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Shaping a Story: How Editors Contribute to the ‘Final Re-Write’ of a Movie

The IndieWire Editors’ Showcase Panel was hosted by feature film and documentary editor Steve Hullfish, who also hosts the popular editing podcast, “Art of the Cut.”

Sundance 2022 is in the books. Filmmakers delivered a collection of 85 features, 59 short films, 6 Indie episodics, and 15 New Frontier projects. All of these projects relied on talented editors to shape the films into their final form. To celebrate those editorial film professionals, IndieWire gathered four editors to discuss their craft in the IndieWire Editors Showcase Panel.

The video of the panel can be viewed above.

Providing their perspective on the editorial storytelling of their projects were:

Cecily Rhett, who edited the documentary “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power.” The film is director Nina Menkes’ exploration of the obsession over objectifying women in cinema. Nels Bangerter was the editor of “Riotsville, USA,” an archival documentary about the military training the police to respond to domestic civil disorder in the ‘60s. Harrison Atkins was the editor of the narrative feature film “Emily the Criminal,” a crime thriller which follows Emily (Aubrey Plaza) as she slides uneasily into a life of credit card fraud. And Sophia de Baun, who edited the narrative short film “Chiqui,” which tells the personal story of the director’s parents’ emigration from Colombia to the US in 1987.

Numerous editing concepts were discussed in the panel that tended to receive support and nods of agreement from the other editors. The first thing that resonated with the group was Harrison’s opinion that his creative impulses were like “auditions” for the director.

The discussion also encompassed the idea of objectivity, with Bangerter positing that one of the important things an editor does is to create a mental picture of what the audience is feeling and receiving the story.

Most editors are keenly aware of the structure of their film. Often this is initially understood through reading the script. But with documentaries, many times the structure is developed in the cutting room. Rhett approached the documentary she worked on using her skills and experience as a writer and as a narrative feature editor. Of paramount importance to her in helping director Nina Menkes develop the story of her film was building a solid structure before they started editing.

All editors must deal with collaboration and receiving notes from a wide range of contributors. Despite the fact that the panel consisted of fiction and non-fiction editors, their attitudes and approaches to dealing with notes were a common bond. For de Baun, her experience on previous projects has led her to understand that you cannot know the direction that even a “bad” note can take you. Even a note that doesn’t work can open up other ideas and possibilities.

This inherent tension is something Harrison attributed to the fact that the editor is an intermediary — a “midwife” — between an artist and their art project. The thing that mitigates that tension is a bedrock of trust that has to be built between the director and the editor, which turns a conflict into a collaboration to overcome an obstacle.

Another point of common experience is working with a director. Bangerter compared his relationship with his director more like that of a director and an actor. Instead of specific directions, they preferred communicating about motivation. This provides the editor with a better understanding of where the director wants to take the film. Harrison loved the comparison between editor and actor and said that “the most fruitful collaborations he’s had have been when it seems like the director casts him as the editor.”

Watching dailies is another thing that the group could bond over. Rhett described the way she watches dailies “with her antenna out — just to see where the emotions are.” It becomes evident, watching interviews, when she sees people “turn on.” Then it becomes a matter of “putting all the live parts together to get the blood flowing through.” (Paraphrasing Andrei Tarkovsky)

De Baun described two scenes in her film that were complete and separate scenes in the script, but in editing, it felt right to cut into and out of them “in medias res” allowing the energy to flow between them in a more direct fashion than if the scenes were allowed to play out with a beginning, middle and end. For her “It’s so important to have a dynamism and a variation of how you’re transitioning from scene to scene. It can be really exciting to just jump into the middle of something.” Harrison also loved the idea of cutting “in medias res” to keep the audience “a little bit on their back foot so they don’t feel like they’re catching up to the narrative ideas in the movie.”

In trying to determine what would survive the edit and what would end up on the cutting room floor, Rhett described the importance of having a guiding principle to help determine what stayed and what went. For them, “shot design was the North Star.” For many ideas and seemingly great moments or arguments, it was a “vicious battle” to get into the film.

All of these ideas showed the tremendous similarities among these diverse filmmakers and storytellers while also highlighting the many ways that editors contribute to the “final re-write” of the film. But it also showed that there are numerous methods and approaches that can be used to achieve a great result.

Presenting sponsor Adobe — with a mission to enable creativity for all — is committed to supporting, elevating and amplifying underrepresented creators, so the world can see, learn and benefit from diverse perspectives. Learn more at Adobe.com Diverse Voices. The upcoming 2022 festival marks the fifth consecutive year IndieWire and Adobe have joined forces for the IndieWire Studio at Sundance.

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