|Don Cheadle and Ryan Gosling star in The
United States of Leland.
Every editor’s career path is different. For some,
it takes years of apprenticing and assisting to get a first big
break. For others, it’s about who you know-or being in the right
place at the right time. For editor Jeff Betancourt, it all started
with a phone call. Still a student when he was hired to cut his
first film, Miguel Arteta’s Star Maps, Betancourt has gone
on to make quite a name for himself in the indie film world. He
worked again with Arteta on both Chuck & Buck and The
Good Girl, and he’s worked on such high profile projects as Billy’s
Hollywood Screen Kiss and Matthew Ryan Hoge’s upcoming The
United States of Leland, starring Ryan Gosling, Jena Malone,
Don Cheadle and Kevin Spacey.
From the cutting room of his latest project, the comedy Harold
and Kumar go to White Castle, Betancourt spoke with MM about
his launch into the industry, building relationships and why
it’s always better to go into battle with someone you feel comfortable
Jennifer Wood (MM): How did you first get into editing?
Jeff Betancourt (JB): I went to USC’s graduate film school
and while I was there I fell in love with the process of editing.
It was the one thing that I really couldn’t do that well when I
first started; everything else sort of came naturally. A lot of
my professors would say “Jeff, that film you did was really good,
but the editing just wasn’t quite there.” Once that stuck in my
brain, I wanted to really figure out what editing was about and
what it takes to make a film work.
MM: How did you land your first feature?
JB: I directed a short film in school
with an actress named Annette Murphy, who was in the first film
that I edited, Miguel
Arteta’s Star Maps. At the time Miguel didn’t have an editor-he
was sort of between editors. They weren’t able to pay much of anything,
so he couldn’t retain an editor for very long. He happened to be
looking for someone and Annette gave me a call. I was just about
to graduate and she thought it would be a great first thing to
do, and I agreed.
So I cut Star Maps for Miguel and it
was an amazing experience all around. It was a great learning
process, to see what could
be done in the editing room-how you could make a film so much better.
Miguel will even admit this, too it: they re-shot like a third
of that film and we really worked on restructuring it. We worked
on taking a film that he had a lot of problems with and making
something that he felt very happy with-elevating it a lot in the
process of editing and just trying to make everything really work
together. And then it went to Sundance and all of a sudden I had
a career where a few months before I had nothing!
MM: Was that the film that taught
you the most about the possibilities of editing-and how important
a process it is to the final product?
JB: Definitely. It showed that you really
get out of it what you put in. Miguel was very inspiring in how
he was striving
to always work harder-and that’s what I bring to other projects.
With Miguel, we’re constantly pushing each other. We realize that
it’s always difficult to let go of a project because you realize
how much you can accomplish if you just keep working at the material.
You can really make something great out of something that might
just be good. But if you apply that extra effort to it. Star
Maps taught me so much about that.
MM: You’ve worked with Miguel on
three films now-Star
Maps, Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl. When you’re
working with the same director on multiple projects, how do you
keep things fresh-and make sure that you’re challenging yourself
in some way with each subsequent film?
JB: I think it all goes back to the
script. I guess the scripts, on the surface, could seem very
similar, but Miguel and
I have always been attracted to the same projects. In a lot of
ways, as opposed to looking at it as potentially being “stale,” we
look at it as if we’re going into battle-and you always want someone
you are very comfortable with going into battle with you.
Also, we’ve gone apart and learned a lot. I’ve cut other films
and Miguel has worked on scripts and developed other projects,
and we’ve both been able to bring all of those experiences to the
table. So, in a lot of ways, when we get back together, it’s about
50 percent familiarity and comfort and the 50 percent ‘Wow, where
have you been? What have you been learning?’ There are ideas we
never would have thought of six months ago, but now that we’re
together again we can learn and try all these new things that we’ve
MM: How do you generally choose these other projects?
JB: It’s really in reading the script. I’ve been fortunate
in that the jobs that I am able to take are films where you just
read the script and say ‘I want to see this movie.’ Or ‘I want
to be a part of this.’ It’s kind of an intangible thing, but you
really do feel that way. You read a lot of scripts and think ‘It’s
an okay movie, but it’s not necessarily the kind of thing that
I want to go and see.’ But when you come across those projects
where you just know that it’s a movie you want to see, you just
kind of go from there.
MM: How did you get involved with The United States
JB: It’s actually kind of a funny story.
My agent, Hilarie Roope, has a partner who tends to rep bigger
clients; Hillary tends
to rep more independent film people and he tends to rep bigger
studio people. And I think the producers of The United States
of Leland had sent the script to the other agent hoping to
get some bigger name talent going in there. Hilarie’s assistant
saw the script come across the desk and said “You know, this is
the kind of project that Jeff should really be going up for.” So
they sent my resume in and the director happened to be a big fan
of Chuck & Buck and so really, off of that, called me
You know, a lot of people ask me “Is it really necessary to have
an agent?” and you’re always going back and forth. But in this
case, she was really great. That whole pool of talent that was
there really was helpful to me when I was when of those names that
MM: Do you think that you will tend to continue working
within the realm of independent films, or would you eventually
like to try your hand at a big-budget, studio project?
JB: I don’t really have any problem with a big budget project.
Again, it really goes back to the script. Miguel and I always have
this same conversation because the independent film world has been
great, but there are certain monetary constraints. And every once
in a while a project will come along where you say ‘This really
does need a bigger budget.’
Also, in independent film, you’re always sort of cutting corners.
And a lot of times it’s the assistant editors who really struggle
and who are making a sacrifice to work on a film where they’re
not getting paid that much. So it’s nice to be able to pay everyone
up and down the line.
I like going back and forth between [independent
and studio films]-I’ve
kind of seen that as my dream. To cut that big budget film so that
I can then cut a couple of smaller films and then go back and do
a bigger one again.
MM: In addition to editing, as a student, you also wrote
and directed a number of short films. How does having an overall
knowledge of the moviemaking process help you as an editor in
your day-to-day work?
JB: A lot of it helps with communication,
especially nowadays with the AVID. You’re able to do so much in the editing system.
It used to seem-whether it was the sound work or the visual effects-everything
used to be very separate when you were cutting on a flatbed. But
now you have the ability to do more and more. And more and more
people are having the expectation that the cut of a film is going
to be more polished-it’s going to have sound, color correction
and all these things that go with the traditional arc of the film,
not just what used to be traditional “cutting.” So my knowledge
of these aspects becomes more important.
Even in terms of talking with a director, if the director has
a question for me about performance or how the performances are
cutting together, just having the language and the ability to talk
to them about those sorts of subjects is great.
MM: Are you looking to bring this experience into the
feature film market as a director yourself?
JB: Eventually I would like to direct
something. I think it’s coming across that right script at the
Editing has been an amazing learning experience.
so much from all the directors I’ve worked with that you just constantly
feel yourself building up this pool of knowledge. And I do think
that at some point it will be great to sort of express what I’ve
learned. But right now I’ve been offered so many great projects
that editing seems to be going exactly the way I want it to go.