Alan Oxman
The Edit Center’s Alan Oxman with his students.

It’s one thing to sit at a computer and learn how to edit a film; it’s an entirely different thing to do it at The Edit Center in New York City. Founded by two-time Emmy Award-winning editor Alan Oxman, whose credits include Douglas Keeve’s Unzipped, Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness and Storytelling and Michael Ian Black’s The Pleasure of Your Company, The Edit Center does away with stuffy lectures and instead puts its students in the driver’s seat on real indie films.

In between classes, MM caught up with Oxman to talk about his unique educational philosophy, past success stories and why creativity should always come first.

Jennifer Wood (MM): When moviegoers think of the role of the “editor,” when they think of them at all they think of someone sitting alone in a room, cutting and pasting pieces of film together to create a final product—usually one dictated by the director. How do you define the role of the editor? 

Alan Oxman (AO): While there is certainly plenty of time spent alone in a room, cutting and pasting, the editor’s job is much more: A great editor is an artist, a craftsman and a collaborator. Editing can be very exciting, too. In a documentary, the editor often “writes” the story, and in a narrative the editor can help create a completely new story by intercutting things in novel ways. The editor and the director work very closely together and, while the director has the final word (as with any of the aspects of making a film), the editor’s creativity and talent have a great deal of impact on the finished film.

MM: How do you help to teach your students the importance of clear communication and strong relationships moving forward?

AO: Since we teach students by working on real films, with real directors, this is a large part of the class at The Edit Center. We spend a lot of time talking about the interpersonal skills necessary for dealing with directors. There are many different approaches and a big part of the editor’s job is helping the director feel more confident and creative in dealing with their material. We talk to the students about how to be honest with the director, but at the same time focused on moving forward and fixing the things that can be changed. We also talk a lot about not being defensive or dogmatic—as an editor, it’s very important to stay open to radical ideas. When the director has an idea that you don’t think is going to work, it’s important to know how to put your qualms aside and pursue it with an honest and positive attitude.

The class is also helped by the fact that we only employ working editors as instructors. They can give a realistic portrait of the editor-director dynamic and help the students understand what to expect. The teachers draw from real-world experience to coach the students, instructing them on how and when to pick their battles—and when it is time to put the arguments aside and just carry out the direction with a good attitude (a crucial skill). Working on real films, students practice these skills every time an instructor critiques their scenes, and then they get the chance to put their skills to the test when the director of the class film comes to work with each student individually.

MM: It’s easy for people to pinpoint some of the great actor-director teams out there (Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and Denzel Washington, etc.). Who do you see as some of the greatest editor-director teams working today? 

AO: The editor-director relationship can be a very intimate thing, and at the end of the day the only people who know what was really going on behind closed doors are the two involved. Judging editor-director relationships from the outside can feel like judging the strength of a marriage based only on the health of the child. Of course, some films are so phenomenal that you know all parties involved must have been doing some pretty amazing teamwork. Some obvious examples: Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese, Michael Kahn and Steven Spielberg, Sally Menke and Quentin Tarantino, William Chang and Wong Kar-Wai, Curtis Clayton and Gus Van Sant.

MM: One of the amazing things about your program is that your students actually work on real films—for real, well-known directors. They’re not just splicing together pieces of stock footage; they’re working on films like Chelsea Walls, Tadpole and Assisted Living. Why do you think it’s important for aspiring editors to “get their hands dirty” with real projects from the get-go?

AO: There’s simply no comparison, I think; students just learn more from working on real projects. When you try to teach people using stock footage, the students often end up bored and uninspired, fully aware that the work they were doing was just an exercise. Also, with everyone working on the same scene, a class can become competitive. I’ve seen that dynamic discourage beginners who were struggling with the software—they ended up giving up on the creative aspects because their technical skills hadn’t caught up to the rest of the class.

