Editing of "Hanna" by Morten Højbjerg, courtesy of Amazon Studios

Editing of “Hanna” – interview with Morten Højbjerg

July 31st, 2020
Editing of "Hanna" by Morten Højbjerg, courtesy of Amazon Studios

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Morten Højbjerg. In this interview he talks about how he started in the field of editing, what changed and what didn’t in the transition of editing from physical to digital tools, his approach to “emptying the frame” and keeping the viewer’s attention, and serving as the final bridge between what was shot and what we the viewers see. Around these topics and more, Morten dives deep into what his work on the first two seasons of Amazon’s “Hanna”.

Photo by Bjørn Djupvik

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself, and how early (or maybe late) you knew you wanted to be a part of the visual storytelling field.

Morten: I’m Danish and I grew up in this little village in the countryside. Growing up, I didn’t know anybody who was even remotely in the film industry, so I never imagined that I would have anything to do with movies. It wasn’t even within range of reality. I don’t think it even ever crossed my mind that there was such a thing as editing.

When I was a teenager, I moved to Copenhagen. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life, but by some weird coincidence I got hired as a runner in a production company that made commercials. It happened to be around the time when the whole digital shift was coming, old-school physical editing tables to digital editing, and this company that I was a runner for, invested in one of the first AVIDs in Denmark – which is now one of the most common digital editing systems.

Back then, there was nothing on screens in my life. I didn’t own a computer, I didn’t have a mobile phone. I remember the first time the whole thing was set up and it was playing something, and it just blew my mind to watch video running on this computer screen. It was magic. I had never seen anything like that. It was incredible.

Anyway, they bought one of those, but no one really knew what to actually do with the thing. I was really fascinated, and hating my job as a runner, I started to dig into it. I read the manual, and after doing my runner duties throughout the day, I spent all my evenings learning and studying this fantastic machine. Before long I started being an assistant for some of actual editors. In my free time and on weekends I was cutting stuff on my own, making short films out of all the commercials that were in the archives. Those were random, weird short films out of washing powder commercials cut together with car commercials etc. That was my way in.

As soon as I saw this thing and started to understand a bit about what it was, looking over the editors’ shoulders and understanding the magic of this job, I knew that this was what I was going to do for a living. It was perfect, and I have not done anything else ever since.

Kirill: Looking from the outside in, it was interesting for me to see how reluctant some people were to transition from film to digital. Do you think it was a smooth transition, or were there “pockets of resistance”, so to speak?

Morten: Of course there were pockets of resistance for a while. Editing on Avid is radically different to editing on a Steenbeck table, and I guess it took a few years to change the habits and methods for a lot of people. After my time at the production company I went to the National Danish Filmschool for four years. Back then they still had the old Steenbeck tables standing around collecting dust in the corners. I insisted on using them for my short films, and I made my midterm film on the Steenbeck. It was so complicated, and the whole physicality of it was incredible. You had to be so organised. I spent hours and hours with my head in the bin, trying to find little pieces of film that I had cut out but then later wanted to put back in. On a Steenbeck you needed to think about what you were doing in a completely different way. You needed to have a plan before you started doing anything. It took hours to make changes, with so much looping and rolling the film through the whole thing. I’m really grateful that I arrived at the scene in time to experience that. I think there is a lot to learn from that approach in terms of the thought process that goes in to the editing of a film.

One interesting aspect of editing in digital versus film is that it didn’t actually become faster to cut a feature film than it was back in the day with Steenbeck tables or Moviolas. You might think it would be but it really isn’t.

Kirill: Is it because the art of editing hasn’t changed, and it’s still as challenging to find the right artistic expression? Or maybe is it because you have more digital material to work with because the camera keeps on rolling?

Morten: I think it’s a combination. The fact that you can roll now gives us much more material to work with than what it used to be when it was like a 35mm camera. With film, when you pushed the “On” button, you could hear the money roll out of it [laughs] – and now it’s not a big thing anymore. You record to a card and then reuse it

But another thing is that the thought process has not changed. That still takes a certain amount of time from when you see the material the first time, regardless of how much there is. You take that material on a journey to a finished film. It’s still a physical journey, but it’s also a mental journey and that takes a certain amount of time before you can conclude it.

