Matthieu Laclau is a French editor who has been working in China and Taiwan since 2008. His collaboration with director Jia Zhangke in A Touch of Sin won him Best Film Editing at the Golden Horse Awards, Taiwan’s equivalent to the Oscars. This year he edited three films in Cannes: Caught by the Tides in Competition, Black Dog in Un Certain Regard, and Meeting with Pol Pot in Cannes Premiere. We sat down with him during the festival and discussed his work on all three films. This interview is originally commissioned by Directube 导筒. The Chinese version will be published on Directube later.

The Film Stage: First, I want to congratulate you for having three films in the Official Selection at this year’s Cannes. How did you get involved with all three? Obviously, you worked with Jia Zhangke since A Touch of Sin but it’s your first time working with both Guan Hu and Rithy Panh.

Matthieu Laclau: I got to know Guan Hu and his producer Liang Jing through my wife Justine O. She produced two films with Guan Hu’s company. One was Streetwise from Na Jiazuo, which I was not involved in. And after, she produced A Song Sang Blue, which premiered at Directors’ Fortnight last year. I edited that film and it’s the first time I worked with Liang Jing and the team. 

My wife was involved in Black Dog very early on as a producer. Around one-and-a-half years ago, when Guan Hu finished the first cut, they showed us the film and we gave some feedback. Then we had some back and forth for a whole year. So I was more of an editing consultant rather than an editor. I would do some experiment here and there, show the director, and then he would discuss each change. During the editing, the goal is usually to keep the ball rolling. So a new idea might solve a problem and might lead to another, even better solution. That’s basically my involvement with Black Dog.

For Meeting with Pol Pot, I got involved because we know the French producer Catherine Dussart quite well. When I say “we,” I mean me and my wife. They needed to find more funding for the film. Justine succeeded to secure some funds from TAICCA (Taiwan Creative Content Agency). Both Catherine and Rithy love Jia’s film, so they thought it would be a good idea if I join the team as one of the editors. And that’s how I met Rithy Panh and how it happened.

For Jia Zhangke, it’s more obvious. In 2014, before Mountains May Depart, we already watched some of the archival footage that is used in Caught by the Tides. We did some experimentation, and it was a very exciting time, but we didn’t know at the time that this working process would lead to Caught by the Tides, almost ten years down the road. But looking back, I can say that it was the premise of the project.

Since Mountains May Depart, Jia has had this obsession to make an epic about China from the 2000s, when he started to make films, up to today. We often talked about Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, which is a film that we both love. For Mountains May Depart, we were thinking of using a lot more of those archival footage but in the end, we used very little of it. I’m actually not sure “archive” is the correct word, because most of them are just unused rushes from previous films. Jia had this beautiful idea that this “leftover” footage could be used in a new film. It’s a very ecological idea! And it was the first time that we mixed footage from the early 2000s and from 2014, when Mountains May Depart was shot. When the film was released, I felt that we didn’t totally succeed in the de-aging / aging part. We can easily make an actor older, but it’s very hard to make them look younger. And the technology doesn’t always help. Even Scorsese couldn’t totally nail it when he shot The Irishman. That’s always the tricky part when you do an epic covering around 30 years of the life of a character.

Then, when we did Ash Is Purest White, we got back again to that footage, thinking we were finally going to use more of them. But this time Jia had a new idea: to reuse the footage from his old films that were about Qiaoqiao and Brother Bin, a couple who appeared in many of his films, and there was so many amazing unused footage that we could put in and make a new film. And it wouldn’t be hard to solve the de-aging / aging problem because we had real footage of Qiaoqiao and Brother Bin when they were young. At that time we edited the first version, and it was more than an hour long. However, the actor who had played Brother Bin from Unknown Pleasures and Still Life had a stroke and Jia had to cast Liao Fan to play Bin. So we couldn’t use these old materials anymore. Then again, we shot Ash Is Purest White as a “normal” feature film.

During COVID, at one point he wanted to restart this project and it was what would become Caught by the Tides.

Having seen the film now, I can tell the old archival footage is very diverse in terms of sources and format. It must be quite a challenge dealing with all those materials. How long did it take you to sort it out and figure out which to use? There must be hundreds of hours of footage.

