If the length of the title wasn’t enough of a giveaway, Alan Edward Bell has a truly huge (and impressive) credits list under his belt. Starting off as an assistant editor in the 80’s where he worked on projects such as Heathers, Alan’s been the lead editor on many of his own projects now. Most recently you can find his work in Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow. Alan spoke to us about making the transition from assistant editor to editor, what editing software to use and how important an editor’s relationship with a director is.
When did you first decide that you wanted to pursue a career in film editing and what were the first steps you took in making it a reality?
Well, that’s an interesting question because, unlike most people, I didn’t really go to film school; I was a rock-climbing guide and a competitive rock-climber. I really just wanted to be outside and be out in nature. I loved movies. My father was in the film industry; he was a construction coordinator and a location scout. So I always loved film and being around the film industry but I didn’t really have any huge desire to get into the industry until I decided I didn’t want to be broke, in my 30s and 40s. I looked around at the older rock climbers, when I was in my twenties, and realised it wasn’t a career that would do well for me as I got older. I realised I wasn’t going to be able to retire like I wanted. I didn’t want to live out of my car, so I did various jobs and I realised I wanted to be an assistant editor.
I had a friend, Steven Nevius who’s an editor. At that time, he was an assistant editor; we grew up together. Steve was working for Robert Leighton. I asked Steve and Bob “How do I become an assistant?” and they kind of laughed and said people go to film school or they pay their dues, you call around, you work for free. I got some numbers from them and eventually my first job was with the film editor Norman Hollyn (now a USC professor). I worked for him for free on Daddy’s Boys and I kept going from there. I went from apprentice editor to my first paid job to second assistant editor and then Maryann Brandon, she gave me my first job as a first assistant and eventually coming full circle and working for Bob Latent who become a long-time mentor of mine. We ended up co-editing Rob Reiner movies, like Alex and Emma and The Story of Us before going out on my own and becoming an editor in my own right.
What video and audio editing system/software do you recommend to editors who are just starting out and still learning the craft?
I recommend all of them! I use AVID Film composer. I think it’s great. I think it needs a lot of work. I think all of them do. Avid is certainly the best for long-form and working with multiple editors at this particular point in time. I think there’s thing Avid could do better but if you’re learning, my recommendation is learn them all. Don’t pigeonhole yourself into one OS. Don’t decide “I only use MAC so I’m going to learn this one or that one” Learn them both. They’re very easy. Don’t play those PC Games. Learn Adobe Premier, Da Vinci Resolve, learn Final Cut Pro, learn Avid. Avid, at the moment, for me, is the tool of choice but I do own those other software.
In the last few years you’ve made the transition to working on largely Indie films to massive blockbusters. Could you describe how this has affected you or your work ethic, if it has at all?
Well it hasn’t really affected my work ethic. To be successful in the industry, it doesn’t matter if it’s an Indie or a blockbuster. In fact, when you’re working on them, you don’t make the distinction. You may have more money in the blockbuster world but there are only 24 hours in the day and even on the Indie film, you’re working way, way long hours that are, after years and years of this, can be very brutal. So I never really looked at them as one or the other. For me, it’s always just been a movie and what’s the best way to make this movie work on the levels that maybe it’s not quite working on. My work ethic has always been pretty hardcore. I put 110% into everything I do and that’s kind of how I got to where I am today. I think if anyone’s going to be in this industry they’re going to have to do the same thing.
Do you think you could pick out the most difficult hurdle you’ve faced in your career and how you decided to deal with it?