Somehow I also think there is a danger in digital editing actually. Because it’s so easy and you can make endless copies and versions effortlessly, it has become easier not to properly think about what you are doing. It has become easier to get lost.

Kirill: On a more technical side of things, how obsessed or perhaps paranoid are you about losing material on those digital cards or disks? Is there more fragility to it compared to the old days of film?

Morten: That is true, but it’s always been like that on film as well. If the assistant did something wrong and exposed it to light, it was gone. Back in the film days, you would go to the lab after the end of the daily shoot, and lock the film roll into a special closet with all sorts of codes and keys. Whatever it is, a film roll or a flash card, it often represents a huge amount of money. A whole day of production that you may not able to replicate if it’s gone.

Kirill: Do you think there’s ever going to be such a time as a disc big enough that it doesn’t need to be bigger?

Morten: It doesn’t look like that, does it? The resolution keeps going up, from 6K to 8K to now 12K. The drives needs to be bigger, and then everything grows simultaneously all the time. I don’t know if there will ever be a time when we can’t really tell the difference. Is it 50K? Is it 72K? I don’t know if the human eye has any limit like that.

That’s the thing about film, and why so many people maybe still love film. It’s a more organic thing. It’s not limited in these numbers. It’s a fluent thing that is, maybe, a better replication of how we work as organic beings.

Editing of “Hanna” by Morten Højbjerg, courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Kirill: Pulling back a bit, when you meet somebody at a party, how do you talk about what you do for a living? Do you struggle with that question?

Morten: A bit, even though the access is so much bigger now than it was 20 years ago. Most people who want to have some sort of access to editing now, can. You can edit on your smartphone. You can shoot a little video on your phone, and install a couple of apps to edit those snippets. Probably in most cases people just cut out the bad parts in the beginning and the end, and don’t go beyond that.

If you really need to explain what everything is, it’s something entirely different. It doesn’t have much to do with the physical operation of editing. That’s not what it is. You spend most of your time in another, mental space, and not thinking about the physical cut that you’re doing. It’s a hidden job still. I don’t think a lot of people know what it is. But I think it is with editing as with most other things. There more you know about it, the more complex it gets.

Kirill: Getting closer to the specific productions you’ve worked on over the years, I remember watching “Melancholia” and “Nymphomaniac” a few years ago, and your last few productions are in the world of episodic television, including “Hanna”. Do you see any big differences between the world of features and the episodic world?

Morten: I don’t feel that there is a lot of difference. “Nymphomaniac” was almost a TV series within itself, because it was so long and quite episodic in that way. And my process is similar. Of course, sometimes in TV things are moving a bit faster, and the deadlines are a bit sterner, and you don’t have as much time as you might have on a feature film. But the process is not different.

Kirill: How did “Hanna” start for you? How do you, in general, choose your productions?

Morten: Everything goes through agents. You get presented with different opportunities or possibilities. You get scripts sent to you. You read those and form opinions about them.

As for “Hanna”, I really liked the film that they made back in 2011. That got my attention, and of course David Farr is a great writer. We are living in a time where we need to push for more strong female leads, and in that regard I really felt that this project delivered. I found it really elegant how David was intertwining the themes of coming of age, identity, and family with the more hardcore action aspects of it. That’s what interested me, and that’s how I got involved.

I didn’t know David Farr from before, but you start talking. I also had talks with the different directors to see what it was that they wanted to accomplish. Is that something I understand? Is that something we can collaborate on? It’s a process, and it’s how these things form. It’s about building relationships with people. Are we on the same wavelength artistically? That’s what you get from those initial conversations. That’s how you decide if you want to join it and help create that vision.

Kirill: How does it work when you have multiple editors, multiple directors, multiple cinematographers all working on the same show?

