By Amy Leland
We live in very interesting times. Specifically, when an 85-year-old Supreme Court justice has become a viral sensation. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Notorious RBG, the queen of the dissent, is the subject of memes, t-shirts and coffee mugs. She has earned the ardent following of a younger generation that sees her as a somewhat-unlikely pop icon and an inspirational figure.
She is also now the subject of an equally surprising documentary, called RBG. When one thinks of a film about a Supreme Court justice, it would be easy to assume the result would be something mostly academic and serious. But RBG is delightfully entertaining and funny, and unexpectedly emotional and touching.
After seeing the movie, I had the additional pleasure of speaking with the film’s editor, Carla Gutierrez, about the story and how she and the rest of the creative team brought it to life.
How did you become an editor?
I went to grad school to study film. I had a big interest in the production of art and social issue stuff, and I was watching on a lot of documentaries after college. I applied to grad school, and I quickly realized that the stress of producing wasn’t for me. I started gravitating toward the craft of editing, and I just loved it so much.
It’s interesting because there are a lot of editors that ultimately want to jump into the director’s role, but I never had the desire to do that. I love the collaboration that happens in the edit. I feel really lucky to be doing this kind of work, and to get a project like this… I’m incredibly lucky.
How did you end up focused on documentary work?
Before getting into film, I knew I wanted to focus on documentaries. I knew that a very structured educational setup always worked best for me. There are a lot more now that focus on non-fiction, but at the time there were fewer. So I went to the Stanford graduate documentary program, which is a very small program. And we were taught to be a one-person band: produce, develop and do everything on your own.
Before I got into actual filmmaking, I didn’t really have any experience. The biggest lessons I learned, and that I still learn, are from watching all the films. Whenever I need to get inspired or to be shaken up a little bit, or think about things in a different way, I go back to film.
How did you end up involved in RBG?
Somebody at CNN Films recommended me to the directors, Julie Cohen and Betsy West. We met, and from the first email exchange, I knew I really wanted this job. I was lucky because I was working on another film that also had a lot of interview and archival material. They seemed to like it, and they hired me.
The film is surprisingly funny, both because of how much everyone talks about how funny her husband is, but also how witty she is. When I see a job for something that’s comedic, they almost always say editors must have experience working in comedy. Did you find that it required a different skill set?
You do have to think about rhythm — to give people time to actually react to things. But I think it’s very similar to the way I tackle all the work that I do. I pay attention when I’m watching the footage early on. I pay attention to what makes me laugh, and to the things that make me feel something. Then I build around those moments.
That was the same with this film. I remember watching the Saturday Night Live imitation of her — I don’t know how many times that day — because it was so incredibly funny. RBG cracked up when she watched Kate McKinnon’s impression for the first time. We played her laughing at it in a loop for a whole day. It makes me so happy, and you have to laugh. When we watched the interview with her high school classmates, it was really clear that these moments made us giggle.
I’m as aware as I can be when I am watching the dailies for whatever touches me — whether it’s a sad moment, an emotional moment or funny moment — and I try really hard to make room for that in the film.
I’m happy her husband was such an important part of the story. The way you kept weaving him throughout showed the important role he played in supporting her through everything — it was really beautiful.
Again, you just have to remember what moves you when you see the dailies. There is a moment in the confirmation hearing, his reaction when she’s speaking about him, and he’s smiling and just kind of looking down. That was the moment where it felt like he needed to be completely central to the story. We had a very clear idea that we had a great love story, so that needed to be very present in the film. When I saw that, and when he touches her hair when she got confirmed, I thought, “Okay, its not only the love story, its not only something that we have to touch on, but its something we can beautifully see in the footage.”
Did you feel a sense of responsibility making a film about a person who’s still alive, and also someone who is such an important person in the world right now?
It was an interesting time. They started shooting the film before the election, so people in the interviews were aware, and they were reflecting on what was going on.
Also we were leading to the first days of the #metoo movement when we were editing the film. So there was definitely a sense of responsibility. But with every story you do, you have to have a focus. And when they shot this film, they had a very sharp focus on her work toward the advancement of women’s rights. She has been involved in so many more cases, and there’s so much more about her life that just didn’t make sense to put in this particular story.
