Jim Helton is the co-editor of the acclaimed films BLUE VALENTINE (2010), THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (2012) and THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS (2016), all directed by Derek Cianfrance. Helton also designed the memorable title sequence for BLUE VALENTINE, composed some of the music for THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, designed the sound for Cianfrance's debut feature, BROTHER TIED (1998), and continues to collaborate with the director on other projects. Helton is also a director in his own right, with the short film projects LOVE KILLS DEMONS (2010, a collaboration with Chris Rubino) and A STUDY IN LEGS (2009, a collaboration with Atsushi Nishijima) amongst his credits. In the first part of a three-part interview I spoke with Helton about the early days, meeting Derek Cianfrance and their early collaborations, and the making and editing of the masterpiece BLUE VALENTINE. 

Growing up what were some of the most important films for you? 
STAR WARS (1977), and a lot of Spielberg films like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) and E.T. (1982).  Later in high school I got into David Lynch, and I thought ''Who is THIS guy?'' In college I ended up working in this huge video store called The Video Station, which was owned by a guy called Scott Woodland and had about 60, 000 titles. It was the third biggest video store in the world. I would watch a director's entire work. I loved Scorsese and revisited a lot of the older films like GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), THE SWIMMER (1968), Kurosawa, Ozu. I got a really great education at school but working at that video store was an amazing education too.

When did you first entertain the idea of working in film? 
I think I was probably always thinking of it subconsciously. When I went to college, I applied to business school, which I thought I was supposed to do. I was driving back from the Freshman Orientation with my Dad and I said to him ''I don't know why I'm going to Business School. '' And he said ''I don't know why either. '' He was the one who actually planted the seed because he said ''Did you ever think about film?'' I said ''Is that something that I can actually do?'' And he said ''I think so. '' And that was all she wrote. 

When did you first specifically start thinking about editing? 
Editing is just something I fell into. When I was at Film School at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Phil Solomon, who was an associate of Stan Brakhage, was my teacher and he was more of an experimental filmmaker. The filmmaking process there was that everybody did everything on their own films, and editing really attracted me, but I never thought of myself as an editor – I just thought of myself as a filmmaker. Derek Cianfrance and I went to Film School together, and actually lived with each other for a little while. We've been close friends for a very long time. He had me come work with him on his first film, which was called BROTHER TIED. I said I'd do the title sequence, and then the only other major role that was available was sound designer. I didn't know how to use Pro-Tools so I had to teach myself. I recorded a bunch of sound effects and the film ended up being about 70% MOS. It was a pretty big job. I sat in the editing room and really enjoyed it, but we already had three editors really involved with the edit, and it was too crowded. 

When did you meet Derek for the first time? 
He came into my Super 8 class at Film School. He was one year ahead of us and he showed us his film. The way he tells it, I was boondogging him, and staring at him with my arms folded, but I was just really impressed. It was a great film. Soon after that, I had written a short story and I cornered him at the Dalton Trumbo Fountain, and read it to him. We became friends after that. When we both left the dorms, we got an apartment with two other guys. 

Did you have an inkling you would be working together on projects? 
He acted in one of my video films, and shot another. I also had a small role in BROTHER TIED later on. It was just the environment of Film School for everybody to do stuff together. 

What did you admire about him from the beginning? 
Derek is one of those guys who always really knew what he wanted to do. He is constantly studying his craft, and when I first met him, he already knew a lot. I had seen a lot of films, and one of my strengths has always been that I know how films are supposed to feel, but Derek knows a lot about the craft of filmmaking. BROTHER TIED won a lot of awards, and he was the first guy to win a Cinematography Award at Sundance for a digital feature (QUATTRO NOZA). We've worked with some great DPs on the films we've done together, so it's hard to say this, but I still think he's one of my favorite DPs. He's such a visual guy. I've always admired his work.
How did you end up working together after Derek moved to New York? 
Back then the only jobs you could get where I was living in my parents' basement in Aurora, Colorado, were either editing ski videos or editing pornos. I had no connection with anyone making ski videos. My connection was with the porno company, so I ended up editing porno trailers. Derek had just moved out to New York from Boulder, Colorado, and he called me and said ''You gotta get out of there, man. '' I had saved about $8, 000 and I drove all the way there. He was already shooting and editing his own work and I just helped him as a friend because we always enjoyed working together. 

When did you first hear about BLUE VALENTINE? 
I believe BLUE VALENTINE took about twelve years to get produced. For a long time I was not even on anyone's mind as the editor of that film. The first time he described the project he said ''We are going to have them get married and divorced at the same time at the end. It's going to be a cross-cut. '' The story took a lot of twists and turns over the years. Early iterations had Dean named David, and he worked at a factory, shovelling dog food. At first, the story was set in Hawaii, but that would have been too expensive so it got changed to Northern California. I believe Florida was scouted too. The 'blue' in the title related to the color of the ocean. 

What kind of actors were considered over the years? 
They first envisaged Benicio Del Toro as the male lead back then. The person who was attached to it the longest was Michelle Williams. She read early versions of the script and has always been part of it. And thank God, because she's awesome in the movie. Seymour Cassel was the first idea to play Michelle's father. They also had talks with Mark Ruffalo for the male lead, but in the end it was Ryan Gosling who committed. He unfortunately had to step away at some point, but we got him back and just as we were going to shoot the film,  Heath Ledger, who was Michelle's ex-boyfriend and the father of her daughter, passed away. Michelle was obviously heartbroken, so we waited a year to allow her to grieve. 

