INTERVIEW: Mark Towns, Editor SAINT MAUD; CENSOR

“Editors are literally the invisible man: the audience never know what was scripted and was created in the cutting room”

Mark Towns

Spoilers for SAINT MAUD

Mark Towns knows a thing or two about crafting the perfect scare: after racking up awards for his documentary work, he’s gone on to cut together some of the most celebrated genre films of the last decade. With Saint Maud now released on Blu-ray and DVD we sat down to talk horror, pacing and that film’s finale, which boasts not one but two of the most shocking moments in recent years. Spoilers throughout.

Looking at your filmography you’re consistently busy, turning out a prolific hit rate.

I’ve been very lucky to be honest. I went freelance in like 2000 and have been busy ever since. I don’t know how, but it’s great.

A number of the titles you’ve worked on have been genre focused. Is that your preferred area of work?

I initially fell into documentaries and was golden-handcuffed by the money, but I really wanted to do movies, so I did lots of free work, lots of short films. One person I went to college with did his first movie and said “Do you want to cut it?”, then another couple of people I worked with did their first movie and asked me to cut that, and the movies took off from there.

I love horror films: I’m a massive fan of Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava. I love all that stuff, and I’ve been lucky that the projects I’ve been offered fall into the genres I like: The Survivalist was science fiction, and through that I got an agent and then The Ritual, which was a big genre film. So yeah, through luck or perseverance or whatever it’s just come, which is nice.

With Fulci people often think of the gore and dreamlike logic, but on a technical level editing plays such a key role in marshalling the mood of those films. It seems like editors are unsung heroes in filmmaking.

You’re literally the invisible man because you never know what was scripted and what wasn’t and what was created in the cutting room. People say editing is the final draft of the script and it is.

A lot of people say to me “Why do movies when in documentaries you have so much more control?”. In documentaries you get a lot of plaudits – you create the stories – but in movies it’s almost harder because you’re given a story and if it doesn’t work you have to create a story that does work out of what’s been written. People say it’s not as creative, but I completely disagree.

Has that happened to you? Where you’ve been given raw material that hasn’t worked and you’ve had to find a way of crafting something out of that?

With a lot of the films I do the writer is the director and they’re really free. On one film we had a 15 minute opening, and I sat down with the director and said “Well what happens if we just start here, basically remove the first 15 minutes of the film?”

What I do is try to build the script from the material, and then we watch it and go “Right this doesn’t work here, or the pacing needs to alter here”. In some films it reads great on the page but the actors give you something different, and because a lot of films are shot out of sequence you have performances that don’t marry up: one scene was shot in week one and another was shot in week eight and for one reason or another it doesn’t match. So you have to go “Right, well, those things can’t go together: can we use that somewhere else?” And you restructure or cannibalise another scene: build other stuff.

One film we did, we literally restructured it every week: heavily restructured. Even in the last couple of weeks it was like “Well, let’s just take that and put it at the front”. The end was always set, but it’s all up for grabs really, and whatever works. If you do it right, the audience won’t know it’s been completely restructured.

It must be tough to be a writer, because you hand over your script and then the performers do their thing, rewrite the lines, and then I come along and take their beginning and move it to the end. I know that if I had to hand my work over to somebody else to finish, it would be awful for me.

You mentioned you work with a lot of writer / directors: are they more amenable to that, because they’ve got that directorial hat on as well?

I’ve been lucky and they’re all really free to experiment: you’re free to just make the film the best it can be.

One writer / director you’ve worked with is Rose Glass for Saint Maud. Can you talk about how you got involved in the project?

I got the script through my agent and read it and was like “I have to do this film”. We set up a meeting and luckily she said yes. We shot for 5 weeks and edited for another 14-15.

It’s been a crazy season for theatrical releases with things being broken up by Covid, but Saint Maud snuck in during the inter-lockdown months of 2020.

It was supposed to be released, I think in April in the States and a little later in the UK, and then lockdown happened. We were wondering if we were going to get release. Studio Canal have done an amazing job putting us out.

It’s a fantastic film: there are two moments in particular in the last 10-15 minutes which are incredibly impactful, and it’s largely down to what feels like the marriage of Rose’s vision and your execution in the editing. The first is when Maud goes back to Amanda’s home: Maud may or may not be experiencing some kind of psychotic break at this point, and sees Amanda turn into it a demonic presence. Can you talk about the process of constructing that moment?

That’s the script. I think we removed some lines, but because the film has such a deliberate pace you’re not expecting anything like that to happen: we’ve got that brilliant closeup of Morfydd (Clark), and then we just slow it, slow it, slow it… and then we punch in. We give it the lull, and then smash it.

To make it even more impactful Jennifer (Ehle) goes “rargh!” and I sped it up, took like 3 or 4 frames out to make it even more impactful, and then they put some visual effects on top. But it works so well because you have the whole build-up of the performance and the pace throughout the whole film.

Jump-scares are so ubiquitous in the horror genre, it’s unusual to get one which hits audiences as strongly as this one.

The best jump-scare that I’ve ever experienced in a cinema is the one in Exorcist III: that for me is the best. The construction is beyond me, because you know it’s coming and there’s a few nods towards it with the guy jumping up at the glass and then at the end it’s not even fast, it just comes out and you recoil in terror.

You mentioned before that you’re a big fan of Mario Bava: this moment in Saint Maud reminded me of “The Drop of Water” segment in Black Sabbath where there’s a bedridden older woman / corpse which seems to transform and come at the protagonist. There’s something about the pacing of that sequence too which is overwhelming.

