Cut and Pace

Film editors need better PR. Especially for documentary films, where there is no script to work from, editors bring countless benefits to a project: an unfettered take on material that a filmmaker has been immersed in for months and sometimes years; time to devote to the demanding task of constructing a film; and in the case of experienced editors, a track record that could attract financiers to a project - to name but a few.
September 1, 2003

Film editors need better PR. Especially for documentary films, where there is no script to work from, editors bring countless benefits to a project: an unfettered take on material that a filmmaker has been immersed in for months and sometimes years; time to devote to the demanding task of constructing a film; and in the case of experienced editors, a track record that could attract financiers to a project – to name but a few.

Yet, even editors describe themselves in modest terms. Says Paul Devlin, a New Yorker who edits sports footage for U.S. networks in order to support his filmmaking habit: ‘[An editor is] someone who can sit in a dark room for 16 hours straight and not fall asleep.’

But, don’t be fooled by this lack of pretension. ‘After seeing how incredibly helpful it can be to have a creative partner in the editing,’ explains Jeff Blitz, the Los Angeles-based director of Spellbound, ‘it feels an essential part of the endeavor now to bring someone on.’

And, the sooner the better. Devlin – director of the feature doc Power Trip, currently on the festival circuit – advises filmmakers to get an editor involved early in the production process. ‘If they can afford it, they should have the editor on board before they start shooting,’ he explains. ‘You’re always shooting for the edit room; you’re always thinking about how to put the piece together. If you have a good editor who can give you ideas about what they need, it’s ideal. For a non-fiction project, it’s like having a writer on board.’

Oakland, U.S.-based Kim Roberts worked as an editor for Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffman’s Long Night’s Journey Into Day (2000); Johnny Symons’ Daddy and Papa (2002); Gail Dogin and Vicente Franco’s Daughter from Danang (2002); and, most recently, Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk’s Lost Boys of Sudan (2003). She says novice filmmakers in particular can benefit from securing an experienced editor early. ‘When they’re trying to raise money, it helps to have an editor attached,’ she explains. ‘Try to get as many people with a track record as possible attached to a project… It increases the chance of getting funding.’

An editor locked in at the funding stage usually rejoins a project toward the end of the shooting schedule. The amount of time they stay is highly variable, but a feature-doc project normally takes at least six months to edit. With daily rates for documentary work starting at around US$250 for an inexperienced editor and rising to $650 and up for more experienced talent, costs quickly climb. ‘Budgets are an issue,’ Devlin notes. ‘Producers are being forced to edit whether they like it or not.’

Still, ‘it’s very hard to see what you have without fresh eyes,’ says Roberts. She continues, ‘If you don’t have a lot of money, but a lot of time, it might be good to go with somebody who doesn’t have a lot of experience, but you’ve seen what they’ve cut and you like them. If you don’t have time but you have money, or if you don’t have a lot of experience and are trying to raise money, those are the times you might want to go with somebody who has name recognition and experience.’

Both Devlin and Roberts advise filmmakers looking for an editor to consult the credits of the films they like. Considering this, RealScreen has chosen to spotlight five editors – both novice and veteran – whose recent or upcoming work has caused a stir in the industry. As Blitz puts it, ‘[Editors] aren’t just sounding boards. They become vital cocreators of the film.’


Based in: Los Angeles, U.S.

Feature-doc credits: The Path to Peace (2003), Sonny Boy (2003), Spellbound (2002)

The opening sequence of Spellbound is a brilliant blend of humor and agony. U.S. National Spelling Bee competitor Harry Altman is standing before the crowd and the cameras, desperately searching for the correct sequence of letters for the word put before him. But, he’s not the quiet image of someone deep in thought. Instead, he’s a bundle of physical tics – his face contorts, funny noises escape his lips – all of which are delivered in a rapid series of edits. One can’t help but laugh, and also empathize: we were all once kids and we have all wanted to win. It sets the tone beautifully for the film, which profiles eight kids en route to the competition in Washington, D.C.

Spellbound editor Yana Gorskaya admits it was this connection to the material that attracted her to the project. Her mother emigrated from Russia when Gorskaya was six years old, and she placed a high premium on education. ‘There was a lot of that kind of pressure in the home,’ Gorskaya explains. ‘I did quite a bit of academic competition – although I never did the National Spelling Bee – and those competitions had a lot to do with how I defined myself as a young woman.’

