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A Cut Above: An Interview with Django Unchained Editor Fred Raskin

Raskin honed his craft working as an assistant editor for Tarantino’s late editor Sally Menke.

A Cut Above: An Interview with Django Unchained Editor Fred Raskin
Photo: The Weinstein Company

By all accounts, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is a massive film in both scope and scale, boasting a large ensemble cast, a story that spans years, and a mix of locations and climates. The job of assembling all of this was given to film editor Fred Raskin, who, while working closely with Tarantino, cut the film to a final run time of two hours and 45 minutes, leaving almost two additional hours of footage on the cutting room floor.

A graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Raskin honed his craft working as an assistant editor for Tarantino’s late editor Sally Menke, aiding her on Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. He then moved up to the position of editor with director Justin Lin, working on three Fast and the Furious films: The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, Fast & Furious, and Fast Five. After Menke’s tragic death in 2010, Raskin got the call from Tarantino to take the lead on editing his new Spaghetti-Western-meets-blaxploitation flick.

After spending nearly a year assembling Django Unchained, Raskin, who is now armed with a BAFTA nomination, opens up about his work on the Oscar-nominated film, the job of a film editor, and working with one of his cinematic heroes.

You began cutting Django Unchained when Tarantino was still shooting.

Yes, I did. Since Quentin just wants to stay focused on production while he’s shooting, I worked on my own, assembling a rough cut from all the material that was coming in, and, in the process, familiarizing myself with all of the footage, so I’d be able to find things more quickly when Quentin arrived.

What was it like to finally sit down with him once production ended?

My thoughts were, Thank goodness I put as much work into my rough assembly as I did. I was very thorough and made sure that everything was pretty polished even at that early stage. My first pass came in at just under four-and-a-half hours. So we had to do the work of building the cut to Quentin’s specifications, which, in the time we had, was going to be a near-Herculean task unto itself, and then we had to get it down to a reasonable length. So all the work that I put into doing my pass really came in handy, if only for all the sound effects work I did. Plus, I was familiar enough with the footage, so I knew what we could do with it.

How did you and Tarantino go about putting together his director’s cut?

When Quentin and I sat down, he already had a good idea as to what scenes were eventually going to hit the floor, and his instincts were almost always spot-on, though there were a couple of exceptions. There was one scene that was originally cut because we felt the movie could play without it. We both felt it was a good scene, but ultimately wasn’t essential to the story. But we got to a point when audience members started asking, “Why is Django [played by Jamie Foxx] being so mean to all the other slaves?” What we didn’t realize was that the scene we cut, which is the confidential strategy meeting between Schultz [played by Christoph Waltz] and Django on the road to Candyland, is the scene that really solidifies that Django is playing his character all the way. That made it acceptable for him to be mean to the other slaves. That scene came back into the cut late in the game. It’s interesting, because something like that could easily have been cut at the script stage, but Quentin’s method of working is to shoot the entire script and boil it down to its essentials in editing. Sometimes we wouldn’t realize a scene’s true value until it had been removed.

How long is a work day with Tarantino?

I would work with Quentin for nine or ten hours a day. Then he would leave and go home to watch dailies or listen to potential music tracks and I’d spend a couple hours updating all the sound work and mixing it. All that work I put into my initial pass was really helpful when I got into the real task of the director’s cut.

Were you using your own sound library or relying on new material from the sound team?

It was a combo platter. I’ve got an enormous sound effects library, and when I needed something that I didn’t have, I would call [supervising sound editor] Wylie Stateman or one of the members of his team and say, “I need this sound effect.” Normally, I’d show an edit to a director and get his thoughts before I refine it, and then I’d have permission to send it to the sound editors to get them to design it properly. However, in this particular instance, because Quentin didn’t want to see anything while he was shooting, I wasn’t able to send anything out. So I would have to send really detailed lists of sound effects to the sound crew such as, “I need the sound of thumbs coming out of eye sockets.” The list of sound effects for the Mandingo fight scene was about as graphic as it gets. I think the sound team was terrified to actually see the footage at that point.

Can you talk about what scenes were cut or altered because they were deemed too graphic?

There were three major scenes that underwent significant changes in terms of how much an audience could handle. The Mandingo fight was definitely the biggest of them. I’ve heard varying reactions about that scene. The majority of people seem to feel that the scene as it is in the movie is still really rough. I’ve spoken to some others who say the scene could have been even more horrifying. And it certainly was, at one point. We were always unaware of just how rough that scene was. I actually asked Quentin at one point about the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs—if he was aware of how rough that was going to be on an audience, or if he was a little divorced from the impact of the brutality because he’d shot it and knew how it was done. He told me it was never really rough on him. But I remember when I saw it for the first time it was a very difficult scene to watch. So by the same token, having pieced it together, I never felt that the Mandingo fight was particularly difficult to watch, but we could tell when we screened it for an audience that we really felt them cringe. So there were certain things that we realized had to be toned down. Even though the film played really well in test screenings, you could tell they were traumatized. People applauded at the end, but it wasn’t the whole theater bursting into applause. The second scene we had trouble with was when the slave, D’Artagnan [played by Ato Essandoh], was being eaten by the dogs. I find it hilarious that people still talk about how rough that scene is when you see virtually nothing. There’s literally one shot—an overhead shot—of D’Artagnan and the dogs. We held off on any of the graphic stuff until Schultz’s flashbacks later in the movie. But it’s the implication and the sound effects that sell it. Ultimately, we all agreed it was the right choice to cut that scene down because it focuses you on the stare-down between Django and Candie [played by Leonardo DiCaprio]. The third scene where we needed to do some major tinkering was the almost-castration scene in the barn. There were close-ups of Django’s genitals as Billy Crash [played by Walton Goggins] grabs him. That was a little hard to watch. So we toned it down. But people still say that we got away with showing so much…and yet they have no idea what was left out!

