One movie that had Park City audiences buzzing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Casino Jack and the United States of Money (opening on May 7, 2010). This daring documentary takes a piercing look at the lies, greed and corruption surrounding infamous Washington, DC lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his cronies. Casino Jack marks the third feature film collaboration between director Alex Gibney (Oscar-winner for Taxi to the Dark Side) and editor-producer Alison Ellwood and co-editor Lindy Jankura.
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Ellwood and Jankura recently spoke with MM about working with Gibney and cutting Casino Jack.
Kyle Rupprecht (MM): You’ve collaborated with director Alex Gibney on Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Having made three films with him, what’s your working relationship like?
Alison Ellwood (AE): In addition to our three feature docs, I’ve also worked with Alex on several other films—hour-long docs for TV. We’ve worked together off and on for nearly 13 years. I believe we work so well together because of our deep mutual respect for one another. He gives me a lot of latitude in the editing so I never feel like my hands are tied. I’m free to come up with wacky ideas and I trust him to know whether they’re good or not. We don’t always agree, but we’ve learned how to compromise.
Lindy Jankura (LJ): My working relationship with Alex continues to grow with each film I work on with him. I feel extremely fortunate to have been involved in such amazing works, and I must say he’s really given me the opportunity step up and become more involved with each new project. When I told him I was passionate about making the jump from an assistant to an editor, he provided me with a platform to do so. It also helps that I have an extraordinary mentor, Alison Ellwood. Between the two of them and their remarkable collaborative power, I feel I’ve really had a chance to learn from the best.
MM: In editing a documentary, how early do you start in the process? How long did it take to edit Casino Jack and the United States of Money and what was your workflow? Anything in your setup that helped speed up the editing process?
AE: Casino Jack was edited, off and on, over the course of two-and-a-half years. It’s unusual to do it like that, but I think it served the project. The longer we were able to keep it going, the more people were willing to talk. I’d say the total time spent actually editing was probably 12-14 months. It was a very difficult story to tell, a lot of rich and complex characters and subplots.
LJ: Our process usually begins rather early. Because our films frequently use heavy amounts of archive material, there’s usually quite a bit to sort through and process before we can start crafting the story. The key is to be vigilant in the organizing and categorizing of the all of the archive. It’s often the most daunting of tasks, but it pays off in a big way down the line.
For Casino Jack, we worked on two Avid Media Composer systems that were connected via fibre to a 4TB [Avid] Unity [MediaNetwork system]. Having a shared storage system really contributed to a faster and more integrated editing process. Towards the end of the film, Alison chose to edit from home using a laptop-based Media Composer system. We were able to connect her laptop to the Unity whenever she was in the office, so I’d say we had a very flexible workflow.
One other interesting aspect of Casino Jack was that we had many, many formats! We had it all—P2, EX3, DVCPro HD, HDCAM, DVCAM, BETA SP, Digibeta, VHS, DVD, etc. Because we had such a large amount of archive material, we chose to work at 30i. I hear the most recent Media Composer (version 4.0) has new mix-and-match capabilities. That would’ve been great to reduce costs and speed up our work on this project.
MM: Casino Jack is your third feature to premiere at Sundance. What does it feel like to get this kind of recognition from one of the most acclaimed film fests in the world?
AE: It’s always a thrill! Sundance is so supportive of documentary filmmakers. Not to mention such a fun festival to come to.
LJ: The Sundance Film Festival is an incredible festival to premiere at. Especially a documentary, because the festival is full of doc lovers. The audiences are enthusiastic and I believe they provide you with honest reactions. It’s also a pleasure to be surrounded by so many talented and creative filmmakers. No matter what film you see at Sundance, you are bound to walk away with ideas and inspiration, and we all need a little of that.
MM: So far, all the features you’ve worked on have been documentaries. Any desire to work on narrative films in the future?
AE: My desire to work in narrative relates to writing and directing. I’ve been working on screenplays for a while. Each documentary I do helps me in my storytelling skills. I have no desire to edit narrative films—too many choices!
LJ: Not right now. I love the challenge of finding the story in a documentary. It can be painstaking and difficult, but once you get it, it’s incredibly rewarding.
MM: What¹s up next for you?
AE: My next project is also with Alex. Although this time he and I will be directing together. I’m very excited about that. It’s called Magic Bus, about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ infamous bus ride across the country in ’64. I’m also editing and having a blast with all the restored 16mm footage that the Pranksters filmed on the bus trip. The idea is to have the film be as experiential as possible—of course we don’t have the possibility of passing out the Kool-Aid before the screenings. So, we’ll see; it’s a challenge, but a fun one!
LJ: I’m currently co-editing a documentary with Tim Squyres [Taking Woodstock, Rachel Getting Married]. It’s an Alex Gibney film that follows Lance Armstrong in his recent comeback to cycling.