Over the years I’ve edited many things — drama, comedy, reality, newsmagazine shows — and I’ve earned six Emmys as a result. But lately I’ve been concentrating on the increasingly popular true-crime genre often referred to cynically as “crime porn.”
For this piece, I debated using my byline, but opted against it for fear of loss of work. I felt telling the story was important though, so here I am.
Working in a medium that is predominately escapist, I edit for drama, emotion and impact… taking liberties with reality and accuracy to provide as much bang for the buck to the viewer (and networks I work for) that I can muster.
As I got deeper and deeper into true crime work, I discovered that the ability to insulate myself from the real horrors and devastation these stories inflict upon the survivors was becoming easier and easier to manage. I became desensitized and cynical (after all, I am an editor and we are generally tough, right?).
It is only when I stepped back from the tight scripts, the carefully selected bites, the well-executed and masterfully-shot recreations and delved deeper into the emotional transcripts and on-camera interviews that reveal the silent, painful moments and lost, numb expressions of the survivors and victims that I realized the responsibility myself and others have to honor them, to contemplate what it is we are actually doing. These are real people who have suffered devastating damage. It is so easy to forget that this is TRUE crime.
Modern reality television didn’t invent the genre. To be sure, the dramatization of crime and grief has been around as long as storytelling has existed. The earliest Greek and Roman tales examined real crimes of passion. My problem is how easily and unconsciously we have trivialized and glamorized the most horrendous crimes that represent the lowest levels of human morality. We do it SO well.
As an editor, I have reveled in piecing together a masterful scene of death, destruction and raw basic emotion, using the sexiest techniques, tools and visual effects, the best-shot angles, sound effects and the entire arsenal of tricks modern technology has afforded me as an editor. And when I finally sit back, after hours of finessing and watch with objective eyes a scene I’ve just cut that frightens, builds suspense and tension and feels like an action movie, I know have done my best job to deliver the goods and satisfy the juices… but maybe have just lost a little more of my humanity in the process.
I realize I should not easily and gleefully take such delight in the visceral response from an audience of a well-cut murder — again, it’s too easy to forget that these represent real people. Real victims. Real tragedy. Real loss.
Several years ago I was editing one of these shows — another well-produced, well-shot and (I believe) well-edited story of a home invasion in which an innocent family was slaughtered, but not before being horrendously violated, burned alive and tortured — of crimes too horrible to contemplate. Yet, here I was portraying their true, albeit, reenacted story.
I used all the cool tricks of the trade — flash frames, booms, subliminal cuts, etc. But, inexplicably, after all these years of doing this over and over again, I found myself bothered by what a fine job I was doing.
I felt in making this horror watchable, glamorizing it, sanitizing it, commercializing it — I was dishonoring and diminishing the memory of these very real, lost and tortured human beings. Yet, I was just doing my job… I was earning a living for my family, and doing it the best way I could. After all, I am a professional and to do less than my best would have been disingenuous, dishonest and unprofessional. But I realized that, even though I had a professional duty, I didn’t have to take so much glee in it.
Let me say here this is in no way an indictment of my fellow editors. Maybe I’m late to the table and many of you who cut these shows have realized the responsibility we shoulder…all I can relate is my story.
Coming to Terms With the Reality
So I did some things to try to make amends and to re-sensitize myself to what I had to do for a living. One Saturday afternoon I drove to visit the site of the horror I described above. It was haunting. Seeing the actual street sign of the block where the crime occurred was the first stab of impact. It made it very real. It was no longer a name on a script or a cut. I got out of the car and sat in quiet meditation in the park created to honor that family.
I looked out at the neighborhood imagining the chaos, the noise, the screams and the horror. I imagined the people in the surrounding houses — who still live there. They lived through it. I could imagine the echoes through the trees, which made the calmness and beauty of the location disturbing.
I contemplated the murders, imagined the seared emotions of the victims and then tried to realize: there was once normalcy here. A loving family. I imagined the love and the beauty of the unique human beings that comprised that decimated family — they should not be defined by their tragic deaths but by the way they lived their lives.
I offered my prayers and even asked for a bit of forgiveness for glamorizing their story, and I promised to be more aware in the future. Then I got into my car and returned to my relatively normal life.
How I Changed
Since then I’ve added a few more steps to my editing workflow. The main thing was reading more fully the transcripts of the friends and survivors. I need to look at the raw interviews beyond the culled soundbites in the script in order to get a more comprehensive (and human) view of these people and how they were affected by these crimes and what they could say about the victims or recipients of violence.
I now always Google the stories to see the real faces of these people whose story I’m retelling — normal, unglamorous, smiling or unsmiling — in order to break the Hollywoodization; the casting of sexy actors and actresses to portray the victims or the devastatingly and banal handsomeness of most killers and villains.
I don’t think there is a real way of completely respecting the sanctity, and honoring the lives, of those we retell stories about in this odd genre. Documentaries are more tailored to that end — there are no actors and there are generally more subtle and sensitive representations of true events — but that is not what this true-crime genre is about, is it? We have to make a living after all, right?
But maybe, sometime after we cut that massacre scene or rape-murder, we can sit back, reflect and give a moment of time, homage and respect to the real people whose lives we are making our careers and livelihood from.
And pray for them… even if you are a cynic like me
The author is a 30-year editing veteran who has cut series for Discovery ID, A&E, Animal Planet and TV One network, to name a few.