September 1, 2003
Cut and Pace
Most feature-documentary makers have a valuable
secret weapon: an editor. RealScreen profiles five who push
the genre forward
by Kimberley Brown
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
RAGNAR VAN LEYDEN
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
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
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."