The most difficult hurdle was when I decided to become an editor- going from an assistant editor to an editor. I realised that pretty much everyone who had worked with me up until that point, all of those people were not going to see me as an editor. Rob Reiner was really the exception but he was going off Bob’s lead. I did cut a TV show for Rob and it meant a lot that he had that confidence in me. But, by and large, the people that I worked with, the producers, the directors…those people did not look at me as an editor. I knew that once I decided to become an editor, I was sort of starting over. I looked around and I saw my friends, who were assistant editors and they went off and got their first feature and then ended up going back to assisting in order to pay the bills. They did not progress as quickly as they liked. They became frustrated and many of them left the industry or never really ended up editing. They’re still life-long assistants and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, if that’s what you want to do in life. But I really wanted to be an editor, so I decided I would not go back to assisting, no matter what the cost and that meant I had to do other things. Now some of the things that I chose to do actually helped me later in life as an editor. I decided that, at that time, I could do Visual Effects work because I really love computer software and I learned how to do composites on Adobe After Effects and Autodesk Combustion and then eventually Fusion and Nuke and some of these other compositing systems. I leveraged that into being able to do composites for editors and, at that time, there was still a big digital optical business going on, as we were still filming things on film or printing out film. So I utilised that and ended up working for almost two years after my first film, Bait, (since) I didn’t get another job after that. I mean, I did this film that didn’t do real well. It was a good movie but it didn’t make a ton of money. So rather than going back and assistant and staling, I started doing digital composites for people and I was able to leverage that, later in my career, into something I liked to call Performance Enhancing Visual Effects. Where you’ll hear a lot of editors talk about split comps and motion morph and the Avid Fluid Morph. I do that and it’s kind of on steroids. So I’ll cut portions of frames out. I’ll exchange characters and modify the background. Cut an arm off here, put an arm there. Turn someone’s head. Do anything I need to do to make the shot work. I’ll composite in 2D, composite in 3D. I’ll do anything to create the moment I need or warp the footage into something that works, in order to effect the scene in some way. And all of this has to be done invisibly. So, being good at compositing has allowed me to leverage those tools and that knowledge into something that I think is slightly different than most editors’ And it’s a much larger toolset, which directors appreciate.
Could you describe, as an editor, what your working relationship is like with other departments on a film set? Eg. How do you normally get on with the director or cinematographer, as their work so greatly impacts your own?
Well, I think for the most part, I get along with the director really well. If I didn’t, I don’t see how I could work with them. At best, it’s a collaboration; at worst, I’m a pair of hands. I tend not to work for people who treat me like a pair of hands. But, even in the best of circumstances, there are times when a director wants it a certain way, and you may disagree, but you’re going to do it that way. I have a long-standing relationship with several directors who I’ve worked with in the past and I love working with these guys and we get along well. I worked with a lot of different DPs; I completely value what they do and we talk a lot about shots and the why and the wherefores. I think we all compliment each other. When you’re on a movie set and you’re an editor, there really isn’t a whole lot of reason for you to be there, unless the director is looking for specific input. But it’s fun to be around. For me as an editor, whenever I’m on set, I’m always thinking, “Gee, I need to get back to the cutting room” I’m getting behind every second, as they’re shooting.
Alright, what about your relationship with producers?
I meet a lot of producers that are coming out of TV or even some that are just out of school and they do their first feature, and they all have this attitude that the editors work for them. And ultimately, we do. But we don’t get hired by producers. We get vetoed by producers, but we generally don’t get hired by producers, unless we’re being hired for a fixer job. More often that not, we’re hired by directors. As a producer, if you’re contacting a director before the end of their ten weeks, you need to make sure you’re not asking something of an editor, that’s going behind the director’s back. If you send an email to an editor, make sure you CC the director. It can be very, very hard for an editor and director, especially early on when it’s their first time working together, to develop a relationship. And that relationship is built on trust, so be aware of how your communications and relationships with the editor may be affecting that important relationship that the editor and director need to build.
Building on from that point, how much creative input do you normally have on any given project? I think there’s an idea that editors are the technical means, not a creative force of their own.
