By Mary Ann Skweres
‘Tis the season. The awards season that is, and thoughts turn to the best work of artists working both above and below the line.
But when judging a film through the lens of a particular craft, what makes one person’s work stand out? Past Oscar-winning editors shared with Below the Line what they want their peers to see in their craft.
“What we do is often incomprehensible to even those who call themselves an editor,” said Glenn Farr. “Our craft and artistry is akin to alchemy. There are no easy answers” Farr received an Oscar for his work on The Right Stuff and most recently edited several episodes of HBO’s award-winning Rome series.
Farr says the collaborative nature of the editor’s work makes it difficult to parse the editor’s contribution. For example, when referring to that work, are we speaking of the editor’s first cut? Few people see that version of the film, and although the editor’s first cut might be most indicative of his or her work, like the first draft of a screenplay, that cut is an early stage in the process.
Then there’s the director’s cut, the version of the film intended to represent the director’s vision. Director and editor work together to perfect the story. Some directors give the editor a lot of latitude. Others might want the editor to cut on an exact frame.
The producers’ concerns, studio notes and audience test screenings also influence the final edit. So it is not simply a question of the editor’s work. It is about the editor’s ability to assimilate any number of these views and ultimately make the film work.
“I assisted Richard Halsey (Oscar-winning editor for Rocky) early in my career and he gave me a lot of these one-liners that I live by,” said Farr. “A big part of our job description is to ‘make it play’ no matter what. I live by that. Somehow you find a way to make it work.”
Editor Alan Heim relates a story that illustrates the pressures and the conundrums every editor feels. “I took over a picture. One section was not working. It was a comedy and nobody was laughing. When I read the script, it was tremendously funny. When I saw the film, the scene was playing in a master shot. I started working on it, making cuts and picking takes.
“This was on film, so you could see where the splices were. The other editor had been basically doing what I had done. The director, for some reason, took it apart and went back to the master shot. In many cases the editor has an uphill battle to loosen the director from his hold on the movie. Sometimes it’s like holding onto a rock that’s going over a cliff.”
Producer of the documentary The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing, Heim has edited critically acclaimed films such as Network and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, and took home an Oscar for All That Jazz. “I was working with a genius director,” he said about Bob Fosse.
Good storytelling is the essence of good editing, according to Heim, and structure is the key. He also tries to stay away from exposition and let the pictures do the talking. “Movies tend to be long. I try to keep mine as short as possible. I like to keep things moving. If you stop,” said Heim, “They might hit you with fruit. It’s not a good thing.”
Story is also the focus of editor Hughes Winborne, who catapulted from low-budget indie films onto A-list pictures after garnering a best editing Oscar for Crash. After receiving the award, Winborne said, “A lot of things opened up to me that never had been there before.” His credits since then have included Pursuit of Happyness and the Denzel Washington-helmed The Great Debaters, releasing Christmas Day 2007.
Winborne feels that it’s most important to “follow a character’s story, beginning to end, in a way that is cohesive, dramatic and feels true.” An eye for performance is also a good trait for an editor. As someone who is most comfortable in the relative obscurity of editing rooms, Winborne says that actors amaze him. He respects how they expose themselves and deeply inhabit their roles.
Heim believes that editing should be smooth and seamless. “When I look at a film — and, I think, when most editors look at a film — we don’t look at the editing per se,” he said. Winborne agrees: “Quite honestly, when I go to the movies, I don’t watch the editing, unless it’s a film like The Bourne Identity that has such a frenetic pace you can’t help but pay attention to it at least a little bit. In my own work, I hope they don’t notice my editing but pay attention to the story. If they’re not paying attention to the story, then I know I’m in trouble. I think that’s true of any craft.”
Still, Winborne admits he benefited from the rapid pace of Crash. “As far as the Oscars are concerned, films that are dialog as opposed to films that have quick cuts like Crash don’t get noticed as much,” said Winborne.
Farr doesn’t think much about peer approval. “I am more interested in the audience’s reaction to my work,” he said. “Is the movie entertaining and engaging? There are many other considerations depending on the project’s target audience. That’s what is important.”
Last year’s United 93 fits Farr’s standards and is an example of what Heim considers a splendidly edited film, “The editors did an enormous amount of work on that movie, and it shows. You know the story and the ending, so how do you make it interesting? They did. These things don’t come along very often.”
Written by Mary Ann Skweres