Walking the Tightrope

Mulholland Drive
Mulholland Drive

Is a
movie made in the writing, in the shooting, or in the editing room?
While films such as Wild at Heart, Lost Highway and Twin Peaks could only be constructed from the mind of David
Lynch, you’d be hard pressed to find an editor more capable of bringing
the complexities of his vision to the screen than Mary Sweeney. Born
and raised in Madison, Wisconsin, it was while living in Paris that
Sweeney first became interested in film criticism. As a graduate stIssueudent
at NYU, Sweeney’s work in Cinema Studies steered her toward a career
in editing.

Beginning her career as an
apprentice sound editor on Reds, Sweeney moved on to
work as an assistant editor on Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Since
then, she’s worked on each of Lynch’s films, and has ventured
down the road of producer as well. In 1999, Sweeney even found
herself in the role of screenwriter, when she penned the script
for the remarkably poignant The Straight Story.

Lynch and Sweeney’s latest
collaboration, Mulholland Drive, is engrossing moviegoers
across the country as it tangles (and untangles-then tangles
once again) a psychosexual web of deceit and greed within the
Hollywood film community. Like most of Lynch’s work, the story
is hard to synopsize, and even Sweeney wouldn’t try. Here, she
talks with MM about her longtime collaboration with one of the
world’s most original directors, as well as balancing the roles
of editor and producer and the struggles of being a woman in
what many still see as a man’s industry.

Jennifer Wood (MM): One
of your first jobs was as an apprentice sound editor on
Reds.
How is the editing of sound different from the editing of images?
Film is obviously a visual medium, but how important is the
auditory aspect?

Mary Sweeney (MS): The sound is very important. Picture and sound editing are ideally
done together, and what is difficult about sound editing is
the alienation from the work that comes with that division of
labor. When one edits, you can make the sound and picture play
off of one another, complement and enrich each other-but as
a sound editor you don’t get that pleasure. To be sure, there
are many brilliant sound editors who can bring a great deal
to a picture that is locked-they just unfortunately can’t play
with the picture.

MM: You began working
with David Lynch on
Blue Velvet and have only cut with
him as director. How has your working relationship changed from
Blue Velvet to Mulholland Drive?

MS: I was an
assistant editor on both Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart.
Consequently, I didn’t cut anything on those pictures. My relationship
with David changed when I began cutting on the Twin Peaks TV series. His editor Duwayne Dunham left to pursue a career in
directing and I began to edit David’s TV, then feature film projects.
I have now been editing everything he has done for the past 10 years.
We have developed a shorthand of sorts. Suffice it to say that I
understand very well what he wants from a scene and how to get the
feeling he wants.

MM: The first
feature used an AVID on was
The Straight Story. What did
you cut
Mulholland Drive on? What are some of the benefits
you found?

MS: I had been cutting
commercials on AVID for a number of years before The Straight
Story
, though that was the first feature I cut on AVID.
I was familiar with the system and really liked using it on
the feature. I cut Mulholland Drive on AVID as well.
The benefits are especially great during the first assembly.
The accessibility of the dailies makes a huge difference in
the amount of time it takes to assemble. You don’t feel so much
like you’re drowning.

MM: One way to
describe David’s films is ‘non-linear.’ As an editor, how does
this structure affect you? How close does the finished product
remain to the shooting script, and how helpful is that script
to you in the editing room?

MS: David follows
his scripts very closely. I rely heavily on the scripts because
I don’t always know what the hell is going on in the beginning,
to tell you the truth. But the beautiful part about working
in post with David is that one has the time to discover all
the layers and go deep into his world. I never know where the
point is when I’ve entered into the world of the film and know
where I’m going and what he’s doing. It is usually an unremarkable
passage, but all of a sudden I just understand.

MM: With The
Straight Story, you not only produced and edited the film,
but took on the role of screenwriter for the first time. Did
you approach the writing of the film with the editing in mind?

MS: It is certainly
the case that my screenwriting is heavily influenced by my editorial
experience. I didn’t think of cutting the film as I wrote it,
but my instincts as an editor informed the writing-where things
felt slow, how to make transitions, camera angles, etc.

MM: Did your role
as screenwriter make the editing process more difficult? Deciding
what to cut out of the film?

MS: Oddly, when I
got down to the cutting of the picture, my old editor’s hat
was firmly in place. I was interested in making the picture
work and had no qualms about losing things that I had written
if those losses made the picture better. I didn’t feel any personal
investment at that point. The two faces of Eve.

MM: Mulholland Drive was originally set to run as a television series. Do you think
the editing process would have been different if it were a series
instead of a film? You’ve also edited several commercials for
David; what is the difference in editing for film versus television?

MS: Editing with David
is always the same; we edit to make the piece work. The difference
from TV to commercials to features is in the content, not necessarily
in the editing or shooting style.

MM: Of all David’s
films,
Mulholland Drive just might be his most complex-there
are so many stories going on at once…

MS: The film is very
close to the script. The numerous story lines make it a lot
of fun, but one has to adopt a flexible sense of logic. There
is a logic in all of David’s films-it’s just not a traditional
one, and for me it makes my work much more interesting. I feel
like a juggler walking across a tightrope and I am pretty focused
on making sure that I absolutely stay on that tightrope while
the balls are revolving in the air.

MM: What is the
one word you think David Lynch would say describes you best?

MS: Gristle.

MM: How does this
help you in your success?

MS: I’m tenacious,
which leads me to follow through on things… it’s a trait
that is in somewhat short supply in our business.

Filmography

Mulholland Drive (2001):
Editor/Producer
The Straight Story (1999): Editor/Producer/Writer
Lost Highway (1997): Editor/Producer
Nadja (1994): Producer
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992): Editor
Wild at Heart (1990): Assistant Editor/Script Supervisor
Blue Velvet (1986): Assistant Editor
Tender Mercies (1983): Apprentice Editor
Reds (1981): Apprentice Sound Editor

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *