Editor Norman Hollyn
Editor Norman Hollyn

When it comes to the craft of motion picture editing,
Norman Hollyn is one of the masters. In addition to his work in the
editing room (both as a sound and film editor), Hollyn’s found an
entirely separate career teaching the dos and don’ts of his job.
A current professor of film editing as USC, Hollyn has also taken
to the classrooms of UCLA and the American Film Institute—as
well as penned the book The Film Editing Room Handbook: How To
Manage The Near Chaos of the Cutting Room
(the title says it

A current professor of film editing as USC, Hollyn has also taken to the classrooms of UCLA and the American Film Institute—as well as penned the book The Film Editing Room Handbook: How To Manage The Near Chaos of the Cutting Room (the title says it all). Still, even after working under the tutelage of such legendary moviemakers as Francis Ford Coppola, Arthur Penn and Alan Pakula among his teachers, Hollyn’s not satisfied yet. Here, he gives MM readers—and aspiring editors—a quick glimpse of what you can learn both in and out of the classroom.

Jennifer Wood (MM): You’ve been working steadily as an editor now for 30 years. What was the main thing that originally attracted you to the editing room—and has kept you there?

Norman Hollyn (NH): When I first started making my own movies in college (I was a theater major, mostly because the university I was in didn’t have a film program), I shot a silent a film and took the 16mm dailies into the editing room one Saturday morning at 10 a.m. I worked for a few hours and then stepped outside to find that it was night—I had worked all day and it had only seemed like a few hours! I totally got into the crafting and recrafting of a story using my footage. I guess I could say that’s what keeps me in editing. I’m continually re-learning how to do it. It’s always new and fascinating. Every film has different issues and, usually, different people. It’s no wonder that most editors work 12 hours a day—it’s never boring.

MM: In terms of the craft, many people claim that—like writing— editing is something that cannot be "taught." Yet you have taught editing at UCLA, USC and AFI—and even written a book on the topic. How do you weigh in on the argument? Do you think there is a difference in learning the technology and learning the "craft" (the rhythm, intuition, etc.)

NH: I was just talking about this with one of my students at USC yesterday. I firmly believe that you can teach editing, but that (as a student) you can’t really learn it unless you’re predisposed to it. You have to have a certain personality to edit well, someone who liked to solve puzzles, to pick apart something that may be working fine and try to make it work great. But, having said that, I find that what you can teach (aside from the technology, which really isn’t even worth talking much about—it’s just a bunch of tools to get your creative work done) is how to think like an editor: how to approach a written scene, or a ton of footage, and figure out how best to tell the story that the film wants to tell. That’s the core of what we’re doing at USC, helping people to find ways to tell the stories that they’re burning to tell. Can we help them to see how thinking like an editor can do that for them? You bet. I’ve seen it time and time again.

MM: How do you define the "craft" of editing? What do you see as the elements and/or characteristics that go into the job?

NH: What we’re doing here is telling stories—whether that story is contained in a four-minute rock video, a reality-based documentary, a narrative feature film or a 30-second commercial. It’s all about effective storytelling; taking the audience on the journey that you, as the filmmaker, want them to take. To that end, an editor needs to be very detail-oriented. He or she needs to be able to solve puzzles. An editor also needs to be able to leave his or her ego at the door—you can’t preciously hold onto a previous idea or edit, even if you did spend all day on it. That leads to another point: less than 50 percent of what I do is strictly about putting shots together. Most of my job is about developing relationships—with the material I’m editing, and with the people I’m working with, so they trust the way in which I’m putting those shots together.

MM: What do you recommend as the best way for an aspiring editor to learn the job and get his or her foot in the door of the industry?

NH: Edit. Direct. Write. Act. As I mention in my book, moving up in this business is partly a matter of luck, but it’s also making the choice to put yourself in situations where luck can work on you. It’s about developing a series of skills—as an assistant and as an editor—and a series of friends who can act as your support group. The students here at USC are learning storytelling, sure; but they are also developing a large network of people who they’ve shared a bond with. Once people know that they can trust you with their movies (and that you can trust them with… well… everything), then it’s much easier to break into the business, no matter what part of the business you want to get into.

MM: How did you get your own foot in the door—how did you land your first professional job?

