Cutting It: Film Editor Matthew Hannam Talks 'Swiss Army Man'

Matthew Hannam at the 2014 Directors Guild of Canada Awards where he won Best Film Editing for Enemy.

Swiss Army Man opens in Canada this weekend after a successfully controversial and acclaimed Sundance premiere where its unusual story featuring Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse was one of the festival's breakout hits. Radcliffe’s trick of playing dead gets some immediate laughs, but Swiss Army Man ultimately transcends its irreverent humour and grows into a moving bromance and a provocative musing on what it means to be alive.

Much of the success of Swiss Army Man lives in the film’s ability to take audiences by surprise, as it shifts tones and navigates numerous genres—sometimes in a single scene. Cutting farts is just one part of the challenge for Swiss Army Man’s film editor Matthew Hannam. Hannam, whose work is also on display in Patricia Rozema’s Into the Forest, splices together a film unlike any that audiences have seen before. The Winnipeg-born and Toronto-bred editor brings to the film ample experience from the Canadian film scene working on projects like Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg, Bruce McDonald’s Trigger, and Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, for which he won a Canadian Screen Award.

Cinemablographer chatted with Hannam via phone ahead of Swiss Army Man’s Canadian theatrical premiere to chat about his experience in the Canadian film scene, the art of editing, and the power of delivering bold and original work to audiences.
Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano in Swiss Army Man.
Photo by Joyce Kim, courtesy of A24.
PM: Pat Mullen
MH: Matthew Hannam

PM: What initially made you gravitate towards film editing?

MH: I grew up watching a lot of movies. I loved movies and never really got it out of my head that I could make them. After dropping out of economics, I had some leftover tuition and decided to take a screenwriting course and fell in love with it. I grew up in Winnipeg, so I just started making movies in Winnipeg and ended up editing sort of by default.

PM: They seem to have a really good film community there. Were you working with the co-op?

MH: Yeah, I started with the Winnipeg Film Group and then I ended up working with Guy Maddin [on the shorts Sombra Dolorosa, A Trip to the Orphanage and My Dad is 100 Years Old] and I worked with the key “Winnipeg Guys” [including Maddin, Sean Garrity, and Gary Yates] and then ended up at the Canadian Film Centre.  

PM: I wanted to ask you about that. You studied as part of the Editors’ Lab at the CFC. What was that experience like, especially coming from an economics background, at least in terms of school?

MH: Well, I wasn’t a very successful economist. [Laughs.] I jumped into it because in Winnipeg I just started working, so I learned how to assist and learned how to be an editor. I was editing low budget movies. I applied to the CFC on a whim and everyone said I wouldn’t get in, but I did. I went and I think I didn’t really didn’t know what to expect and it was a bit of a shock to be in a structured adult film camp. Editing Lab was a new thing at the time—they’d been doing it for a while, but it was undergoing an overhaul—and our group really had its own unique experience. I worked with a bunch of different filmmakers in different styles. I was doing absurdist comedies and serious art movies. I formed a lot of important professional relationships there and came out with partners that I worked with out of school. It was a positive experience, but it was also a culture shock where you’re sort of told what to do and when—I had a bit of a rebellious streak in me at the time. The amazing thing about a school like that is that you get to do your own thing and find your voice.

PM: In terms of, say, finding your own voice in each film, at what point in the process do you usually become involved with a film? Do you generally work with your directors before or during the shoot to develop the rhythm of the film? Do you always come in in post? Or does it vary project by project?
Jake Gyllenhaal and Sarah Gadon in Enemy, an eOne Films release.
MH: It definitely varies project by project. On Antiviral, I got the script and was a part of the script early on. Enemy I got the script early. It’s interesting because I don’t know how much an editor can actually do in the pre-production stages. You can try and weigh in on the story, but I personally believe that you need the footage, so it’s been interesting.

PM: What about if something doesn’t quite click? How do you work with the team to pull out the best product, just in terms of changing the timing, rhythm?

MH: Each movie calls for a different part of my skill set. I think that some movies, like this one I did called James White

PM: That was great.

MH: Thank you. That one was very much me, like, living with the director and we just dug in. We found the movie together from top to bottom—from story to performance to specific editorial styles that we developed together. It was a very holistic thing. In the case of Swiss Army Man, the Daniels have a very specific editorial style.

PM: How so?

MH: The most important part of being a good editor, on all of the films, is be receptive to what the film needs on a case-by-case basis. Editing, I think, is generally seen as the physical cuts. Every year, the Oscar goes to whatever film has the most cuts. That’s not really the case with good editing, it’s just not true, and an editor’s job is to edit the movie, not really the material, but the movie. In the case of the Daniels, it was about seeing this amazing virtuosic style that I can’t really add to. At time, I could replicate it in my work, but the most important part for me was to be the voice of reason and sometimes dissent, and to help see the movie in the grand scheme of things and bring that experience. They do a lot of work themselves. All of the montage work is so uniquely them that I would have been a fool to change it or weigh in on that. The important part is to look at that strong material, see if it tells the story, and then ask how we can tell the story better.

PM: So things like montages would already be mapped out in their mind during the shoot?

