There’s a lot of debate over whether film school is really worth it, for making it as a filmmaker. Could you talk about your own feelings on the matter?
So, I went to NYU, and from my perspective, film school was invaluable. It gave me a well-rounded understanding of what all of the people in the key crew positions on a movie do, which has directly related to the work that I do in my own career. Because I understand what the cinematographer has to go through, it makes it easier for me to talk to the D.P. about lenses and about lighting. I just feel that by having a better understanding of what they do, it makes it easier for me to talk to them, something which is frequently required for my job.
Also, when I was at film school, everyone was there with the intention of becoming a director. The process of performing all of these crew positions showed me that my favourite part of the process was editing. So yes, I went to film school to become a director (and maybe even now I harbour some of those ambitions), but I realised that in a class of 200 people, the odds of us all getting directing jobs were fairly slim. So (film school) showed me that I really enjoy editing; it’s my favourite part of the process. Honestly, I think it’s the closest to directing because you’re still figuring out how to tell the story visually and you’re crafting performances. It gave me a good craft on which to focus and that started me on the path to where I am currently.
The other major positive of my film school experience was forming relationships with my classmates. The people with whom I was close, most of us moved out to Los Angeles within about a two-year period after graduation. As a result, it gave all of us a good little network. A support system. Not only in that we’re all coming out here and no one knows anyone but also career-wise. As one of us advanced, we’d be able to help the others and certainly I’ve hired friends of mine to work with me. The movie I edited a few years ago, Bone Tomahawk, was written and directed by my college roommate, so certainly, the relationships that I formed I think were invaluable and continue to be.
What video and audio editing system/software do you recommend to editors who are just starting out and still learning the craft?
I’ve been using Avid for my entire career. I know Adobe Premiere has gotten very popular in the low-budget world, but personally, I’m an Avid guy, so I’d say start with the consumer version of Avid.
Editing comes across as a very “you learn by doing” sort of profession. Can you talk us through how you got your first editing job and how you might recommend others to get that first editing job today?
I can definitely do the first! The former I can do, the latter is kind of a crapshoot! (laughs) I got very, very lucky. So I started out working as an assistant editor. My focus was always to ultimately become an editor but I knew that you could start out as an assistant editor, an apprentice editor and work your way up. I was an assistant for nine years before I moved up and while I was an assistant, I worked with a post-production supervisor on a couple of different movies. He had also been a director earlier in his career, so, in the interest of getting his opinion, I showed him my “Editor’s Reel.” It was a twenty-minute reel of a bunch of different scenes that I’d put together. Everything from stuff that I’d done in film school to legitimate movies that I worked on in Hollywood where the editor had let me cut a scene or two. So, I showed him my reel and he was like “Huh! You definitely understand what you’re doing!”
And so, in 2001, maybe 2002, Justin Lin sold the movie Better Luck Tomorrow to MTV Films at Sundance and they said to him, we’re going to release your movie but first we want to find out if there is anything more you want to do with it. If there’s anything you want to change, let us know because now is the time. And Lin said, “There are a few things that I would like to tweak in the edit of the movie.” Justin had edited the movie himself, but he said, “I don’t want to be an editor anymore. Could you hire someone to work with me, as an editor.” So, this post-production supervisor, to whom I had shown my reel, he said “I think I’ve got the right guy for you. I think you’ll get along really well, and we could get him pretty cheaply!” (laughs) And, of course, when the opportunity was presented to me, I jumped at it. They set up a screening of the movie for me and I totally loved it and I was like I don’t know how much you really want to change but I’m happy to be of service! So, I came on and worked with Justin for a couple weeks on that and a few months later, the head of Paramount, which oversaw MTV Films, said to Justin, “Is there anything that you would like to shoot additionally for the movie?” and Justin said “You know what, I’ve never really been happy with the ending of the movie. I don’t think it’s quite doing what I intended it to. I’d be interested in shooting a new ending.” And they set up the shoot and then Justin called me and said he’d like me to edit