“The Lost City” Editor Craig Alpert on Finding Big Laughs With Sandra Bullock & Channing Tatum
The laugh-out-loud adventure comedy The Lost City, starring Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum, found its way atop the box office. Directed by the Nee brothers Aaron and Adam, the punchy comedy delightfully entertains as Bullock plays a successful romance writer who has been kidnapped by an obsessed treasure hunter played by Daniel Radcliffe, who believes the world in her latest novel is real and wants her to help find it. It’s up to Tatum, the novel’s leading character and cover boy, to save her—with help from a few great guest stars in Brad Pitt and Da’Vine Joy Randolph.
Piecing together the wild ride was editor Craig Alpert, who knows how to make audiences laugh having worked on Knocked Up, Pineapple Express, both Borat films, and Deadpool 2. The editor sat down with The Credits to share how he approaches comedy and what drew him to the project.
I think the most important question to begin with after watching The Lost City and knowing your credits, is who has the better butt: Sasha Baron Cohen, Ryan Reynolds, or Channing Tatum?
Well, they all have great rear-ends in their own right, but they’re also all brilliant comedic minds. I consider myself extremely lucky to have worked with all three of them and their magnificent butts. But – no pun intended – I’ll have to answer based on Sandra Bullock’s reaction in the leech scene and say Channing. And for the record, that was one hundred percent Channing and not a body double.
Nice to hear that no body doubles were needed for that hilarious scene. To change gears, you are one of the unsung heroes in the comedy editing world. It’s somewhat bananas to have been able to cut one of the films you’ve done let alone all of them. So curious, is there a film or two out there you would have loved to edit yourself?
Yes, there are so many. I was too young to work on the following two, but, it would have been amazing to work on Raiders of the Lost Ark or any of the original Star Wars films. Those were movies I grew up on and greatly influenced my career. To work on such iconic action scenes, many of which are interspersed with comedy, would’ve been a dream come true.
Adam and Aaron Nee put together an incredibly funny movie. What was your reaction to the script?
I loved it! When I first read the script for The Lost City I was immediately reminded of Romancing the Stone and other films in that genre. It was great to see this genre updated for the 21st century. It was also nice that the payoff of the adventure was more emotionally based and driven by character rather than something involving saving the world from doom and destruction. It felt very intimate and personal even though we’re on a jungle island with exploding volcanoes and fun action.
So true. In those initial meetings with the directors were there any notes on timing, rhythm, or sensitivity to performance in what they were thinking, or was it more found in the room?
It was a little of both, but mostly found in the room together. We spent a lot of time focusing on Loretta [Sandra Bullock and Dash [Channing Tatum]’s relationship. We worked hard on striking a balance with their banter. Sandra and Channing have such fantastic chemistry, but a few funny moments landed on the cutting room floor because they didn’t service the story or the characters. In the end, we want the audience to be invested in the leads’ relationship and be rooting for both of them.
How do you generally build scenes as footage comes in?
I watch the dailies in the order they were shot and notate my favorite performances and moments. There is often quite a bit of improvisation in the films I work on, so I also notate my favorite alternative lines. For scenes with a large amount of improv, I usually assemble a ‘kitchen sink’ version of the scene which can be two or three times the length of what was originally written. I’ll often make a duplicate copy of the cut scene and condense it while making adjustments to the rhythm and tempo. My fantastic assistants also organize our material in the Avid tool called “Scripting” which allows me to have every line organized in a digital script. It ends up being a hugely beneficial tool when it comes to being able to audition for alternative performances.
Sandra and Channing are fantastic in this film. When you’re building chemistry between actors or building off their natural chemistry, what are you looking for in the footage to create those moments?
I look for moments where it feels like they are really connecting with each other. Often, a physical sign in their body language like a subtle smile or the way one is looking at the other. Also, in the way they are bantering with each other. We worked hard on striking a balance with both of those facets of their performance.
Is there anything Brad Pitt can’t do on screen? He plays such a great character. When you see an actor just go for it is there anything you look to besides a gut feeling that their performance is working within the story and it’s not getting too crazy or going off the rails? Maybe off the rails is good…
I feel like they can go off the rails as long as I’m still compelled by what they’re doing and that it’s still helping move the story along. If I’m watching someone like Danny McBride in Pineapple Express improvise about his dead cat’s birthday over and over again, and it’s still making me laugh, then at that point it’s gone beyond a gut feeling and it’s more like a proven hypothesis. I’ve been lucky to work with extremely charismatic actors in my career. Their commitment is really what sells it—if they believe what they’re saying, ultimately we will too.
This film is packed with hilarious moments. An early favorite is the Jack Trainer car reveal. How do you approach moments that are funny versus funny moments that serve a narrative purpose? Do you find leaving in those laugh-out-loud moments is best no matter what because they engage with the audience so well?
They’re great to leave in as long as they don’t feel indulgent or wear out their welcome. If you chose to have three big laughs back-to-back-to-back, are they all three side-splitting worthy laughs or is the first one the true laugh and the next two are diluting it somewhat? It’s easy to overstay your welcome in a scene, even if it’s funny. A lot of our time in the edit is spent distilling the scene to its best comedic (or dramatic) moments.
There’s a great scene that uses the Peaky Blinders theme song “Red Right Hand” by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. How did that find its way in?
Often, editors temporarily score scenes using soundtracks from other films. I had assembled the Brad Pitt fight scene with a traditional action cue from another film. But, it made the scene feel like it was taking itself too seriously. The Nees had the idea to use “Red Right Hand” and it fit perfectly. Throughout the post process, we tried many other cues but none were quite able to capture the tone quite how we wanted. Ultimately we went back to “Red Right Hand” and never looked back.
Beyond the laughter, there’s a treasure hunt and budding romance happening in the film that you had to navigate. Production design and cinematography generally help sell the scale of a film, but is there anything editors can do to drive home that point outside of the classic wide shots we see?
Music and sound effects go a long way towards enhancing the environments and the unseen elements around them.
Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s character is another joy in this film. I’m curious, when there’s a character that shows up really well on screen that may have not been a big part of the script, how do you bring more attention to their performance in the edit?
You highlight them the best you can. You might focus on adding a few more shots of them in their scenes with the leads since you want them to leave an impression during their briefer time on screen. In the finale, we had the huge wide reveal of the ship and Da’Vine while the music crescendos and then we cut to the close-ups of her as she’s trying to communicate with Sandra. So in a way Da’Vine is part of the payoff.
Some of the challenge in editing is not getting too attached to a certain edit just because it works well as an isolated scene. Do you have advice on how to move forward from something like that?
It’s easy to get attached to an edit, moment, or specific line in a scene. You have to look at how it’s affecting everything else in the film. During our test screenings, we record the audience’s reactions to the film as it plays. We often refer to the recording as we make our post-screening changes, especially in the comedic scenes. It’s a great way to know what’s working with the audience and what isn’t.
One last tough question before we go. You have to choose between McDonald’s fries or the clock wipe transition?
Definitely the clock wipe. I used it once in Pineapple Express and am looking forward to using it again. I’ll have to find a way to sneak it into the next one!
The Lost City is in theaters now.
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Featured image: Featured image: L-r: Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum in The Lost City of D. Courtesy Paramount Pictures.