As I was working on the film, I found a new, deeper understanding of what women were going through, only about 50, 40 or even 30 years ago. I hope that shines through in the story that we told. Academically, I understood the women’s movement, and I understood the kind of inequality that people experienced, but working on this film really made me feel emotionally close to that reality. I hope that we’re doing that for the audience.
The sense of responsibility was very strong throughout the entire process. When we were getting close to the premiere, it was the first time that the Justice was going to see the film. We were very nervous about how she was going to react. It was like we had an audience of one in that theater that first time, and we were all looking at her while she was watching the film. She really loved it. I think we did justice to the Justice, as Betsy West likes to say. I think that we portrayed her life the way that she would have liked it to be told.
Not only is this a film about a pioneer of women’s rights, but you also had a creative team that was entirely female. How did that affect the experience of making this particular film?
I think that we all came with immense amounts of respect for the subject matter, because the subject matter has to do with our lives. I knew her as Notorious RBG and The Dissenter. Then I discovered what she had done for all of us in the ‘70s. So there was a special sense of responsibility, but also respect toward the subject matter that we were working on.
There was a special sense of pride when you’re working next to women who have achieved so much already. It was a great learning opportunity for me to work with Julie and Betsy. I gained so much from that collaboration and seeing how they work and how they carry themselves. Being on an all-female team, doing a female-centered film… yeah, it was a really rewarding and special experience.
To get a little more technical, what software did you use to cut the film?
We edited in Adobe Premiere Pro. This was a film with a lot of archival material, and it was like a puzzle, with lots of tiny pieces. We had a large amount of material, and the way my mind works, I throw a lot of clips in my timeline. I find Premiere to be incredibly simple, but it also has a lot of complexity — you can do a lot with it. With a film like this, which is kind of massive, it also opens up a lot of simplicity to be able to navigate that… placing the material really quickly and easily.
Also, I work with an amazing associate editor — Grace Mendenhall. I like to be very organized at the beginning because that speeds up the process as you keep going. We were very, very careful at the beginning with our media organization and our workflow.
In the credits, you had an online assistant listed, but no assistant editor. Instead, you worked with an associate editor? Was that relationship different than the traditional editor/assistant editor one?
Grace actually set up the project as our assistant editor. She was doing all of the organizing of the media at the very beginning. I started like that. I actually started as a translator for a film that had an incredibly generous and experienced editor. To me it’s really important to be able to give opportunities to people who are serious, and people who really want to learn about the process.
From the moment we met, that’s something that we talked about. Grace really wanted to be in the room and learn from the process, so she quickly moved from doing only assistant editing work to handling scenes. She would also give me notes on the work that I was doing. Just like the film’s all-female team of collaborators, we had that with the post process, but with the two of us.
What would be your advice to somebody who wanted to get started in the world of documentary editing?
Find a mentor. I think tenacity is the main thing. It’s asking to be present in the room. That is really important for people who are just starting out. If they have a lot of technical knowledge, that’s really great, but I’ve heard a lot of people get stuck in the assistant editor position. Yes, you need to know how to use the program, but you really need to understand the decisions you are making with all of these technical resources that you have. And that comes from learning about storytelling. Long-form documentary storytelling is a bit of a beast; you’re talking about hours and hours of footage, and you’re writing the film for the first time in the edit room. There can be numerous films within that footage.
I learned editing by being around all the time, by being quiet and respectful. Then they would ask for my opinion, and I would give my opinion, and I could see how people think about structure and long-form story telling.
The worst thing that you can get from asking to be in the room is a “no,” but if you get in the room, you can learn and absorb so much from just being present during the process.
Amy Leland is a film director and editor. Her short film, “Echoes”, is now available on Amazon Video. She also has a feature documentary in post, a feature screenplay in development, and a new doc in pre-production. She is an editor for CBS Sports Network and recently edited the feature “Sundown.” You can follow Amy on social media on Twitter at @amy-leland and Instagram at @la_directora.