For Chad Beck, the choice to become an editor was an easy one to make. Since his beginnings as a student at the New York-based Edit Center, Beck has taken to the art with a clarity that only comes from true passion. His skills have led him to assistant editor positions on such memorable projects as Todd Solondz’s Palindromes (2004) and Michael Kang’s The Motel (2005), associate editor status on Half Nelson (2006) and then to co-editor status on documentaries like Alex Grazioli’s Odyssey In Rome (2005) and Charles Ferguson’s No End In Sight (2007). Due in no small part to Beck’s commendable editing, No End In Sight, a documentary on the Iraq War, won a Special Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.
And what does Chad Beck, career editor, do when he’s not editing? He teaches the craft to others at the same school that gave him his start, The Edit Center. Beck recently took a moment away from his endeavors to talk with MM about his experience as a young editor, how documentary differs from fiction and his overall appreciation for the magic of editing.
Daniel Fritz (MM): As an alum of The Edit Center, you’ve provided them with a lot to brag about. Besides completing six projects in the last four years, you’ve also come back to teach at The Edit Center as an instructor. Is there a sense of completion in that? A feeling that you’ve made it as an editor and are now able to “give back” to the place that gave you your start?
Chad Beck (CB): It feels great to come back to The Edit Center, mostly because I feel so grounded here. It’s a school run by editors, and the spirit of the place is very positive and academic. There’s a real sense of community here. I got my start as a student in the six-week class and learned the craft from some of the great editors who teach here. It’s amazing being back and sharing my knowledge with others.
MM: What’s the one thing your students are most surprised to learn when they actually start working as editors?
CB: I think they learn very quickly that the buck stops with them. It’s easy to complain about the limitations in footage, but when it comes down to it, you have to fix the material. And everything can be fixed. The extent to which you can take a scene and make it into something considerably better–hopefully–that’s what surprises (and inspires) them. It still surprises me.
MM: What made you decide to become an editor in the first place?
CB: Editing has always intrigued me. For as long as I can remember, my mind has been flipping picture and sound ideas. For me, it’s the most exciting part of the filmmaking process. Even with the smallest amount of footage, the possibilities are infinite. You can make mediocre acting great and bland footage into something remarkable. I’m also obsessed with structure. I love camera, but crafting a cut is everything to me. There’s always something new to learn, whether it’s a storytelling technique or some cutting-edge piece of technology.
MM: Your most recent movie, No End in Sight, is a documentary, as is Odyssey in Rome, which you edited in 2005. How is editing a nonfiction film different than a feature like Half Nelson or Palindromes?
CB: Editing documentary is very different in that there is no script. You are given hundreds of hours of material with no script or outline and your job is as much writing as it is editing. Hopefully, the director gets the elements needed to make a great film, but that’s not always the case. That’s when the editing craft becomes crucial. You have to watch every frame of footage objectively and systematically until a story emerges. Being ruthless with footage is the only way to make progress. When you reach an assembly stage, features and docs are basically the same process–it is the last stage of writing. You are dealing with structure, rewriting, tightening aspects of the script and implementing finer elements (music, sound design) to lift the film even further. I feel that knowledge of the two processes complement each other, but docs are usually harder.
MM: You’ve edited documentary, drama, comedy… Is there any genre you haven’t done that you’d like to try?
CB: Action movies.
MM: What would be your dream project as an editor?
CB: The Bourne movies. I don’t think I would ever leave the cutting room if I got to work with that material. And you can tell how hard they worked.
MM: What’s up next for you?
CB: I’m finishing up Edet Belzberg’s (Children Underground) latest documentary. After that, no idea.