By Amy Leland
In 2004, Manhattan Edit Workshop began a four-week editing workshop for aspiring professional editors. In 2006, it became their six-week workshop. During the six weeks, the students receive training on the most-used editing tools of the industry. They are also given a chance to explore the art of editing. An important aspect of the workshop is the Artist in Residence. A successful professional editor visits the class to offer some insights into their own career, as well as look at the work the students are doing and provide them with some feedback.
Brian A. Kates was the artist in residence for the January/February 2018 workshop. He is an Emmy award-winning editor for his work on Taking Chance, as well as a two-time Eddie award winner for his work on Bessie and Lackawanna Blues. He is also known for his work on The Savages, Shortbus, Killing Them Softly, How to Talk to Girls at Parties and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
We recently reached out to him to find out more.
How did you become an editor? Was this something you wanted to do as a kid?
I had a very charismatic counselor at summer camp, named Cecily, who was an NYU student at the time. She taught little six to 12 year olds how to use a video camera and cut images together by playing from the camera and recording onto a deck. I became infatuated with the fact that you could control the story after the fact. The idea of the technology being at the forefront rather than a sidebar was exciting to me. I was a nerd. So just knowing how to use the equipment, knowing how to press the button at the right time… there’s a thing called roll-down time, which is the amount of time it takes between pressing the button and the recording happening. Knowing how to feel that rhythm… practicing until you could feel that rhythm intuitively without thinking about it was something I took pride in.
I was also into computers and programming and making games and little art pieces on my computer. It was all related. Eventually, I figured out how to plug my home video camera into my computer and record, or into my VCR, and then I could edit them. It was a little factory of creation. I was alone most of the time, which I liked because I was an introvert.
Did you follow a straight path from there to seeing it as a career?
I knew I wanted to go to NYU because my video counselor went to NYU. The three films schools at the time that were notable were USC, UCLA and NYU. I was from the East Coast. If I wanted to stay on the East Coast, I would try to go to NYU. And I was gay, and NYU was in Greenwich Village. So that was enticing as well.
And at NYU, did you specifically aim toward editing?
NYU really tries to groom writer/directors. You weren’t encouraged to focus on a craft. You had a cursory cinematography class, you had an acting class, you had a screenwriting class, as well as some cinema studies electives. I was much more excited by cinema studies than by production, and by cinema as a part of cultural studies. When I was a junior, I tried to steer my commitments toward editing other people’s films more than writing and directing my own. I didn’t even have enough of a strong script idea to get to that stage. I knew that I wanted to build films, which is editing.
I wanted to sit in that room with the Steenbeck and figure out how to stay in sync and figure out what sound fill is, and figure out what leader is, and figure out a mark with the grease pencil. These were very, very nuts and bolts skills that you needed to learn if you were going to edit movies. That was a lot of time and a lot of practice that I wouldn’t have been doing if I were writing.
Did you start working in films and editing right out of school?
I had a friend who was a PA and also working in the office at Christine Vachon’s production company, which subsequently became Killer Films. He introduced me to that office, and I worked for free answering phones there when I was a junior. I was a PA on a few films that year, but I really wanted to get into the editing room.
The film that Christine was producing with Lauren Zalaznick, which was shot between my junior year and senior year, was Todd Haynes’ Safe. It was shot in LA, but was cut in New York. And because I had been a set PA on other stuff that they shot in New York, I was able to just transfer that connection to getting into the cutting room. I met the first assistant editor, Sakae Ishikawa, who needed PAs to staff the editing room for Jim (editor James Lyons). It was mainly a job rewinding and reconstituting trims. Reconstituting is putting the trims back into the reel in order, so that any time you pick up a reel of dailies, all of the pieces that are not in the film are back in the dailies. You put something in, and then you have to replace it in the reel with fill, which keeps it in sync with a blank piece of film. If you take anything out of the movie, you have to put it back into the reel, take out the fill and put back in the actual film. It takes at least one, but maybe two people. It’s all cleaning, keeping order, organizing and never losing anything.