I didn’t count exactly, but it’s around a thousand hours of footage. Actually, in this film I’m not the main editor. I have to say very clearly that when we restarted the project during the pandemic, I couldn’t go to China because there was still the quarantine––I live in Taipei. I recommended a younger editor in Beijing who could work with Jia Zhangke. The two of them restarted the project from where we left it. They re-put together and rework the footage. I was not so present in the hard part of the work. Luckily, I kept a copy of all the footage of the films I edited with Jia and also his older films, up to Unknown Pleasures. So I was here to help them when needed and to smooth the transition. But after they did the first cut of the film––which was without the contemporary part that was written and shot later––I watched this cut and I loved it. I gave them some feedback; I remember suggesting using some footage that I loved and was very dear to me. And then I went to China two or three times last year to try new things, talk to Jia about the film and the structure, give him feedback. And edit the newly shot footage. He used a VR camera, so I also spent some time experimenting with this new format.

The main editor’s name is Yang Chao, and this is his first feature film. It worked very well between Jia and him; they had a very good bond. He was full of energy and passion, and he had a very fresh eye and a fresh way of editing. I think it was very good for Jia Zhangke to work with this young and talented editor. In fact, Caught by the Tides shares the same structure as Ash Is Purest White. Therefore, I believe that having someone new in the editing room was one of the factors Jia succeeded in making it a completely different film. Even though it’s not very good for my ego.

As for the format of the footage: because the film is more like a collage of different feelings and materials––especially with the DP Yu Lik-wai––the idea was to really keep the footages as they are and not try to make them too much in uniform, to show the dispositive way the film is made. We don’t want to hide the fact that the film is about a lot of pieces of memories of Jia Zhangke’s career and his archive that we put together.

Matthieu Laclau

Seeing this film does feel like walking down memory lanes. The first two parts of the film incorporate both archival footage and the newly shot parts with the actors particularly give this kind of stream-of-consciousness feeling. And they merge with each other very smoothly. How do you manage to achieve it through editing?

Our goal is to make it impossible for the audience to tell which is which. I can tell because I know where every shot comes from. But I don’t think I can get too much into details about that because we don’t want to reveal the magic. I mean, Jia doesn’t want to tell too clearly what is shot now or in the past. But in every part––the first part in Datong and the second part in Three Gorges––there are shots coming from the past and some are shot now, and it’s all mixed together. Any editor opening the project and being able to see how it’s done and how complex it is would be shocked. Those unused footage are coming from Ash Is Purest WhiteUnknown Pleasures, a short documentary called In Public. Some also come from Still Life. It’s really mind-blowing.

It was really always back to what we started to do before shooting Mountains May Depart and Ash Is Purest White, which is having a back-and-forth between the footage that we already had and writing, shooting, and editing again. This film is like this kind of process of filmmaking in that editing is a part of the writing. And when he shoots new scenes, it can help to fill the gap, especially with the story and the narrative. Like I said: it’s a constant back-and-forth between editing, writing, shooting. I believe that Jia developed this way of working during Still Life: he went back to Three Gorges to shoot for at least five or six times.

Caught by the Tides is your fourth time working with Jia Zhangke. 

Ah, yes. Our first collaboration was for Hello, Mr Tree directed by Han Jie and produced by Jia. And it was my first feature film as an editor; it was in 2011. If I count the films that he produced, there’s more than 10 feature films. To say that I owe him my career would be an understatement.

Caught by the Tides team at Cannes 2024

Can you talk about your overall experience working with Jia? Because you talked about his unique working process, I’m wondering when you usually get involved with his projects.

For A Touch of Sin, I joined right after the shooting. Originally, he was planning to edit with his first AD who was also working in his company. It was Chinese New Year, and the first AD was too tired and wanted to take a break. But Jia wanted to start the editing and could not waste two weeks because he was aiming for Cannes. So he thought, “Let’s call Matthieu. He’s a Frenchman in Beijing and doesn’t care about the Chinese New Year.” That’s when they called me and asked me to come the next day. Jia pitched the film to me after my arrival. And then we just started editing from scene one, shot one, take one, and watched all the takes. He had a notebook and he just wrote down the take numbers and marked the takes we liked and discussed. We worked all the way from the first scene to the last scene. It took us two weeks to get to the end of the first assembly and for me to discover the ending. 

For Mountains May Depart and Ash Is Purest White, it was a bit different. I was involved even before the screenplay was written. Because, as I explained, we went back to his archival footage. I think it was a way for him to reconnect with his past and his youth. Because so many things have changed in China during this time. A simple example: when I arrived in China back in 2008, there was no High-Speed Rail at all! And of course there was no WeChat; there was no translation app. When I was traveling I needed to bring my Chinese-French dictionary. It is very human to forget how our lives have changed over the past 25 years. It’s true in the West, but it is especially true for China, where everything changed much, much faster.

