with a pioneering actor, an acclaimed producer and two Hollywood directors – most of whom live in the area.
Now it’s the turn of Dartmouth Park film editor, Chris Dickens, an Oscar-winner who has collaborated with Tom Hooper on Les Misérables (2014) Edgar Wright on cult comedies Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), and Michael Grandage for upcoming star-studded movie, Genius (2016), out last week in the US.
His 2009 Academy Award for Best Film Editing came after his work with director Danny Boyle on 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire – “something,” he says, “to cherish as being an absolute high point”.
“With success like that, a lot of work goes into it,” Dickens explains.
“Danny Boyle is a great director and he pulled all of it together. The success came from nowhere. People started liking the film, because it was different; it was a different world that people hadn’t seen before, India and Mumbai in particular.”
But it’s for Dickens’ work with director Justin Kurzel on 2015’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that he will be holding a Q&A session in Dartmouth Park later this month after the film club’s screening of the critically-acclaimed film starring Michael Fassbender. The job of the editor was especially tricky, as he and Kurzel had to decide which of Shakespeare’s hallowed words to cut from the final edit.
More than a few of the play’s most famous lines got the chop, including the infamous ‘Double double toil and trouble’ scene with the three witches.
“The text itself might seem sacred, but actually it isn’t,” explains Dickens.
“The director, Justin, he said, ‘Look it might be Shakespeare, but don’t feel we can’t cut anything out.’
“It was written as a play, not a film, and you have to make choices because it’s a different medium. Some things that might work on the stage wouldn’t work on screen,” he adds.
“Inevitably, a few famous things weren’t included, but they actually never shot the ‘toil and trouble’ scene.
“Even if we had shot it, I’m not sure we would have used it, because the tone of the film was so entirely different – quite violent, more visceral.”
As well as talking about his work on the film at the club, the father-of-two will also give an insight into what a film editor actually does.
His job comes towards the end of the process, taking the shots – or “rushes” – after a day’s filming, cutting them together and adding music and sound effects.
It takes, on average, about nine months in total, though it can take longer depending on the movie’s budget.
“Essentially it’s like editing a book, it takes a while to weed out the good and the bad things,” explains the 49-year-old. “The director-editor relationship is very close.
“Whether you’re great friends or not, you are actually in a relationship with that person. The editor’s job is to interpret and get the director’s vision onto the screen and work with them,” he adds.
“It’s not quite a marriage but it could be – a stormy one or a calm one, but it’s always close.”
He won’t divulge any specific stormy instances, but he says he rarely clashes with a director he works with. And even if he disagrees in private, his approach is to try every new idea at least once.
When it works, Dickens says it is intensely satisfying.
But he also admits that he’s had his fair share of times when the film hasn’t come together perfectly for whatever reason. “You never quite know why.
“A different story needs a different approach every time, so you learn, but sometimes you don’t quite get there,” he adds.
“If it doesn’t, a film doesn’t do as well. Macbeth has had a lot of good critical praise and I was really pleased with it, we managed to make a film that Justin the director wanted and the producers wanted.
“But like any enterprise, you never quite know until it’s out in the cinemas what people think of it. When it doesn’t work, the evidence is that people don’t engage with it or don’t understand it.”
Dickens studied art but was always interested in filmmaking.
His career began in TV, working on programmes like north-London based comedy Spaced, where he met Edgar Wright.
The two then worked together on Wright’s first feature, Shaun of the Dead, filmed in and around Crouch End and Muswell Hill, and Dickens has stayed in the film world ever since.
I ask him, why editing, rather than the more traditionally “glamorous” jobs of directing or producing?
“I always liked filmmaking, and early on after I had done some filming, I liked putting it together, because it was physical and you were actually in contact with the film itself.
“Of course now it often isn’t film, it’s shot on digital, but it came from that.”
He adds: “To me, it’s quite a fundamental part of filmmaking, the timing and the music and all the things you put together to create a new story. It’s the most interesting part of it – not necessarily the most important, but for me, the most interesting.”
Dickens will appear at the free Dartmouth Park Film Club screening of Macbeth on Monday, June 27 at Highgate Library Civic Centre in Chester Road at 7pm.