Pietro Scalia interview

Pietro Scalia‘s fingerprints are all over many, many great films. The Academy-award winning editor’s work on JFK is nothing short of masterful, and the same goes for his several collaborations with Ridley Scott. Throughout his career, Scalia has shown a wide range – he has cut together epic period pieces, documentaries, comic book movies, and dramas like Good Will Hunting. Most recently, he brought his talents to director Ron Howard‘s Solo: A Star Wars Story, which features a train robbery sequence that never loses momentum.

The action scene ranks amongst some of the franchise’s most thrilling action set pieces. Over 10 minutes, Scalia and the filmmakers keep cranking up the energy and suspense with the characters at the forefront of a sequence mammoth in scope.

Scalia recently spoke with us about editing the scene, the movie’s surprise cameo, and how one dramatic scene evolved through reshoots.

You’ve said before you design a scene based on camera movements. How did Ron Howard and [cinematographer] Bradford Young’s choices influence how you cut the movie?

It was great to have a Star Wars film that looked different than other Star Wars films. I really liked the direction that Bradford was going with the look, this greenness of it. He had very specific ideas of how the colors would change from the grunge-y Corellia to the mountains. Later in the Kessel mines: the yellow, the greens. I think that Ron also embraced that. With Ron there, his approach … one of the early scenes that shadows the Kessel mine escape, and it’s a very complex action sequences in terms of moving, I just remember how he described it, how he wanted to have these moving and flowing cameras, and even cameras on wires, handheld, just to create this chaos.

I just interpret the material that I get, but I’m familiar with this kind of documentary feel of the action and completive action, close to something like Black Hawk Down. I like to find, within the chaos and all the coverage that was given, the pieces that sometimes not necessarily were meant to be or are for specific act, to use the dynamic of the camera movement or the choreography of the action, the explosions that happen, just the visual stimulation to give energy, and at the same time build tension, trying to get that.

I get inspired by the material that is presented to me. It was great to have the experience of Ron Howard. I’m very familiar with and loved his films. Even though we never worked together, he was a producer on two films that I did with both American Gangster and Robin Hood. It was great to work with a master like Ron.

One sequence with a lot of chaos and energy is the train robbery sequence, which has a good amount of characters and moving pieces. How long did it take to find the pace and rhythm of that sequence?

Well, the thing is, the train heist sequence, that was one of the longest sequences that was in gestation. I came on the show eight weeks already in production, principal photography and before Ron came on. For me, I was quite behind the eight ball because I didn’t know a lot about the material having been shot, trying to get up to speed. The train sequence, at that stage, was really in the early stages of second unit sequences being shot. Most of the sequence was still in the previs stag, with animation and storyboards, text, with assistants doing the actors lines, very raw. I heard that they had to work on that sequence even before they started shooting, for probably about six or seven months, on the concept.

What happened is that is that we had Chris Rouse, another friend and editor, come in and help out and basically take over at that stage, in terms of shaping the original concepts and changes that were brought in with rewrites and what Ron wanted to do. So the action changes. When you go through these stages, takes time to figure out with storyboards and previous, in order to get to second unit shots. It’s a complex sequence that, when you’re at that stage and have very little time, things need to move very fast with shooting and what elements need to be done.

It was a high pressure cooker. I’m just happy that the initial pass and sorting out was done by Chris Rouse and then when Chris left, I took over and finished it up and restructured. It kept changing throughout the process of editing it. It was a long process. Both those big action sequences, both that and the Kessel one, took a very, very long time. The stress is simply because, with parts of animation, with complexity of visual effects, with the recreation and elements that needed to make it look seamless, it’s just elaborate and complex. At the same time, never forget what the whole point is, just a visually stunning sequence with important characters and always coming back to them.

Like anything, it takes a very long time and you fine-tune and restructure and cut. You wanna have everything but then everything is like 13 minutes long. It just becomes too long. And it’s like, well, what if we cut that? It’s tough because you have to work on many parts at the same time, both the rewrites, the artists creating the storyboards, the visual effects, the second units, units waiting to shooting elements, which way do we go … The editor and the cutting, we have to be on top with trying to give feedback as much as possible, incorporating also the stunts. Figuring out how the stunts are gonna work. It’s quite complex.

