A look at how editors can change the mindset of directors and ultimately be the brilliance behind a powerful story on screen.
As a filmmaker who also edits, I have to say: I love editing 1,000% more than the actual production. And not for the reasons you might think. I really enjoy being on a movie set. I like a team working together to really study, research and hit the perfect shot. I like the nuanced challenges of light and sound. However, everything – and I mean everything – depends on the post-production process.
As the industry says, this is where the real magic happens. I like it the most because you have the most control here. You can decide exactly where each scene starts and ends. You determine the order of the moments and when the audience can experience most of your project.
Editing is also fascinating because it shaped some of our favorite films. It is a huge understatement to say that we don't rate editors on the same level as directors. But for every Quentin Tarantino, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese, there are equally important editors – Sally Menke, Walter Murch, and Thelma Schoonmaker – behind the scenes doing critical work.
Using teachings from some of the industry's most iconic film editors, artists who helped shape the narrative and sculpted the structures of some of the most iconic movie theater classics, let's examine how editors really are the goalkeepers of storytelling.
The silent heroes of the films
I think editors play a huge role in helping directors by making them feel like they are looking at something that may have issues or problems, and being comfortable enough to approach those issues.
Sally Menke, who tragically died far too young, was Quentin Tarantino's staunch editor and long-time collaborator. She described editors as "the silent heroes of film" for the important – and often private and intimate – relationships that editors have with directors to shape the overall vision of a project.
In fact, Tarantino would describe Menke's role as more than just a collaborative mind to decide where and when to cut scenes. Instead, he likened Menke's role as a much more important educator who led him through the rough process of film editing.
Given the deadlines, studio interference, and audience feedback, a strong but supportive editor like Menke was one of the many reasons Tarantino's career got started – and Menke became one of the most sought-after editors in the industry.
Provoke things and drive ideas
Every director is very different. They all have different ways of working. One of the job of the film editor is to provoke things. "How about that? If you have a problem, could this work?" Or if something is ambiguous in the script and even in the direction, say, "It could be that."
When it comes to famous film editors, Walter Murch could be considered the gold standard for his work on films like Apocalypse Now, The English Patient, and The Godfather I, II, and III. He has also won three Oscar awards and has been called "the most respected film editor and sound designer in modern cinema" by none other than Roger Ebert.
As famous as he is, according to his own account in an interview with Indiewire, a good editor is only as good as his director. And in Murch's case, it requires a very specific type of thought-provoking, sometimes even powerful partnership. He says it is an editor's job to "get a response from the director" in order to initiate a dialogue that "leads to something better than any of us could have come up with individually".
He also talks about how an editor shouldn't just give up on his ideas. Instead, they should use their role as the gatekeeper of the story to challenge directors when necessary.
Editing as writing
Editing is like writing with recordings. And writers are people who keep changing their ideas. Ideas develop. You are not tied to a formula.
One of my favorite monikers for one of the most prolific film editors of her day, Dede Allen, is her unofficial title of "Editing Doctor", as she was known for her ability to work miracles on challenging writing projects – at times to save them from themselves.
She was also a passionate contributor and compared her own work as an editor less as a seamstress than as a writer, not tied to formulas or correct procedures, but as someone who could work freely and expressively.
In an interview with film editor Mia Goldman, who would remind Allen that she herself quoted Michelangelo, who famously said, "To make David, I cut away everything that wasn't David," explained Allen, like a good film editor is really should only see itself as a capable artist. Whether you're a sculpture, a writer, a doctor, or a film editor, it takes a keen eye for the arts and for your ideas to evolve as you work.
The importance of objectivity
The most important requirement for processing is objectivity. No matter how difficult it was for you to get a particular shot, the audience will never know. If it's not interesting, it's just not interesting. You may have been in awe of a certain shot while filming it, but if that excitement isn't showing on screen, you need to be objective enough to edit it.
While most contemporary mainstream films operate within the structured boundaries of separate writers, directors, and editors, there are numerous examples throughout film history of astute writers who are so committed and focused on the craft of film that they play every role in the process itself play . One of the most famous writers of all time is the classic Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, who frequently edited his own films for complete control.
However, in interviews Kurosawa has proven that even he is not immune to exploring the unique relationship between director and editor and how his editor must move away from his director's vision. It takes the same gatekeeper mentality to start machining with an objective, clean board. Just because something worked on set, or is part of a certain part of an overall vision, you have to make the difficult decision of cutting when cutting is needed, when there is no on-screen enthusiasm for editing.
Build the mystery of the movie
The movie editing is very enigmatic, and that's because you shouldn't be seeing much of it. You should feel like a movie has pace, rhythm, and drama, but you shouldn't necessarily worry about how this was achieved.
If we want to use an editor-to-director relationship to truly explore the dynamics of visionary and gatekeeper, we need look no further than the partnership between director Martin Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker.
Over the course of fifty years and twenty-three feature film collaborations (in addition to eight Academy Award nominations and three wins for Schoonmaker), the duo best shows the importance of a strong partnership between director and editor in order to get the best out of each person – and the project as a whole.
Schoonmaker is about as influential as they come. Your own sensitivity to how film editing is an important part of cinematic storytelling is quite fascinating to study. In an interview with the film commentator, Schoonmaker talks about the importance of mystery and how editing can create the all-important rhythm and drama needed to bring a story to life. She also describes her longstanding collaboration with Scorsese and how she developed her understanding of what great film editing really is.
Ultimately, most importantly, while it takes a strong director's vision to get a story through production, it often takes an even stronger editorial gatekeeper to bring that story to life together for the end product.
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Cover picture by Gennadiy Titkov.