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Chop Shop: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Editor Tia Nolan on casting all the right spells into her Avid timeline.
By Jeff Goldsmith and David Somerset
Spoiler Warning: This excerpt discusses plot points from the entire film, so proceed with caution
Giant octopoid creatures from another dimension. Heroes (and villains) leaping back and forth through the multiverse. Toss in some zombies, evil spirits and several versions of Marvel’s favorite goateed sorcerer for good measure, and those are all the ingredients director Sam Raimi needed to triumphantly bring Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange back into theaters. It immediately became the number one film worldwide, cashing in over $688 million at the box office in its first few weeks. The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest movie is certainly no small character drama but instead a concoction filled with connective tissue from the likes of the Disney+ series WandaVision and What If…? not to mention the film Spider-Man: No Way Home. It’s a trippy, effects-heavy journey to faraway worlds, featuring a huge assortment of characters as Strange attempts to protect new MCU arrival America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) from the clutches of those who would exploit her multiverse-jumping powers for their own ends. Along the way, he wrestles with his own legacy, his complicated feelings for former fling and fellow physician Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) and, oh yes, his mission to save the universe(s).
It’s a massive undertaking, one for which Raimi employed two editors: Bob Murawski, an industry veteran who has worked with the director since 1990’s Darkman, and Tia Nolan, whose expertise has more usually been utilized on movies such as Spanglish, The Women and How to Be Single. Yet Nolan is no neophyte. Her editing experience stretches back to high school, where she and her classmates had access to a studio. “We would fake tape a $25,000 Pyramid and be able to produce little shows in there,” Nolan recalls. “Then on weekends, you could take out the huge VHS tape recorder and record your friends doing stuff, so we edited music videos [or] a docu-mentary. I took that course for three or four semesters. You know, I hated g-etting my friends together. They were always complaining, or they’d be goofing off, and it was just such a pain! But then I’d get into the editing room with my material and the big old, clunky tape-to-tape decks, and I would find something out of what was chaos.”
The hard work paid off, as the class landed Nolan an editing award and she went on to graduate from USC Film School. She started her career in 1991 as an apprentice editor on Delusion and credits her breakthrough in the industry to her time spent as a summer intern, which led to her meeting a slew of veteran cutters. “When I graduated, an editor I worked with one of those summers hired me on a film, and through him I met this world of old New York film editors. And then I heard about the legendary Richard Marks. Richie was about to edit a James L. Brooks musical that ended up not being a musical called I’ll Do Anything. I had a friend who was a production assistant at [Brooks’ production company] Gracie Films, so one thing leads to another.” The film was a wild learning experience for the budding editor as it evolved through test screenings away from its musical origins, based in part on the negative reactions to TV’s Cop Rock, which flopped near that time (yet ironically became a cult fave years later). In a two-year process, including shooting additional footage, Nolan witnessed Marks and Brooks excise all traces of the musical and devise cinematic ways to bridge the gaps. The collaboration brought Nolan into the orbit of Nora Ephron, which led to her being the main editor for 2005’s Bewitched. “I’d been editing some tiny, tiny films and co-edited with Richie, then all of a sudden I’ve got an $85 million Sony tentpole movie—so yeah, I would say that was my big break.”
This latest Doctor Strange outing is also far from Nolan’s first brush with Marvel. She did some work on a little movie called Avengers: Endgame. It all started when Jeff Ford, who has cut a variety of MCU movies, was working simultaneously on Infinity War and Endgame and realized he and his fellow editor needed help with the mammoth double undertaking. “[Jeff] and Matt Schmidt were swamped getting Infinity War finished and into theaters. They had about four months to do that, but they also had this other film that needed attention,” Nolan says. “Endgame had a rough assembly and some scenes that had never been cut. I said, “Well, I don’t do visual effects and action—that’s not exactly my wheelhouse.’ I don’t doubt that I could do it, but it’s not like they were bringing in someone who could just drop in and know exactly what’s going on. And Jeff said, ‘That’s not what we need for this. We need someone who can find the heart and the soul of each one of these characters going through this journey at this time, and I know the work you’ve done.’ ” She spent four months on Endgame, cutting together footage and helping to give shape to scenes before they were delivered to visual effects vendors, who needed to know what they’d be working with as early as possible. “I think what Marvel saw was someone who could come in, do the work and add creative ideas without having an ego. I just blended into what they needed and then handed it over when they were ready to take [Endgame], once they had released Infinity War. So Marvel had been looking to place me on another film for a while after that.”
