Editor Geoffrey Richman’s credits include some of the most respected documentaries of the past few years. He lent his chopping skills to SiCKO, God Grew Tired of Us: The Story of Lost Boys in Sudan and Murderball, the last of which he and his editing team won the first ever Special Jury Prize in Editing at Sundance. Needless to say, the man is no slouch in the cutting room.
For Richman’s upcoming project, he has decided to deviate from the realm of docs. This new film, May the Best Man Win, is a comedy starring Horatio Sanz and Matt Walsh in which two best friends compete for the role of best man in their buddy’s wedding. He is also spending time teaching at The Edit Center, a New York film school where students learn from professional editors by collaborating on projects. In between these two gigs, Richman found time to answer some questions from MM, in which he discussed fictional narrative versus documentary, Avid versus Final Cut and Michael Moore versus everybody.
Andrew Gnerre (MM): You’ve been working as an editor since you graduated from NYU. How did you decide you wanted to work in that part of the moviemaking process?
Geoffrey Richman (GR): I actually started as an editor before NYU. I shot lots of short films in high school on history, mythology, aliens, serial killers, that sort of thing (often in place of writing papers for class), and someone had to put the footage together. It was at NYU that I started editing other people’s films as well. That’s also when I started to see that editing is more than just putting footage together. One of the first short films I edited for a friend at NYU was called The Raven, and there was this scene where some creepy guy brushes by the main character on the street. Was it his imagination or was it real? With the difference of just a few frames—when to cut to the extreme wide shot of him standing alone on the street—we could make that decision in the editing room. (It was his imagination). Certainly not the best work from either me or the director (I edited his first feature years later), but moments like that continue to be what makes editing so exciting for me—discovering the small trims, swaps, or cuts, that have a much larger effect on the overall film, in what the audience perceives and how they feel throughout the movie.
MM: You’ve worked on both documentaries and fictional narratives. What are the main differences in the editing processes? Do you prefer one over the other?
GR: Well obviously the main difference is that there’s no script in editing a documentary, so you spend the first few weeks or months just organizing the raw footage into assemblies of scenes and moments and ideas, and then seeing what you have and what’s worth putting into the first cut. You have a general idea of what the film is about and a best guess at what the structure should be, but it’s really a discovery process on a documentary. With so much footage to pull from, it’s hard to be sure of where it all fits and where you’re going with it—what you thought was a great scene at the beginning of the edit ends up being generic B-roll, and what you thought was a boring B-roll shot ends up being an emotional turning point in the film.
While that can be extremely frustrating, it also means you have a lot more freedom in dramatically altering the story and direction of a film. In a fictional narrative, the story is pretty much what you have in the script. A lot can change in the editing but there’s always that base. That said, the best part of the process exists in both formats—the trial-and-error of dealing with the overall structure. You watch the first cut and see all the problems with the film, you recut a scene or shift things around to try to fix it, then you watch it again, see new problems, go back to the way you had it, recut some other things and then, over time, the problems get smaller and smaller and you enjoy watching it more and more. Then the deadline comes and you’re done. So while what’s available to you during the process is very different in the two, in the end you’re dealing with the same basic challenges—pacing, clarity, emotion, dramatic build, etc.
MM: With your documentary work, is it difficult—from an editing standpoint—to focus on presenting the facts and events fairly and objectively when you have an opinion on the matter one way or the other?
GR: Sometimes. But it’s a bit misleading to suggest that you don’t edit your (or an) opinion into the movie. Even if it is a documentary, the film still has a point of view and its own story to tell and that definitely sways how I’ll cut a scene. There are times when I’ve gone too far and cut a scene to match a certain mood, whether it’s to be funny or sad or whatever, just because it fit the 3×5 card structure-of-the-day better that way. But mostly that only holds up until we watch the whole movie and this awkward forced moment is jammed in between two otherwise natural scenes. Then we undo it and spend the next week figuring out how to make it work more honestly. That said, in working so hard to construct an emotional flow that works well for the film, it’s always a huge bonus when the people in the documentary see it for the first time and react positively. Sort of the final seal of approval that I didn’t overreach.
MM: On that same note, is it hard to stay interested and inspired while cutting something in which you have no interest or attachment to? How does that come into play when choosing a project?
GR: Yes! That’s why I only edit projects I’m interested in! When you commit to editing a film, whether it’s narrative or documentary, you’re in it for the long haul. It’s going to be months of tedious organizing, spinning wheels, embarrassing screenings and dead ends. Not to mention that even if you are lucky enough to be in the editing room only 10 hours a day, the footage follows you home at night and rattles around in your head… lying in bed, taking a shower, riding the subway back the next morning… No surprise that some of the best eureka moments happen outside the editing room. And all that agony and depression and sleepless nights only works if the subject matter inspires you, and deep down you know that the film is interesting and can work in the end.
MM: You worked with Michael Moore on SiCKO. The man obviously has many detractors, some of whom label him as a propagandist moviemaker. Many factors that would lead one to make this claim lie in how his films are edited. Was this something you gave thought to while working on the film? How much of a presence was Moore during the process?
GR: No, it really wasn’t difficult to honestly portray the horrors of our healthcare system! Sadly, the hardest part of editing SiCKO was figuring out which of the hundreds of stories we had about insurance denials, corporate greed and political revolving doors we could fit into a two-hour movie. Not how can we use editing tricks to make it look like our for-profit healthcare system is a mess. We actually spent months trying to fit in a whole section on the pharmaceutical industry, but ended up leaving out everything but the creation of Medicare Part D because the film was running over 3 1/2 hours long, and Part D kind of said it all.
Michael was very clear early on that he didn’t want SiCKO to be just a movie about healthcare, but rather about our society and how we treat each other as people. From day one, he had a general outline of the film in his head. Of course it was very different from what we ended up with, but it was a good guide to get started. In the beginning, he was more hands-off, screening individual scenes or character selects to decide which ones we should follow up on, but for the most part letting us figure out the best way to edit sections together. Then as we starting working out a structure for the overall film, and he wasn’t shooting as much, he was a lot more involved in the reordering of scenes, writing voiceover and adding the layer of comedy it desperately needed.
MM: One of the films you edited, If I Didn’t Care, was cut at The Edit Center with the help of students. How was that process? Is it helpful having different perspectives from students who may be entirely new to the editing process?
GR: I started editing If I Didn’t Care right after The Edit Center class finished with it, so I didn’t get to work with the students. I was, however, given a Final Cut Pro project that had their full rough cut of the film and all the versions of their scenes, which was a huge help. It’s not on every film that you can pull up two or three alternate versions that you didn’t cut just to get ideas. Also, by the time I started, the directors had already worked with the students on that first cut, so they were already very familiar with the footage and what problems to look out for both in the footage and in the overall film. And if we were ever stuck trying to fix something, we could refer back to the students’ scenes to see if that would spark an idea or, in some cases, solve the problem.
MM: Your next film, May the Best Man Win, is a comedy—which seems to be a bit of a departure from the rest of your filmography. Did it feel that way to you when you were working on the project? Do you consciously seek out projects that are “different” from your documentary beginnings? Is there one type of film that you’re dying to work on?
GR: For the most part, I’m just looking for things that interest me. I like both doc and fiction for the different experiences they offer, so I try not to stay on one side of the fence for too long. After four docs, it was a nice change of pace doing a fictional comedy. Right now I’m more focused on finding good narratives to edit, but after a couple of those I’ll be looking for a good doc again. Above all though, it’s what the film is about. So if there was a doc that really interested me now, I’d have a hard time ignoring it.