October 22, 2019

Sidney Wolinsky: Shaping ‘The Shape of Water’

Out for an early morning walk near his home in Santa Monica with a neighbor, film editor Sidney Wolinsky checked his mobile phone and got the good news about his Oscar nomination for “The Shape of Water.”

“I was excited, pleased, amazed,” he told the Journal. But the film’s 13 nods including Best Picture, Best Director, and three of the four acting categories doesn’t surprise him, after its multiple wins at the Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Critics’ Choice Awards.

An unlikely mix of horror, fantasy, thriller and romance, the Cold War-era story about a mute janitorial worker and an intelligent captive sea creature has resonated with critics and audiences.

“It has a very strong story and an outsider characters that people can really relate to,” Wolinsky said. “It has a very strong antagonist, and people in trouble that you want to see succeed.”

Wolinsky, who worked with director Guillermo Del Toro on the pilot of “The Strain” in 2014, appreciates the working relationship they have. “He’s very open to ideas, very collaborative,” he said, noting that Del Toro’s understanding and mastery of the fantasy-horror genre allayed his concerns about whether “The Shape of Water” would work. “He knew what he wanted to do and executed it beautifully.”

“It has a very strong story and an outsider characters that people can really relate to”— Sidney Wolinksy on “The Shape of Water”

Underwater scenes notwithstanding, the trickiest editing challenge was the climactic escape sequence. “There were a lot of moving parts and it involved all the characters who were all in different locations coming toward each other. You had to maintain the tension and make sure people understood what was going on,” Wolinsky said.

Although this is his first Oscar nomination, the Canadian native has been honored for his television work with three Emmy nominations for “The Sopranos” and a win for “Boardwalk Empire.” His credits also include “House of Cards,” “Ray Donovan,” and “Rome.”

Always interested in film, he chose to go into editing “because it was the most involved in shaping the story,” he said.

Born in Ottawa, where he lived until his parents separated when he was 12 and he moved to Montreal with his mother, Wolinsky got his bachelor’s degree in English and American literature from Brandeis University. “It was full of really smart kids who couldn’t get into Harvard or Yale,” he said, noting that he also applied to those Ivy League schools, “not realizing I hadn’t a hope in hell” of getting in.”

The fact that Brandeis is a largely Jewish school wasn’t a factor for him. “I wanted to get out of Canada,” he said.

Wolinksy’s paternal grandparents were from Belarus, and his mother and her family fled Hungary via Barcelona and Tangier in 1944. His father’s father “was an Orthodox Jew and very much a Zionist. My father stayed kosher, but drove on Saturday. He’d park a block away from my grandfather’s and walk,” Wolinksy said.

His mother’s family was not observant, and he followed suit. “I refused to go to Hebrew school. For my bar mitzvah, I learned the entire thing by rote,” he said. “I’m Jewish, it’s a part of me. But I think religion has created more problems than it has solved.”

Wolinsky, who is married and has one son and two grandchildren, doesn’t have his next project lined up. “When you’re a freelancer, you finish a job and you hope you get another job. I don’t feel that I’m in the position where I can pick directors or projects,” he said. For him, the job is all about the person running the show. “I’d like to work with good directors because you learn the most from good directors and good material.”