By Amy Leland
Manhattan Edit Workshop’s Sight, Sound & Story (SS&S) was established in June of 2013, first offering post-related events, and then those based around cinematography as well.
As a working editor always looking to learn, I attend numerous industry events throughout the year, but this one has become one of the “can’t miss” items on my list. They bring in top-notch panelists sharing their work and their insights. This year’s post event was once again a chance to hear from professionals at the top of their craft across documentary, scripted television and feature film.
First up was the panel of documentary editors, including Bryan Chang (Brasslands, Narco Cultura, A Year in Space), Ann Collins (Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, Swim Team), Matthew Hamachek (Cartel Land, The Trade, Amanda Knox, Meet the Patels) and moderator Garret Savage (My Perestroika, Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship).
The panel started at a logical place — at the beginning. Savage asked each of them how they like to begin the cutting process. Both Chang and Collins described processes that involve screening the footage and pulling selects, a fairly traditional approach. While Hamachek said he used to work that way, when faced with hundreds of hours of footage, his process evolved. Now he just starts cutting. Part of his motivation is the pressures of schedule, which made sense given that his most recent project was The Fourth Estate, a documentary series rather than a feature. To cut the first 90-minute episode of the series, he had 14 weeks. He described the advantages of getting to a rough cut as fast as he can. “Editing is a process of failure. The sooner I can get to my first mistakes, the better,” he said.
The difference in his process can also be explained by working with a story producer. A good story producer provides a path through the footage. Feature editors often work as their own story producers. Both Chang and Collins talked about the need to see the footage and find those special clips and sound bites. This way when the time came in the edit where they had to fill the blank, they would know where to find them. Though they used different methods — Chang will lay out selects in a sequence, while Collins creates subclips with metadata — both create a library of moments to draw on later.
Interestingly, when asked if he might change his process if he were editing an indie feature documentary, Hamachek said no. Though his process developed in part because of working on a series, it was a process he had grown to really enjoy. And Collins pointed out that regardless of what process an editor uses, they must always be willing to go back to the footage and make changes as the story reveals itself.
The audience was shown a clip from Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, and Collins explained, “Beginnings are the hardest part of the film, and the part that changes the most often. As the film evolves, that beginning changes a lot.” She said that with the beginning, you have to establish what the world of this film is — the pace, the tone, the style, the rules, etc. All of that has to be taken care of silently and invisibly while you convince the viewer to come with you. What you may find is that as the rest of the film develops you’ll understand later what that beginning should be.
Chang addressed a different kind of documentary editing challenge in presenting a clip from Narco Cultura, about the music that glorifies the narco lifestyle, and specifically one of the musicians who traveled to Mexico to meet the narcos. Shaun Schwarz, with whom he had collaborated many times, primarily on shorts for Time, directed the film.
One challenge documentarians often face is the question of permission from the subjects in front of the camera. On their trip to Mexico, one of the narcos that was there kept saying he didn’t want to be in the movie and to not shoot him, but he also kept bragging and showing off in front of the cameras. So, ultimately, they did leave him in and didn’t blur his face. They felt he had put himself in the film. Though editors face a lot of challenges that are technical, sometimes the challenges are more abstract and the solutions are less black and white.
Scripted Television Panel
Next up was a panel of scripted television editors: Naomi Geraghty (Billions, Bloodline, Treme) and Lynne Willingham, ACE (Breaking Bad, Ray Donovan, The X-Files), moderated by Michael Berenbaum, ACE (Sex & the City, The Americans, Divorce).
One of the most popular topics for the TV panel every year is the question of how to break into a scripted television edit room. This year’s panelists addressed this in two important ways. First, in talking about how each of them got their start, they made it clear that there is no one way in. Willingham did not go to film school. She was able to find her way into a studio because her brother was an assistant at Warner. She started as an apprentice, working her way up. She said, “I got my free education just working anytime I could.”
Geraghty, on the other hand, did attend film school in Ireland, which is where she discovered that she was drawn to the process of editing. There wasn’t much work in Ireland, so she got a work visa and came to New York. She eventually got her foot in the door working at Jonathan Demme’s company on a documentary. This led to an opportunity assisting on a feature back in Ireland.
Equally important, both described helping their own assistants get opportunities to cut on the shows where they worked. Willingham’s longtime assistant on Breaking Bad was Kelley Dixon. They had been working together a long time, and Willingham encouraged her to cut whenever possible. Because of union rules, she couldn’t get her a solo credit on an episode, but was able to get her shared credit. By having her in that position, Dixon was eventually able to move up and became the lead editor on the show herself.
One caution that Willingham offered was that the workload for assistants has grown so much that it is difficult to find the time to be in the room when the cutting is happening. It isn’t the same process it used to be when assistants were in the room with their editors for much of the process. So the challenge is to balance the workload with seeing the action and being seen. But the flip side to that, Geraghty pointed out, is that there is so much work in television these days that the path to moving forward can actually be more readily available in television than in film.
A frequently popular topic when discussing television these days is the rising quality of shows, and the “cinematic” quality of the work being done. Both talked about the joys of working on shows that are more character driven and developed over a long period of time. One interesting aspect of this, said Willingham, it that with the current popularity of doing more compact seasons — 10 episodes, instead of 22 or 23 — and shooting them all at once, the work attracts higher-end talent. Actors and directors can commit to the projects, shoot all of the episodes in one concentrated period, and then move on to other projects. All of which is opening the doors to better — and more — work for everyone involved in the process.