Morten: That’s one aspect of episodic TV that is different from feature film, and especially working with a director like Lars von Trier. He has a singular vision for his scripts. He’s writing the whole thing, he’s directing it, it’s being produced by his own company. There is nobody else but him when it gets down to making final decisions. In most cases it’s going to be his decisions. As an editor you don’t have final say. You are in a unique position to influence the process. To persuade and convince and to fight for the ideas you think is right for the project.

On films it’s just you and the director most of the time.

In TV it’s quite different. There’s more people involved, especially on big networks. You have lots of producers and multiple directors for different episodes. But then, above all of that, you have the show’s creator – David Farr for “Hanna”. He’s the channel that everything goes through. It’s his idea and his vision. He’s the reference point. If you have questions or ideas on what you might want to change in your episode, he is the expert you can bounce that off of.

Let’s say I want to change something major, like take out a scene or switch the order of things. That might have consequences for another episode that I’m not aware of. So he’ll tell you that it’s maybe a great idea for this specific thing in this specific episode, but it’s going to mess up the next episode or two. He has all this in his head, so he’s always the reference point for everybody. He’s the memory of the show. In that way, my work is not that different.

I can imagine that it might be a different experience when you are the director on episodic TV compared to when you’re a director on a feature film. Episodic TV is often a bigger machine and you have to submit to the bigger picture of things. You can’t really be your own little creative island as you often can on feature films.

That said, my experience here in the UK is that we are more in line with the European auteur tradition. It’s the director’s vision, and we are allowed the time and space to create the version of the episode that we want to present, and that we think is the strongest version. Then we bring in more people, like our wonderful executive producer Tom Coan, and of course David, to start the discussion. But there’s that initial space for us to start out by giving our take, and making the version that we think is best.

Kirill: I was re-watching the first episode of the second season, and I saw how critical it was to connect the two seasons together. It starts in the forest to connect to the end of the first season, and then dives deep into introducing the spaces and people of the Meadows facility, laying the ground for the rest of the season. Did you find yourself spending more time and more attention on it, because it is sort of a stepping stone into this season?

Morten: Yes, certainly. First of all, the whole forest aspect is also my stepping stone of this show because I also did the first episode on the first season. There is poetry in this repetition of the forest and in spending time to dwell a bit on that. The forest is so much the core of Hanna’s character. It’s her safe space.

That’s always the challenge of first episodes that there are often so many things that you need to introduce. On a TV show you usually have lots of characters and lots of different plot lines that you need to introduce in the first episode for later story. Sometimes you ask yourself if it really needs to be in the first episode, because it doesn’t really have anything to do with anything else in the episode but it’s going to be necessary later, so this whole introduction thing can often be quite tricky. And you find yourself coming up with ways to make all these different narratives flow simultaneously. That’s more often than not the challenge of these first episodes. I guess it’s also part of what makes doing pilot episodes interesting to do.

Editing of “Hanna” by Morten Højbjerg, courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Kirill: One of my favorite sequences from this first episode of the second season was when Hanna and Clara are trying to get away from the drones, as their perfect world gets disrupted by this invasive brutality of technology. How did you approach conveying the tension of the moment?

Morten: When I was editing this sequence, we didn’t have any drones. The drones are actually virtual 3D models, and they didn’t exist in the physical world. They shot Hanna and Clara in the elements, being chased by nothing. And we had a lot of empty plates for the drone to be put in later. Then it was down to our imagination.

What kind of drone is this? How big is it? How fast is it? What can it do? How low to the ground can it go? How does it see? How does it search for them? That was pretty much up in the air throughout the whole editing. It was an abstract thing for me, because I didn’t have anything. You have to cut to an empty plate with a tree or some sky, and then count to three or four. Imagine how the drone travels through the forest. You ballpark how fast it moves and how much time it takes to move between certain points.

I ended up spending a lot of time on the sound design, putting different buzzing sounds on. And as I was editing, I was saying them out loud to myself to get some sort of pace in the whole thing. Then, after the edit was done, the drone was built and we had some rounds of looking at it. You see that maybe you can come in from another direction, make it bigger or get a bit closer. We imagined the whole sequence and cut with nothing except for sounds. As she’s hiding under the water, you ask yourself – could it hover? If yes, let’s make it hover. You drag it out a bit and keep on going. But it’s all about using your imagination in these sequences. Building the tension and suspense from literally nothing. It’s interesting and probably the closest thing an editor gets to starting from a blank page.

