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Cutting Conversations: Editors Discuss Career and Process in Oldham's New Book

By Cynthia Close

First Cut 2: More Conversations with Film Editors
Published by University of California Press 2012
By Gabriella Oldham

Although it has been 20 years since the publication of First Cut, author Gabriella Oldham's series of interviews with film editors, it feels to her-and may feel to us-like "the blink of an eye," given the magnitude of technological change that has impacted the field during the past two decades.

In this second volume, First Cut 2: More Conversations with Film Editors, Oldham makes reference to In the Blink of an Eye (2001), the classic book by veteran film editor Walter Murch, considered a pioneer in the "digital revolution." That phrase has become an indispensable part of the popular lexicon for anyone working in film today. Murch's name pops up in many of the interviews, indicating the pervasiveness of his views. One of Oldham's stated goals in this edition was balancing the old (which in this case is the 1970s and 1980s, as opposed to the 1930s and '40s, which she used as a touchstone in her first book of interviews) with the new, digital world of seemingly endless possibilities. She managed this balancing act in her selection of editors, some of whom, like Richard Chew (of Star Wars fame), have been editing film since the 1960s, while a majority of her other subjects seem to have entered the field just at the cusp of change in the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s.

Oldham's decision to give equal weight to documentary and feature film editing was a huge plus, and adds to the importance of this volume. In the first edition, 23 documentary and fiction film editors were chronicled through a more formal thematic deconstruction of the decision-making involved in their craft. In this edition, cutting the interviews down to 12 allowed for more in-depth explorations of the editors' thought processes and a more personal approach, including aspects of how their lives inform their work, and reflections on what being an editor means today. Of the 12 editors represented in First Cut 2, four are woman: Julie Monroe, who apprenticed with Oliver Stone and whose first credit was as associate editor on Stone's JFK; Lucia Zucchetti, whose 2006 feature film The Queen garnered her several editing awards; Emma Hickox, whose mother, Anne V. Coates, was the award-winning editor of Lawrence of Arabia; and Kate Amend, who is notable for her focus on portraying the conditions of women in several powerful documentary films. Although there are twice as many men featured in this volume, the choice of including these woman is significant. While the positions of director, producer and editor are still male-dominated, women are increasingly being recognized for their top-notch work and achievements in both feature and documentary film. This book gives us an opportunity to compare and contrast a woman's impact as an editor on a film, and to assess whether gender plays any significant role in how a story is told.     


Kate Amend. Photo: Jill Orschel


A full filmography for each editor precedes the respective interview-a most useful tool in revealing both a career and an oeuvre. Some editors, like Richard Chew, enjoyed periods of extremely high productivity and success. Between 1974 and 1978 Chew worked with directors Frances Ford Coppola on The Conversation, Milos Forman on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, George Lucas on Star Wars and Jack Nicholson on Goin' South. Kate Amend and Joe Bini, on the other hand, formed collaborations with specific directors that have spanned decades. Amend worked with Christine Fugate on five films from 1992 to 2005, while Bini has edited all of Werner Herzog's films since the mid-1990s, from the 1997 film Little Dieter Learns to Fly through Into the Abyss and its companion television series, On Death Row. The Bini/Herzog partnership is most fascinating, given the controversial and visually striking nature of their films. Initially Bini had not been interested in working in the documentary genre. His main focus was fiction, and an extreme kind of "fantasy fiction" at that. The fact that Herzog has always challenged documentary conventions about reality and truth helps to explain his attraction to working with someone like Bini. The discussion of the evolution of the storyline in the 2005 film Grizzly Man is fascinating, lending insight to the deeply personal, intimate relationship that can form among the editor, director and subject of a film.


From Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, edited by Joe Bini.


With an eye towards "striking a balance," Oldham included Michael Tronick, who began his long and diverse career as a music editor in 1977 with the film Semi-Tough, directed by Michael Ritchie. Tronick was actually a political science major at UCLA, where he was on the fast track to law school. He got derailed when he started working on his friends' student films and taking film history classes. His dilemma regarding his transition out of academia and into film will strike a cord with many students who don't want to disappoint their parents, but can't help being drawn to more creative work. Tronick began editing when "film" meant celluloid, but he now elaborates on the complexities of editing in 3D, with green screens and computer-generated special effects.

Victor Livingston's editing career encompasses reality TV as well as such landmark documentaries as Terry Zwigoff's Crumb (1994), Alex Stapleton's Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011) and Lauren Greenfield's The Queen of Versailles (2012). Oldham poses some very provocative questions regarding the nature of reality TV, its validity and whether it could be considered a subgenre of documentary film. Livingston's ensuing discussion of the matter is illuminating, and would be of interest to any young filmmaker who is juggling a paying career in TV with what might be considered more creative, "honest" work.

Much of the tension and drama as an editor is derived from the relationship with the director. In the case of Alan Berliner, he is writer, director, cinematographer, editor, sound editor and producer on all his films. He and his films are inseparable, making his obsessions all his own. It seems like an unbearable burden, but his comments on being a truly independent filmmaker will reverberate with others who find themselves able to fill all these roles, thanks for the most part to the advances of the "digital revolution."


From Alan Berliner's First Cousin Once Removed.


In First Cut 2, Gabriella Oldham has fulfilled her goal of delivering an updated, balanced, entertaining and in-depth survey of film editing through the voices and experiences of those practitioners who have lived their lives, telling stories that matter, from celluloid to the digital age.

 Cynthia Close is the former president of Documentary Educational Resources. She currently resides in Burlington, Vermont, where she consults on the business of film and serves on the advisory board of the Vermont International Film Festival.