When we use real films, the students are energized and excited about their work, and the class truly feels like a team. Each student has their own unique piece, and the directors are really excited and inspired by the creativity of the students. The students are much more focused, obsessing over their scenes in the evenings and weekends and then coming to class with new ideas and a real sense of purpose. With that focus, the equipment and the technical skills become secondary tools to getting their scenes right—and the students actually tend to learn the tech side more quickly because of their focus on the creative outcome. Students who never thought they would be good at using Final Cut Pro get excited about their scenes and, with that energy, zero in on figuring out how to get the software to do what they need it to. By the end of the class, they’re often amazed at how comfortable they are with the software; it becomes almost second nature and you see students clicking away on the keyboard as though FCP was their word processor.

MM: At the end of their training, what is it that you hope Edit Center “graduates” will have learned? What sort of jobs will they be prepared to take on? 

AO: The Edit Center attracts student of many different skill levels and with many different goals, so that’s a tough question to answer.

Fundamentally, the class teaches students about the art of editing and storytelling, but this translates very differently from student to student. Some people are completely new to filmmaking and just want to learn how to use Final Cut Pro and get an introduction to the filmmaking process. Some are just out of college and looking for careers in editing. Others are experienced commercial editors or assistant editors who know Final Cut inside and out but want to learn more about the aesthetics of narrative or documentary editing. We also attract producers who want to know more about how to shoot so as to make things smoother in post-production and directors who want to be able to better communicate with their editors. As teachers, we try to work with each student individually to achieve their personal goals.

A few examples of different Edit Center students and their achievements after the class: Alice Wu took the course to learn more about directing, and she just finished her first feature (Saving Face), which screened at Sundance and was released by Sony Classics. Jane Chen was the producer of a class project, Red Doors (winner Best NY Feature at Tribeca), and took the class so she could be more involved in post. Mollie Goldstein took the class just after she graduated from college, and two years later she edited Palindromes for director Todd Solondz. Michael Taylor was a successful script supervisor (some of his credits include Garden State and American Splendor) who wanted to make the leap to editing. He’s been working steadily as an editor in the four years since he took the class and has just finished a feature, Day Night, that just screened in the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes where it won Le Prix Regards Jeunes.

MM: I know it may be hard to pick just one, so what are some of the films you’ve been most proud to count as Edit Center projects and why?

AO: While we are proud of the work we do on all our class projects, we are particularly proud of the times our involvement has kept a film going that was otherwise losing momentum. It often happens that films come to us having run out of money at the end of a shoot, or with a director who has been trying to edit the film themselves but has become overwhelmed with all the footage. It really feels like these projects may not have been the same film without the help of the Edit Center. Assisted Living, directed by Elliot Greenbaum, was one of these. More recently, I’d cite Manhattan, Kansas, directed by Tara Wray.

Manhattan, Kansas is a personal documentary made on a micro budget. We worked on it in the class and it screened at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, where it was the runner up for the Audience Award. I’m also particularly proud of Control Room, Jehane Noujaim’s documentary about the Al Jazeera television channel. We worked on it between classes at the Edit Center, and a teacher and two alums worked around the clock on an exceedingly tight schedule to get the film in shape for Sundance. It had been accepted on the basis of a strong rough cut, and it really seemed like the film wouldn’t have been ready for the festival audience if the Edit Center hadn’t stepped in.

It’s also very satisfying when a film we work on has a good festival run or plays theatrically. A lot of our students come from other careers or end up in jobs that aren’t related to film, so the Edit Center was their main opportunity to work on a movie. When their name shows up in the credits on the big screen, it’s a great feeling. Films like Gary Winick’s Tadpole (Sundance), Ethan Hawke’s Chelsea Walls (Cannes), Red Doors (Tribeca), Assisted Living (Slamdance, GenArt, Woodstock) have been really great that way.

It’s really hard to pick favorites, though; we’re very proud of every film we work on. Invariably, the filmmakers are shocked at the quality of the work the students have done on their movie. The students are free to edit without time constraints or technical concerns—they have a week to cut a scene that a professional editor might cut in a day, and the support of the teaching staff means the students can focus on being creative and not how to make their editing system work properly. We always tell the filmmakers that, when the class is over, they will have to hire a professional editor to put the film together and adjust the scenes to make a fully coherent product, but they always end up taking inventive and creative pieces from every scene. The students almost always find moments or juxtapositions that the filmmakers say they would never have thought of or discovered on their own.