So when Jia had the idea to make a film about his youth, he needed to find a way to connect to his real past, not only through his own memories. Watching his old footage was a way for him to reconnect in a very direct way. Those rushes are the sources of inspiration for both Mountains and Ash. And of course, with Caught by the Tides, he pushed the concept to the next level.

Do you think you and Jia Zhangke will make another film using these materials?

He hasn’t told me about his next project yet. But I think he’s probably not going to do the same thing. Now we have already used all the footage he had; I don’t think we could pull it out a second time. He’s probably going to do something brand-new, which is very exciting.

Both Black Dog and Caught by the Tides have other credited editors. How do you collaborate with other editors? 

I always like to collaborate with other editors. In our studio in Taipei, we have three talented feature-film editors: Yann-shan Tsai, Jenson Tay Yi, and Tom Lin. As a team, we had five feature films in Cannes this year, which won three awards: Un Certain Regard Prize for Black Dog, Un Certain Regard Best Actress for Shameless, and Palm Dog Grand Jury Prize for Black Dog. Our studio is called Cutting Edge Films and we collaborate on most of our films. In general, I do think that I need to be very flexible and find the best way to help the director to achieve his vision. Most of the time, I start to edit the film from scratch, since day one of the shooting. But I also can join the project later on, after the first cut.

When I first saw Black Dog, I remember it was in a hotel room with a very small TV in Hong Kong. With my wife Justine, we were sitting on a sofa, but it was too far from the TV. We ended up sitting on the coffee table so we could be closer to the image. It was not very comfortable and there were no English subtitles, but after finishing the film we were just completely blown away by it. It was really amazing! I don’t recall seeing any film pulling out such complex scenes with animals. And all in-camera!

How do I collaborate with Guan Hu and the team? I first gave a list of precise feedback. And then the director Guan Hu would discuss it with me. There’s also the first AD who’s always with the director and he’s very involved in the project. His name is Chen Xi and he’s like Guan’s right arm. I discussed a lot with him, explaining my ideas and what problem I wanted to solve, and what solution I could suggest. But giving feedback was not enough. At one point I just needed to roll up my sleeves and cut my version of the film. And I can tell that I really enjoyed it! It inspired them. Of course they didn’t like everything, but I believe that they were excited by the new ideas. More importantly, it gave them some extra energy to keep editing the film and make it even better and better.

Black Dog

The film involves a lot of animals––not only dogs, but even tigers. We know that even though the animal-wrangler worked hard to train them to behave according to the needs of the film, lots of their “performance” comes from editing. Can you talk about how you edit animals and how to help build up the core relationship between the dog and the protagonist?

Actually, it’s not me who did that. When I watched the rough cut, it was already there. The animal performance was great. What’s amazing about it? It doesn’t rely so much on editing and almost no CGI. All in-camera, done in wide shot, with very little coverage. That’s the hardest thing to do! For example, at the beginning of the film when Lang is peeing on the wall, the dog is going out and Lang is escaping; then you see the dog is peeing. It’s all done on-camera. No tricks.

Can you talk about the ending? Because there are multiple points the film can stop––whether it’s the solar eclipse, the last visit to the father, or the opening of the Olympics. How did you decide the ending we eventually have?

It’s something that we worked on a lot because it has been a problem for a long time, and it’s not totally solved. But we feel like it was the best compromise. We changed the structure of the scenes, for example, when the little dog is going out of the bag, and we see that it is the son of Black Dog. Originally, this scene was much earlier. The solar eclipse was also originally after the Olympics, and we put it before. They are all great scenes! I know some people are feeling there are multiple endings, but we cut out a lot already. We tried to make it as tight as we could. There’s no perfect film, but when I watched it in the cinema in Cannes for the premiere, I was very happy with it. I love the combination of those amazing visuals and Pink Floyd music. I think it’s very emotional.

Now let’s talk about Rithy Panh‘s Meeting with Pol Pot. It’s his first fictional work in over a decade. He himself is also an editor and edited this film along with you. What’s it like to work with him?

Jia Zhangke is an editor as well. Even though he doesn’t touch the computer, he’s always in the editing room. And Guan Hu is the same. He’s the boss. All of them are editors. For Rithy, at the beginning, the plan was to edit the film on his own first and then I would cut my version and we would work together more at the end. Probably a similar process as for Black Dog. But during the shooting, he completely changed his mind. He said, “Matthieu, I’ll just give you the footage and you just start on your own.” And that’s what I did.