it. And we got along really well and I knew in that position, this is my big shot to show Justin how hard I’m going to work and what I’m going to do. I remember the first day, I had not one but two different versions of the sequence that Justin had shot. I felt like there were a bunch of different ways to put it together and I wanted to give him multiple options. And he was like “Wow! You’ve given me some really good options and I can see the amount of work you’ve put into it.” It was probably another year or so before Justin got his first studio movie which was Annapolis, for Touchstone Pictures. I guess what I did worked, because Justin called me and said “I’m really trying to get you onto this movie.” That was a huge deal. It was a $25 million budget movie but Justin only ended up being able to bring along three crew members from Better Luck Tomorrow and I was one of them. It was a big deal for the studio to take a risk on an editor who had a handful of additional editing credits to his name and no full features that anyone had ever heard of. A friend of mine explained it to me like this: the editor is the most replaceable crew member. If they’re not happy with your work, you’re working on a computer and they could go back and start from scratch and they’re not paying you that much, so they haven’t really lost anything. So again, it was a situation where I knew I had to step up and work as hard as I possibly could. And it was nights and weekends and everything, but I made it through and I was really proud of the result. And then Justin brought me on to do his next few movies also, so yeah, that’s basically how I started.
How difficult is it to get into a union, for example MPEG, and how valuable is it being in a union for an editor (or any post-production team member, if you feel you can speak for them)?
So, the difficulty kind of varies. This is another situation where I got very lucky. I’d been told that in order to get into a union, you had to have 100 days of paid work on a non-union movie. I had worked as an apprentice editor on a couple of movies in New York before I moved out to L.A., and the editor of one of those movies gave me a few names of editors he knew in L.A. When I first got to L.A., I met with those editors and they then gave me names of other friends of theirs working in post-production. One of them, a post-production supervisor at New Line, told me that when I got into the Editor’s Guild, I should let him know because all of their films were union, so he couldn’t do anything with me until I was in the Guild. So I started out in the low-budget world, working on low-budget action movies. I ended up getting those 100 days on this picture called Crossworlds. After that, I went to the union, filled out my paperwork and showed them my paystubs from the work I had done. I got letters from producers saying I had done the work. And then I was in and the next thing I did was call this post-production supervisor to let him know that I had gotten into the union. He remembered me and he said “We’ve got this movie coming up about the porn industry in the seventies and we need an apprentice editor.” So I went in for an interview and I got my first union apprentice editor job. So being in the union, that’s how you get the chance to work on union movies. So that, in and of itself, is very valuable. The other thing, being in the union, you get health benefits, which are also extremely valuable for anyone living in this country! (laughs)
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, the director is my partner on the movie. My job is to be that person’s right-hand man, and so I like to stay in pretty constant communication, giving my thoughts about the dailies, and if I see something that I think we need but we don’t have, I’ll bring it up. Though, if I’m honest, it’s been a long time since I’ve had to do that. I’ve been very fortunate with the filmmakers with whom I’ve gotten to work. And then, obviously, once production’s ended on the movie, I’m spending anywhere from 8-12 hours a day sitting in a room with that person, so…(laughs) yeah, I’ve got a pretty strong relationship with the director.
With all the other crew positions, it’s all generally filtered through the producers. If I have something I need to talk to the cinematographer about, I certainly am able to email them directly but not being on set myself – and not being aware of the level of chaos on that set – I will usually talk to the producer first and kind of gauge if this is something I should just pass through them or if this is something where I need to talk to the crew person directly. But I find that it’s always a good thing to have a good relationship with the other crew members. It’s just going to make for a better working environment and the final product will be better.
I think what some people overlook is how much an editor needs to connect with the emotions of the scenes and characters. Could you give examples, say from your work on Hateful Eight or Guardians, how much time you were given to interact with the script and actors?