Django Unchained

Were there any particular scenes that you wished had not been cut from the final film?

It’s funny, because pretty much everything was great. Quentin, thankfully, wasn’t remotely precious with anything. He knew that we had to get the movie down to a reasonable length, and he was very level-headed about it. Ultimately, while there are things that I miss, I think we made all of the right decisions in terms of what was necessary for the finished movie.

Is there any truth to the rumor of an extended cut on Blu Ray?

I hope there’s truth to that, but I can only speculate. There’s something like an hour and 45 minutes worth of movie that didn’t make the final cut. There are a lot of actors who did great work and they’re all represented in some way in the finished movie, but everybody lost something. I really like how well the theatrical cut of Django Unchained plays. It would be interesting for an audience to see what we originally had to work with, and to see the decisions we made.

The end of the film plays very differently from how it appeared in the shooting script. Can you elaborate on how the final gun fight evolved from script to screen?

[Spoiler Alert] The shootout was not in the script. Originally, Schultz kills Candie, Butch Pooch [played by James Remar] kills Schultz, and Django puts his hands in the air and is captured. And then it goes to the scene in the barn. But that created a problem: You’re losing the most dynamic character in the movie—Schultz—and Candie is a close second. The movie is taking a hit by losing them both in the same instance. In the script, the movie didn’t have that moment when Django takes over. The shootout, however, transitions it into Django’s movie. To Quentin’s credit, I don’t think the energy of the movie suffers at all after Schultz and Candie are gone. And I think the shootout is a large part of that. It becomes Django’s movie at that point. So the end of the movie was Django killing all of the major Candyland characters who’d survived the shootout. The scene was shot like a big Sergio Leone standoff with Django on the balcony and the family down below in the foyer. Even in my first assembly there were a lot of shots of guys staring at each other before drawing their guns. But the movie felt done at that point, so Quentin took it down to the bare essentials: Django comes in and takes them out.

Music plays a large role in his films. Can you talk about some of the selections for Django Unchained?

Quentin has a room in his house that is full of vinyl albums. I haven’t actually seen this room; I’ve heard of it. I pretty much picture the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark filled with vinyl albums. He’s got a pretty great knowledge of film music, and he listens to his albums pretty regularly, so he’s always thinking about ways of incorporating certain pieces into specific scenes. If we’re working on a scene, usually he has selected things ahead of time, but sometimes he has a few different tracks in mind, so we’ll listen to them and place them in the cut to see what works best.

I particularly liked the use of Jerry Goldsmith’s “Nicaragua” track from the film Under Fire.

Quentin has wanted to use that track in a movie since before he’d ever actually made a movie. He’s been listening to that album for nearly 30 years, waiting to find the perfect scene for that cue. When we laid it in over the sequence of Candie’s arrival at Candyland, we both thought it’s never going to get more perfect than this. This track is just perfection. We have a turntable in the cutting room and it feeds right into the Avid, so that particular track was uploaded into the Avid from Quentin’s own vinyl album that he had been listening to for 30 years. So what you hear in the movie is the same thing he’s been hearing for 30 years. There are actually some pops in there if you listen for them.

Did you cut to music?

The “Nicaragua” track was a combination of techniques. It was clearly the right track, but we did make some minor changes to the picture to get it to fit. There are, however, a couple of pieces where the cues just lined up perfectly. Quentin refers to it as the “magical sync.” And when you find that, you don’t touch anything. The most obvious example is when Django shows up to rescue Broomhilda [played by Kerry Washington]. The moment you see him, there’s a sync point in the music—a Morricone cue from the Sergio Corbucci film The Hellbenders. Then everything that happens afterwards just fell into place, including the angelic choir that begins right after Django says, “It’s me, baby.” It’s bizarre how it lined up so well to that scene.

Looking back on the experience, did Tarantino influence your working style?

Every director is different. Quentin is no exception. I certainly learned a lot from him, especially with regard to how you can play with the chronology of a scene. My biggest fear going into this job was whether I was going to be fast enough for him. He was used to working with one person [Sally Menke] who was both incredibly fast and tremendously talented. I didn’t know if I’d be capable of operating anywhere near the same level that she did. I had to be on my game at all times, and have a good sense as to what he wanted. At one point, I asked him if I was working fast enough for him and if he was happy with the work I’d been doing and he said, “Absolutely.” The goal is to give the director what he wants, so I guess I was fairly successful there.

Benjamin Wright holds a PhD in cinema and cultural studies and teaches film in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He writes on film history and style at Wright on Film.

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