Revisiting “Signs”: A long overdue chat with Editor, Barbara Tulliver, ACE, about working with M. Night Shyamalan to craft his briliant, sci-fi drama.
M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs is a movie that has always stayed with me, and it has meant something different to me throughout the years.
When I first saw it at the age of 15, I saw it for the aliens. That was all my young mind needed. Then, when I headed to college, I saw it for the performances. I became transfixed by Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, and Abigail Breslin. Every beat of them on screen was breathtaking and pumped full of suspense and emotion.
Now, when I watch it as an adult, the spirituality draws me in. When Graham tells Merrill that there are two types of people: People that believe in the divine, and people that believe in chance – it’s such a simple, but powerful, theme throughout the movie. M. Night handled it just right, and even though the film has these faith-based roots at times, it never feels preachy.
Because I’ve been so enamored with this movie, I’ve not only watched it many times, but I’ve studied it. As a film editor, I’ve analyzed scenes and dissected what I felt made it affective. And even though I’ve learned a lot from it, there are things that can’t be answered simply by watching. So, I decided to contact the editor, Barbara Tulliver, ACE, and ask her questions I’ve had over the years.
Barbara not only edited Signs, but she went on to cut Lady in the Water for M. Night as well. She was very nice and put a lot of thought into the discussion. It’s my pleasure to share her insights below.
INTERVIEW WITH EDITOR BARBARA TULLIVER
1. Your career started in theater, and with lighting design. Later, you became an assistant editor on commercials and you eventually made your debut as a film editor on David Mamet’s Homicide. What drew you to film editing that you weren’t necessarily receiving from your stage work?
A few years ago, Julie Taymor directed “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” at the Polansky Theater to rave reviews. Near the end of the run, she decided to film it. I was her editor. Four performances were filmed with four cameras posted around the theatre. I wondered how we could film and cut up this experience and still give the audience that same thrill. In the end, we created something different, but of equal value. We gave the audience the best seats in the house. We allowed them an intimacy by being in close-ups, transporting them in long slow push ins and revealing the scope of the set and projections in extreme wide shots.
When I was a designer in theater, I loved how lighting created the world that the actors lived in. I was fascinated that with the lighting you can subtly pull the attention of the audience. You were like a puppeteer pulling strings, but no one knew what you had done because it was behind the curtain. Editing is very similar. We are telling you what to see, when to see it, what to hear and when you hear it. And, hopefully, like a sleight of hand artist, if we do it well you will be none the wiser for it. I wouldn’t say that I wasn’t fulfilled in the theater, but more that I found another creative medium. The transition, for the above reason, was easy.
2. After editing many films for Mamet, among other talented directors, including Paul Thomas Anderson, you landed the editing position on M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. How did you meet Night?
My agent at the time landed me the interview. She also represented Sam Mercer, who was one of the producers. He looked at my credits and felt I would be a good fit. I was told he was interviewing only three people. We had a meeting and he offered me the job soon after.
3. M. Night is notorious for keeping his scripts very secretive. When were you able to read the script for Signs?
I had to read the script in his office in Philadelphia before we had our meeting, which was stressful. I didn’t have much time to gather my thoughts after I finished. Luckily, I felt enthusiastic about the script and connected with Night during the interview.
4. What was it like working with Night? Did you share a lot of the same sensibilities, or did it take time to develop a working language?
Night has an easy way about him. He is very funny and smart. I liked him from the jump. It took time to develop trust, but that is the case with most directors. I saw him a lot during the shoot. The editing rooms, the production office and a good portion of the set were in the same location. I also saw him after wrap to watch dailies. Eventually, while we did not always agree on everything, we had similar sensibilities. Ideally, a director and an editor form a relationship resembling a marriage. As you get to know that person, you learn more about them and feel at ease. You also get comfortable to argue your points, always though remembering that in the end, it is the director’s vision.
5. I heard that James Newton Howard started scoring the movie before it had been shot. Is this true? If so, how did this impact your editing process?
James came up with the theme before we started shooting. I think the biggest impact is that we all loved the theme and that excited us. We knew we wouldn’t have to put in a temp score. James could look at the picture without a preconceived idea. He could use his imagination as opposed to being informed by another composer’s score.
6. How long were you able to work on your editor’s cut, and then additionally, how long did you work with Night on the edit to get his director’s cut?
I cut while Night was shooting, and I stayed up to camera. Once shooting was over, Night was anxious to get into the editing room. From what I remember, I think he came in the next day. He knew there were a few scenes that wouldn’t be ready because I hadn’t even seen the dailies for them yet, and he was fine with that. Then he had his contractual ten-week director’s cut and showed it to the studio.
