This film editor kept Deadpool from flying off the rails

Julian Clarke on finding the balance between narrative and sheer insanity

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Deadpool is a pretty singular character in comics. He’s a mercenary who revels in over-the-top ultra-violence, but he loves chimichangas and breaking the fourth wall for comedic effect. He never shuts up, and being supernaturally self-aware gives him the ability to wink at the audience, letting them know that the rules governing good sense and even good storytelling don’t really apply to him. His ability to playfully subvert convention makes him stand out, but it’s also why a Deadpool movie shouldn’t work — Deadpool the character would love nothing more than to break down the structures that make superhero narratives legible.

Amazingly, the new Deadpool movie does work. That has a great deal to do with Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s screenplay, but so much of what keeps the film from flying out of control is the editing. Julian Clarke had to do the heavy lifting in Adobe Premiere Pro to strike a balance between the character’s love of gore and gleeful absurdity, making a movie that’s accessible to both fans and neophytes. It’s not easy, since Deadpool seems made for situations that fly out of control. I spoke with Clarke about the film, the challenges he faced making it, and why the sequel might be harder to pull off than anyone expects.

Kwame Opam: You've done a great deal of sci-fi already, having worked on movies like District 9, Elysium, and Chappie. For Deadpool, what is it like moving to a superhero movie and figuring out the style you want to use?

Julian Clarke: You know, I guess I'm kind of attracted to weird tone projects. I'm sort of a real cult movie guy. I like movies that are really kind of out there and weird and mash genres together. Like, I kind of grew up on Paul Verhoeven films, and you can probably see that influence running in the Blomkamp stuff. So Deadpool's kind of irreverent, meta, sort of twisted, sadistic, cockeyed sense of humor totally fit with my kind of sensibility, less as a superhero thing but more as kind of like, "Wow, this is a crazy genre-bending thing. How do you get all these different elements to work?" So that was what appealed to me about it.

As far as the editing goes, what is it particularly about the Deadpool character that created a challenge for you?

Well, I think that the challenge with the Deadpool character — editing-wise and I think filmmaking-wise — is his greatest asset and also his greatest challenge. It is the sort of irreverent sense of humor and the meta thing, which is the thing that we love and the fans love, but it completely subverts dramatic tension, momentum, all these sorts of things that you need to kind of engage the audience in the movie. If you're making a 20-minute cartoon, you can maybe just have like joke-meta-joke-meta-joke-meta, and then kind of [say] "The End," and have people like it. But if you're going to do a two-hour movie, you somehow need to have a story, and emotional engagement, while constantly kind of digressing and subverting and have these two things be harmonious.

Can you give examples of particular scenes from the film where you had to break down your normal approach of structuring a scene?

Well, a lot of it was just, what is the right amount of humor? What is the right amount of meta? So, a scene would have a kind of a breaking point, and it's like, what is the maximum amount of comedy and meta we can get into the scene without it going off the rails?

For instance, when the main character’s girlfriend gets kidnapped, we had a whole bunch of funny jokes during or after [the] kidnapping. [We were] just like, "This is not going to work." They're funny, but this is the wrong place to laugh, because now you're no longer engaged with the emotional stakes of "I've got to get my girl back." So, we kind of treat that emotionally, really, for whatever, 60 seconds, and then we get back into jokes. And so it's like, there's enough for you to digest the emotional reality of the situation and then get back into being Deadpool, and so it was kind of finding that balance.

Another challenging section was the workshop, where he gains his powers. It’s a very dramatic and traumatic part of the movie. And he of course quips and jokes his way through it, but it's really gallows humor. It's not like laugh-out-loud, and that section was several minutes longer in earlier versions of the film, and we just found that the trauma of that section was too much. You took too long to recover from that section. Even though [we] were hitting quite funny jokes afterwards, it sort of needed to be a certain length for the audience to be able to recover and get back in the irreverent spirit of the movie.

Deadpool

I can only imagine having so much material and then having to cut down and edit and bring it down to really have a flow. How much material was there that was left on the cutting room floor?

I wouldn't say it was an excessive amount. Tim was quite efficient in terms of what he shot; it wasn't one of those things where we were always shooting five cameras and stuff like that. It was fairly surgical, especially for these days with shooting digital, where people shoot a lot. But then on the other hand, we had a lot of improv and a lot of alts, especially any time Ryan or T.J. Miller was involved. Then you have this abundance of material that was all hilarious and all going in different directions and you would have to kind of figure out, "Okay, what is the [funniest] option here and what is the digression too far?"

There have been a few interviews where Tim said that certain things were a little too transgressive. Did you have any conversations with Tim about pacing and tone and balance when you came back and were like "Yeah, we can't do this."

You know, maybe a whole bunch of that stuff got pruned in the writing process, because I didn't really find there was too much of the kind of "Oh, this this is too extreme." There was certainly stuff in terms of our sensibility with the gore. The movie is quite gory. But I think Tim was always very conscious, like this is not zombie movie levels of gore. It's not like an autopsy, it's like a level where you can still go, "Okay, this is kind of gory, but it's also kind of slapstick." It's not like "Dear God..." So I definitely think there was a calculation there in terms of what the right level of explicitness in that regard was, and I think, definitely in the writing and a little bit of the editing, there was a sense like that Tim didn't want the humor to be mean. Sometimes there would be like a riff about such-and-such person who's a real person, and he'd be like, "No, that's not something we want to put in." It's the sort of humor that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. So I guess even though the character is kind of an asshole, and the whole experience of the thing is kind of edgy, he still wants the movie to have a fun undertone. Where the humor was too mean or where the gore was too explicit, those were the kinds of things that were slightly reined in.

Given how untraditional the movie is, was there anything that you did during the process of editing this that you hadn't done before?

The way the timeline in this movie works is not really something I've done that that much of. I mean, the specifics of every film is slightly different, but yeah, the structure of the movie, the non-linear timeline. I haven't done that that much of that, and the interesting thing about that was, we messed around with a couple different structures, and the movie really didn't work linearly. It didn't work at all. It was funny that by making it be more fragmented, it actually felt like more whole, which is not usually how it is. And that was again a reflection of the tone of the movie.

This movie does not work with a linear narrative

[After turning] into Deadpool, he's this much more manic, funny kind of character, and then as the Wade character with cancer; it's funny, but it's also serious, dramatic, and kind of tragic. If you have these two things totally separate, it kind of felt like, well, the first half of the movie is like totally serious and the second half is totally silly, so you actually have to interweave the timelines to have the whole thing feel cohesive.

So a sequel was just greenlit. Does that mean that it would therefore be more difficult to tell a linear Deadpool story onscreen?

I guess that will be. I don't have a clue about what their next storyline is or anything. I was too busy working on the first one, but I think absolutely, the challenge with the sequel, the origin part of the storyline is this thing that actually kind of grounds it. To me, the movie is surprisingly emotional for something that is so sarcastic and irreverent, and that really is because of the sort of origin storyline which is anchored with revenge and love and these very primal emotions that Ryan does a really good job of selling. So interweaving that with the major character, you end up with this thing that has some balance, where it's very funny and transgressive but you also get the story and emotional stuff you need to have a two-hour film that you want to watch. So to find how to supply that grounding without the origin timeline, that will be a real challenge for the writers.

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