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An Interview with Jake Roberts: Can He Ride the “Brooklyn” Wave to a First Oscar Nomination for Best Film Editing?

brooklyn saoirse ronan

John Crowley’s “Brooklyn” is currently delighting critics and audiences. Saoirse Ronan’s triumph yesterday at the New York Film Critics Circle is likely the beginning of a solid run for the film through Oscar season. The changing time periods, locations and moods required a sharp but subtle editor. Enter Jake Roberts, an up-and-comer in his field who I recently had the chance to catch up with.

Q: When did you come aboard “Brooklyn”?

A: I met John [Crowley, the director] in November of 2013, about 4 months before shooting. John had cut all his previous films with the same editor, Lucia Zucchetti, and fortunately for me, she was busy so he needed someone else. The producers (who I’d worked with before) put in a good word for me and fortunately that led to my getting hired.

Q: To what extent were you involved during filming?

A: I was near the location throughout but I wasn’t usually present at filming. John would look at assemblies every now and then but he knew what he was getting and was happy to leave the editing to the end of shooting.

Q: This isn’t a film that screams out as warranting “showy” editing? How do you approach that?

A: I’m very happy to be invisible. As often as not, good editing is invisible. A lot of films that win awards for editing have “a lot of editing” because that’s how you get noticed. I responded to the dailies by taking what John and Yves [Bélanger, the cinematographer] did on set.

Q: How was John Crowley to work with?

A: It was a dream working with John. He’s very involved and likes to be there every single day. He very much wanted to be there but in no way was dictatorial. He wanted to discuss what decision to make but it didn’t have to be his decision. Fortunately, we shared very similar tastes. In the big emotional set pieces of the film, 95% of the choices I made on the first assembly were the ones that made the film. We obviously were really on the same page.

Q: You mentioned you worked with Yves Bélanger – did you work frequently with him and/or other below-the-line artists?

A: We didn’t interact very much. I try not to “order in” shots unless I think we really really need them. As an editor, part of your role throughout production is to “keep morale up” and to make what you have work. Doing otherwise can hinder the production.

Q: Did the film being an “actors’ piece” affect your approach?

A: Absolutely. The very first conversation I had with John was about the story and how intimate he wanted it to be. It’s a film about changing continents but not about landscapes or environments – it’s about the protagonist. If there was a choice in the film between takes where the lighting or the camera angle was better in one but the performance wasn’t quite as good, we were always going to go with the performance. Saoirse’s character is a very empathetic centre to the film but she’s very passive as well. You have to be in her head to be invested in the narrative.

Q: Did you feel obliged to have a different pace in Ireland and the States?

A: The section that is self-consciously slower is when she returns to Ireland. We wanted that section dreamy as she was hypnotized by being back at home. The rhythm of the film definitely changes there. The initial pace – the first piece in Ireland – would have had a slower pace than it ultimately does but we wanted to get her to America as fast as possible. So we trimmed scenes.

Q: What did you find particularly challenging about this movie?

A: The biggest challenge was really trying to keep the audience on side and make them understand when she goes back to Ireland. You ask the audience to invest in this relationship with Tony but then you have her head turned when she returns to Ireland. You make the audience very torn. There was a scene early on in her time in Ireland when she gets a letter from Tony and she’s very happy and then suddenly she’s on the beach with Jim. So we decided to add more of a sense of a passage of time and moved some scenes intended later for her time in Ireland and made them come before the time with Jim on the beach.

Q: Changing the subject – how did you get into editing?

A: As an abstract concept as a teenager, I thought I’d make movies. Then I met a friend of a friend who was starting an editing company. I originally thought it was a string to my bow – not a vocation. I didn’t really know what editing was. But I just loved it and it felt just like “making movies”, much more than being on a set – that can feel like sitting in a car park. I take something from its raw state – which is the dailies – and give a bit of help to make the movie come alive with all the pieces of making a movie such as music and sound. It was just a real thrill and it still is.

Q: When you look back on your experience on “Brooklyn”, what will you most remember?

A: Saoirse’s face. It was a very pleasant five months. She’s just an extraordinarily skilled actress who just has an innate natural screen presence unlike anything I’ve ever worked with. Her eyes will forever be burned into my mind.

Transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

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