Adam Gough has had the kind of career that defies the wildest of expectations. Book-ended neatly by his work with renowned director, Alfonso Cuarón, Gough had his first paid gig as post-production runner on none other than Children of Men. You might have started to hear his name bandied about of late thanks to his latest film, Cuarón’s much anticipated Roma (coming to an art house or Netflix screen near you soon).
I had the good fortune to interview Gough earlier this year to find out all about his rise from unpaid work experience runner, to full feature film editor – an amazing journey by any stretch of the imagination.
Gough’s career story is full of the common themes of making it in the film world: the unpaid work experience or internships, the first few jobs, and then time as an assistant on huge films like Sweeney Todd, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Parts 1 and 2),and X-Men: First Class. He also tells us here about making that leap from assistant to full feature film editor. Soak it up, settle in, enjoy the ride.
So, Children of Men, what an amazing first job!
I landed on my feet with such an incredible film and such an incredible crew as well. I learned a lot quickly… it ended up being a stand-out CV piece for me so then applying for more work was easier, especially with the American crews that come in and pick out where they like, it opened up a few more interviews because people knew the film and the director.
When did you decide you wanted to be an editor?
It was at school making short films, just a camera with friends and messing about putting stuff together and for me it was the editing I most enjoyed… in the edit I could achieve most of what I had in mind unlike on the shoot.
As an editor there are certain elements of it that I wished I’d studied more. I wish I could have had more of a film studies element to my degree. We love film, I love watching them and working on them who doesn’t need four hours of watching Buston Keaton? One of my favourite editors!
How did you get started?
After uni I was trying to just get a little bit of work experience and start a CV and get a few contacts for maybe some future work. I managed to get some work experience on Stormbreaker, a low budget British movie that didn’t have a PA, so a kid offering to do the paperwork and make the tea was good for them. I got on really well with them but they didn’t have the budget to keep me on. I went home and thought about what to do next then two days later, I got a phone call from Jane Winkles who was first assistant on Children of Men. They’d moved into the cutting rooms above Stormbreaker and were putting a crew together very quickly and they didn’t have a runner so she went down and spoke to the first on Stormbreaker… so after two weeks of work experience came a recommendation that led to my first job in the industry.
“It was at school making short films, just a camera with friends and messing about putting stuff together and for me it was the editing I most enjoyed… In the edit I could achieve most of what I had in mind unlike on the shoot.”
Did you go to university?
I did a film and video technology degree so it was more learning about how to wire a cinema for sound… it was all very technical workflow… I think that prepared me very well for being a cutting room runner because if something went wrong, I could just jump under the table and just rewire something. I understood all the connections, the cables… I think that helped me run for a couple of years.
How did you land the work experience?
I was watching BBC news and there was an interview with the producer on Stormbreaker, a James Bond film for kids on a small budget, and it was shooting at Pinewood. It was a small crew so I went on IMDB and found the name of his assistant. So I phoned up the switchboard at Pinewood and asked to be put through to the Stormbreaker production office then said “Oh hi it’s Adam Gough for Mark Sanger” they then transferred my call, then I just pitched it “would love to do some work experience for you…” kind of thing. He was very keen but they were on location just then but he added that it could work out well for them so asked me to phone back in a couple of weeks. So I continued to bug him with calls and it just worked out. But it wasn’t just the one movie. My technique was getting put through to cutting rooms to speak to the assistant.
I had no way of networking or meeting people, but back then it was a little more complicated. It’s a very small industry and new people are always coming in, everyone’s looking for the next opportunity.
Alfonso and Adam post premiere – Dawn Gough
Cutting Room Crew – Carlos Morales
Can you tell me about the logistics of actually doing the work experience unpaid?
I drove up from Southampton (on the UK’s south coast) to Pinewood Studios (north of London) every day and used the remainder of my student overdraft and the day after it finished I returned to my summer job. It was hand to mouth living early on. The first challenges came after Children of Men and I moved up to London with my wife just hoping it was going to work. We could afford the deposit and the first month’s rent and that was it. I remember just putting out CVs in the hope of finding the next gig and had just about a month to do it. Then I ended up on Fred Clause and that was through someone I’d worked with on Children of Men.
Can you tell me more about making the leap from assistant editor to full editor?
My transition I wasn’t ready for. I’d just finished doing X-Men: First Class in my first full first assistant role. My plan was to do a few more firsting gigs, become an associate, an additional and then take a leap from there.