The doc is the first feature film the now 29-year-old editor cut, and it was done with the first version of Final Cut Pro on a computer in director Jeff Blitz’s living room. ‘Initially we thought we would be intercutting the kids quite a bit more, but then we realized this wasn’t a film organized by theme,’ explains Gorskaya. ‘It was more about getting to know human beings, and to really get to know a kid, you needed to stay with them and their families, teachers and neighbors.’ She adds, ‘Each story on its own was interesting, but up against each other, they got increasingly more so, because of the contrast between the families, their way of life, and where they’re from.’

Blitz credits Yana with keeping Spellbound rich with nuance, yet still accessible, dramatic and funny. ‘That’s a tough balance to hit, especially taking into consideration the feelings of the kids portrayed,’ he explains. ‘The film is more complex because of Yana’s participation.’

Appropriately, it was an academic mentor at the University of Southern California who introduced Gorskaya to Blitz, an alumni of the school. In March 2000, after shooting had wrapped, Blitz found himself broke and in need of an editor. So, he asked his former instructor, editor Kate Amend (Beah: A Black Woman Speaks; Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport) to recommend a student. She suggested Gorskaya, who was working as her teaching assistant while completing a Masters in fine art. ‘When Jeff and I met, we realized we had a similar sense of humor and storytelling, so it was a really good fit,’ recalls Gorskaya. She edited the film part-time from the end of 2000 to March of 2002.

The critical response to Spellbound, which climaxed in an Oscar nomination, has put Gorskaya in demand. ‘The quality of the calls has gone up considerably. And the diversity of the calls,’ she concedes. Although she’s getting interest from the fiction world, her current projects are all feature docs. Post-production recently wrapped for Sonny Boy, a film by L.A.-based Sonny Boy Productions that steps into the later life of civil rights activist, boxing champion and character actor Virgil Frye. The Path to Peace by merge:media, also in L.A., is still being edited. It visits the Seeds of Peace camp in Maine, which brings together children from war-torn regions.

‘I have to like the filmmaker and I have to find the material compelling and strong,’ says Gorskaya. ‘Good people, good projects.’


Based in: Paris, France

Feature-doc credits: Murder on a Sunday Morning (2001), USA/USSR The Master Game (1991), The Great Barrier (1989), The French (1982), and many more

Ragnar van Leyden – the Paris-based editor called in by HBO after it acquired Murder on a Sunday Morning, ‘not to change the story, but to make it work’ – doesn’t ‘do drinks’. ‘Some people get their jobs at cocktail parties. I don’t go to cocktail parties,’ he states. It’s a good thing he decided against being a director.

Van Leyden’s approach to professional longevity is simple. ‘If you’re good at what you do, people come back,’ he explains. His guiding principle for editing is equally austere: ‘You must not lose sight of your story. Whatever you put in has to be meaningful – it has to advance the story, not lose it on the way.’

Working as an editor in Hollywood for producer Jack Douglas, van Leyden’s first stab at the job, he quickly learned how to find the story in the material placed before him. After buying up footage from financially bankrupt projects, Douglas would hand over the reels to van Leyden. ‘He would dump two or three subjects on my editing table and say, ‘Make something of it,” he recalls. ‘I had to tell a story where there was no storyline.’

Still, van Leyden contends that it was 10 years before he really understood what editing is about, and he is frustrated by those who believe improvements to the technical aspects of editing make the craft easier. ‘Too many people are interested in displaying their rapidity and astuteness in technically handling material rather than in communicating,’ he observes. ‘The problem is the chain of communication in the work environment. Culture used to filter down from directors to their technical crew…so people got accustomed to understanding the relationship between the material and the ideas that are to be communicated. Now, you just train them on all those buttons and they are professionally apt before they’ve even done anything.’

But, don’t mistake van Leyden for a Luddite. ‘I was the first to bring non-linear editing to France in 1989, when most people worked on machines like Ediflex,’ he notes. He is currently editing with Final Cut Pro.


Based in: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Feature-doc credits: The Unknowns (2004), Lula (2004), Nelson Freire (2003), Bus 174 (2002), Rose’s Dream, 10 Years Later (1997)

English, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese – Felipe Lacerda can speak and edit in many tongues, but the language he’s most fluent in is a cinematic one.

One of the first people to recognize his talent was Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles (Central Station). In 1994, Lacerda was hired to synchronize tapes for Salles’ film Foreign Land. The eager neophyte went one step further and edited a few scenes. When the director saw Lacerda’s work, he swiftly promoted him to editor.

