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If it weren’t for Dede Allen, some of the world’s best-known independent films would never exist… at least not as we know them today. For it was Allen, the legendary editor of such classics as The Hustler, Bonnie and Clyde, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, who made Amy Duddleston want to become an editor in the first place.
“I was initially drawn to the editing room because of an article I read about Dede Allen when I was a sophomore at The University of Arizona,” says Duddleston. “She talked about her job as an editor, and I thought it sounded like the most fascinating job in the world. I was studying journalism at the time, and was looking to change my major. After reading that article, I knew what I wanted to do—so I switched over to the tiny film program at my school.”
For movie fans everywhere, it’s fortunate that she did. Since landing her first job in the industry, Duddleston has gone on to collaborate with some of the independent world’s most well-known names—including Gus Van Sant and Lisa Cholodenko. Here, Duddleston speaks with MM about the misconceptions of the profession, how to play the industry game and how it all started with Revenge of the Nerds.
Jennifer Wood (MM): What was it, exactly, that attracted you most to the role of editor?
Amy Duddleston (AD): When I started getting into filmmaking, I knew the editing room was the place for me; I felt it was the place where the film was truly made. Also, I found I didn’t like working with actors, hated the hassle of setting up the camera and lighting… I guess I just hated the set in general. And in the editing room you’re left alone for long periods of time. It really suited me!
MM: How did you go about getting your foot in the door? How did you get your first “real” job?
AD: I got my foot in the door when I was still in college. I got a job as the editing room “intern” on Revenge of The Nerds, which was shooting on location at my school. It was actually a paid position and I worked five days a week in the cutting room for the editor and the assistant, sorting and reconstituting trims, making boxes, taking the film to dailies. I was their apprentice editor, basically, but since it was a union film, they couldn’t call me an apprentice. Anyway, that job got me started. I learned how a cutting room works and I got to hang out with the editor. I loved it.
MM: What do you think is the biggest misconception about what an editor does?
AD: I think today one of the biggest misconceptions about editing is that if you own Final Cut Pro or Avid DV Pro, you’re an editor. As someone who worked my way up from being an apprentice to becoming an editor, this really offends me. Owning a piece of equipment doesn’t make you an editor. People aren’t taking the time to learn the craft of editing. I’m very proud of the fact that I know my craft from the inside out, and I think it reflects in my work and makes directors confident in what I do. I’m still learning, too. Every film I work on gives me something new to draw from for future jobs.
MM: What was your own biggest misconception about what the job entailed?
AD: One of the biggest misconceptions I had starting out was that editing was just you and the director, together alone, working on the film. I never factored in the whole “producer” angle when I started out. You’re in the middle of what the director wants and what the producer wants as well. Trying to keep the producer happy while keeping the director happy ain’t easy, for sure. An editor is usually hired by the director, so your allegiance is with that person. But you want everyone to be happy, so often you’re stuck in the middle.
MM: In any film industry job, it’s great to have connections and forge lasting relationships with people. For example, your work with Gus Van Sant and Lisa Cholodenko. What is the greatest benefit of these kind of collaborations to your job in particular?
Having a lasting relationship with a director can make your job easier. I know what Lisa Cholodenko likes and dislikes in terms of performance, camera angles, etc. and when I’m putting together a cut, I’m confident that she’ll be happy with my choices. It was pretty much the same with Gus, too. He loves camera flares, nervous ad libs. There’s a sense of comfort when someone knows what you like and dislike.
MM: Can there also be a downside to working with the same director on multiple occasions?
AD: The only downside to having a lasting relationship is that you become an old married couple at times!
MM: Can you talk a little bit about your relationships with Van Sant and Cholodenko—how you first met and began to work with them and why you think those collaborations have continued?
AD: I first met Gus Van Sant when I was working as an assistant with his editor, Curtiss Clayton. I worked on three of Gus’ films as an assistant editor. The streak ended when I chose editing High Art over being an assistant on Good Will Hunting. But when I showed High Art to Gus when it was finished, he asked me to cut his remake of Psycho. My collaboration with Gus as an editor ended when he decided to edit his films himself. But we’re still friends, and I sometimes show him films I’m working on to get his feedback. He’s an amazing artist and he continues to inspire me. I loved working with him.
I met Lisa Cholodenko when we were both assistant editors, working on different films on the Fox lot. One day she said “I’m going to direct a film someday.” I said, ‘Cool, can I be the editor?’ She went off to Columbia University and we stayed in touch. I edited all of her student films and when she finished the script for High Art, she asked me if I would be interested in cutting it. Lisa is also an amazing artist; there are few writers who can write dialogue like she can, or who can evoke a sense of place in their writing. High Art was dripping with atmosphere when I read it—I was blown away. As far as why our collaboration has continued, I think she trusts me and knows I will do the best job I can for her.
MM: People always talk about how a film is really “written” in the editing room. Do you find a difference in working on projects with a writer-director versus someone who only served as director on a project?
AD: Yes, there is a big difference between working with a writer-director and someone who is directing a script written by someone else. A writer-director is very protective of their written words and more sensitive when a scene isn’t working. It’s really their baby, and you need to respect that. A director who didn’t write the script isn’t as attached to the dialogue, but it’s not to say they’re not as clingy to the film in other ways. If they composed a scene very carefully, it can be like pulling teeth to get them to 86 it if you think it’s not helping the film.
I do think a film is re-written in the cutting room. The film comes to me in pieces; it’s my job to put it together and make sense of all of those pieces. Some pieces don’t fit in the puzzle anymore—they made sense on the page but, “filmically,” they just don’t work.
MM: Your filmography reflects more of an “independent” sensibility when it comes to the work you choose. Is this a preference you show in the kind of films you choose to watch as well? Do you think that, as an editor, it is possible to enjoy working on one kind of film while, as a viewer, like to watch something completely different.
AD: I try and see as many kinds of films I can. I am more partial to smaller, character-driven dramas as a viewer and an editor, but there are days when I would love nothing more than to edit a big-budget romantic comedy starring Reese Witherspoon or Lindsay Lohan.
MM: When evaluating a new project, what is the first thing you look for in the material? Do you have an individual “test” or particular criteria you use in picking new projects?
AD: When I’m up for a job, the first things I look for in the material are: Is the script grabbing me, holding my interest, making me laugh, etc.? Are the characters fleshed out enough? If not, could this be a problem in the cutting room later? Once I’m past that, then the other test, of course, is meeting the director and seeing if we could actually be trapped in a small dark room comfortably together for months on end. Getting hired as an editor sometimes feels like it’s based more on personality than ability, but then again, I don’t want to end up working with someone I’m not going to get along with, either.
MM: If you had a choice between working on a project with only one of the following elements—a legendary director, a brilliant actor or an amazing script—which would you choose and why?
AD: I would choose an amazing script. You’ve heard it a million times before, but a good script is the foundation of a good film.
MM: Who would be some of your dream collaborators, in terms of directors, actors or screenwriters?
AD: Filmmakers I admire and would love to work with are Alexander Payne, Nicole Holofcener, Jim Jarmusch and Sofia Coppola, among others. Those people are also writers, as well. I’ve been so lucky to work with so many great actors, but I would like to work with Meryl Streep. She still amazes me.
MM: What are you working on next?
AD: I’m in that place called “in between jobs” at the moment. I hope to be working soon, however!