7. What sort of discussions did you have with Night about the spiritual and faith-based elements in the movie? I’d really like to dive deep into this one. For me, this is the heart of the film and why it’s so powerful to this day.
Night and I had some intimate conversations about spirituality. For example, if we believed in a Divine Being or was life just random. In essence, the themes of the film. The longest and deepest discussion we had was about the ending of the picture. The way it was written was Mel puts on his priest collar and exits as we hear in the background the family’s voices happily making breakfast. But there was a compelling case that was made for ending the film with the pull back from the family safe to the window and letting the audience decide what happens.
I think Night didn’t want to feel he was making a statement or a judgment like “See, religion is what saves us.” So, we went back and forth on the ending, which prompted a lot of discussion. Finally, we thought him putting on the collar was less about being religious and more about Mel changing from a cynical person to someone who has hope.
8. This is possibly an internet rumor, but I read that the aliens were originally going to be invisible. Do you know if there is any truth to this?
Night studied all the wonderful directors who made films in this genre. The big lesson was that what you can’t see is scarier than what you can. Jaws is a perfect example. We don’t need to see the shark till the end. Our imagination fills in the blanks. It was purposeful to only see a leg or a hand, just like in Jaws the audience sees only a fin. That said, Night didn’t want the aliens to be invisible, but rather chameleon-like, being able to change their appearance, camouflaged by whatever they were near. He didn’t want to give them a distinct look and shape.
Unfortunately, getting the exact design was more challenging than we expected. The interim tests revealed a creature that looked two dimensional. In order for the audience to know what was happening with the alien, we had to see more of him than we anticipated. This meant we eventually had to design what the alien looked like.
9. The Brazilian birthday party video scene has such an epic jump scare – and one of my all-time favorite shock moments. Can you explain how this scene was enhanced from dailies to what we see in the final film?
The only enhancement in that scene was the alien. The way the video was shot, the excitement of the kids, the music cue and most importantly Joaquin’s performance sold the moment. To our surprise, before we had the alien comped in, that scene made our test audiences jump. The alien just sealed the deal.
10. The dramatic dinner table scene, where Morgan wants his dad to pray, but he’s reluctant to do so, is incredible. Mel Gibson eating and crying simultaneously is amazing. Joaquin Phoenix and the kids are remarkable as well! What was it like editing such an emotional scene, especially with young actors?
There were maybe ten or twelve takes of the master. Less takes of the close-ups. Since the master was shot first the intensity did increase gradually with each take. Mel and Joaquin are consummate professionals that are prepared and ready to deliver. Rory and Abigail, who were children during the shoot, are enormously gifted. These four actors made all of our jobs easier. The credit for that scene goes to them and Night’s direction.
11. In the climax, Graham is coming to a realization that’s been building through the movie – it’s very well constructed. I’d assume the building blocks and this climactic scene were well laid out in the script. But was there anything that you and Night re-worked to increase its clarity?
We did rework the climax of the film where the family is in the living room confronted with the alien. Originally the flashback with Mel’s wife was all in one piece, Mel pulling up, meeting Cherry Jones, discovering his wife behind the car. But, when we had it as one piece, we felt we were away from the action for too long. We lost the thread of the family being in danger. So, Night and I decided to break up the flashback into three parts throughout the film. This took a lot of trial and error to find the right place emotionally and make it feel intentional. That was the biggest balancing act to the climax, finding how long we could get away with suspending our family who were in imminent danger.
12. Are there any useful nuggets of interest we haven’t covered that you’d like to share?
I would say that watching our first test audience screening was a thrill. The theatre was packed. As an editor it is so rewarding to watch hundreds of people scream because of a cut. It reminds you of the power of editing and filmmaking. Night planned a lot of those moments down to the second. He deserves a lot of credit for that.
13. Lastly, jumping back to contemporary time, what are you working on now?
One of the most important aspects of filmmaking is my working relationship with directors. I have been fortunate throughout my career, with Mamet, Night and many others. At this point in my life, I try to take my time before I make a commitment to edit. All the ingredients need to be right, including being excited by the script and the director. At the moment, I am reading scripts. I also feel I want to give back what I have graciously been given by others. In the past, I have taught at university and volunteered as a mentor at the Sundance Director’s Lab. Now, I am mentoring a few talented filmmakers and helping them realize their vision on the screen.