May 2004

Directors and Editors

There can be no more interwoven relationship in filmmaking than that between a director and editor. In most cases, after the editor is clear on the director's overall vision, how the story actually takes shape begins while the director is still shooting on set. Because of the trust and reliance directors must place in their editors, many have maintained career-long collaborations with those they feel to be their creative soul mates.


Monica Bellucci and director Spike Lee on the set of his latest film She Hate Me

There can be no more interwoven relationship in filmmaking than that between a director and editor. In most cases, after the editor is clear on the director's overall vision, how the story actually takes shape begins while the director is still shooting on set. Because of the trust and reliance directors must place in their editors, many have maintained career-long collaborations with those they feel to be their creative soul mates.

Film history is full of them: Mike Nichols and Sam O'Steen, Steven Spielberg and Michael Kahn, Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, Barry Levinson and Stu Linder, to name a few. Devoted teams like these remind us of how truly collaborative filmmaking is. "It's like a Ping-Pong game, in a way," says Robert Altman of working with his longtime editor Geraldine Peroni. "I hit the ball to Gerry and it comes back with a different spin on it. Then I hit it back with a different spin. The relationship between the editor, DP and myself is the triangle. When all three work at the same time, together, then it's a joy."

In a relationship frequently compared to a marriage, these teams will generally tell you that they got together not because of a particular appreciation and examination of each other's work, but simply because of how they related to each other as people.

"It's about sharing something in common, whether it's a sensibility or taste," says Peroni regarding her collaboration with Altman. Among the films Altman and Peroni have been collaborators on are Vincent and Theo, The Player, Short Cuts, Dr. T and the Women and The Company. "Having the same take on things is critical to speaking the same language."

Spike Lee and Barry Alexander Brown figure they've done about 75 films, commercials and shorts together, since they first met when Lee was at Morehouse College and saw Brown's 1979 Oscar-nominated documentary, The War at Home, about the civil rights movement. Thereafter, as each did their own projects, they would ask each other to help out. Brown cut sound on She's Gotta Have It, and has edited the lion's share of Lee's work ever since.

"One of the reasons Spike and I became friends," Brown says, "is that very early on there was a simpatico in the way we looked at and thought about movies. We both wanted to do unusual movies, not the run-of-the-mill formula pictures. At the same time, I think we both had a deep appreciation for the importance of entertainment. We worked together for so many years, at a time when we were both learning so much about movies, it was like growing up together. It goes back and forth in terms of learning stuff and trying stuff out."

The fact that long-term collaborations such as these began while both director and editor were learning their crafts seems to play no small part in their ability to keep working together so successfully. "I'd say luck had a lot to do with how well we worked out," says DGA National Board Member Betty Thomas of her longtime collaboration with her editor, Peter Teschner. "Also, the fact that we grew up [in film] together. We got better together."

The trust these teams develop in one another comes to affect the way they do or don't communicate about a project, as well. Though editors know what the director's vision of the film will be from the time they come on board, few seem to speak directly about a particular aesthetic vision, and all editors cut on their own, while the director is still shooting on set. "I would say, when we get together, we rarely talk about the editing," says Peroni. "What we do is really intuitive." "It's like a long marriage," replies Altman, with the metaphoric perspective of the elder statesman he is. "At breakfast time you talk about the news." There is, after all, a reason these editors were initially hired, and why they continue to be so, film after film. They intuitively want what their directors want, and see what they see.

"The very first pictures we did together, like School Daze and Do the Right Thing, I was editing after production was done because neither one of us felt confident enough to start cutting and not be together," says Brown. "But what works best most of the time, now, is watching dailies together and my writing notes throughout the process. Spike knows what he's after when he goes out there. I guess you have those conversations with somebody who's really inexperienced," he says, when asked about the extent of their discussions in pre-production. "We've worked too long together," Lee says.

"Betty's always been pretty trusting in terms of allowing me to do my cut and then looking at it," says Peter Teschner. "I'd send her video tapes of whatever I'd done during the week."

Overt pre-planning or no, across the board, the reliance the director has on his/her editor comes through in the specific and tangible ways of a true collaboration. "He's editing while I'm shooting, and sends me edited pieces at the end of every week," Thomas describes. "If I miss something he always has said, 'Didn't you want something there, that close-up, because of the joke ... ?' "

"We haven't had the luxury of production schedule to let him wait until I'm done shooting, but there's no need to," says Lee, expressing a fairly universal sentiment. "I have total confidence in Barry. When a scene's done he shows it to me. I'm never there initially. The first time I really come in is when a section is showing."