I started during the shooting. When I had 30 minutes of editing materials, I started to send it to the producer Catherine Dussart. And I would update her every week. But Rithy didn’t want to watch anything before the end of the shooting. And when I finished my first cut, he was very nervous because he never worked like that. To give his trust to someone new is always a risk. “Am I going to understand his ideas and what he wants?” I think between a director and an editor, the most important thing is to build trust between each other as soon as possible. Because if there’s mutual trust, you can say things very directly and be honest with each other and find solutions and become a real team. It’s never about who did what or who had which idea, but only about how to make the film better, whatever it takes.

He watched my version and he was immediately very excited; he liked it a lot. So that was a very good start. Then he gave me some corrections and I did the second version. And then more comments and I did the third one and after the third version. He was happy. He started to work on it himself. Probably for two more months on his own. Of course, he changed many things. Especially concerning the archival footage: I didn’t have time to dig too much into them.

It was a very pleasant experience for him and me. I built the foundation with my three preliminary versions, and it was solid. The composer Marc Marder could start to do the music with my cut, which was convenient. And since this was already a good version, Rithy could push it further. When you edit a film, after two or three months, you get tired of the footage and you lose the energy and ideas. Separating it into two parts was a great process.

You mentioned that the archival footage was not in your cut. Like many other Rithy Panh films, this one also uses clay figurines and miniatures. Are they in your edit?

Yes, I was working on those scenes too, but obviously not all of them because I was editing while he’s still shooting. It takes a lot of time to build the different miniature sets, shoot them. It took around six months to complete those scenes. 

That must be a very different experience, editing those motionless materials.

Those parts were in the script from the get-go and there were dialogues written for them. Rithy recorded those parts with the actors during the shooting, so I had everything I needed to start. I also watched The Missing Picture, so I knew what the concept was. But I had a little-bit-different ideas than what is in the film now. I didn’t use much of the pan shots or dolly shots as I was making the film language very much in the vein of silent films, mostly using simple static close-ups. It was a possible direction. When Rithy edited himself, he did it smoother and more dynamic. I think it’s actually better than what I attempted. But already in the first versions I edited, there were the miniatures and some archival footage, and we could immediately see that the concept was working very well. And yes: we knew we had a film.

This is also the first time you worked on a Cambodian film.

And actually, it’s also my first feature film in the French language. Quite late for me.

What I want to ask you is, considering what the film is about, have you done any research before getting involved with the film so you can have a better understanding about the historical background?

Not much. I read a paragraph of the book by Elizabeth Becker. And of course, I read the script and Catherine talked to me about it. After I finished my first version, Rithy explained more to me, and I think that was enough. I’m not here to be an expert on Pol Pot and Cambodia because the director is the expert. He knows that story inside-out and it’s his life and lifework. I just have to understand the basics and I totally trusted him that it was historically accurate. 

Meeting with Pol Pot

It’s interesting that you said you first approached Meeting with Pol Pot similar to a silent film because Caught by the Tides also has some silent-cinema elements. Zhao Tao’s character doesn’t speak a word and sometimes it uses title cards to show the dialogues. Are these choices written in the script, or was it done in post?

Jia Zhangke, for me, is really the most important partner in my career and our collaboration is my most important relationship. I grew up with him. He taught me almost everything I know now. He often talks about his love for silent films. When we started the first draft of Caught by the Tides back in 2017, he asked me to watch silent films––especially Abel Gance’s La Roue––and we had already tried things like this. When I saw Rithy’s figurine and had the idea to do it like a silent film, I was certainly influenced by Jia. But it’s not the first time I edited with title cards. For example, with Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake, we used the intertitle in one scene. It’s always interesting to use this technique, and it depends on which film. What is even more amazing between Black Dog and Caught by the Tides is that both films’ protagonists rarely speak. Yeah. I think that’s quite interesting.

Do you think the lack of dialogue is a challenge or opportunity for you as an editor?

I think it’s a very big challenge for the actors because of course they need to rely on dialogues for their expression. For editing it’s a little bit challenging, but if it’s well-designed in the first place, I think it was fine. For Caught by the Tides, Jia knows that he doesn’t want her to talk. Using intertitles like a silent film was the natural way and works well with its style. Because it’s a collage of different elements and about a character who doesn’t talk. It makes total sense to use this silent-film language.