Kirill: As you spend so many days or even weeks going over the same sequence again and again, how do you put yourself in my position as a viewer? I’d imagine that most viewers only watch it once. How can you see it with fresh eyes when you have seen it so many times already?

Morten: In my experience, that’s something you develop over time. This exact thing in the beginning of my career was one of my biggest worries. How will I be able to keep fresh eyes on things after watching it 500 times? How do you do that? Maybe I can’t. Maybe it’s not even possible.

But I think that it’s something that comes with practice in some weird way. The way I work is very much with intuition and gut feeling. In that sense, I am the audience. I am the first audience. If I make something that works, I don’t determine if it works by analysing it. I determine if it works if it’s exciting to me. If I can feel it.

I divide myself into two. Some days I go with the gut. I try to feel it, try to see when it’s exciting and when it gets boring. It’s based on intuition. When I’m watching it back and I feel that it is quite exciting, then I’m parking that part of myself, and trying to analyse why it works, and if it would still work in the bigger context of the whole episode. Maybe it’s much too long, or maybe something else. I’m very much utilising myself as being the audience, and if I feel that it works, then it probably does. I think editing has a lot to do with taking your own emotional apparatus seriously. Over time you develop a confidence in your emotional response to things. You learn to listen to yourself and distinguish between an increasing amount of different layers or tones of emotions. After all storytelling is all about conveying emotions. At least in my opinion.

I try not to interfere too much with that, because that feeling is quite pure. The weird thing is that over the years I’m getting better at that for some reason. I can’t explain why or how that works, but this aspect of keeping your eyes fresh is becoming less and less of a problem somehow.

Kirill: It’s interesting, as you’re talking about yourself being the final bridge between what was shot and what the audience sees. Do you think there’s an objective truth, if you will, to how a story needs to be told, or are there multiple ways and you happen to be choosing one of them?

Morten: Obviously, I would like to say that there is only one perfect way that something can be put together, and that I am hitting that every time. But I’m not sure that it is like that. I think that there are multiple ways.

What I do think is that if I’m putting something together in a specific way that makes me feel like this is the perfect way, then in that moment it sort of is perfect. But maybe, if I did the same sequence five weeks later or two years later, it would look different. It could be. There is no one way. It’s almost like a universe with infinite possibilities, which makes it interesting. Every film you make, and that goes for art in general, is specific to a time in your life, a period in society, and other aspects that play into it.

This goes back to what we were discussing earlier. This process takes time, regardless if you are cutting digital or cutting old-school Steenbeck. It takes the same amount of time because you need to go through this process of cutting a scene, really liking it, a few weeks pass, you watch it again and think “Oh wait a minute, let me change this and this”, park it again and keep on going. And after two months you look back, and maybe that earlier version was the best one. That’s how it works.

Editing of “Hanna” by Morten Højbjerg, courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Kirill: You said that the first episodes need to have a lot in them, and specifically for the second season of “Hanna”, there’s a lot of parts of the Meadows facility in there – the surveillance room, the holding cell, the boss’s office, the girls’ quarters, etc. Do you work off of the script as far as how much time you give to each one of these spaces?

Morten: There is a saying that once you are in the editroom, you should leave the script outside. If you constantly refer back to the logic of the script you are going to miss the gifts and new opportunities that come with the footage. That said, in regards to locations I totally do, because that’s one place where I have sort of a blind spot. I don’t have a great sense of direction [laughs], so I tend not to be interested in those aspects very much. I’m interested in the rooms that they are in, but mostly from the perspective of the mental space or the drama that the location represents. But as far as some cell being behind that building, and how much time it would take to get from here to there? I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that. But it’s great to have collaborators, because somebody else will be.

Kirill: One of the motives in season two is Terri chatting with the girls online, pretending to be their made-up families. This mode of interaction is such a big part of our everyday life, and it’s been shown in countless shows and movies. How do you take something as, perhaps, boring, and make it both approachable and attractive for the viewers?