Director Robert Altman on the set

"I think common taste has a lot to do with it," Altman adds. "I know many times I'll shoot a certain thing and Ms. Peroni — you can tell by her face that she finds it in bad taste. I'll say, 'I know, but I want it to be in bad taste,' and she'll say, 'Really?' and already I'm blindsided by her because I know what she thinks of the material because she can't disguise her feelings. So that affects me. It gets to the point where I could be shooting a scene and a little bird will jump in my ear and say, 'Gerry's not going to like this.' "

The importance of that dissenting voice seems to be generally enjoyed by directors in successful collaborations. "If Peter disagrees, there's never been a time when he's been unwilling to say so," says Thomas. "That's so important as you get to do bigger pictures or to keep directing. At that point you'd better have someone around you that's gonna say, 'Are you nuts?' because you can lose your mind pretty easily. I couldn't do it without that."

"Her voice is an influence," Altman says of Peroni. "I used to fight much more than I do now because my feeling was that this is my picture. After several projects, though, I figured she knows what to do."

"I could put it together and it would be in the vein of what you want," Peroni responded, "because you shot it and I sort of know how to interpret it. In terms of there being a dissenting voice," Peroni continued, speaking to the common perspective successful collaborators naturally share, "if I was dissenting all the time, we wouldn't be working together. It's only in certain moments that that bird is going off."

Overall, these relationships enjoy longevity because of a larger shared sensibility, set, of course, by the director. "What it comes down to," says Brown, "is that, as an editor, I decided a long time ago that a movie is a director's picture. So many of the cuts are going to be the editor's cut no matter what. Even if Spike comes in and says, 'this is the way I want this scene,' even if you had it 50/50 that's pretty fair, but usually it's not even that. Usually he'll come in and say, 'I like most of that, let's change this.' For both of us, we're just trying to discover the best cut, not to hang on to an idea and not try something."

"I think of it as the government thing of advise and consent," says Teschner. "It's up to me to point out my opinion and tell her what I think. Typically, if I feel really strongly about something, she'll give me my way, at least for a screening. There's not that many times where it's a contentious, either this or that. It's usually more that evolving process, as the movie makes its way down that path and you figure it out. So much in comedy, it's a question of 'Are the jokes playing or are they not,' and you find that out when you screen it before an audience. There was one point in Private Parts when the audience just exploded, and we just looked at each other and said, 'Go figure.' "

"For me," Lee notes, "I always look to discover things in a scene. Especially, when I'm directing, there's a lot of people yelling and screaming, and a lot of times I won't see things. We have a scene in She Hate Me in which Monica Bellucci turns to the camera and there's a tear running down her face. I turned to Barry the other day while we were mixing and said, 'How'd she do that?' Now, I didn't see that when we shot it. There's stuff you discover in the editing room that you weren't aware of when you're shooting. You hope you find stuff like that."

Of course, editing involves not just agreeing on when to cut, but when not to cut, as was so important to the opening, and perhaps most memorable, shot in The Player — the extended, beautifully choreographed tracking shot, which is an homage/joke on the long opening shot of Touch of Evil. "The idea of cutting that never even came up," says Peroni, "although I do have to say that an editor that I had worked for as an assistant did see the film and say, 'What's with that opening shot? You've gotta cut that!' It would have been a tragedy." "Editing isn't always about cutting," concurs Brown. "Sometimes it's all about staying with a cut, understanding that you have a great moment."

The editor can also play a major role on helping the director maintain his focus during the shoot. In the Feb.-Mar. 1994 issue of DGA News, director Steven Spielberg talked about the unusual situation he was having while filming Schindler's List. Though he and longtime collaborator Michael Kahn had finished editing Jurassic Park, once or twice a week while on location in Poland, Spielberg spent several hours in the evening reviewing CGI dinosaur shots being sent via satellite to him from ILM.

"It was very disruptive for me because I was very involved with Schindler's List," Spielberg said. "To interrupt that for an hour-and-a-half of make-believe dinosaurs was very risky. And so what Mike Kahn did was very smart. I was always angry when I had to do a transmission. I would not look forward to it. Mike said, 'I've got an idea. We used to edit [Schindler's] before transmission. Why don't we wait until after the last transmission of the velociraptor and we can sit down and edit for two hours on Schindler's. That way, you'll go to bed with Schindler on your mind, and not the velociraptor.' We cut six days a week and had transmissions twice a week. So we could transmit from 7:30 to 9 and cut from 9 to 11 those nights. That was great."

