Director/Editor: South Main
Back in late 2004, I started work on South Main, my first feature documentary. The film follows three single African American mothers, struggling to raise their families after being evicted from an apartment complex in South Los Angeles. This was a truly independent project: I financed it myself, shot it myself, and edited it myself. Although documentary filmmaking is technically more “objective” than narrative filmmaking, in that you observe, rather than invent, it’s easy to get so emotionally involved with your subjects that you can’t establish enough distance to edit the footage you’ve shot of them.
My goal was, simply, to show what these women’s lives were like, without sensationalizing or sentimentalizing them—as many social-issue films do. One of the primary ways I achieved this was by filming with a single camera, locked-off in wide, well-composed, static shots. I knew that I wanted the photography, and later the editing, to exude a patient, aesthetic rigor.
But maintaining objectivity wasn’t always easy. There were aspects of my subject’s lives that I related to on such a deeply personal level that I sometimes felt I couldn’t remain detached. My own mother lives in poverty, in part because of decisions she’s made, and in part because of the collapse of the social institutions around her. And every time I looked at one of these women in South L.A., I saw my own mother’s plight reflected in their situations. I wish my mother could make better choices, and accordingly, I wanted my documentary subjects to make better choices. All these women are victims of a society that has abandoned them, but that doesn’t mean they’re allowed to verbally abuse their children.
In my darker days, when I thought I was losing control of the project, I considered introducing a number of subjective elements—including voiceover. If not for my filmmaker friends who watched early cuts and gave me objective advice while I was still shooting (I shot footage and edited simultaneously), I wouldn’t have made the film I made. You need reliable feedback throughout the process. After all is said and done, you can’t make a personal documentary if you don’t love your subjects, but you can’t make a good documentary if you let your emotions govern all your editing decisions.
Director/Editor: Starlet; Prince of Broadway; Take Out
Editing my own films is extremely important to me. This may upset a few directors, but in my staunch opinion: Editing is 50 percent of directing. An editor’s cutting decisions make just as much creative impact on the film as the director’s decisions on acting and composition. That’s why I believe that a director who isn’t editing his or her own film should acknowledge the editor as either a co-director, or at the very least, a directing consultant.
You can make the argument that an editor brings a fresh perspective and objective point of view to the table. I won’t argue with that. But again, that fresh objective deserves directing credit in my eyes. On the other hand, it’s true that a director editing on his or her own may not be capable of separation—may not be able to “kill the darlings.” I’m probably guilty of this. However, I do my best to be very aware of running time and audiences’ attention spans. And I have learned over the course of four features and a long running television series that no one, including myself, ever misses those killed darlings.
For better or worse, I always use the initial festival premiere screening as my test audience. An audience comprised of friendly peers won’t be honest, but a festival audience will be. I trimmed Take Out by five minutes after its festival premiere. Prince of Broadway lost approximately two minutes following its first screening. And my most recent feature, Starlet, I trimmed by one minute 45 seconds after it opened at SXSW. The amount I’ve cut from each successive feature has decreased from film to film, which means I’m either getting more stubborn, or (I hope), I’m learning to anticipate my audiences’ reception before the film is even screened. MM
This article first appeared in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2013 issue.