Morten: I can ask you – is it boring? Of course, that’s what you fear in the process of doing a sequence like that. It could be super boring. Somebody is writing on a computer, and then somebody else is writing back on a computer. I hope it’s not boring the way we did it in the show. We did our best, and fortunately those sequences are also layered with the eerie knowledge that it’s all pretend. In that way I think there is a lot more going on than just the rather mundane reading and writing on a computer.

But in a way I always work from the principle that everything should be as short as possible. You have a responsibility to not bother the audience. Everybody’s time is precious, and there’s so much stuff that they could watch. There’s so much stuff on all the different platforms, and we get so much in our face all the time, from everywhere. It’s not just film and TV, but all sorts of things that we get bombarded with. So when you are in the business of entertaining people, it’s really important that you don’t waste people’s time, or if you do waste people’s time, then waste it as little as at all possible.

That is something I try to think about when I’m working, and that doesn’t just go for a scene that could be boring because it’s just people typing. It also goes for big action scenes and sequences, and the drone chase that we just talked about. It has to do with the pacing, and with what I call “emptying out the frame”.

You want to keep it as short as you possibly can. You don’t want people to get to this point where they have completely processed the frame. You’re experiencing the shot, looking around it, orienting yourself and getting an overview. But I like to cut out of that shot a little bit before you get that complete overview and into the next shot.

I don’t want to empty the frame of information. When I cut, I would like there still to be a little bit of information left that you didn’t, on a conscious level at least, get yet. That way I keep the interaction alive. My thinking is that as soon as I allow the frame to empty, people will start drifting off. People will start to think about what they are going to have for dinner, or something like that.

Kirill: Is there a danger of moving too fast, and leave the viewer disoriented?

Morten: That’s the whole challenge – to not move too fast as well. It has to be right in the sweet spot between those two. If you’re moving too fast, you don’t get the emotional impact and there are important parts of the story that people then don’t understand. It’s about keeping the pace in a way that you are right in the middle of those two things.

Kirill: You did another episode in the middle of the second season. As it gets deeper into the story and the viewers are more familiar with the spaces and the characters, how does that affect your pacing?

Morten: It was a different experience on the second season. I did two episodes on the first season that were in sequence, but on the second I did two episodes that were detached from each other.

It’s a different experience. When you start out something, you can set the pace and the tone, and there’s not a lot of other stuff that locks you in. But when you’re jumping right into the middle of a series, there’s all these things that you need to consider around that episode. So in that regard, it was quite a different experience.

Kirill: Do you get a chance to enjoy the show as a regular viewer when it is out?

Morten: I don’t tend to watch my own things after I’m done with them. Most of the films that I have worked on – I haven’t seen them again since I made them. I don’t know why it is like that.

It’s different on TV. There’s so much stuff that you didn’t do in between or around your own work. It’s much bigger than what I did, of course. It’s great to see that. I think I’m a pretty good audience. I don’t watch it from any technical angle. I don’t think I have that “work damage” where I can only think about the technical things. I just watch it and enjoy the full body of work.

Kirill: One last question about “Hanna”, and it’s about its beautiful soundtrack. Who gets to choose the songs, and who chooses which episodes get which songs?

Morten: The source songs start with our great music supervisor, Iain Cooke. He finds all sorts of songs. He has contacts with so many different labels, and he finds new stuff that hasn’t been out yet. He finds things that he thinks might fit into the show. The end result is something of a compilation with several hundreds of tracks that he gives to us. And we’re also free to find other things on our own obviously. If you feel that this song that you know would be absolutely beautiful for a certain sequence, we will try to get the rights.

In most cases it’s music that Iain has sourced. And that’s when the big fight starts [laughs]. There almost always is a couple of tracks that all the editors fall in love with and want. We all put it on, and even if people agree that it can be great here and there, how do you agree? Who gets to choose? Who gets it? We don’t want to use the same song too many times throughout. But maybe you do use it in a few different places. You sort it out. It might start in three different episodes, and then you discuss and choose where it’s best used.

