The question of
where a film is “written”—in
the script, on the set or in the editing room—has forever been
a favorite debate amongst cineastes. But one fact not in question
is that no decent film can be completed without the dedication of
a talented, insightful editor who understands that once the cameras
are put away, the most challenging work often still lies ahead. Crafting
a meaningful story out of thousands of feet of imperfect film or
tape is a daunting task, even if you’ve won an Oscar for doing
just that. Some of the industry’s foremost editors recently
spoke with us about the hurdles they face in the cutting room,
and how they overcome these struggles.
|Jesse Peretz’s The Château,
starring Paul Rudd and edited by Steve Hamilton; Ron Howard’s The Missing, with Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones, edited
by Dan Hanley; and Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men, starring
Nicolas Cage and Sam Rockwell, edited by Dody Dorn.
What’s the biggest challenge i face in the editing
room? Autonomy. I choose to look out for the director. Moviemaking
is an expensive
medium for creative types and you can be encumbered by studio executives,
bean counters and committees watching over your shoulder. Sure, the
bottom line is important. But an editor works better with
a director who maintains his or her autonomy. Everyone who
contributes to a filmmaker’s vision, from the casting director to
the DP to the production designer and eventually the editor, can
appreciate working in an atmosphere that’s open and relaxed. And
that is why I like to encourage more independent films with budgets
that don’t exceed the GNP of a small nation.
—Stephen Mack (Assassination Tango, The Apostle)
|“Challenge every convention,” says editor Martin
Walsh who, along with star Catherine Zeta-Jones, won an Oscar
for his work on Chicago.
I would say the biggest problem i face in the
cutting room these days is finding assistants who are familiar
with film. It will obviously
become less of a problem as film is phased out. But right now, in
this transitional period, I find myself feeling that the foundation
of the cutting room is a little shaky and I can’t let myself stop
worrying and concentrate on cutting as much as I used to. I’m very
happy with the level of digital support I get from assistants and
find that I’m totally comfortable knowing only how to cut (and not
organize/set up/digitize) in a digital format. I’m really happy to
leave the rest to the assistants and I have a tremendous amount of
confidence in them.
I also find that, because digital culture
gives everyone access to everything, there’s less respect or
reverence for the filmed footage. That is a somewhat intangible difference
between film and digital technology, but it makes for different
attitudes about the material, the performances, the hegemony of
the director and the privacy and sanctity of the cutting room.
(Can you tell I was raised Catholic?)
—Mary Sweeney (Mulholland Drive, The Straight Story)
An editor I once stood behind told me that you
should never cut into a panning shot and that you couldn’t cut together two panning
shots traveling in opposite directions. I believed him for a while,
which made my first couple of days in news editing quite difficult.
So don’t accept that there are rules. In editing, the whole
point is to challenge every convention.
—Martin Walsh (The Thunderbirds, Chicago)
It’s always a challenge to craft a subtle performance that feels
real and dramatic and works to tell the story. There are narrative
obligations and problems to solve that can be challenging, but getting
the acting right and creating characters is always the most interesting
part. So much of a performance is dependent on editing, and ultimately
it’s that performance that tells the emotional story. One false step, one
moment of bogus behavior or a bad line reading can sink a scene.
It’s delicate work, very detailed work, but that’s the part I live
—Jeffrey Ford (Shattered Glass, One Hour Photo)
|Sofia Coppola’s Lost
in Translation, starring
Bill Murray and edited by Sarah Flack; Billy Ray’s Shattered
Glass, with Rosario Dawson, Cas Anvar and Steve Zahn, edited
by Jeffrey Ford.
To me, the biggest challenge is always the first
assembly, which is important because it makes our lives easier
and the director and
producer’s lives easier in terms of just keeping their sanity and
feeling secure. Because the first assembly is the foundation
you work from. There’s always the need to look for things
that you can lose, material you can do without, and to know why certain
things are actually necessary.
—Dan Hanley (The Missing, A Beautiful Mind)
Every film has different challenges, but one
that exists on every film is the need to see the footage objectively,
despite having to
watch it over and over. Sometimes one can choose the best takes,
but after a couple of months the editor and director might get tired
of that footage. Then there can be a tendency to start choosing alternate
takes that are not necessarily better, but may appear to be simply
because they’re new. I try to remember how I felt about the footage
when I saw it for the first time in dailies. I always note
any emotional reaction I have, as I’ll never have the experience
of that first-time reaction again. It’s important, because
it’s the same one that the viewer will have when watching the finished
film. It’s so essential to preserve that fresh perspective
for oneself as an editor. Seeing film dailies projected
instead of on videotape really helps with this.
—Sarah Flack (Lost in Translation, The Limey)
Ultimately, editors are storytellers. In one way or another, the
politics, the schedule, the budget and our lives at large can obscure
the goal: telling the best story possible. Keep your eye
on the ball—the story!
—Dody Dorn (Matchstick Men, Memento)
Nobody has any patience any more. We moved from
mail speed to FedEx speed to fax speed to e-mail speed. There’s no respect for process.
I make excuses for myself to watch all the footage in real time more
than once. It’s not easy, given the deadlines people impose and the
ease with which the computers allow you to scan past moments of seeming
nothingness. But there are jewels in the moments of undisciplined
dreck. In the past year I’ve included material filmed outside
of the context of the so-called “take” in almost every project I’ve
—Steve Hamilton (No Such Thing, The