Making the Cut: Breaking Down the Keys to Finding the Most Compatible Editor For Your Feature

Editing is a fascinating part of moviemaking for a lot of reasons, but perhaps mostly because of its endless possibilities, and the fact that there are almost no rules to the process.

I’ve tried things in the editing phase which would never seem possible, yet when my crew and I saw the result, it blew our minds.

Conceptualizing a film from what’s on paper to a finished audio-visual product is a journey. Your film’s mood, character arcs, structural ideas, and visual concepts are all living elements of moviemaking that get refined at every stage. While your ideas are sowed during the writing of your script, developed during pre-production, and find form during the shoot, it’s during the editorial process where they are harvested and find their correct place. When you start that journey you should know your direction, but the destination will be magical because of everything you’ll learn and try along the way.

My story of working with editor Nico Leunen on Beautiful Boy illustrates not only how dense and exhausting the editing process is, but also how obscure many steps are.

In times of crisis, life’s not always a beach for the Sheff family in Beautiful Boy. Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

Collaborating with Nico has been extremely important to my trajectory as a moviemaker. Nico and I began working together on my first feature Steve + Sky in 2003, and have since collaborated on five additional films. We clicked from the beginning and lived together while editing the first couple of films we worked on, which created an intense creative space where we essentially operated together in a kind of bubble. While this environment isn’t necessary to make a good film, we learned a lot about our approach to moviemaking, and about each other, by working this way.

Nico has shown me that any editor worth working with is one who has uncommon insight on how films can be structured, shaped, or reshaped. Your editor should have great taste, a sense of timing, and ultimately be able to help you make bold choices as a director. You need to share a love of experimentation, and a willingness to try things that might not initially work.

I’m convinced that Nico is the best editor in the world but, more importantly, the best editor in the world for my films. The reason I’m stating this so explicitly is because in my experience, it’s crucial to find the right person for the job, and “right” for you doesn’t necessarily mean “right” for me. An editor weighs in so heavily, making so many decisions in the process, that the director must be able to connect with him or her on multiple levels.

Always bring your editor on board in the very early stages of the moviemaking process. When I’m writing, we’re already talking talk about the story, and usually Nico will read every major draft of the script and give his notes. These are wide-ranging notes—not editorial. We also always talk about visual approaches to the material.

As we were preparing Beautiful Boy, I learned that Nico initially would not be available to work on the film due to scheduling difficulties. This was a bummer, but I knew I needed to move forward. But as luck would have it, during a moment in which I was really stuck, Nico became available to lend his expertise to the film.

Father and son David (Steve Carell, R) and Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet, L) face meth addiction hand-in-hand in Beautiful Boy

From his early notes, Nico had a clear sense of what wasn’t working. He told me that he felt there was some confusion on a storytelling level, which was holding the film back from taking viewers along on a cohesive journey. Based on his feedback, we restructured and simplified the story to clear any narrative confusion. His second note was that he felt the film focused too much on the character of David Sheff (Steve Carell), a loving father who struggles to help his son Nic (Timothée Chalamet) survive and recover from drug addiction. So we decided to switch the film in and out of the points of view of David and Nic, to create a more dynamic storyline that helps evoke empathy for each character. Nico’s third note was that he felt our music had to be bolder. To remedy this, we opted to use only existing songs, rather than mixing songs and score, and this choice gave Beautiful Boy a more distinct, memorable soundtrack.

By taking a more straightforward approach, we created more opportunities to take sidesteps—flashbacks, more reflective narrative moments, etc.—which created stronger associations between character and plot than the original structure we conceived of. Nico also suggested I kill some darlings—and restore some darlings that I had killed in previous cuts. By creating more dynamics within the film, you get higher highs and lower lows. Our choice to give Nic more exclusive screen time, for example, allows for the audience to get to know him more intimately, find greater empathy for his plight, and in turn, greater empathy for David’s.

The Graduate: Coming off his best actor Oscar-nominated turn in Call Me By Your Name, Chalamet (R) starred in Felix Van Groeningen’s (L) Beautiful Boy with a newfound pedigree as a performer

Nico has a way of being very rational with respect to a story’s structure, yet he can value the poetry in between the lines and bring it forward. As a director you know the feeling you want your film to convey to audiences, and if you’re a writer-director, you’ll write a script that tries to capture that feeling. But it’s only in the editing process that every little brick in the wall you’ve been building adds up and reaches the emotional depth you’ve been looking for. Your editor needs to fundamentally understand what you’re aiming for, and at the same time succeed at piecing your film together on both a rational and an intuitive level. This means deleting lines that aren’t entirely necessary, and allowing the images to speak for themselves. Your editor accentuates the poetry of your story by creating an associative flow.

Above all, what you’re looking for most in an editor is a reliable pair of fresh eyes, and a set of clear ideas as to what works for your project and what doesn’t. An editor with clarity of vision and solutions that are as practical as they are creative will help you accept major changes for the betterment of your film much more quickly than you would without his or her input. It’s those qualities that’ll allow you to move faster toward the development of your film’s new structure.

Editing is like putting together a huge puzzle with a trillion pieces. When everything falls into place, it’s incredibly satisfying.

Kitchen-Sink: Carell (R) and Chalamet (L) render a natural and nerve-jangling portrait of a broken home in Beautiful Boy

Felix’s Five Tips for Finding the Right Editor

1. Any editor worth working with has uncommon insight on how films can be structured, shaped, or reshaped.

2. Your editor should have great taste, a sense of timing, and be able to help you make bold choices as a director.

3. Your editor accentuates the poetry of your story by creating an associative flow.

4. Your editor needs to fundamentally understand what you’re aiming for, and at the same time succeed at piecing your film together on both a rational and an intuitive level.

5. Above all, what you’re looking for most in an editor is a reliable pair of fresh eyes, and a set of clear ideas as to what works for your project and what doesn’t. MM

Beautiful Boy opens in theaters October 12, 2018, courtesy of Amazon Studios. All images courtesy of Amazon Studios. Featured image: Sick Notes: Writer-director Felix Van Groeningen (L) and star Steve Carell (R) go over notes on Beautiful Boy, their film about the illness of substance abuse. This article appears in MovieMakers 2019 Complete Guide to Making Movies, on stands November 6, 2018. 

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