The first time Lee Smith was nominated for an Oscar, for Peter Weir’s Master and Commander in 2004, he spent the next two weeks guzzling the champagne that kept being delivered to his Sydney home courtesy of Hollywood.
When he won at his third attempt, for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk in 2018, he spent the next fortnight in bed, sick as a dog. “I wasn’t over-indulging,” he says. “I think it’s just that you’re so revved up, there’s all this adrenaline going through your system, that coming off that natural high nearly killed me.”
This time around, Smith will likely make it through unscathed – because while 1917 is firming up as favourite to win best film, there’s one category conspicuously missing from the swag of nominations it is up for on Monday: best editing.
And for the Australian who oversaw the cutting of a film that’s been marketed as a “one-shot movie”, that is both a bitter irony and entirely predictable.
“It’s something [writer-director] Sam Mendes and I laughed about when he offered me the job,” Smith says. “He said, ‘You realise no one will ever know what you did’.”
When people think of editing they inevitably think of cuts. “And people think, ‘There are no cuts in this film, so why would we vote for it’.”
Of course, there are lots of cuts in the movie, though the whole point of the one-shot, real-time conceit is that you shouldn’t be able to spot them (or to notice that the “six-to-eight hour” mission unfolds over less than two hours).
“We spent the entire post-production burying the edits so deep that no human could spot them,” he says. “We had all the resources known to man to bury these cuts, and that’s what we did, that was the job.”
Smith and his director struck a deal very early on that they would never reveal how many cuts there are. Plenty of people have guessed, he says, “but no one has come even remotely close. Not within a mile.”
One journalist told Smith she’d heard from a really good source – “which I thought was hilarious given she was talking to me, the editor, at the time” – that there were six edits. He asked her how long the film shoot was; she looked at her notes, said four months. How many days a week? Five.
Do you think they never turned the camera off, he said; just do the maths. “And she went, ‘Oh, right’.”
Nor are there 34 cuts, as one film-buff website recently claimed. “Not even in the ballpark.”
This no-edit film in fact had an editing and visual effects department of more than 300 people and millions of dollars at its disposal. Crucially, it also had Smith collaborating intensely with Mendes on a daily basis, making decisions in his edit suite in London about which take from the previous day’s shooting on Salisbury Plain was best, so that day’s action could pick up in exactly the right spot to make the transition appear seamless.
At the director’s urging Smith delivered a cut of the film, right up to the prior day’s action, to location around the halfway mark so Mendes and his heads of department could see this incredibly complex jigsaw puzzle come to life on screen. “Everyone was just so jazzed,” he recalls. “It reinvigorated everyone,geor because it’s a hard slog shooting a movie.”
That river scene in which George MacKay is tossed and turned and slammed up against rocks as he’s propelled through churning white water was in fact shot on a concrete-lined water sports course in the north of England, with the waterfall drop being shot separately in Glasgow. And apart from the waterfall scene – which is a stuntman with the actor’s face superimposed in post-production – that really is the actor who plays Ned Kelly in True History of the Kelly Gang being so brutally buffeted.
Smith grades the edits in the film from a two, being pretty straightforward, to a 10, being “mind-bogglingly complicated”. “We had one or two 10s, a whole load of eights and most of the film is sixes, with a few twos and threes,” he says.
The work required him to think in a totally different way too, because the opportunity to fix things in post-production just didn’t exist the way it normally would.
But if all that work has been a little under-appreciated, he’s OK with that.
“It’s great to get some recognition, but it’s such a turkey shoot,” Smith says of the whole Oscars nomination process. “It’s fun when it happens. But when it doesn’t, at least you don’t have to get into that dinner suit again.”
Four more (supposedly) one-shot films
Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful tale about a pair of rich-kid thrill killers was based loosely on the notorious Leopold-Loeb murder case. Jimmy Stewart is the ethics professor horrified to discover a pair of his students have taken his hypothetical musings on a Godless universe seriously.
Russian Ark (2002)
Alexander Sokurov conducts us on a tour of the magnificent halls and art collections of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. The time-travel conceit is slender but the choreography is breathtaking.
There are edits in Alejandro Inarritu’s quadruple Oscar winner but you’d never know. As with 1917, there was not even a nomination for editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione.
This low-budget heist feature set in Berlin and starring Spanish actor Laia Costa takes place over the course of one drug- and alcohol-fuelled night. It’s a little rough in places, but makes up for that with invention and energy to spare.
The 92nd Academy Awards will be telecast live on Monday from noon on Seven, with an edited encore screening from 7.30pm on 7flix.
Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.