NIELS PAGH started his career as an assistant to two of Denmark’s most important editors: Christian Hartkopp and Janus Billeskov Jansen. Since 1979, freelance film editor, more than 250 films.

NA: You know, to me editing is not that important,  it’s telling stories, it’s life that interests me. Editing is just, you know, a method.

ED: Of course.

NA: But we have some words. ED: Yes.

ED: Well, maybe you can tell me why you chose the words you did, and I can tell you why I chose the words  I did.

NA: Okay.

ED: You chose the word ‘silence’.

NA: Breathing and silence.

ED: I like those words.

She makes a landscape where she invites the audience to take their own walks

NA: Yeah, I chose breathing because you made a wonderful film called  I am Breathing. But I also think that a film has breathing  in its rhythm, and I think somehow it’s related to the way we people, human beings, are taking things in. And I think  a lot of films don’t allow the audience to breathe. That is maybe why, the other day, in the middle of a conversation, I suddenly remembered that the first chapter of 3 Rooms of Melancholia is also called Breathing.

ED: Oh, how interesting, why did Pirjo Honkasalo  call it breathing, you think?NA: It starts  with a wake-up scene, you see those young boys in the first chapter in that military academy in St. Petersburg. We see those vulnerable boys in their uniforms… So I think, when we don’t breathe anymore – like in your film – we are dead.

ED: Yes, I think 3 Rooms of Melancholia is a film with so much space  for an audience  to breathe,  and so much space that acknowledges an audience’s mind and presence. Maybe that element – giving, but not waiting, for someone to receive, is the problem in some edits. That the space, the resonance, of somebody receiving isn’t present,  somehow, but it felt very generously present  in 3 Rooms of Melancholia. And that felt kind of musical as much as a cognitive process or intellectualizing or even just emotionally engaging with a film. It felt a very physical, embodied reception of it as an audience. When you were editing,  how did you think of the audience, or did you think of the audience? Or was it just by being so present  yourself in that  edit situation  that  allowed that  breath  and that  space?

NA: To be honest,  I have never worked on a film like 3 Rooms of Melancholia  before. I have always known storytelling and character building, and here was a film with no normal narrative  and no main characters. I was used to those huge amounts of material, hundreds of hours, and here there were sixteen hours. So it was a very different process in a way, normally I think I know my film and when I have test screenings. I know at this moment, they will be crying, you know, so I control the audience’s emotions. Pirjo doesn´t want to be at screenings and only listens to very few people.. It’s not because she is arrogant, it’s because she wants to protect her uniqueness, so she doesn’t get confused. So in many ways I only understood  the film a long time after it was out.

ED: Oh, but  what  did you understand in the end?

NA: How it works on an audience,  and why it works as it works. ED: How do you edit then?

NA: To me it was just a kind of – I am not sure I understand this. This was something I have never tried before, but I felt that this was fascinating and interesting, and purely new – also what she wanted and what she didn’t want. So I trusted her. We were also sitting at two computers,  working, and I started one chapter, then it went to Pirjo’s editing room, and then she was editing, and then it got back to me. So we were talking  very little, it was a nonverbal process.

The 3 Rooms of Melancholia

ED: Do you think  that stopped it from being too intellectual? That it allowed it to have that direct visual, physical sense, which I think it has  as a film?

NA: Yeah, and I think somehow it would have been more banal, if we had talked about it. I think somehow this process was great for this film. In others you talk a lot with these different directors, we have different approaches and different ways.

ED: I remember a lovely thing  you told our students, Niels, when you said that you spurned the director as an editor. I think that’s such a lovely approach that you respond to each person in such a different way. But this thing you said about [how] you were used to before, as an editor, controlling the audience’s emotion, is that right?

NA: Yes.

ED: Really, do you not think that in a way an audience also controls you? I mean how does that  work with you just controlling them?

3 Rooms of Melancholia

NA: No, but I know that,  this of course comes from my background  in fiction: You know where  you have your emotional top. If it’s too early then the film fizzles out, you know, if you have too much of the same. It’s a craftsmanship and it’s a part of storytelling. And the craft of storytelling is also that you can control your tools; know when to speed  up, know when to slow down and so on. But with 3 Rooms of Melancholia, Pirjo said something;  she doesn’t want to control, she makes a landscape  where she invites the audience  to take their own walks. When she was younger, she got angry if the audience didn’t experience the film the same way she wanted them to experience it – then they were idiots. But now she learned that she gives out an invitation. But different films, I would  say give more or less control to the audience. If you make a suspense film, then you are controlling. Hitchcock was a master at controlling emotions; you should feel scared there, in that exact moment, not whenever you feel like it. And 3 Rooms of Melancholia has another kind of emotion, an enchanting  circular movement – it’s not a linear narrative form.