Kirill: What’s the story of “Anti-Lullaby” that ended up being used in pretty much all the episodes so far?

Morten: Before the shooting started on the first series, that song was made for the show, and it became the theme for the whole thing. When I heard it the first time on the first season, I really loved it and started using it in as many places as possible. It was made in different versions, with the lyrics or without, with different instrumentations. Like the forest, it became the backbone of the whole show.

Editing of “Hanna” by Morten Højbjerg, courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Kirill: Somewhere in your home or the studio you have those beautifully calibrated 5K/6K monitors with just the right color temperature and just right color space. You obsess over those choices every day, and then somebody like me goes to the store, buys that super-oversaturated TV and never recalibrates it “back” to the normal setting. And people watch these productions on all sorts of screens, in all sorts of visually busy, poorly lit or overly lit environments. Does that bother you?

Morten: It is a battle that you can’t win, but maybe not so much as it used to be. I think that peoples screens are getting better and better. But then there’s the sound issue on those screens as well, because the sound is as big, if not bigger, of a problem in that regard. Lots of new screens have terrible sound and that can be even more frustrating. Sound is at least half of the experience in my opinion.

But of course, nothing ever looks like it was intended, unless you go to the cinema – which nobody does at this moment in time, anyway. In a way, it is a losing battle. At some point I made a decision about accepting it for what it is. It is not the most important aspect. The most important aspect is still the storytelling. It is the characters. It is the emotional journey that we are putting these characters on. That is the core of my work regardless.

Probably a lot of cinematographers will disagree with me, but it’s really someting you can’t win. You can’t control it, and if you obsess too much about it, you end up being extremely frustrated. You have to accept that it’s never going to look exactly like you intended, anywhere. I surrendered a little bit I think.

Kirill: Do you see the light at the end of the Corona tunnel? How different might production cycles look like on the other end of it? As I was watching the second season when it came out, I kept on thinking how the scope of “Hanna”, jumping all over Europe and some parts of North Africa. It might be a while – if ever – that productions might be able to afford to do that again.

Morten: It’s definitely going to take a while before stuff like that would be possible again. I’m hopeful that we can get going soon, but right now nothing is happening. It’s a complete standstill, and that also goes for me. I don’t have anything to cut because nobody’s shooting anything.

“Hanna” is such an international show, with lots of locations around Europe. It’s going to be a while before that’s possible. I don’t have an educated guess about when that would be. I’m just hoping as soon as possible. I’m always quite optimistic about things. It’s going to be all right. We’re going to get there sooner rather than later. We have to.

Kirill: On a bit more positive note, 20 years into it, what keeps you going? What keeps you coming back for more, ignoring this forced break for a moment?

Morten: From the very beginning, the whole world of editing was a complete Eureka moment for me. When I figure out what it was, it blew my mind. I was quite surprised that people would want to pay me for it, because it didn’t feel like a real job.

In a way, I still feel like that. It might sound ridiculous, but I really do. I still love it. And that’s not just because I’m sitting here in lockdown and haven’t been working on anything for a little while that I’m missing it.

A big aspect of it is that as an editor, you get to go to so many different kinds of worlds, and completely submerge yourself in something for a while, and then after a few months you’re out of it. And then you submerge yourself in something completely different. I’ve made so many different things, from comedy to dramas to action to documentaries. And every project is new, different, and unique.

Even though I did a lot of work, I try to not have too much routine. I really try, every time, to invent new ways of working and new ways to approach the material. I think the worst thing that could happen to me was arriving at work and cutting something in a way that is the same that I already did before. I don’t want it to become a routine. That would be terrible. So I’m trying to do the opposite of that all the time.

I some ways it comes naturally, because every project is like you’re starting from the beginning. It’s always brand new, and you’re always challenging yourself to find the right approach to cut it. That attitude helps keeping it fresh.

Editing of “Hanna” by Morten Højbjerg, courtesy of Amazon Studios.

And here I’d like to thank Morten Højbjerg for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of editing. I’d also like to thank Andrea Resnick and Katie Dooling for making this interview happen. The first and the second seasons of “Hanna” are available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video. And if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.