During production of Do the Right Thing, there was a shot done on a Thursday in which Da' Mayor (Ossie Davis) pushes a kid out of the way of an oncoming car. Lee was shooting in Bed-Stuy (Bedford-Stuyvesant) at 11, when Brown got the dailies from the previous day.

"I'm looking at this footage," Brown recalls, "and I don't believe that the car is right on the kid — it looks like it's half a block away, which is where the car is. I know that a lot of the people in the scene are going to be gone or out of the country the next day. So I call Spike and I say, 'I think we have a problem in that I don't believe this shot, and you gotta believe that this kid's really about to get hit.' So, he said, 'Come out here.' So, I go out to Bed-Stuy; it's the days of 35mm film where we don't have video or anything, so there's no way to show Spike the film. So, I tell him what it looks like and he's like 'Well, how do we fix it?' I knew something about how the further you get from objects, the closer they can appear to each other, so I said, 'I think if we put the camera out here, it could work." Up for the experiment, Lee, Brown and DP Ernest Dickerson set up the shot a block or two away to flatten the distance, which wound up being the shot that made it into the film.

(Top) Director Betty Thomas (below) editor Peter Teschner

For those who are able to fairly describe their relationship as long, probably the greatest factor which has affected the way in which they work together has been the introduction of digital offline editing, offered by systems like AVID and Lightworks. Lee and Brown are two filmmakers who resisted the switch as long as they could, suggesting that Avid has made filmmakers lazy or cut-happy, or that they are trying to "stumble upon their movie," even doing Summer of Sam (1999) on a Steenbeck.

"I think, in a lot of ways, Avid has made for lazier filmmakers," comments Lee, "like they can't commit. Like, 'Let's do x number of choices and do "eenie meenie minie moe," instead of working toward that one definitive cut. That's not the way we do it. Music videos, that's where it all comes from.' Somehow the powers that be said, 'In order to keep these young kids attentive, we've gotta cut-cut-cut. They're not gonna stand still if we hold a shot for longer than 10 seconds.' Cut-cut-cut-cut-cut. I grew up watching all those great musicals that always show the human body from head to toe, so you could see the grace of them. Now you see elbow, foot. And they would hold a shot. You look at An American in Paris, or Singin' in the Rain, you see the full body. The camera was choreographed. This stuff isn't choreographed. They get 10 cameras, set 'em up, have somebody dance, and then put it together in the editing room. Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Donen and those guys — they did a lot of those things in one take, on a crane, too! To me, now it's like they don't have any concept of what they're going to do, so they just decide to place the cameras here, get coverage, and then put all these pieces together in the editing room."

Other filmmakers, however, embraced offline editing more immediately. "Especially in comedy," says Thomas, "I think it allows for a greater variation of finding the joke and finding the movie. You look at that first editor's cut and think, 'Oh, Jesus, what were we thinking? Where's the story?' And that's just because they put everything in there. We all know you have to focus the story and that's what happens, but at least you're allowed to try so many different things. The Charlie Kaufman-type film, where the linearity isn't as important — or is very important — to break it up and find a structure all its own, that feels so much easier and more fun on an AVID. You do find yourself holding back when it's on film and you know it's going to be a big deal."

The editor's new ability to send video tapes of edited scenes to the director on a frequent basis has probably had a greater impact on the director's work, as he/she continues to shoot. Altman describes the particular advantage he felt on Dr. T & the Women, being able to finish shooting and then visit Peroni to watch completed scenes. "I was able to see what else we could do, because it sort of sets a style earlier. If an editing style of a scene works, it helps me when I go back and shoot the rest of the film. Even when we're working separated, like with The Company, with Gerry in New York and me in Chicago, because of videotape, cut scenes could be sent to me the next day. Those helped define the style of the picture. I think it's better if we can sit together to do those things, but it's not necessary."

The increased flexibility can have its drawbacks, as Peroni describes, who, for the first time, was not on location with Altman as they made The Company. "I think one of the saddest things about not being on location and with shooting on HD on The Company, is not having the end of the day dailies, which I always found to be a really important part of the day for me. I would screen the dailies and watch them with Bob and the crew. Hearing people react to them either reinforces your take on them from the beginning, or you see something that was funny that you didn't notice. It's something that's definitely a loss, not having the daily sessions."

Each has a job to do, and trusts the other to do it, but the greater the ability for direct collaboration, it is felt, the better the film will be.


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams working on feature films.

More from this topic