Solo: A Star Wars Story Trailer Breakdown

Was there a more dialogue-driven scene, not just a set piece, that evolved quite a bit and took some extra fine-tuning? 

I think one of the critical scenes in the film was really the reunion between Han and Qi’ra, when he finds her again on Dryden’s (Paul Bettany) ship. It’s a very delicate point, but also a very critical point in the story. They haven’t seen each other for several years, how do they react to each other?

That scene was shot several times. The first time around, when Chris and Phil were there, there were different actors, different blocking. Ron wanted to do something different and we shot it. It was not so much the performance, it was more about blocking and moving the camera, getting a little bit more of the environment and the party. We also had Paul Bettany come in as a new character, so things changed a lot. So we shot that again. We went back for a pickup and re-shoots and we went back to do a few more lines between the two of them, so we incorporated the first shoot Ron did and the second time around.

It was again about fine-tuning character and the piece, the emotional beats. Because it’s very difficult how … not difficult, just complex emotionally, and delicate in terms of what their reactions would be and how the story progresses from that moment on when they see each other. All the past has been between them, the things that have not said, what has happened. I think from Qi’ra’s character’s standpoint, a very difficult scene, but also for Han. I think that took some time in really fine-tuning surgically to revisit all the material that was shot, the takes, the performances, the pauses, the subtleties between them, the hesitations, the looks. It took some time but it was very, very fine work.

I think, in this particular film, what just crossed my mind is the fact that we deal with large-scale vistas and epic action sequences, but at the same time, we can always bring it back to the minute and emotional state of the characters. I think that particular scene ultimately resonates right for the characters, emotionally.

Mentioning what Phil and Chris shot, what was that experience like working with all that material in addition to Ron Howard’s work and the reshoots? How did they gel together?

No, it was different. I wouldn’t be mixing and combining, it’s completely different. It’s just that once Ron came on, it changed completely and over 70% of the film was re-shot. At the same time, when I came on, I had to start back from scratch. I was not building on something that was already built. I worked for a few weeks with Chris and Phil. I did start back from the beginning building the scene – the only way I could actually understand the material, no disrespect to who was there before me, the other editor. It was simply that in order to understand how to build it, you need to know the material and you need to start at the base. That is always looking at the takes, the performance, building character, and discovering yourself. It was never a combination of elements. There were certain things that Ron retained from Chris and Phil, full scenes, but it was because of logistics and not being able to go back on location. It was never cross-contaminated.

Ron Howard told us one scene he reshot that he was the Darth Maul reveal. What changed?

Well, the thing is it was … I think it had to do with the surprise and also the dialogue between he and Qi’ra and really what is his presence? And how does it affect what Qi’ra is doing? I think the original scene was a little bit too … I don’t know, it was fine. I think there were certain things that they wanted to change, both dialogue-wise and saying less, and creating a little bit more fear in Qi’ra. There was an element where it was just too simplistic, she easily goes with this villain. I think Ron wanted to get a little bit more depth and layers in the performance that it’s a devil’s pact taking this on. He redid it, both the performances of both actors, because of change of dialogue, and incorporated more complexity in the performance.

I know sometimes you want to reduce the theme of a movie to images. For Solo: A Star Wars Story, what were some of those images you wanted to emphasize to reinforce any of the themes?

I don’t know if there was something like that. I’d have to think about that a little bit. To me, it wasn’t as easy to condense into one theme. I think the one guiding principle, for me, something that I always cared about, was the heart of the story. To me, it’s the friendship between Han Solo and Chewie. It was that: that feeling that I remember from the films that I’ve seen and how, of all the people that Han meets and how lifeless he gets and evolves and becomes ultimately the cynical character that we know, it was really the friendship that to me resonated the most. I wanted to be, emotionally, truthful as much as possible. To me, that was the heart, and I didn’t want to fail on that. When I met Joonas Suotamo, who plays Chewbacca, I told him, just joking, “When in doubt, cut to Chewie.” [Laughs]

[Laughs] That’s a good rule of thumb. 

I’m just saying, you can’t go wrong. Everybody loves Chewie. He thought that was funny, too. If you don’t have a cutaway, cut to Chewie.

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Solo: A Star Wars Story is now in theaters.

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