I never intended to edit my own films. My “day job” is editing PSAs and corporate videos, so when it came time to direct my first feature, Easier with Practice, I realized I didn’t really know any editors—nor did I have the money to hire one. So I decided to edit it myself. Having no desire to be a multi-hyphenate, I edited it under a pseudonym: Fernando Collins.
I was naive. Editing your own movie is no fun. You have to make those gut-wrenching decisions yourself and act as a totally different crew person when you’re in the timeline. Just like you can’t think as a writer when you’re on set, you can’t think as a director when you’re in the editing room. I vowed never to do it again.
Now entering production on my second film, C.O.G., an adaptation of a David Sedaris short story, of course our budget got cut, and then got cut again, and now I have to bring Fernando Collins out of retirement. I’m doing things differently this time, though. I’m putting a lot of the responsibility on Adam Shazar, who was my assistant editor on the last film. I’m going to let him do the first assembly, so he can make some of those hard decisions before I start working on the edits. Relieving yourself of all that responsibility feels better than you can imagine. Filmmaking is about collaboration, after all, an idea that shouldn’t end in the editing room.
So, if you’re left to edit your own film, make sure you have someone else you can depend on there with you. You need another set of eyes, someone honest who can tell you, “I know you love that scene, and it’s great, but it has no place in your film.” Do I love editing my own films? Not at all. Is it sometimes a necessity when it comes to making low-budget films? Absolutely. If you’re going to do it, though, just make sure you incorporate another person’s perspective into your process—or do a heavy round of test screenings. To think that you alone can handle all the decisions in the editing room without anyone else’s insight is arrogant. So, until my budgets grow, Fernando Collins will continue to edit my films. Hopefully I can trust him with my footage.
When I started making movies, I didn’t know it was possible to edit a film, let alone have someone edit for you. I thought you had to shoot the shots in story order. But then, I was only 10 years old.
Smash cut to quite a few years later. Martin Scorsese told me, “Long post-production is a sign of genius.” Well, if that’s true, then I must be a super-genius. My recently-completed comedy My Little Hollywood, took 16 years to post. And I cut it myself.
Now, I’m certainly no super-genius, but I’ve learned a few things about cutting films myself. Back in 1996 I shot the raw footage for My Little Hollywood with a handicam in Los Angeles. The star, Shawn Andrews (Dazed and Confused), and I began with nothing more than a story outline, and due to a series of inappropriate incidents (which you’ll learn about when you see the film), the production imploded, and I was left with a shoebox of seemingly indecipherable Hi8mm tapes.
First, I took the project to a terrific editor in New York. But then I got busy directing my first studio picture, Kicked in the Head, and didn’t have anymore time to help her make sense of the footage. Second, I showed the footage to Johannes Weuthen, who cut my feature The Deep and Dreamless Sleep. Johannes watched the tapes and said plainly, “I can’t figure this out. You have to cut it.” But still I resisted. Third, I gave the dailies to my friend, the editor Casey Mandel. While Casey made heroic progress after literally hundreds of hours of work, the story still lacked vitality and emotional coherency.
But one day, almost 16 years after we started shooting, the phone rang. On the other line was Tiprin Mandalay, the lead actress in My Little Hollywood. She was suddenly adamant that I finish the film. I said “Don’t you remember? The production was a disaster.” She replied, “Tell the truth; make it a comedy.” The rest is cinema history.
So, what did I learn? First, some films you just have to cut yourself. It’s unavoidable. Second, hire a pushy actress; she’ll force you to finish your film. Finally, if all else fails, make it a comedy.
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