ED: I think it’s so interesting  this question of how much the edits move between control and chaos, and somehow, of course you are trying to control the chaos of life in an edit, but if you control it too much it becomes too manufactured  or too tight, or too ‘we feel too manipulated  as an audience’. I don’t know, how do you work out that space between control and chaos in an edit for the audience? In a way the intelligent films that you have been involved with, the reason why I like them so much, is because I feel as an audience, I have somebody who is creating  a dialogue with me, who is sharing  a journey or a question, but who isn’t dictating  in any way. So from that point of view it’s not controlling it’s more inviting me to share a space. But I also feel, as an audience, that my presence is needed to create this film, because,  in a way, I mean  in The Act of Killing, it’s about an audience to a certain extent. It’s not just about  what we see, it about  the mirror between  what we see and ourselves.  So, I am just really fascinated in an edit, about this invisible presence of who the audience  is and how it affects  the film. Cause even if Pirjo doesn’t want to go and show the commissioning editors an edit or whatever, there is an awareness of an audience’s perception shaping this somehow, and what that ghost presence in a film is, is what really fascinates me.

NA: For me, and I think, let Pirjo speak for herself; I don’t care about audience – but of course she cares about the audience, all of us care. It is also a kind of protection [against] her vision getting disturbed, somehow, but of course we wouldn’t communicate  if we didn’t care. For me, it’s very important that I respect my audience and then it can be more artsy, more open narratively or more closed narratively,it depends  on the film, the director, and the vision behind it. But what is very important to me is, that I respect  my audience,  and – especially in the TV world – there is this attitude that the audience is stupid.  I don’t think the audience is stupid, I think my audience  is intelligent.  Where I am arrogant is that  I somehow think that:  ‘What I think is interesting and fascinating, my audience also thinks is interesting and fascinating’. So I am not trying to define myself or separate  myself above or below or wherever from the audience – I don’t know how to say it, but, the audience is also me, so I think: ‘If I think this is moving, my audience  will also think it’s moving’. That is why I am telling it.

ED: I think it’s the opposite of arrogant.  Maybe that’s  why you Danes are so good, because there is something  democratic about that way of thinking about people. Whereas in Britain we are always trying to put a certain hierarchical  structure:  who is this for? But I totally agree, I am in a similar position in terms of thought of an audience. This word, Breath, that you chose is quite a physical word, and in a way, I also chose  this  physical  word, Body, because I felt that  we are filmmakers.  We film with not only with our eyes and our minds, but we film very much with our bodies, and in the edit that seems even more intense. Where the act of seeing seems incredibly physical, in an edit it is so uncomfortable when something doesn’t work, it is so physical, almost unbearable, certainly for me, as a director, when I have to sit there and the cut doesn’t work. It makes me feel physically sick. I wonder how we learn to work with this body in an edit suite and how that’s  related to an audience’s  perception of film. NA: What do you think?

ED: I don’t  know, I think  maybe  a bit like that word, Breath. When I feel  I can enter a film is when I feel that my body is being forgotten as audience, that I am not allowed to be a full human being, because of course for a full human being, thoughts  are visceral, they’re not just in your head.  And how we translate what we see into our own experience really interests  me, I suppose. When does it become ours, when does it stop being the filmmaker’s and when does it become our memory, our inner life, our musings about life? I think the only way it can become that is if it is something that enters us almost physically. How does that happen?

NA: Sometimes when I have screenings, I sit a little behind or sideways, so I can look at the faces. I don’t have big test screenings, but five or six people that are good at telling me not what to do, but what they experience. But during the screening I am watching their bodies, when do they lean forward, how do they react  psychically  to my work? So when you say you react almost physically to a cut that doesn’t work, that  I understand. But, then when a cut works does it make any difference  in your body, can you feel a physical difference?

ED: When it does work, I can breathe a bit more easily. I think when it doesn’t work, when your body feels uncomfortable, for me it is often when I am not being acknowledged as an audience.  So when my presence as an audience is somehow being either manipulated or not. And of course with every edit it goes through  so many rough cuts  where it does have that  discomfort.  I used  to feel like: ‘Oh, there is something wrong with the process that this keep happening’. And I think that it has taken me so many years to realize that  this will keep happening  forever. You say you are in a process, which is an easy edit just now and that is wonderful, but I don’t know,  I mean I guess, I have to decide that those feelings emerging in a physical feeling of discomfort are actually fantastic guides. I just have to note it and trust it and come back. And I suppose, just keep doing it.

NA: No, but this kind of physical presence or not. I get my best ideas, in fact, when I leave the editing room. Then suddenly  I get an idea. With experience, I have also learned when I have to control myself and to trust my body or, when it’s good to say to the director: ‘Hey let’s take a walk.’ I know now when it’s not an escape, you know, because it can also be an escape – when we just walk away when it starts to hurt, so to speak. That shouldn’t be, but it’s like running – when you sit for such long periods, as the editor you also get blind, you get so exhausted – you have to know when to run and when to pause.  And that, I think, I have become much more conscious about.

