Sundance 2020: Editing A Horror Movie Like “Scare Me” Can Cut Both Ways

Aya Cash and Josh Ruben appear in “Scare Me,” by Josh Ruben, an official selection of the Midnight program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Brendan Banks 

The movie “Scare Me” is a clever hybrid: It’s a metafictional horror-comedy that rides the line between being a classic ‘80s slasher movie and a smart, storytelling drama. It’s propelled by strong comedic performances, and it premieres in the Midnight section this week. In fact, it’s also the debut feature from writer-director Josh Ruben, and is a wry horror-comedy about the pleasures and perils of storytelling.

Here’s how it starts off: Ruben plays Fred, a frustrated copywriter checking into a winter cabin. While jogging in the woods, he bumps into Fanny (Aya Cash), a successful, smug young horror writer, who immediately fuels his insecurities. As a storm begins to brew, the pair trade spooky tales in his cabin, talk fueled by the tensions between them. As a result, Fred quickly realizes his ultimate fear: Fanny is the better storyteller.

Patrick Lawrence, film editor of the horror film, “Scare Me”

Editor Patrick Lawrence came on board the project as editor after watching a teaser released by Ruben, a short to raise money for post-production. “I’d never seen anything like it,” Lawrence says. “You rarely get the opportunity to see something presented to you before you begin editing.”

The sizzle features a scene where Ruben’s character is sitting at a dining room table eating dinner when he breaks from eating and stares at an ominous-looking cellar door: “All of a sudden you hear a loud sound, and seemingly something is about to break in through the door from the cellar,“ Lawrence continues. “But then, at the last moment, the camera spins around to reveal that Josh is making the scary sounds with his mouth. I loved that! It was a very unique film to cut and I’ve never really done anything like it before.”

Lawrence slated four months of edit time with Ruben, working together with similar tastes and references in the edit room before wrapping in July of last year.

Various panels in Adobe Premiere Pro depicting one moment of the horror movie “Scare Me.”

There was, however, one scene that received multiple notes from test audiences and, as a result, became re-cut. “The film is structured to take place throughout the night and so there are no breaks in the momentum,” Lawrence explains. “We’re jumping from story to story, but this one scene, in particular, was just not hitting right. It was originally an 11-minute long scene, so there was no way to cut it out and still maintain the pace of the narrative. We finally cut it down to about 90 seconds and made it work.” For this film, Lawrence used Adobe Premiere Pro software to edit the feature.

Lawrence goes on to explain that great coverage from production was key to finding the right cut. “The shoot was planned very well,” he explains. “Josh understood that we could go multiple ways with so many scenes due to the amount of footage. He wanted me to go with the flow and do what I felt was right. After that, we put the director’s cut together in about three weeks. Great editing options come from great coverage, and solid performances.”

A still from “Scare Me” by Josh Ruben, an official selection of the Midnight program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Brendan Banks

Speaking of performances, they also needed to be matched in the edit: “The film is not improv-heavy, but as the actors went deeper into their stories and become more confident they’d try out new things and bring different emotions. I had to be hyper-aware of each performance to be sure the beats matched.”

While some editors like to cut with music, Lawrence prefers to edit using his own internal rhythm.

“I’m a drummer, [and have been one since] I was 12 years old. So, I credit my rhythm and pacing to that,” he says. “Once I believe the flow is there, I’ll talk with the director to get an idea of what they’re looking for. I don’t try to get too deeply involved in the music, but once I get the pacing down, when the work has a certain BPM to it, I can bring in any type of song and map it out on the timeline. For ‘Scare Me’ we pulled from a lot of classic 80’s movies like ‘Poltergeist’ for heavy horror moments,” Lawrence continues. “We were trying to get that ‘80s aesthetic.”

Discussing the art of editing, Lawrence feels that it is, at times, invisible—but an essential ingredient to underline the story at hand. “I once interviewed with somebody who boldly stated that editors shouldn’t receive Oscars,” he reveals. “That showed me how very little he understood about filmmaking.

“Our job isn’t just about looking invisible,” Lawrence says. “It’s about making performances shine, making the directors look good. It all comes together if it’s done right. I like my editing to be a little invisible, to be honest. I do tend to play things out a little longer, and if you’re bouncing between genres, you might have a little bit more padding on the cuts on a drama than, say, a fast-paced rom-com. [But] it never gets boring…”

Patrick Lawrence, film editor of the horror film, “Scare Me”