With this year’s release of Bus 174, which Lacerda also codirected with José Padilha, the world learned what Salles spotted nearly 10 years ago. And, Lacerda’s passion hasn’t subsided. ‘I would often edit in the morning, shoot in the afternoon and edit at night. It was great,’ he says.

Bus 174, which retells the story of a bus hijacking in Rio de Janeiro, is praised for treating a string of complex topics in a deceptively straightforward manner. Yet, Lacerda says the edit, which took three months, was tricky rather than difficult. ‘That we were dealing with two facts that had beginnings and endings – the kidnapper’s life and the kidnapping itself – made everything easier,’ he notes.

In addition to The Unknowns – Lacerda’s own doc project – the editor currently has the task of piecing together Lula, a two-hour doc by João Salles about Brazilian President Lula da Silva’s 2002 election bid. ‘There’s over 140 hours of material shot by Walter Carvalho and an infinity of subjects, facts, characters and locations,’ says Lacerda. ‘It’s very stimulating, and also very hard to fit in a single movie.’ Odds are Lacerda’s up to the task.


Based in: Copenhagen, Denmark

Feature-doc credits: The Five Obstructions (2003), Haiti Untitled (1996), Michael Laudrup – A Football Player (1993), Traberg (1992), Danish Litteratur (1989), and more

An editor’s primary responsibility is to bring a director’s vision to the screen. The relationship between editor and director is, therefore, intimate and often intense. This is particularly true for Camilla Skousen and Danish doc-maker Jørgen Leth. The duo has collaborated on projects for 17 years, allowing Skousen to develop an innate understanding of the filmmaker’s intentions. ‘I know what he doesn’t like, what his perspective on life is not, and what he doesn’t want to show in his films,’ she says.

At the start of every project, Skousen and Leth will meet to discuss the concept, then part until filming is finished. They reunite to view the rushes, then not again until the first cut is complete. ‘It’s a way of collaborating that has evolved as time has passed,’ she notes. ‘You can’t do it when you are meeting a director for the first time.’

Two years ago, however, the pair became a trio. Their latest project – The Five Obstructions, which screens at this month’s Toronto International Film Festival – is codirected by fellow Dane Lars von Trier, an acclaimed fiction director and first-time doc-maker. Skousen, who also works in fiction, accepted the challenge of melding two creative minds into a single vision. ‘Nothing was decided beforehand, so you didn’t know where the thing was heading,’ says Skousen of the film, which was conceived by von Trier. She adds, ‘[I was] a third person looking at it from the outside, giving Lars what was his and Jørgen what was his.’

Skousen notes that the links between fiction and fact are growing. ‘They are inspiring each other,’ she continues. In particular, ‘the documentary people are taking something from the fiction editors about how to structure films.’


Based in: New York, U.S.

Feature-doc credits: Dance Cuba (w/t) (2004), Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

Most editors admit to falling into their profession while in pursuit of a different career, and Richard Hankin is no exception. ‘I was much more interested in writing,’ Hankin acknowledges. Editing was something he did to put himself through film school. But, he soon discovered he preferred the camaraderie of the edit room to the solitary existence of a writer. As a result, Hankin brings a writer’s instincts to his projects. ‘Structure is structure, no matter what the format,’ he explains.

Nonetheless, Hankin credits an early apprenticeship with esteemed editor Larry Silk for refining his craft. As the assistant editor for Barbara Kopple’s 1993 film Fallen Champ: the Untold Story of Mike Tyson, Hankin became Silk’s right – and left – hand man. ‘It was just when the Avid was coming into New York,’ he says. ‘Larry was hands-off at that stage, because he had been cutting on a flatbed for I don’t even know how long. So, I sort of became his hands for the film. It was an incredible learning experience to work with somebody that closely who has that much experience, and to learn about how things are structured.’ Shortly thereafter, Hankin worked under Paul Barnes, editing Ken Burns’s PBS series The West, and his passion for docs was confirmed.

Working in the shadow of giants prepared Hankin for the twists of fate that occurred during the two-year edit of Capturing the Friedmans, director Andrew Jarecki’s 2003 Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning feature doc. Originally a film about birthday party clowns, it slowly morphed into a cinematic criminal trial. Hankin, also a coproducer of the film, cut the doc to allow the audience to act as the jury.

‘The point of the piece is that it’s very rare in a criminal case to have clarity and certainty,’ he explains. ‘Most cases are full of ambiguity, conflicting testimony, muddled memories and confusion. People are looking for ‘the answer,’ but we felt comfortable just presenting the clearest information we could find and letting people come to their own determinations.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.