Kiwi nominee ready for big night
Ahead of today’s Oscars ceremony, James Croot caught up with film editor John Gilbert.
John Gilbert will be a relieved man once the Academy Awards are over – regardless of the result. The Wellington film editor is up for an Oscar for his work on Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, but his delight at being nominated for many gongs and winning a Bafta earlier this month, has been tempered by the fact he’s been busy working on his next project.
Gilbert has had to squeeze all the ceremonies, parties, interview requests and congratulatory phone calls around 13-hour days on the set of The Professor and the Madman, a mid-19th century period drama starring Gibson and Sean Penn.
‘‘As you can imagine, fitting everything else around that hasn’t been easy,’’ the normally Porirua-based Gilbert says from his current base in Los Angeles. Such was his commitment, he even missed the Bafta ceremony and is still eagerly awaiting the trophy’s arrival when we speak.
Family are arriving from Shanghai, New York and New Zealand to share in the Oscars fun, but while wife Karen Tonks was still deciding between which of two dresses to wear, Gilbert thinks he already has his outfit sorted.
‘‘There have been a few offers – people send you pictures: ‘would you like to wear this, that, or the other thing’. There was talk of Zambesi sending a suit over – I had to measure myself, but I’m perfectly happy with my black suit that I have here and wore to the ACE [American Cinema Editors] Awards a few weeks ago.’’
If he sounds a little blase about it all, it could be because he’s been so busy and he’s been through it all once before. In 2002, he was nominated for The Fellowship of the Ring, losing out to Pietro Scalia’s Black Hawk Down.
Gilbert says while the Oscars experience might not have changed much in 15 years, his situation has.
‘‘Last time, I didn’t know what it all entailed and I was flying back and forth from New Zealand for the awards season. In those days, I had no idea that people actually campaigned for Oscars. I’ve been a member of the Academy since, so I’ve received innumerable DVDs and all the promotional material for them because people want you to vote for their movie.
‘‘I had this naive idea that people simply picked their favourite movie they’d seen at the cinemas and voted for it. It’s not like that at all – the studios decide which movies they are going to push to Academy members. They have these companies that ring you personally and talk to you about their movie as if you’re an old friend and ask you for feedback. It’s quite extraordinary.’’
So does he consider himself savvy or cynical now? ‘‘We’ll, let’s just say – I’m aware.’’
And if they weren’t before, Hollywood is now very much aware of Gilbert’s talents in the editing room, as he has swept up 13 nominations and four awards from various American-based organisations, as well as that Bafta and two Australian awards.
It’s a career he’s been working on for four decades now, starting out at the National Film Unit, before moving to TVNZ. While that provided him with the opportunity to try his hand at many film and television-making skills, it was ‘‘the only true cinematic art’’ – editing – that captured his attention.
‘‘I’ve always been interested in the sort of intellectual analysis of film: What’s a story about? How is it constructed? What does it mean? All these things evolve from the editing – how you put the film together.’’
In the 1980s, he joined fellow former TVNZ editors like Jamie Selkirk and Simon Reece at Wellington company Mr Chopper, where he worked on the sound edits for films like The Silent One. His ‘‘invisible fingerprints’’ were also all over films and TV shows like Crush and Duggan, before a certain Peter Jackson asked Gilbert to help him out with editing The Frighteners‘ digital effects.
‘‘I’d met Peter while he was editing Bad Taste,’’ Gilbert recalls, before adding that he thinks the reason why the likes of him and King Kong‘s Jabez Olssen (who edited the most recent Star Wars story Rogue One) have gone on to international careers is because working with ‘‘PJ’’ exposed them to the higher standards and expectations that major Hollywood studios had.
Family commitments kept Gilbert working in New Zealand immediately after the success of Fellowship, however his work on the likes of Bridge to Terabithia and The World’s Fastest Indian eventually led to overseas jobs like The Bank Job, Chasing Mavericks and, of course, Hacksaw Ridge.
Of the latter, he says he really enjoyed the opportunity to have indepth discussions with director Mel Gibson while the film was shooting. ‘‘We were shooting on the lot in Sydney, so the stages were just five minutes walk from the editing room. If there was a complicated lighting set-up or location change, he could come in and spend an hour with me. It helps you get on the same page and it helped him get confidence in what I was doing.’’
Gilbert admits that for Hacksaw‘s much-vaunted battle scenes, he took inspiration from Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. ‘‘Obviously that set the standard for World War II battles. I remembered seeing it at the time it came out and it having a fair bit of impact. But while I was definitely interested in coming up to the mark as far as that – our film is very different. Spielberg shot on the beach for three months and had a huge amount of resource. We did things a lot more quickly and ours was more character-based, because you knew the characters before the battle started, while, in his film, you were meeting people you didn’t know anything about.’’
Asked if he felt any extra responsibility dealing with a ‘‘true-life’’ story, Gilbert says while there might be a bit more emphasis on making sure everything is true to that character, he always feels a certain responsibility while editing.
‘‘I go out on to a set and there are hundreds of people out there all day churning out all this footage and I can pick it up or discard it at a moment’s notice. But, at the same time, I can’t be beholden just because something took half a day to create. If It doesn’t work and the film is better without it, you have to do the right thing. Actually, that’s why I don’t like going on set very often. I don’t really want to know how hard it was to get something.’’
Between Hacksaw, Toa Fraser’s 6 Days and Professor, Gilbert hasn’t had any time off for about 18 months. That’s why, despite plenty of offers of work for the middle of the year, he hasn’t yet committed to his next project.
‘‘I’m happy just to put my feet up and consider my options.’’
First though, there’s the small matter of the Oscars ceremony and associated events. In the 24 hours beforehand, there’s a seminar to give on his work at the annual Invisible Art, Invisible Artists event at Hollywood’s famed Egyptian Theatre and a 70th birthday party for Gibson’s business partner Bruce Davies. Hair and make-up is on the agenda for the women in the family, while Gilbert reckons he and son Max (who came with him to the Oscars in 2002) should go out and have a game of pool. ‘‘It will just be a blur I think.’’ Now for the most important question – has he got a speech ready?
‘‘It’s frightening just thinking about it really. I think La La Land is the favourite – everyone is expecting it to win. It is nice to be nominated and to win would be a bit of a bonus, but to be honest, I’m not expecting it. There’s a part of me that would breathe a huge sigh of relief if I didn’t have to get up and speak.’’
❚ The 89th annual Academy Awards will air in New Zealand on Sky TV’s Sky Movies Premiere channel from 2.30pm today. Stuff will be live-blogging the event, with red carpet coverage from late morning.