Here’s what I would say; everybody has a certain level of creative input. The editors can have more or less, depending on who they’re working with, what type of movie it is, and the type of editor they are. In certain instances, you have directors who kind of walk away and you’re just left to your own devices. Do I think that editing’s a highly creative job? Yes! Absolutely! 100%! I’ve worked on shows where my contributions weren’t nearly as appreciated and in that case, I felt little more than a pair of hands. Those tend not to be my repeat customers. I don’t go back for abuse, not that that’s necessarily abusive but it’s not really the type of relationship I’m looking for. Having said that, I do believe that editing is a service industry. We’re there to service the story, service the performances of the actors, service the director’s desire for the film. It’s their vision and their intention that we’re trying to replicate as we’re cutting these scenes together. We’re also servicing the studio and the producers. Ultimately, we’re at the service of the audience. We’re trying to make a movie that the audience will respond to in a positive way or if they’re confused, trying to answer some of those questions. I think editors are highly creative but at the same time, I think we can easily become crafts people and ultimately we are in a service industry. We’re trying to service a lot of different voices on the movie. It’s almost like spinning plates when you’re a picture editor.
You’ve just finished work on Red Sparrow, which marks, if I’m not mistaken, the fourth time you’ve worked on a project staring Jennifer Lawrence. Is there anything about a way that an actor performs that makes the job of the editor easier, and if so, do you think actors should consider the editing more in their performances?
I think Jennifer Lawrence is an amazing talent and a wonderful person. If she could be in every movie I cut, I’d be very grateful. There are some actors and actresses where you are struggling to find the performance. You have five, six… maybe twelve takes and you’re going through them, trying to find the piece that’s going to make the scene do what the scene is supposed to be doing. Or you have actors who can get one piece right and not the next piece. Jennifer Lawrence nails it nearly every single time. And when she’s not nailing it, she’s aware of it and she doesn’t stop until she does. I would say that 90% of her takes are spot-on. If you picked the worst takes of the bunch, and you cut them together, you would still have a pretty decent performance. It really has been a dream cutting her performances from The Hunger Games through to Red Sparrow. I think she’s fantastic and I’m ever grateful to have the opportunity to cut her footage.
I think there are times when matching would be nice. I don’t think actors should really be concentrating on anything (other) than their performance. They should just let the director worry about the editing and the editors will worry about the editing when we get the footage. I don’t really want them thinking technically when they’re out there performing. I mean, emotion and connectivity is more important and they are a number of things we can do in post-production to alleviate continuity, inconsistencies and things like that. I really don’t think actors should be worried too much about editing in their performances; just giving us good performances, that’s the way to get a good cut.
How important do you think it is to cultivate personal relationships within the industry?
I think everybody should be your friend and if they’re not, you should at least be on a civil relationship with them. I think that the industry is built on personal relationships and they’re an enormous help in terms of making your career go smoothly and taking you ahead. I also think that people need to think of the industry…I meet a lot of young people and it seems like they’re going through life thinking that it’s a zero-sum game. If somebody else is doing well, then that means they aren’t doing well themselves. I think you’ll find that if you align yourself with people who are creative, successful, positive, who want to do well and want you to do well, that you will succeed. If you are worried about other people’s successes and you find yourself thinking “Gee, that person got that great job. How lucky are they?!” you should really be asking yourself, “What can I do to replicate that luck?” because most people aren’t as lucky as you think. They’re just tenacious. Somebody else’s success does not necessarily mean your failure.
If someone wants to pursue a career in editing, how would you recommend they go about it? Do you have any top tips for up and coming editors?
Plan on working very hard. Learn all the tools. Don’t think you come out of film school thinking just because you took a certificate class that you’ve got it done. “I know editing, I know Avid. I can use the software” The software is the tool and knowing how to use the tool is just one part of it. Knowing when, where to cut and why you’re cutting, those are more important things. Cut as much as you possibly can. Work hard. Find somebody who will support and mentor you, who is willing to let you edit. Don’t expect them to give you all the credit but they should be helping you to learn to edit. Those are the people you should want to continue to work with. Support them. Ask yourself not what they can do for you, but what can you do for them? How can you make yourself more valuable to them? Your expectations should simply be that they should help you. Then, when the time is right, you’ll be able to move on and edit.
Interview by Reece Mawhinney. This interview has been edited and condensed. (Images courtesy of TSG Entertainment, Avid and Dune Entertainment, respectively, in that order)