Killing Your Darlings: Four moviemakers talk about editing their own films

by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, Matt Harrison, Kelly Parker, and Sean Baker | Published January 7, 2013

 

Kyle Patrick Alavarez
Director/Editor: Easier with Practice

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.

Matt Harrison
Director/Editor: Rhythm ThiefMy Little Hollywood

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.

Kelly Parker
Director/Editor: South Main

Back in late 2004, I started work on South Main, my first feature documentary. The film follows three single African American mothers, struggling to raise their families after being evicted from an apartment complex in South Los Angeles. This was a truly independent project: I financed it myself, shot it myself, and edited it myself. Although documentary filmmaking is technically more “objective” than narrative filmmaking, in that you observe, rather than invent, it’s easy to get so emotionally involved with your subjects that you can’t establish enough distance to edit the footage you’ve shot of them.

My goal was, simply, to show what these women’s lives were like, without sensationalizing or sentimentalizing them—as many social-issue films do. One of the primary ways I achieved this was by filming with a single camera, locked-off in wide, well-composed, static shots. I knew that I wanted the photography, and later the editing, to exude a patient, aesthetic rigor.

 

But maintaining objectivity wasn’t always easy. There were aspects of my subject’s lives that I related to on such a deeply personal level that I sometimes felt I couldn’t remain detached. My own mother lives in poverty, in part because of decisions she’s made, and in part because of the collapse of the social institutions around her. And every time I looked at one of these women in South LA, I saw my own mother’s plight reflected in their situations. I wish my mother could make better choices, and accordingly, I wanted my documentary subjects to make better choices. All these women are victims of a society that has abandoned them, but that doesn’t mean they’re allowed to verbally abuse their children.

In my darker days, when I thought I was losing control of the project, I considered introducing a number of subjective elements—including voiceover. If not for my filmmaker friends who watched early cuts and gave me objective advice while I was still shooting (I shot footage and edited simultaneously), I wouldn’t have made the film I made. You need reliable feedback throughout the process. After all is said and done, you can’t make a personal documentary if you don’t love your subjects, but you can’t make a good documentary if you let your emotions govern all your editing decisions.

Sean Baker
Director/Editor: StarletPrince of BroadwayTake Out

Editing my own films is extremely important to me. This may upset a few directors, but in my staunch opinion: Editing is 50 percent of directing. An editor’s cutting decisions make just as much creative impact on the film as the director’s decisions on acting and composition. That’s why I believe that a director who isn’t editing his or her own film should acknowledge the editor as either a co-director, or at the very least, a directing consultant.

 

You can make the argument that an editor brings a fresh perspective and objective point of view to the table. I won’t argue with that. But again, that fresh objective deserves directing credit in my eyes. On the other hand, it’s true that a director editing on his or her own may not be capable of separation—may not be able to “kill the darlings.” I’m probably guilty of this. However, I do my best to be very aware of running time and audiences’ attention spans. And I have learned over the course of four features and a long running television series that no one, including myself, ever misses those killed darlings.

For better or worse, I always use the initial festival premiere screening as my test audience. An audience comprised of friendly peers won’t be honest, but a festival audience will be. I trimmed Take Out by five minutes after its festival premiere. Prince of Broadway lost approximately two minutes following its first screening. And my most recent feature, Starlet, I trimmed by one minute 45 seconds after it opened at SXSW. The amount I’ve cut from each successive feature has decreased from film to film, which means I’m either getting more stubborn, or (I hope), I’m learning to anticipate my audiences’ reception before the film is even screened.

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