Was Heath Ledger ever considered for the role of Dean? 
He was never considered to my knowledge. 

Some of the film was shot in New York, but why did you eventually shoot mostly in Scranton, Pennsylvania? 
We needed a tax credit so we could stay on budget. Derek had to pony up a substantial amount of money himself to get the film started. It was a real labor of love. Pennsylvania was also close enough for Michelle to get home after work and be with her daughter. It ended up being a perfect location that gave us that magical rainbow bus ride, a stage for the night walk where Ryan sings and plays the ukelele and Michelle dances, as well as other scenes. The Future Room was on top of the Ramada Inn in King of Prussia.

Did the content of the film evolve over the years? 
Derek got the structure stuff down early, but with his experiences working on documentaries, the content really changed over the years, and he learned a lot about performances, and listening to actors instead of demanding certain things from them and over-directing. 

I think Derek doesn't get enough credit for the effect his meticulous planning had on the movie eg. having Ryan and Michelle live as a couple for a month before filming the scenes where their marriage broke up. 
I agree. The point was to give them points of reference to help them generate emotion, so that when they were breaking up, they were really breaking up. They could draw on all the fun times they had because they lived together in that house for a month. Ryan and Michelle shot an hour or two of footage on a High 9 camera during this time. The footage was meant to be like 'home movies' and give a sense of them being a couple. I edited it because Derek thought it might be useful for promotional purposes, but none of it was used in the movie. We were always trying to get these caught moments, but they were in a net that he had created with the conspiracy of the cast and crew. The break-up scene was very indepth and involved. They had so many great takes. Ryan and Michelle were so good and so devastating that I would have to take naps between takes. If you just watched all the takes back to back, you would just get numb. 

What was the idea behind the opening scene? The sound design is brilliantly oppressive and draws you in. 
The idea was that the main character was going to wake up with the film. Andrj Parekh's use of light in that scene is just fantastic. He found that the RED camera wasn't as good with direct sunlight, so you'll notice that in most of the film, the weather is overcast but the light is still real nice. The sound designer Dan Flosdorf went out into the woods of Pennsylvania to record 360 degree ambience. He also recorded a lot of crazy insects and birds in upstate New York for THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, and would go out and record bike noises for Ryan's bike. 

The jumps in time are emotionally devastating, and the juxtapositions are perfectly placed. 
A lot of the credit I would give to the writers (Derek and Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne). The jumps in time were there in the script. We did juggle the ends a little bit. It was supposed to end with the break-up and then the wedding. Everyone was wowed by the shot of Ryan leaving, and his daughter trying to get him to come back, with all these fireworks that are going off. It looked like a war zone, something out of APOCALYPSE NOW (1979). Everybody said ''This has got to be the last shot. '' That slightly changed the rhythm of the ending in a very good way. 

Were the fireworks always in the script? 
The original script actually ended on Halloween. When it was decided they had to shoot in summer, they found they didn't know how to turn the leaves brown so it got changed to 4th July. In the original script, they were near the ocean, and we had a scene where he goes on stage and performs for her. It's so much more intimate and right the way it is now. 

What inspired the magnificent end titles? 
Derek set the boundaries. He said ''We're using Grizzly Bear. Don't look at anybody else.'' Those limitations actually made the work better. I went out on the last day of the shoot and drove back with Derek, Andrj and Davi Russo, the stills photographer, and they played this really upbeat song, saying ''This is the song for the end credits. '' I was sitting there with my arms crossed, saying ''Mmmm. Sure. '' I edited the first version of the end titles and I just had the fireworks, with the titles playing over them. Davi had shot all these beautiful stills from the movie, and we had tried to incorporate some of these stills into the film as little photo essays, but it came across as gimmicky. Davi is more than just an on-set photographer, he's a bullshit detector for Derek and a major collaborator. He doesn't get near enough the credit he deserves. We watched a cut of the film and it was clear that the stills needed to appear over the end credits with the fireworks. I cut a version of the end titles that way, and one day when I wasn't in the editing room, Derek came in and watched it and flipped out over it. He loved it. I had the basis and the rhythm of it there. I had edited it without music as usual, but once I added the music, that was it. 

I felt your titles were pivotal in that it was a way to celebrate the love that had died. 
It kind of fulfils the intention of the original script, to end on the wedding and not the divorce. Our Film Professor thought we should end the film leaving the audience with a sense of loss, but we felt the title sequence reminded the audience that there was once a love between these two characters. 

Part 2 of the interview.  

Extract from BLACK AND WHITE - A PORTRAIT OF SEAN COMBS, directed by Derek Cianfrance and co-edited by Jim Helton. 

LOVE KILLS DEMONS - 12 short films directed by Jim Helton. A STUDY IN LEGS, 11 short films by Jim. EPHEMERAL NEW YORK NO. 1, a short film by Jim.

The title sequence for BLUE VALENTINE. 

Derek Cianfrance's short film LATELY THERE HAVE BEEN MANY UNDERSTANDINGS (2006), edited by Helton, and the winner of the 2006 Chrysler Film Project.

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2017. All rights reserved.

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