I have been very suspicious  of the word ‘intuition’. Because often when directors suggest an ‘intuitive’ editing, it has been an excuse, they don’t know what the fuck they wanted, it has just been one of those hot air words. But I think I now can trust my intuition much more. But I think intuition comes from experience.

ED: And how do you deal with, you know, talking about physically, having to witness so much in an edit. How did you deal with that  in The Act of Killing, when the roughs must have been so overwhelming to receive and how do you remain  open for all of that?

The Act of Killing

NA: First of all, what I got was around 35 hours edited scenes. Joshua had been sitting in London, and working with it, and made precuts  for one year. But that didn’t make it less powerful. I remember  when I saw that scene where Anwar, the protagonist, is playing a victim and he can’t handle it. He can’t carry through the scene, and then later, he is watching himself in the scene, and then suddenly he realizes that maybe the victims are like him. And I don’t know, it came as a surprise, and I started to cry, and I think I am trying not to block out my emotions and my vulnerability, but like a lot of other men,  I don’t cry a lot in my personal life or in my editing room. But when I saw this scene, I started to cry. And I felt this and I was so much into Anwar, because as a human being I was identifying. It was in London and it had a couple of visits there, and he was showing me some of his very rough scenes, some very raw materials. And I said, but it is so sad for us human beings. But I think I take it in, and it was of course a nightmare or it was tough to be in that universe. My girlfriend, Sanne, sometimes it worries her, when I am sitting with all those terrible, dark films – how does it affect me? I think it keeps me alive, as a human  being. If I was sitting  with comedies  all the time, it would be a lie. And what we are trying to tell in The Act of Killing is that  evil is also human,  somehow. And if I want to be a whole human being, I also have to contain it. I think the problem is much harder or bigger, it is: how do you keep your vulnerability, when you have been sitting  with those guys for half a year?  You get like war photographers. And it’s so funny, sometimes you are laughing at the most horrible things, because you can’t handle it – all the time remembering the first impression. In The Act of Killing it is special because it is so horrible.

ED: How do you keep your vulnerability, Niels?

NA: I am not sure. But I think back. I all the time have to think back. I have to remember my first impression, and it’s not always horrible material, it is all material. If I want to remember the most important  thing in film, it is the subtext. It is what is in between the lines, between the words. How we look, how we move, how we are, that  is half of the storytelling. I have to remember that 5 months later. And the text I can analyze, they are saying so and so – so therefore we should edit so and so. But what is the emotional impact in the subtext? That I have to remember. One of the methods is that I talk out loud when I am watching with my director, and a lot of times the director makes notes. I am not saying what we should  do; I am saying  what I am experiencing.  There is something with this guy, I don’t like him. He is saying nice things, but there is something in his subtext. Or, is she lying there? Or, I can’t get a handle  on him. Or, I just love this guy, he goes straight to my heart, I think he is funny or whatever, or he is a very honest  person.  I am not trying to edit the film too quickly. The first thing we have to have is the experience of the material, and there I am the fresh viewer, and should somehow try to remember that in our common process to come.

Anwar Congo in Joshua Oppenheimer’s film “The Act of Killing.

ED: And, whereas  the process with Pirjo seemed  to be, this sharing  that  didn’t involve words. I am sure your work with Joshua was much more verbal, was it Niels?

NA: Yeah, yeah, because Josh is a verbal person. That is also why we have to sit together all the time, he has to understand why we are doing what we are doing. People are different, Josh is a work person; he learned Indonesian. He is a word person, so therefore we have to talk around the scene, why are we doing it, the whole kind of concept around the whole understanding  of storytelling, why and how storytelling works in the society, all that.  So there is a whole intellectual  room behind the decisions.

That I think is my privilege, that is why I love my job. I get to work with so many different temperaments, and different human beings. And I see the director as part of my material,  somehow. Who are they? And that  is not what  they are saying;  do they like red more than  blue?  Or Mozart more than Beethoven? I get behind  that,  so I can make their film. What is their core as a human being? They are very happy when  I can see my director uniqueness in their film.

Another director, you know, wouldn’t have made  The Act of Killing. Josh is gay, and his ‘too much-ness’ influenced this – He loves opera, you know, it is a part  of The Act of Killing. Pirjo is Finnish and also gay, but that is not really manifested in her film, but something  else is: her very disciplined framing and control. And there is a paradox here because Pirjo is both setting  the audience  extremely free, but she is also extremely controlling in her process. She gives me a lot of space,  but she had only shot 16 hours. So she knows what she wants with each individual shot. She makes the decision. I think that might be one of the most interesting themes I would like to think more about: the relationship between controlling and letting go, because it is part of filmmaking on so many levels. Because if we don’t control our expression it will be chaos.

ED: But if you control  too much  there  is a risk it stops breathing?