So there’s not a lot of interaction I have with the actors. But there’s always a process of working on a Marvel movie for example, which is something I learned when I interviewed for the first Guardians. Victoria Alonso, who is one of the chief executives there at Marvel, she interviewed me, and she said to me, “Listen, we make our movies here by committee. This is something you need to understand going in.” It presented quite a frightening image to me of a bunch of executives sitting around myself and my computer, telling me what to do. But the truth is, it wasn’t like that at all. What it really was, was once we got past the director’s cut of the movie, the three chief executives at Marvel and the producer would sit in a room with myself and my co-editor and James Gunn, the director. We would all just talk about every decision we were going to make and decide what’s a good idea, what’s worth trying. Everybody was free to throw in their ideas, so there are various little creative flourishes that came from me in that film, but there are plenty more that came from everybody else in that room. There’s one thing that I am bizarrely given credit for, which is funny because I think it was something that myself and Kevin Feige came up with at the exact same moment. But James has been very kind and given me the credit in the press! (laughs) That’s the post-credits tag for the first Guardians. We didn’t know exactly what we were gonna put after the credits. We had footage of Benicio del Toro, who played the Collector, and the Russian space-dog Cosmo licking his face and we had to figure out if there was enough here to make a scene out of. We had had the little Easter egg, early in the movie, where you see Howard the Duck sitting in one of the hanging cages in the Collector’s lab. So I think I said, what if we open on the Collector and he turns and then Feige and I said at the exact same moment, “and Howard the Duck is there!” (laughs) So we were all like, if we could make this work, it will be fantastic! So we had to find footage of an empty cage, which we didn’t really have but thanks to our stellar visual effects team, we were able to make it work. So that is like a very basic example of an idea that I threw out that became reality and that was really fun to watch it play out in an actual movie theatre and see people react to an idea that you just had on a whim.
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?
So my first piece of advice, which might sound obvious, is to watch everything you can get your hands on. I say this not only from the perspective of what you’re going to learn, but also the conversations you’re going to be able to have with people in the industry. The more that you’ve seen and the more that you can talk about movies, and show that you know what you’re talking about, the more likely you are to be remembered and given opportunities because of that. I can definitely say that late-night conversations with Quentin Tarantino about Takashi Miike movies probably kept me in his head more than had I not been able to have those conversations. Everyone that you end up working with, you can assume that at at least one point in their lives, was really into movies. Being able to have those conversations is key, so the more you’ve seen, the better.
I feel like the path that I went, going from apprentice editor to assistant editor and working my way up to editor; that worked for me. I would advise going down that path but I could just as easily say, if you’re in film school, and you have a really talented director who you’re with, tell that person you want to edit their movies. Work with them and develop a relationship because really, so much of this is about establishing relationships. Part of my job is being personable. You know, you want to be the kind of guy that a filmmaker can sit in a room with you for ten hours a day and not want to throttle you! (laughs) You want to be someone they can get along with, who they can bounce ideas off of, and you want to feel free to bounce ideas off of them also.
And… I want to try to keep from saying something that’s cliché but just keep pursuing it. When I first got out to LA, I knocked on a lot of doors and handed out a lot of resumes. I would venture to say that 90% of those resumes went right into the garbage but a couple of them didn’t and a couple of them led to work. It’s a lot of hard work and I would say that the earlier you get to it, the better. Just because the older you get, the more financial responsibilities you have. (laughs) When I first came out to L.A., I was okay with sleeping on the floor and eating nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while I tried to get my foot in the door in the film industry and it worked out okay for me.
What is next for you?
I’ve got a picture coming out in September called The House with a Clock in its Walls that is directed by Eli Roth (who was actually a year ahead of me at NYU, so I’ve known him for quite a while). It’s a really cool fantasy/horror flick geared towards kids. It has Spielberg’s Amblin logo on it and it does, definitely, harken back to those movies from my youth. Stuff like Gremlins and Back to the Future. If you like those movies, I don’t think this will disappoint.
Interview by Reece Mawhinney. Images from The Hateful Eight (courtesy of The Weinstein Company), Annapolis (Touchstone Pictures) and Guardians of the Galaxy (Marvel Studios).