For Black Dog, the main character doesn’t speak much and we get to learn what we need to know through other characters’ dialogues. It creates a contrast between Lang and the others, which is exactly what Guan Hu wants to convey.

I read in one of your interviews that editing is like “playing puzzles.” What do you think are the puzzles you’re trying to solve, respectively, in these three films?

Yes, I said that. But now I think “puzzle” is not really a good comparison to editing. Because for a puzzle, you know that there is only one solution to it. You can put the pieces together and they make a whole thing. But for a film, no––you can’t. You can have the same material and end up with 10 different films that are completely different. The puzzle that we try to solve as an editor is how to make the audience be engaged in the characters. 

Early in my career, I was really thinking about the story a lot, thinking it’s most important to tell the story efficiently. And the more I have experienced, the more I found out that stories are not always interesting. Of course it’s good if you have plot twists here and there, but the things that make you engaged and want to know more about the film is if you understand the character and what’s behind the character: what’s their struggles, what’s their relationship with people, with society, with the place they live in. So I really try to think more about solving the character’s point of view.

And I think with Caught by the Tides, Jia doesn’t care too much about the story; that’s not the point. It’s mostly about the three different eras that Zhao Tao is going through as a character. It’s about looking at all those Chinese people, their faces, their hopes, their struggles, where they’re coming from, how they are surviving those massive changes in their life. I think that his love for Chinese people has never been that striking. It feels so emotional to see this level of tenderness and caring through the way his lenses depict those people’s lives. When I watched the film at Cannes, I was moved to tears.

Matthieu Laclau and Jia Zhangke in the editing room

You are a French editor working mostly in the Chinese film industry. How does your unique background impact your work and your career?

A lot of the time we need to work with the French distributors and French sales like MK2, Ad Vitam, or Memento. Those French producers usually have great feedback. When they say that foreign audiences might not understand certain parts of the film, I’m in a very good position to understand why westerners wouldn’t get it and then explain it to the director and suggest solutions. For example, when I worked on Black Dog, I was trying to make it easier for the western audience. The initial version was no problem for Chinese audiences because they’re very familiar with everything.

For example: it’s obvious for the Chinese audience to understand that the zoo owner is the father. But when I watched it for the first time or when we showed it to non-Asian audiences, they didn’t know who this guy was until the end of the film. Which was a pity, because we really need to know he’s the father from the beginning. So we had to find some solutions and I usually provided some good tricks. Making it easier for the audience is very important, because those films are actually universal and there’s always something to learn when watching a film shot in a very different country or culture.

Looking at your filmography, you also have worked with a lot of first-time or second-time directors. Last year you edited A Song Sung Blue by Geng Zihan––her feature debut. What’s the biggest difference working with them than more established directors?

It depends. Not all first-time directors are the same and not all experienced directors are the same either. What’s quite common is that, for first-time directors, it’s the first time they do it and they really have to learn the process of editing and what’s possible. Because usually they have the precise idea when they write the script and they think, “OK, we have the script and our shots and now I just have to put the film in the order of my script, and it will be the film that I imagined.” And of course, most of the time it doesn’t work like that. You need to rearrange, rework the reasoning, change the structure, rewrite the dialogue. You have to use all the tricks you can to make it more compelling and more interesting for the audience. 

My feeling is that young directors are usually a bit more conservative with the editing process while more experienced directors know all the tricks and everything that can be done through editing. Because after four or five films, they become editors themselves, and they believe in the power of editing. It’s easier for experienced directors to make decisions. If you show them an idea, they can say yes or no but they’re not going to overthink too much. For a young director, if it’s something that was really out of his box, it can be challenging for him to accept new ideas. And it takes more time. 

So what’s your advice for new filmmakers?

Just try to believe that editing can really change a film. If you have a scene that you don’t like or didn’t shoot well, it’s OK. We can find a way to get through it and make it maybe even better than the original intention. Usually with young directors, when they watch the rough cut for the first time, they’re very depressed because it can’t be great. But they need to believe in the process––that with hard work and with creative ideas, it will work, and everything will fall in the right place. We might make many detours and make mistakes. We might change a bit of the story or the scene order, and sometimes we might feel like maybe we’re going too far from the original idea.

In my experience, when we are approaching the end of editing, we always remember some ideas from the original script that were forgotten during the shooting or during the editing. Or they suddenly reappear. And when you lock the picture, you’ll discover that, yes, this is the kind of film that you wanted to write in the first place. And although the whole process makes you go in many directions, you have this feeling of going home when you get to lock the picture. And when that happens, that’s really magic.

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