For the jump-scare in Saint Maud, we had early screenings with execs and producers and it worked. We even had a screening where the sound was appalling, and me and Rose were sat at the back feeling like it was going to go horribly, but that scare always worked.

The second moment is in the last scene where Maud is on the beach, and there’s this disconnect between how she’s visualizing the moment – almost like a transfiguration where she’s bathed in light and she believes that she’s going to be taken up to heaven – and the reactions as people become aware she’s going to set herself on fire. The final cut is where she pours petrol on herself and lights up, and in her mind she’s glowing with this heavenly light, but it cuts to her burning and screaming and then to black. That moment was like a punch to the chest.

 She’s going to hell. She’s not going to heaven.

Well this was my question, because it looks on the surface like she’s burning on the beach, but it feels like the grading is changed so that it’s dark as well: it’s quite hellish. Was that something that you and Rose talked about?

I think Rose mentioned it in the cutting room. That was the final visual effect, they added more smoke to make it more realistic, grim and nastier.

We actually filmed a real burn on the beach. In the script it was more verité and the last shot was handheld between people’s legs and you see this burning figure. But it didn’t really work, so while we were editing we realised we were going to need to do a visual effect.

So you actually filmed a stunt person on fire and they ended up on the cutting room floor?

They did unfortunately. But yeah, we decided to go the way we did, which I think works really well.

You see the movie through Maud’s perspective: I would have loved for her to have gone to heaven. The shot that really gets me is when she pours the petrol on herself, that’s the most depressing thing in the film for me: it’s just horrible, even though I know it’s just water.

There is such an emotional tension the audience has towards Maud, where on one hand there’s you can’t condone her actions but you also have a lot of sympathy for her as somebody who appears to be unwell.

She’s had a horrible time, and she’s seen and experienced horrible things and the culmination has just made her snap.

Looking through the other films you’ve worked on there are some other really powerful moments which were created through the way you’ve cut them together. You mentioned The Survivalist earlier and a standout in that film is the attempted abortion scene, where it’s cut together with images of a rabbit trying to avoid a snare.

As we were saying earlier, a sequence like that could have made in the cutting room, but this one was in Steven’s (Fingleton, writer/director) script. I’d love to say “Oh yeah we had this shot and I inter-cut that too”, but that was his script.

It’s an uncomfortable scene. I think actually the more uncomfortable the scenes the easier they are to edit. You get the material and it’s just “How far do we push it?”. I find them quite easy to build in some respects.

You also mentioned The Ritual, which has gathered a cult following in recent years and I think part of that is – as with Saint Maud – the cinema verité being intercut with fantastic elements: this ongoing interplay between the events that happened in the convenience store at the beginning and the folkloric monster in the woods later on.

That’s not an editing job per se because they built those sets in the forest, whereas a lot of movies have flashbacks you can cut pretty much where you want: I was saying to a director recently “Memories and dreams are an editor’s nightmare because you can put them anywhere”, and usually they’re a sequence that’s 3 minutes long and they end up being 4 seconds. You truncate them and put them wherever you want, whereas with The Ritual those memories are embedded in the set, and they couldn’t be moved for one reason or another because of the way we come in and out of them. It’s a really nice way of presenting memories or dreams to an audience.

Are there any moments created by other editors – such as the jump scare in Exorcist III – which you hold in high regard?

One of the most brilliantly edited scenes in a horror film is the Fulci splinter-in-the-eye (from Zombie Flesh Eaters). That’s brilliantly constructed: beforehand you have a hand that goes through the door, and there’s a really nice double cut.  

The two guys that got me interested in editing are Terry Rawlings, who cut Alien – there’s some fantastic cuts there, especially when the facehugger comes out of the egg – and Stuart Baird, who has literally one of the best CVs: he’s cut The Omen, Superman, Bond.

In that Fulci moment there’s something there in terms of the way editing can trick your brain into thinking you’ve seen something you haven’t. The eye trauma of that moment recalls the early Buñuel / Dali movie Un Chien Andalou where there’s the cut between a woman’s eye and the closeup of the calf’s eye with the razor blade going through it.

There’s something called the Kuleshov effect: the original example is a shot of a baby, a shot of man or woman looking to the camera and not giving any kind of reaction, and then you use the same shot and show a funeral. And it’s like “He’s really sad in that shot” and then “He’s really happy looking at the baby”. But it’s just the same image: as a viewer you project what you’re thinking onto his face. You can use that quite well in documentary, or in drama to get performance you might not have.

Locating it contextually with images either side.

Exactly. It’s nice when you get actors not doing anything because you can craft stuff.

You’ve just finished working with Prano Bailey-Bond on Censor. It’s interesting because that film it about censorship which, though separate from editing, has an element of crossover in terms of how things are cut for presentation.

I went for the interview for that job and read the script and was like “If there was a film that was written for me to edit, this is it”. I’ve got all the video nasties and I’m interested in all that stuff. It’s a project I feel very close to. It’s going to be a fun film.

Have you got anything else you’re working on at the moment?

I’m working on another horror film: it’s more genre then Censor or Saint Maud. It’s still early days – we finished shooting last week – so we have an assembly and me and the director are slowly going through it.

And for Saint Maud you’ve done a commentary for the Blu Ray.

Yeah, me and Rose did one: that’s a good fun, behind-the-scenes look at the process we went through in the editing room. You’ll find out a bit more about what we did and what we re-shot and what was changed. Studio Canal have done an amazing job with the Blu Ray:  there’s some great stuff on there.

Tim Coleman

SAINT MAUD is available now on Blu-ray and DVD.

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