Even after 18 years of editing award-winning commercials, Dan Swietlik was unprepared for editing a long-form documentary when he was asked to cut An Inconvenient Truth.
Swietlik had edited green, anti-oil company PSAs for people associated with producers Laurie David and Lawrence Bender. When they come up with the idea of having Al Gore turn his global warming presentation into a film, they brought the same team together to work on it.
Despite his long-form inexperience, that effort resulted in Swietlik garnering an ACE Eddie for Best Edited Documentary Film in 2007. And to prove that the ACE win was no fluke, Swietlik took home the Best Edited Documentary Award this year as well, this time for Michael Moore’s Academy-nominated health care expose´, Sicko. “If somebody had told me two years ago what I would be doing,” comments Swietlik, “I would never have believed it. It was a great synergy of one thing leading to the next.”
Moore was a big fan of An Inconvenient Truth. That turned into a meeting. One week later Swietlik was on his way to New York to get started on Sicko. The quick start was a surprise to Swietlik, who runs the Santa Monica office of commercial editing house Cut + Run.
“That was a big move for me,” confirms Swietlik. “In the original discussions, Michael planned on taking three months to cut, but as we walked out of that meeting the line producer pulled me aside and said he’s usually overly optimistic and she had planned on six months. As it turned out, I was in New York for 11 months. I think that is typical on documentaries. You should plan at least a year.” Fortunately his wife and employees picked up the slack and kept the commercial company running smoothly.
By the time that Moore hired Swietlik, the project’s four field producers, as well as the main producer, had been researching characters, stories and issues, then going out and shooting them for over a year. When Swietlik walked into the New York edit suite, he was met with a mountain of HD footage to sort through.
To tackle the daunting challenge, Swietlik approached each interview, character or institution as a separate scene, “It was really character-driven. In Europe the character might be an institution such as a hospital. We would find the character or topic and cut that as a standalone scene.”
As scenes were cut, they were put on giant corkboard in Moore’s office, which was used to map out a paper edit before any scenes were strung together. There were at least 50 index cards posted, each with a different character or topic. “It was completely collaborative,” says Swietlik. “Michael is the type who lets the editors do the initial shaping of the film. Then he watches from the approach of an audience. That’s how he shapes it. He gives a lot of freedom to the editors to put things together and write the film.”
Structuring the film was a huge challenge. All the footage was watched and selects were pulled. Only the most critical scenes were transcribed since the production did not have the time or finances to have full transcripts of all the taped footage. Instead, the assistants created “poor man’s transcripts” by using the locator tool in the Avid as a quick reference to navigate by.
Moore looked at each scene after it was cut. In a very reactive process, he decided how strong a scene was, giving it a thumbs up or down on whether it would remain in the film. Instead of putting the film together based on a script, the film was loosely put together. As they gained an understanding of scenes, Moore would write an outline act by act. “It got re-written every week,” says Swietlik. “A lot of time was spent undoing what we had done and re-structuring it.”
There were three topics that Moore intended to address in Sicko – the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry and the hospital industry. After a few months, they realized it would be a six-hour movie.
“The hardest thing about a documentary is not figuring out what you want to say, but realizing what you don’t have the time to say.” says Swietlik. “You struggle. You have to abandon some of the initial ideas that you had and find the focus that makes it as entertaining and palatable as possible. You don’t want to overwhelm the viewer. And of course in Sicko, we had to keep reminding ourselves that it was supposed to be a comedy. That is Michael’s brilliance. He can find a way to twist the darkest things to make you laugh, even though you are laughing through the pain.”
From the first discussions, it was evident that at least two editors would be needed on a project with such a huge topic. Swietlik started in July, Geoffrey Richman came on in October and Chris Seward joined up in November. Ultimately the project had four Avids attached to a Unity for editing. Although there were “scenes that were our own,” due to the time demands of the schedule the editors handed scenes off to each other.
As the film was built into longer sequences, it would be divvied up by acts. “The edges were very blurred between who cut what because we were modifying so much,” says Swietlik. “It got handed around a lot.”
New materials were constantly coming into the cutting room. A whole wave of footage came in six months into the process when Moore shot in Europe. Archival footage was collected up to the day the finishing process began. Swietlik and the rest of the editorial team were continuously constructing new scenes for the film as they finessed the structure. “Some of the stuff that we thought were the funniest, most outrageous scenes in September, were pulled out of the film in March,” informs Swietlik.
Near the end of post, first assistant Daniel Cuthbert informed Swietlik that there were 1,000 hours in the system. They had to purge some media from the Unity just to make space for new footage that was coming in. “The assistants had their hands full,” confirms Swietlik.
The experience was an enlightening one for Swietlik. Although commercial editing can be very intense, the end is always in sight. Documentaries are complete immersion in the subject matter. “The awakening for me was how much the editor has to write in documentaries,” says Swietlik. “And how much you have to live and breathe that topic.”