Were there specific films or filmmakers that influenced the kind of work you wanted to be doing when you started editing?
Robert Altman’s 3 Women, which is the first movie I saw as a kid that expanded my taste. I had been into popular stuff. I was obsessed with Star Wars. I was obsessed with Spielberg. I felt like Spielberg started to take a turn away from popcorn films into dramatic films as my taste was changing: from E.T. to The Color Purple to Empire of the Sun. It was a small jump from that to discovering Todd Haynes, because his first feature film, Poison, was one of the first things that I saw when I got to NYU as a freshman.
I was queer and identified with the queer new wave that was happening in the early ‘90s. It was a New York-based community of filmmakers who were making films that were not beholden to popular ideas of what’s entertainment. Instead they explored the film form and the connections between literature, art, film and performance. So when I had the opportunity to work in the editing room for that and for the next film it was like, “Yes.” I was the second assistant editor. Because I came in during the first cut and left after the sound mix, I got to see everything from after the production until final delivery. It was a second film school, and it was happening my senior year in college and the six months after that.
You’ve edited for both film and television. Do you get different things out of each as an editor?
For TV, I’ve mostly cut pilot episodes: The Big C, Believe, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. A pilot has the same process as a movie, just very, very fast. So you have to harness the ability to make choices really quickly. I also worked on three episodes of Treme. On episodic TV, so many things are already figured out — who the characters are, what the tone is — and you need to really quickly make choices that conform to what the show’s identity is. But within that, of course, there are countless creative choices.
On Treme we would get entire live musical numbers with live vocals, many takes, three cameras, and an hour of footage would end up in the show for maybe a minute. That is actually a long time to play a musical number on TV, but that was one of the hallmarks of that show. They wanted to respect the music as music, and it didn’t have to just be local texture; it required a lot of condensing of material.
So, as an editor, you prefer being able to shape the whole story.
Yeah, it’s also about ongoing collaborations with directors that continue to make work. That’s very fulfilling because you figure out your style of working together and also your shorthand. I feel like a lot of the interests of the directors I work with on a regular basis are my own interests. I worked with Tamara Jenkins on two films, George C. Wolfe on two films, Lee Daniels three times and John Cameron Mitchell on four films in various capacities. That history means a lot to me.
What was your experience like with this six-week workshop, and getting to meet the students?
I liked that they were cutting actual footage. It’s the only way to learn, because real footage has that X factor of the coverage being weird, incomplete, overshot, undershot, whatever. And there were different genres. Some people were doing documentaries. Some people were doing what appeared to be a commercial. Some people were doing short narrative stuff.
They had watched the pilot of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and they watched Killing Them Softly. The reason I wanted to show those two pieces is because they’re two different universes in terms of genre, in terms of tone… everything. But I edited them both, and to me, they actually have similarities in terms of musicality and sense of rhythm. It was fun to show that a very bloody crime drama and a whimsical period comedy are maybe connected somehow. So we talked about that for a bit.
I’m sure that they all wanted to pick your brain as well?
It’s about the director/editor relationship. So you need to find your directors. Those relationships are precious. They could be your friends. They could not be your friends, and that’s okay too. It’s about taste. I had told the students that I was rather unenthusiastic about crime movies before I edited Killing Them Softly. One of the students told me he took it to mean that an editor’s individual taste is less important than staying employed. I said, “No, not really. To me, the lesson is that you can find something exciting in material that you didn’t expect.”
While editing Killing Them Softly, director Andrew Dominik suggested that the film (which takes place during the 2008 economic crisis) had roots in the Great Depression. So we began listening to music of that time. And for me — being interested in the history of the American Songbook and musical theater — that opened up a door to a whole world of inspiration. And thinking of the violent montages with the same sense of rhythm and drama and flourishes that songs have made me more excited about shaping them.
So part of being an editor is having strong ideas, but also flexibility. The connections between styles, genres, historical periods, philosophies are infinite.
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.