Scott Morris (‘Armageddon Time’ editor) discusses working on James Gray’s ‘ghost story for his family’ [Exclusive Video Interview]

“The script was so personal to him and so relatable for me. I’m a different generation but we have a lot of similarities,” reflects editor Scott Morris on why James Gray’s film “Armageddon Time” resonated with him so deeply. The writer-director penned the film as a semi-autobiographical look at his adolescence growing up in Queens, New York, in 1980. Morris felt a deep connection to the material not only because he shares the “same cultural background” as the characters, but also because of his “very personal connection” with New York. Watch our exclusive video interview above.

Morris’ initial conversations with Gray about the style of filmmaking for “Armageddon Time” revolved around its autobiographical nature. The editor describes the director’s film as a “ghost story for his family,” especially because so many of the central characters, who are all based on Gray’s family members, have passed away. He admits to feeling a “responsibility” to handle this “personal story” with tremendous care. The movie marks Morris and Gray’s third collaboration, having previously worked together on “Ad Astra” and “The Lost City of Z.”

WATCH our exclusive video interview with Banks Repeta, ‘Armageddon Time’ actor

Stylistically, “Armageddon Time” feels effortlessly classical. Morris notes how Gray used “still and beautifully composed frames” with “classical framing and classical camera work” in a manner evocative of films from the 80s.

One of the most moving scenes in the film arrives early, when Anthony Hopkins’ character Aaron tells his grandson Paul (Banks Repeta) about how his family fled the Nazis and arrived in America. Morris says this sequence “always brings me to tears, actually, especially with Christopher Spelman’s music.” The editor had to decide precisely when and how often to cut away from Hopkins’ “mesmerizing” monologue, and opted to do so because “the scene’s about Paul and what this story means to him.” He especially loves Repeta’s response when he “has this visceral reaction in his eyes. It’s a really incredible take.”

WATCH our exclusive video interview with Happy Massee, ‘Armageddon Time’ production designer

Morris uses an entirely different approach later in the film, when Paul transfers from public to private school and meets with a teacher to describe how he feels about the transition. For this monologue, the editor and Gray decided to push-in on Repeta in one take, uninterrupted from any cuts. He characterizes the moment as having a “trance-like quality” as the camera work “almost breaks reality for a moment” and allows Paul to have a “moment of intensity.”

Almost no moment in “Armageddon Time” matches the intensity of the harrowing sequence in which Paul’s father Irving (Jeremy Strong) beats his son for smoking a joint in school. Morris explains that unlike most of the movie, this painful scene was shot handheld and thus feels like “a really dangerous sequence right from the get-go.” He narrates his choices throughout this climactic moment, from the jump cuts that are “high-octane, very intense, adrenaline-flowing” to the moments of stillness when “there’s this mounting tension.” He reveals that his favorite moment in this sequence is a cut to Anne Hathaway as Paul’s mother Esther, who passively watches Irving’s brutality unfold. “Her face… the performance in that one shot is so powerful.”

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