NH: A student filmmaker at the Columbia University graduate film program was doing a short film at a high school nearby the university I was going to. He called my school, which, as I mentioned, didn’t really have a film program, to ask for PA help. When the lone film professor announced it in one of the two film courses, I was the first one to the phone after class, and I got the non-paying gig. He called me directly on the next short he did and when he started getting paying work he brought me along as his set PA. I volunteered to work as an assistant in his editing room for free and when one of his editors was hired to work on the Bob Fosse movie Lenny, she asked me to come along with her.

See? That’s what I mean when I say that I put myself in a position where luck could work on me. Had I not run to the phone first out of class, had I not quickly agreed to work as set PA (and, by the way, assistant sound) again the second year and had I not volunteered to work in Karl’s editing room, I would never have met Kathy and gone on to Lenny.

MM: Enthusiasm always counts, doesn’t it. With today’s changing technology—and the wide availability of computer desktop editing technologies—it seems that the whole process of apprenticing and assisting is becoming less important to wannabe editors. Besides the obvious benefits of having an experienced editor teaching you the ropes, why else do you feel it’s important that young editors spend the time assisting more experienced ones?

NH: Editors talk about this all of the time: how is the next generation of thoughtful, knowledgeable editors going to come along when they’re not standing next to you in the editing room, sopping up knowledge? It’s really a two-fold problem. One is trying to convince up-and-coming editors that this mentorship process is valuable. That’s only going to happen when these wannabe editors see that the people who are getting and staying in editing jobs are those who are prepared for it—both technically and politically. I’ve heard horror stories about “computer assistants” who didn’t know a thing about the politics of the editing room and got the editor in deep trouble by telling the director what they thought of his film. I’d rather hire a people-savvy assistant over a computer-savvy one any day of the week. And that kind of knowledge of editing room protocol can only come from a mentorship, with someone who can guide them.

The second part of the problem is finding a place for this mentorship to happen. Even though, with digital editing, it should be easier than ever for assistant editors to create alternate cuts for editors to discuss, it really isn’t. Schedules are too tight, budgets are too tight and time is too tight. The place for that mentorship has really been passed onto college programs taught by committed professionals like myself. I know that the students who I work with go into the industry much more capable than people who don’t have that background.

MM: Who would you say has been the most influential person in your own career—either professionally or aesthetically?

NH: I’d have to say that my first influences were people like Stanley Kubrick and Walt Disney. I worked as an usher in a movie theater back in the days when they had such things, and I got to watch the same scenes from the same movies over and over again. I became conscious of how shots were put together. But it was the storytelling prowess of Kubrick, Buñuel, Antonioni, Coppola and people like that who first sucked me in. Then, later, it was editors like Alan Heim, Gerry Hambling, Dede Allen and Jerry Greenberg who turned me on to the possibilities of great editing. The editors who I worked with as I was starting in New York, like Alan Heim and Gerry Hambling, truly opened up a world of possibilities for me.

MM: You’ve worked with such an acclaimed group of auteurs—from Arthur Penn to Francis Ford Coppola. Who have been the directors that taught you the most? Specifically, what lessons have they taught you?

NH: I was a music editor for a number of years and got to work on set with Penn and Coppola. I also got to do a short film that Al Pacino co-directed and worked tightly with him on re-editing, story writing and character building. These people graciously allowed me to attend rehearsals or to observe their working process with actors. These experiences greatly informed how to tell a story with film—on both an aesthetic and a practical level.

I’ll never forget watching Arthur work out a problem scene on the set of Four Friends and seeing him create footage that he’d shape later in the editing room. I learned how a little camera move is often better than a larger one, how to find story beats in a scene that you’d later build with the edited footage, and how to reconcile intent with reality. Now, when I edit, and the director and I aren’t happy with what’s happening, I always go back to the question “What did we originally want this scene to do, within the context of the entire film?” I also was able to see how Arthur and Francis dealt with their films’ problems later in the editing—how to be free with dialogue and scene structure.

MM: How have you applied these lessons throughout your career—and passed them onto those you’ve been able to assist, either in the classroom or editing room?

NH: I think that what I’ve learned is that no shot or scene is so precious that it can’t be changed or lost later on; that the editing process is really a reshaping one. I’ve also learned that it’s really easy to lose yourself in the specifics of getting a character from one side of the room to the other and that the audience doesn’t usually give a damn if they’re captivated by the story. If you remember what you wanted any particular scene to do back when it was only in the script, then you can change the scene 100 ways in the editing room and not lose that intent. That helps you to tell your story without letting the mechanics get in your way.