Inspiring Belief

An Editor’s Guide to Working with a Director ☛

Last time I wrote about how directors should approach working with an editor, this time the shoe is on the other foot.

A lot is written online about how editors should work with their editing software – hints and tips. Books on editing have much to tell us about how we should work with our material – how to sculpt in time, what the actor’s blink is telling us. These books tend to forget that there is another person in the room with us: the director. Handle your relationship with them badly and the best editing of your career might never see the light of day. It’s not enough to edit well, you need the director to agree that what you’ve done is good.

Edit guru Walter Murch wonders if there might be someone in the room with him…

Like any relationship, your bond with the director should be based on trust and respect. You need to persuade the director to trust you, and you need the director to know that you respect them.

The first time you work with a director much of their sense of how you view them is established with your 1st assembly. This first cut with all the scenes and dialogue left in place, even if some of it is clearly redundant or doesn’t work, is there to show the director what they’ve achieved during the shoot, good and bad. Where possible every shot should be used, even if the result is a little messy. Some of the director’s mistakes will be evident too. But only the director and editor should be watching this cut, so there should be no embarrassment on either side.

Some editors try to shortcut the assembly process, often for good reasons like the shortness of the schedule. But when they do so the relationship with the director can take a hit, as can the film.

I once directed a student editor who was so keen to show me their good ideas that they neglected to show me the sequences I’d originally planned. The process was disastrous. I kept on asking them to show me the film as I’d planned it, so that I could see what had worked – I was open to the possibility that some things hadn’t but, by their own admission, the editor hadn’t even bothered with plan ‘A’. After a couple of weeks I’d worn him down and he showed me something like an assembly edit. Then we ran out of time. This was editing turned on its head: we’d started with a fine cut, with which I’d had no involvement, and had worked backwards to a first assembly, the most basic possible version of my vision. Not a good experience for anyone involved.

This principle of showing respect for the director by trying out their ideas applies throughout the edit. I was recently told a lightbulb joke about editors:

Q: How many editors does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: We can change it, but it won’t work.

Painfully true. While it’s often tempting to try to persuade a director that a certain idea isn’t going to work by talking it through, there’s nothing more persuasive than actually showing the director their bad idea not working. Sure, directors sometimes have whimsical ideas that would take up more time than the schedule would allow, in which case you will have to talk them down. But certain ideas don’t die. Repeatedly trying to talk these away can take up more time than demonstrating the craziness of the idea would have done. Plus, more often than we’d care to admit, the crazy idea turns out to be… not that crazy. Imagine what would have happened if Cécile Decugis had told Godard “Are you insane? If we cut there it will be a jump cut, it would hit you in the face!” Maybe she tried, but luckily she didn’t win that one.

Respect for the director should go further than just trying out their ideas. You need to respect the man or woman at the helm him or herself, and their vision… even when you don’t. Many directors are charming, thoughtful people but more than a few are raging egoists – quite a high level of self-belief is necessary for the job – and in some cases that self-belief has no basis in talent. But if you don’t give them the benefit of the doubt, or at least play along, you’ll be making a different film from them. Most of the time that leads to a cut that pleases no one. And/or gets you fired.

Building a relationship with a director is much like building a relationship with an audience, a lot of it is about buy-in. If you get the director to trust you, to return the respect you’ve shown them, when you come out with a crazy idea they’ll not only watch it to humour you, they’ll be keen to see it. And they’ll want to believe that your work is good.

With an invisible art like editing, belief is crucial. If people don’t have faith in your ability, they’ll be looking for the cuts, studying them to check that they work. And the very fact that your editing is coming under such close scrutiny will make it less likely to work for that viewer. What we do is a scam: we con people into believing that two things happened a moment apart that did not. The nature of any con is that it requires people not to look too closely, and they’ll do that because they want to believe.

“Every edit is a lie” – Godard.

There are many other hints and tips I can, and will, offer about working with the director in the edit, but for the moment let’s keep it to basic principles. Respect your director and get them to trust you and you’ll find that the pair of you start coming up with ideas that neither of you could have produced alone. That’s when you know that the collaboration is really working.


Copyright © Guy Ducker 2015

Edited by Dr Sara Lodge

One Response to “Inspiring Belief”
  1. Les Butchart says:

    Good advice but the best approach for a serious director is to learn editing in their own – it’s an easy skill to acquire (at a basic level) and it will improve your directing 100 times over. May not make you better with the script or with actors but your editor will like you more by respecting (and knowing the basics of) their craft.

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