LOS ANGELES – It’s 9 a.m. when Sydney native Kirk Baxter steps into a quiet café close to his Santa Monica home. Usually, he’d have been at work for two hours by now reviewing footage shot the day before by the notoriously fastidious director David Fincher. Scruffy, lean and casually handsome, Baxter moves in a way that suggests he’s not a man consumed by pre-Oscar parties or red carpet hoopla. Yet in a few days he’ll win his second Academy Award (for co-editing for the American version of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).
“The announcement of the nominations of the Oscars is the most exciting moment,” the film editor says. His wife Susan and seven-year-old daughter Bronte wake him early the morning Oscar bids are announced. “At 5 a.m. there are no press. We have a private high-five moment and then once that happens your news sort of belongs to everyone else.”
That work-is-my-reward attitude is partly why Baxter, 40, is one of the most respected film editors working in Hollywood. With editing partner Angus Wall, he works almost exclusively with Fincher, director of the cult film Fight Club, and the slick thrillers Seven, The Game and The Zodiac. This year, Baxter enjoyed his third Oscar nomination in four years, after winning for The Social Network last year, and being nominated for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2010.
For someone who spends so much of his time alone in a dark room watching other people talk on screen, Baxter is coolly articulate. And while it’s his job to make a film’s complexity appear effortless and clear, his own path was anything but simple.
“It’s been a long journey,” says Baxter leaning back in his chair, warming his hands around his soy latte. When Baxter dropped out of Sydney’s Pittwater High School at seventeen it wasn’t so he could surf all day in Sydney’s Northern Beach’s where he grew up; he immediately went to work as a “dog’s body” at Ross Wood Productions in Sydney.
“I did a little bit of everyone’s job, everything from being a basic runner to helping the camera department, filming casting sessions and editing montages for the cinematographers.”
There’s a layered effect with careers in film, Baxter explains “like the military, where everyone has to serve their time and earn their stripes before they get there. With editing it was immediate, I was able to create something everyday instead of just lifting or delivering things. By the time I was eighteen I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”
Baxter began editing television commercials in Australia then took advantage of his father’s Scottish passport to get editing work in England.
“I was in London for six years and then British directors would fly me into New York or Los Angeles, where they were doing American commercials and I got a taste for it,” Baxter says. “I preferred America as a place to live. I think it’s more positive, and to be frank, I get paid three times more doing the same job in America. Soon it wasn’t making sense to stay in England.”
Baxter co-founded a commercial editing firm called Final Cut, but when his daughter was born in 2004 he decided to join Angus Wall’s company in L.A., Rock, Paper Scissors. “Angus knew I always wanted to work on movies, he’d already been working with Fincher for about ten years. On Zodiac, he asked if I wanted to come on board. I’m glad he needed a hand!”
Baxter’s casual description of that turn of events reflects a humility that comes in handy on Fincher’s close-knit team, where he and Angus have an especially unique working relationship.
“There’s no conversation about who will cut what scene, there’s a bunch of work, let’s get it done,” says Baxter. “Fincher never puts us against each other. If he sees that someone is hesitating on a scene, he’ll put the other one on it.
“Nothing is easy,” he says, working with Fincher—notorious for shooting dozens of takes from the same position. “But with David it’s clear.”
Usually just one editor assembles the footage while Fincher is shooting, receiving all the dailies the morning after they were shot, delivered through PIX, an online communications tool . The whole movie goes through this system and allows access to the footage from anywhere with an internet connection.
“This is the hardest phase because you’re striving to stay about a day or two behind camera,” says Baxter. At the end of each day a rough cut of that day’s scenes is uploaded for Fincher to view on the other side of the world. It’s easier once Fincher, Wall and Baxter are in the same city. “I find ten minutes with Fincher saves me two to three hours of work, he has so much information to pass along; why he’s doing what he’s doing, why he thought certain things were successful. I’m happy to get up at six in the morning to get that ten minutes.”
Baxter doesn’t like going to set. He reads the script of course, but he prefers reacting directly to the footage. It’s an intuitive, reactionary job guided by what Fincher thinks are the best takes.
“We have a system of survival in place because so much footage comes in. We assemble in strings. First I’ll look at his star take” (Fincher’s favourite cut) “or his first three star takes.” From these, Baxter gets a sense of the emotional pitch or crux of the scene. “Then I’ll go from the last take he filmed back to the first. When you see what’s best first, you can see the weaknesses in the other performances. Then we break those down.”
Baxter insists that nothing is left to chance during shooting: “David likes to iron out the script before he starts. He’s not inventing things on the day, he knows what he wants. He doesn’t do twenty takes of something to get coverage of a performance. Instead he’s honing in to get the best.”
Fincher has said that the best acting is the casting; that he has to see the role in the actor. So who does Baxter like spending time with in the cutting room?
–“Robert Downey Jr. (The Zodiac) never did exactly the same thing, which can get complex with Fincher because he’s really trying to get a lot of coverage so you have movement within a scene. Downy danced that tight rope, he was able to keep his body similar, but his inflections and the performance he gave could contain that. He’s quite brilliant.”
–“Cate Blanchett (Benjamin Button) is exceptional from the first performance; there are rarely more than three or four takes of what she did.”
–“I think Jesse Eisenberg’s performance in The Social Network was the most brilliant I’ve had the honor of getting my hands on. I don’t know if you could find another person who would accurately take on the persona of that character, an awful, ambitious nasty person but you rooted for him, it was very delicate.”
–“Brad Pitt (Benjamin Button) is now regarded as one of the best actors that you can get. I found his performances in Benjamin Button so touching. He can control his physical movement like an athlete.”
–“Daniel Craig (Dragon Tattoo) is almost exactly the same. As leading actors, they ware both so generous with everyone around them. Everyone builds on those strong foundations in a film.”
With so many shots to choose from Baxter edits aggressively, enhancing the scene’s velocity, cutting in a way that feels organic and natural to each situation. In The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salander’s hyper-intelligence drives the narrative. Speedy editing and cross cutting ensures she’s always one step ahead of the audience.
So what was it like immersing himself in the sinister world she finds herself in? Baxter admits that editing the film’s prolonged and horrific rape scene was very difficult. “It’s a disgraceful thing to watch”, he says. “And you have to put yourself in their shoes … You have to become that character when you are editing it, almost like you are their lawyer and you’re doing your best justice for them.”
That film’s tight schedule, (it was green lit and completed within fourteen months), and the constant six and seven day work weeks, combined with the dark material, made The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo the hardest film he’s worked on. Despite that, Baxter maintains, “working with Fincher has made it hard to really engage with any other directors for movies,” says Baxter. “Because he’s so good I’ve been spoilt. It’s like having your first girlfriend be a supermodel.”
Judging from Baxter’s second Oscar win, his ongoing relationship with David Fincher will continue to flourish. The Aussie film editor is already absorbed in Fincher’s next project; political thriller, TV series, House Of Cards, proving that his invisible hands never stay still for long.
By Angela Ledgerwood