Then I came back to London, and I gave Chris Lebenzon a call and he said I’ve got something in mind, swing by and let’s have a chat about it. This job just kept escalating for me it was just six weeks, breaking the footage down, then I was asked to assemble the footage, then Johnny Depp was coming in and he wanted to watch it… and it was all very relaxed. It was quite a relaxed documentary, it was probably a little bit all over the place. Then Johnny came in for the afternoon, and Chris came in too, and they just continued watching it with no break, then he was like, ‘That’s my movie! Just KEEP DOING WHAT YOU’RE DOING!’ So that was it, I was being paid to edit and that was my break.
The great thing was I didn’t know it was going to happen, it was so relaxed. I wouldn’t have been so daring if I’d thought this was my break, I just wanted it to be rocking out.
Right now it’s on the shelf and we’re all itching to get back to it… it’s just tied up a little bit. Maybe there’s too much in it. One day!
It’s gone into that history of amazing unreleased Rolling Stones documentaries…
Would you say your experience has been typical of other editors and their career paths?
I’ve been in film for 13 years now so it’s a long period of time working hard, but every film has either come of a recommendation or a personal relationship that I’ve built… Definitely I can’t say I haven’t been lucky. Some of the opportunities have been amazing. I’ve been incredibly fortunate with some of the editors I’ve worked with.
Probably because of the assisting background, I do believe that editing is an apprenticeship you really do learn a lot working with great editors and you get fantastic opportunity through that as an assistant editor.
I’ve worked with some fantastic editors I was cutting scenes with them so I didn’t think I was learning much but now having reflected on it… I learned just so much from doing a DI conform check on Sweeney Todd, that meant that I spent a few days analysing Chris Lebenzon’s cuts so I’d be looking at the last frame of every shot and the first frame of every shot – just checking it was in sync with the DI – but I saw where he was cutting out and cutting in… so I feel like my assisting background has just prepared me very well for this moment and to just run with it. So it’s a combination of 13 years of assisting editing and a few fortunate breaks.
What would you say have been your career highlights?
Seeing my name in the credits of a movie for the first time. Right now I’m just enjoying everything that’s going on. There have been a couple of miserable moments and it’s not all been easy but right now it feels like full circle, starting on the Children of Men and now just finishing Alfonso’s current film… probably on the red carpet at Venice!
What do you find to be the most difficult aspects of the job?
Some people getting into it don’t quite understand the hours, they can be intense. I remember this one film, and we had this trainee coming in and he started telling me how excited he was he was going out to thing on a Thursday afternoon and I was like, do we get out at those hours?! Have you talked to anyone about that? I’ve had projects that have been 6 or 7 day weeks over 6 or 7 months… it can be difficult. The biggest challenge is when I go away for long periods or away from my wife… If you enjoy it, it doesn’t seem to really be a chore… You enjoy it.
If you are with challenging personalities, then it’s only a certain amount of time before you’re on something different. You’ve got to make that work for you, not burn out, and find a way to enjoy it really.
It’s not so tough for me, I don’t have kids, my life is actually very simple. One of the biggest challenges must be having a family and giving everyone the time they need.
What advice would you give to aspiring feature film editors?
Nothing has gone to plan so far… so my advice is to be relaxed with it. There are very few people who land a big cutting job on a big film straight away. Every opportunity is different and everyone seems to do it a different way.
I know you can’t say too much about Roma but can I ask about the experience of editing a foreign language film?
It was tricky, not gonna lie. I had done it before about the Iraqi national boxing team in Arabic which is a beautiful language. With Roma, there wasn’t a script so I didn’t have anything to work off with that but I had a fantastic team of assistants. We would make strings for each line of dialogue in the movie we would then have all that takes of that cut back to back with that line.
I think I found it trickiest when we were doing the ADR pass cleaning up the dialogue because when someone was speaking very quickly then the end of a word went into the beginning of a word and I cocked that up a number of times at first.
But me and Alfonso were always in the room together so whenever it happens we would fix that. Another especially tricky was using the footage with younger actors.
Adam, thank you so much for your time and good luck with Roma!
Roma premiered at the 75th Venice International Film Festival in the summer and started a limited theatrical release world-wide in November. Tipped to be a huge Oscar contender, Romalands on a Netflix screen near you from Friday 14th December, 2018.