MH: It’s that way with any movie. Things are always going to come out of the film because you have to fine-tune them. A scene changes a great deal when you’re shooting it, from the character to the setting. Sometimes things become redundant because if one scene’s work is already be done in the previous scene, you have to really have a keen eye and be concise and guide it. An audience can lose track easily and the most important part in editing a movie is that the story is being told in the most accurate way possible, whether that’s style, story, or music.
Daniel Radcliffe and Daniel Kwan on the set of Swiss Army Man.
Photo by Joyce Kim, courtesy of A24.
PM: What were some of the challenges with Swiss Army Man? The film’s doesn’t really fit any particularly genre or tone. It’s funny but it’s also dark…

MH: To me, that’s the brilliance of what the Daniels do. They are able to take what we often modelled after a rom-com and turn it into a survival movie. They then take a survival movie and make it into an existential art film. There’s a scene at the beginning movie when [Manny, Daniel Radcliffe’s character] washes up on the beach and he [Hank, Paul Dano’s character] is dragging him. My first take on it was to make the scene this quirky thing. Everyone was into it and we doing it, but then we realised that something was just wrong about the beginning of the movie. We had this moment where we were all like, “You know what? This isn’t right because it’s what’s expected.” It’s actually quite dark—this man he’s desperate, he’s not free, not safe, and he has this dead body, so we went for this darker tone. The other example I can think about is the scene when they rocket out of the water, it was this explosive, victorious moment.

PM: Yes, it’s quite a surprise!

MH: We matched in musically, and then one day Dan Kwan had this idea that we should have a really sweet song that would be like the kiss. It was their rom com moment and would be the expression of their love. The editorial process was often about finding those moments and turning them over to find what the film is actually trying to say, not just what the image is calling for.

PM: Yeah, I think there’s a lot in the movie that takes you by surprise and it’s because of these shifts with tone, timing, things you don’t expect, and whatnot.

MH: I think the biggest victory in the film is that when you’re having a ridiculous moment, the movie sneak attacks you with a genuinely sad, scary or heartwarming event. One of my favourite moments in the movie is when they’re lying by the fire and they’re fantasising about staying in the woods forever. It’s that moment where you realise that Hank’s learned enough and he’s going back to civilisation. It’s so deeply, philosophically sad, but also it’s such a joyful moment of these two friends thinking about the future of their friendship and one of them knows it’s over. It makes it really beautiful.

PM: It makes a crazy movie really honest. How did you work with putting together Daniel Radcliffe’s performance? He’s basically playing dead in the movie but there’s also a spark of life when he’s on screen.

MH: It’s all Daniel Radcliffe. Daniel Radcliffe’s a genius. We had to do a bit of work to make it come together, but the movie is 98% him. They rarely ever used the dummy aside from things that would have killed him. For a good portion of the Jet Ski scene, that’s actually Daniel Radcliffe being ridden by Paul Dano behind the boat.

PM: [Laughs] Really?

MH: There’s very little trickery. Paul carried Daniel for most of it. Daniel’s so good at freezing—he didn’t move; it’s him under the pipe; it’s him under water. He’s just amazing, so it was a total pleasure to cut. His performance is just genius.

PM: It’s really funny. And now, you’ve now done a few American indies with Swiss Army Man and James White. What can the Canadian film scene learn from projects like these? Are there things that we could take away from these films? Do you think there’s something that the Canadian scene should be looking at?

MH: Honestly, I’ve learned so much from making films in the State not so much because—there’s sort of like a Canadian disease where they’re like, “Oh, you’re in America now. That’s an achievement.”

PM: Yeah, that’s true. I see that a lot.
Cynthia Nixon and Christopher Abbott in James White.
Courtesy of Films We Like.
MH: It’s not. It’s not my goal; it’s not what I want to do. I’m just looking out for what the best movie I want to do is. I just loved Borderline Films, so when I had the opportunity to work with them, I just leapt at it. And James White is a movie that we made for very little money and Swiss Army Man was a film that we made for very little money, and the thing that I learned from making those movies is that everything goes onscreen in the States. They scrap it together. We made James White for under a million dollars. Sleeping Giant is an example of something that scraps it together.

What we can learn up here is that the most important thing is the story—telling an original story. I think there’s a bit of disease where, and there’s obviously quite a conversation about this right now, people are just waiting to be given money. With a really good script, you can get a lot done. You can get great actors. You have to be a little bullish about it, but you can get people to listen to you if the script is good.

The most important thing to remember is that you have to tell original stories. I think that a lot of the time, people think, “Oh, I’ve seen this before. This worked, so I’m going to do this.” The reason Swiss Army Man is successful is that it’s nothing you’ve ever seen before. I don’t think there’s anything “American” about Swiss Army Man. If Swiss Army Man were made in Canada, there would be no difference. There’s no geographical difference. We have beaches and water and trees. It’s the kind of thing where you have to be brave to tell a story that hasn’t been told before and if it has, you have to find an original way to tell it. That’s the only reason to make a movie, I think.

PM: Yes, and I think this movie does it very well.

MH: They went out there, they rattled everyone’s cages, and people got upset because they hadn’t seen it before. But with sequelitis, people just want to see things again. I think that’s exciting that they’re doing something new.

PM: I think so too.

MH: The part that I’ve been really inspired by is just going out and seeing young people with a story to tell. Swiss Army Man is about the feeling of being disenfranchised and James White is about the feeling of being alone. I think the important thing for us is to write what you know.

Swiss Army Man is now playing in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver from D Films.
Read the Cinemablographer review of Swiss Army Man here.