Willingham shared the opening scene from the pilot of Breaking Bad. When asked if she knew, while she was working on it, how good and how popular it would be. She said, yes and no. Everyone working on it knew what they were doing was going to be brilliant simply because it was created by Vince Gilligan. She said that as much as she wanted to take credit for how great that opening scene was, everything she cut came from the script. Gilligan had such a clear plan. But even with all of that, none of them knew just how big a phenomenon it would become.
The one unplanned moment in that opening scene was the footage of Walter talking into the camera. Though that footage was shot that day in the desert, Gilligan never intended for that footage to be used until the very end of the series. But because he let Willingham work so independently, she didn’t know that. She saw the footage, saw a way to use it, and just did it. And it worked. She encouraged everyone — if you are inspired to try something while you are cutting, then try it. It could be exactly what is needed.
Geraghty showed the final scene from Season 1 of Billions. What was fascinating was that, though the scene consisted almost entirely of two men standing and talking to each other, it was filled with tension and drama. She described that sometimes, as an editor, it is your job to not get in the way of the work. The language was so rich, and the performances were so fantastic, that her job was simply to respect the performances and protect the integrity of the work being done. She could certainly help drive the scene by finding the best takes, and the moments when particular angles were the best choice, but she felt the most important thing was to let the performances shine.
Inside the Cutting Room
An ever-popular aspect of Sight Sound & Story is Inside the Cutting Room, an interview with a prominent member of the editing community, moderated by writer and film historian Bobbie O’Steen (“Cut to the Chase,” “The Invisible Cut”). Her subject this time was Kevin Tent, ACE (Sideways, Election, The Descendants, Nebraska, Blow), longtime editor for director Alexander Payne.
As with the other panels, they spoke about beginnings, and Tent’s was especially interesting. After working in educational films, he got the opportunity to work with Roger Corman. While working for the king of B-movies might seem like an inauspicious way to become an Oscar-nominated editor, it became clear what a perfect foundation this actually was. Working in a production house churning out movies at a fast pace, Tent was able to collect experience at an accelerated rate. Corman’s way of working also provided additional learning opportunities. Tent described Corman as ruthless — he would think nothing of cutting out an entire scene if it wasn’t working for him. So the challenge for all of the editors was to make every scene so interesting that Corman would leave it in the movie. They also did a lot of work that involved pulling films from the vault that hadn’t been widely seen and cutting clips from them into new movies. He wondered why the big studios don’t do this, since their vaults are also filled with movies that were rarely seen. It’s an interesting thought.
One other unexpected benefit — when his reel came across Alexander Payne’s desk, Tent’s work with Corman was one of the things Payne liked. Payne was looking for an editor for his first feature, Citizen Ruth. The studio wanted him to hire a bigger editor with more credits, but Payne wanted a partner, not a more seasoned figure telling him what to do and how to do it. And with that, a longtime creative partnership was born.
As expected from such a great partnership, there were many fascinating stories about both collaboration and conflict. One of the great moments came in cutting Election. In a pivotal scene with Matthew Broderick, Payne wanted to cut it like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, with long shots and back and forth looks. Tent didn’t. He felt it would be too drawn out and long. So he offered to pay Payne $75 to let him cut it the way he wanted, and the test audiences loved it. So it worked.
One interesting aspect of Tent’s work is his willingness to manipulate the footage for effect. Especially these days, feature editors tend to work in a more straightforward, vérité way. Tent showed two great examples of times when manipulation created iconic scenes. In their first cut of James Mangold’s Girl Interrupted, the biggest problem was that the film was way too long. One solution was to collapse some of the scenes. The example he played was a scene showing day-in-the-life moments in the institution where the girls were. They were put in montage over one another, cross-dissolved into one another, and cut in a very stylistic way over music. Ultimately it was their plan to change it for the final film, but the preview audience print cost $12K. When they told the producer they wanted to change it, the producer said no, they couldn’t print the film again. So this incredibly beautiful scene came from a moment they thought of as a temporary fix, and cut on a whim on a Saturday.
He also employed a fair amount of image manipulation for Nebraska. For example, he occasionally added pauses to Bruce Dern’s performance, which worked because he didn’t move around a lot. And he admitted that, yes, he was guilty of using a lot of fluid morph in order to accomplish this. Every time he did it, Payne would say, “When you do that, you’re saying I’m a bad director.” He also showed an example, near the end of the film, when he would use strategic speed changes to draw out moments in an emotional way. He likes to experiment with those tools and techniques. He said it comes from being greedy and wanting all of the best stuff, which he sometimes does by piecing things together.
Tent won the Eddie and was nominated for the Oscar for The Descendants. They hadn’t cut a feature together in seven years because Payne had been working on writing Downsizing and trying to get it off the ground. Tent said when they first got together, there was a little nervousness in the cutting room, but once they started working they fell into their good rhythm again.
A lot of their work together had been about walking the line between comedy and drama. With The Descendants, in particular, Payne was concerned about being too melodramatic. So he wrote and shot a lot of comedy elements. But when they were in the edit, those moments kept getting in the way and felt disrespectful to what the characters were going through. Eventually they stopped trying to be funny, and found that sometimes there were funny moments anyway, simply because of the humanity of the situation.
O’Steen quoted Payne saying about Tent, “Our process is essentially cowriting the final draft together. Kevin is my audience, and I hunger to please him.” As we were treated to an overview of their work together, it was obvious that they wrote wonderful final drafts together and, ultimately, pleased their audiences a great deal.
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.