Cuts We Love – Witness

Director Peter Weir’s 1985 thriller, Witness, stars Harrison Ford as detective John Book, who must protect Samuel (Lukas Haas), a clever young Amish boy who witnesses a murder and is in danger as he can identify the killers.

Nominated for eight Academy Awards®, it won two including best editing for British-born Thom Noble, ACE. Noble also won an ACE Eddie Award for the film.

In the barn-raising scene, the Amish community comes together as one big family to build a new home. It’s depicted as a kind of ritual. Book (Ford) is shown being accepted by the community while shedding his own cynicism as he forms a romantic bond with Samuel’s mother, Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis), who is a widow.

“We show the barn being built in sequence starting in the morning. That was a pretty logical structure,” says Noble. “Within that, we needed to develop a number of characters by having them interact in various ways.

“That’s a lot of material to digest so the process was basically one of chiseling away until we had the essential elements. “There’s only so many shots of people hammering nails and giving each other meaningful looks that you can include,” Noble explains.  “I used the wide shots of the barn to let the scene breathe and give it scale. You need to see what is being built so you can share in the sense of achievement.

“One of the choices I made was to cut a faster pace for scenes in the city in contrast to slower-paced scenes with the Amish,”  he says. “Peter also shot certain moments at a higher speed, like 36 frames per second. He did this most notably in the scene where Harrison has the radio on in the barn and he and Kelly dance. The slow motion is almost imperceptible but adds a dreamlike quality  to the exchange of glances.”

Noble cites a “wonderful moment of stillness” during the scene, when the villagers break for lunch. “All the frantic activity goes away. That lunch is a chance for just about everyone to react to the tension that John and Rachel’s budding attraction creates.

“Once the sequence was finished we added Pachelbel’s Canon to the temp track. It worked perfectly cut for cut. Peter was worried that composer Maurice Jarre would not be able to match what Pachelbel had added to the scene, but when the time came Maurice knocked it out of the ballpark.”