But the timing wasn’t right for other movies, and then along came the Strange sequel, which had been blindsided by challenges of the pandemic. Coronavirus had closed filmmaking facilities around the world and forced those working in most departments to relocate to home offices. “Marvel called up and said, ‘Would you like to do this?’ And of course—I mean, Sam Raimi, are you kidding? I was like, ‘Would I? I’ve hit the jackpot! That’s exactly what I wanna do.’ So they set me up in my house.” With Nolan and her assistant working in the States while Raimi and Murawski were in the U.K., they discovered the pandemic-enforced split in resources actually provided the advantage of a near-24-hour cutting-room process. It also led to a, no pun intended, strange setup wherein during lockdown buildings with empty edit suites were fully powered on, with people conferencing in and images moving across their screens linked to those working at home. “If anyone was an opportunist during the time, they could’ve pirated the movie!”
Despite Nolan and her colleagues being able to physically return to the cutting room in April 2021, she continued working from home on her own Avid, squeezing in late nights and early mornings as effects shots came in while juggling communications with Raimi, who began to split his time between postproduction and the additional photography required by the movie’s complex and shifting storyline, which was undergoing extensive last-minute rewrites. Nolan had a huge hand in one particularly tricky scene, a transition between Strange and America, who have been drugged by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Baron Mordo so they could be captured and brought before the power-ful Illuminati—the council of heroes who aim to protect their part of the multiverse—to answer for Strange’s activities across the multiverse. Crosscut during this sequence is Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff (The Scarlet Witch) using the Darkhold book [an evil magical tome] to cast a spell and “dreamwalk” to take over another version of herself in the multiverse.
As Murawski was editing the dialogue between the actors, he asked if Nolan would mock up the montage of Wanda conjuring a spell. “He sent me a clip from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which had some hippie music and singing, with people kind of floating in and out, and asked, ‘Can you come up with something we can put in here?’ So with that and my memory of the opening title sequence to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show, I said, ‘All right, I can figure it out,’ and pulled a bunch of images from the Internet and had access to Chiwetel’s footage. From there, Sam was able to go, ‘Okay, here is what I want to shoot of Lizzy—let’s get her floating with candles. And then let’s get the shots of Xochitl Gomez and Benedict Cumberbatch where half the frame is just darkness, so I can superimpose stuff in.’ Then our art department had graphics created for the Darkhold, and I layered that in. It was incredibly challenging.” With Nolan editing in all the elements (candles, Wanda, magic symbols, the book), the brief conjuring scene is impressive on its own but even more so knowing its creation was largely in postproduction.
The overall result is an intricately beautiful scene wherein Nolan needed to do a lot of “nesting.” In this process of burrowing a special effect into an editing timeline, it often must be re-created at a higher resolution elsewhere and weaved back into the film, and the effort is complicated, to say the least. “It was a mess,” the editor laughs. “I basically made a mess for everybody. I made something that was visually wonderful, and we did a million screenings with it, and then when it was time to [output the sequence], it was like, ‘Oops, sorry, guys. I nested and nested within more nests and have a ton of layers.’ ” Thus, the visual effects team had to literally go through every frame to calculate the opacity and other data by hand, as nesting often can’t be automated. “The un-fun part was whenever anyone said, ‘Hey, can we just have a few more frames of this?’ Because it was a house-of-cards situation—everything would just completely fall apart.” Another excellent element to the sequence is how the film’s four-time Oscar-nominated composer created the perfect theme. “Danny Elfman one day said in a Zoom meeting, ‘I kinda went out there with this section, and I don’t know if you’re gonna like it. I’m playing really dirty guitar, so don’t criticize. It felt like it needed that.’ And he plays us the music that basically starts in that montage and goes through the poisoning and then goes to Wanda fully going into the dreamwalk, and then it goes through her head into the possession. The music dropped right in and elevated the piece. That’s my favorite music of all time—she is a witch rock goddess, and I knew we had to keep it.”
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