Mick Audsley Interview, edited transcript

Guy Ducker: How did you get into editing?

Mick Audsley: I went to the Royal College of Art as a film student in the days when there was a film school there. I was primarily attracted to it through animation, but then after a while I realized that animation was a very lonely world to occupy and I wanted to be involved in more collaborative filmmaking. So I got into the RCA and did conventional filmmaking, but the one thing I didn’t do was cut picture, I did all the other jobs: camera, particularly sound, as I had a semi-professional music career at the time. When I finished the college, because of the union stranglehold, really the only opportunities to work were in non-unionized outfits; you were really only free to work for the BBC, the BFI or the Arts Council. The BFI used to do submissions for grants by letting the selected personnel make a small pilot for a feature proposal and I ended up shooting sound on one of these little shorts for a version of King Lear. There was nobody to cut it and so my friend said “Why don’t you cut it?” And I’d never done that before but I’d always wanted to at college and I needed the money, modest though it was. And so I started cutting this little 3 minute test piece and then I saw that this was where the power was in filmmaking. That went down very well and was accepted to make a bigger piece and so my friend Peter Harvey and I shot it and I was then asked to cut it. We produced a 60 min version of King Lear, shot in a slate mine in Wales. I didn’t stop after that.

GD: So you started in features and stayed in features throughout?

MA: I was very keen not to get sidetracked from what I wanted to do, which was cinema. I had some very good advice from another mentor, Mike Ellis: get on the rungs of the ladder that you want to climb, because it was very hard in Britain to jump, so if you wanted to do commercials or you wanted to do telly, then you should work at a lower level there. I saw working at the BFI or Arts Council as a way forward to feature films as a way of earning a living, and that proved to be true. I stayed focused on that and the films just got bigger really

GD: In the earlier part of your career, around your BFI days and thereafter, what was it like in the cutting rooms then? What was the atmosphere?

MA: I found it very exciting. I was stupid enough to think that I knew what I was doing, which after a few films I realized that I knew nothing and felt like a complete fake. I think I still do. You’ve never made the film you’re making now, so each one is a prototype. But I think the difference that I may have slightly romanticized with the passage of time, is that I found the collaborations and the openness much more tangible. Cutting rooms would all be working next to each other. We’d show each other work, we’d get excited about things, we’d ask advice, we’d ask friends to screenings “We’re going to run a reel today, will you come and have a look and give your notes?” And I too would be asked to come and see a film that Kevin Brownlow was making, and it was very exciting to see something like that and be asked your opinion. It was new to me to be given a voice. And they taught me in a way, how to talk about things, how to share the filmmaking construction issues that editorial has to deal with, and I realized quite quickly that I was very lucky to be continuing my education through them, because I hadn’t had that side of it through film school. I’d learnt practical skills, but not thinking skills. And the big mantra I have now is: you can’t teach people to cut, but you can teach them to think about an approach to the material and about an approach to what they do. People can cut but if they don’t have a rhythmic sense or a sense of how things work visually, you can’t teach that. But you can teach modes of thinking or ways of approaching problems that will arm them.

And so I was lucky enough in ’79 to end up at the National Film School cutting a Terry Davies film, because there were no people at that time who were interested in being editors, it wasn’t really considered glamourus. Alexander Mackendrick was teaching there at that time and I was lucky enough to spend time with him on Terry’s film and somebody said why don’t you just ask him to spend a day with you, and he did. It was an absolutely life changing experience to have this great director and film educationalist take me through it. He spoke about film in a way that blew my mind. I later kept in touch with him over the years until he died. He was a guru to me – I certainly recommend his book, it’s a must for any filmmaker, whichever discipline you’re interested in.

I’m involved with some film education connected with editing, which are in early stages, but it all stemmed from those few days with Alexander Mackendrick who could disseminate a film so articulately in terms of construction. I found when I was making films early on that “they’re beautifully cut,” I thought to myself in some arrogant way, “but they don’t work.” So I started to think: why is this the case? And you’d start to analyze – well, things aren’t happening in the right place. So I needed to start to take films apart, in order to understand why things worked and why they didn’t, in terms of what happens and where they happen and the way in which they happen. And that took me back to writing.

I then devoured everything I could find on screenplay writing, because I see it as being an extension of that process. Our obligations as editors are always to produce a version of the screenplay untarnished first off (the big irony being that they say the first draft is the ‘editor’s cut’, whereas I always say it’s the ‘writer’s cut’: where it says exterior, you bung one in). I think the thing of deciding which shot, and deciding which way the story goes in the cutting room is merely the next stage on from screenplay writing. So, I propose that as a way of learning another level of screenplay construction. I’m constantly drawing on that framework, that mindset to help me through projects.

 GD: The cutting rooms those days, what sort of size of crew would you be working with?

MA: My first feature was for Goldcrest; it came through my work at the BFI. It was called An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. It was a break really to do an industrial-sized feature. The crew was two assistant editors syncing up, all the rest of it. I’d done a feature for the BFI called Brothers and Sisters and I’d basically done that all on my own, so I walked into a bigger film not quite knowing what the jobs were. I must have been a source of great embarrassment to my assistants, because I was all ready to sync them up and number everything, but suddenly I realized that there was a demarcation, so I had to learn the ropes. There was a fair amount of weeping in the toilet, as I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was well looked after in the end.

GD: I’m interested in how technology plays into the current issues. You were cutting on film then obviously.

MA: I realized that there was a great advantage to mastering the Moviola, which I had done at the BFI, because essentially people were so frightened of it – I didn’t tell them that I was as well – that they kept away. Besides there’s only room for two heads to look down the barrel of a Moviola – just you and the director – so people left you alone. So I used one right up until the end of 12 Monkeys which was my last film on film. So I was a Moviola guy all those years and have the sore neck to prove it.

The first film I cut digitally was the one after 12 Monkeys and it was called The Van, which was part of the Roddy Doyle trilogy. It was Lightworks. I remember being shocked at the things that we now take for granted: the idea of doing multi-track sound from the get go, it was great. I did a film for Mike Newell called Mona Lisa Smile. The shoot and quite a lot of it was going to be in New York and I was told that they couldn’t support Lightworks; by then the Avid bias was creeping forward and that I’d be obliged to use Avid. I felt “Oh, God, I don’t want to have to learn another system on the job, I just want to be able to do my thing”. But I did and somehow I muddled through, and then I stayed with that. I’m not terribly interested in that, to me it’s just a tool. It’s like discussing a Hoover or a Dyson: they do the same job. One happened to become more of an industrial standard at that time. And I’ve been terribly spoilt coming from a film background having crews who’ve mopped up for my absolute ignorance of the running of such a machine. I wouldn’t see it as my job to do that, and I’ve been most worried that leaving editing on film has threatened to take jobs away, and I don’t think that’s right. I’m very reliant on my assistants who are also very, very close friends who are filmmakers in their own right and we all understand what our responsibilities are and the fun of it is that teamwork.

GD: How have you found it making the argument for keeping a larger crew in the cutting room?

MA: It’s got quite difficult: the work generated by the standard feature film cutting room is immense. Not just the everyday running of material from a shoot, but the demands of distributing material, of dealing with the possible piratisation. The fact that material is flying around and being offered up in a thousand different ways, that it never used to when we had a screening penciled in the calendar and a meeting the next afternoon. So we’re just kept very busy.

Also there’s a huge increase in the sheer volume of the material that’s coming in, because of the digitization at source. If it was neg and print then people had an incentive to keep that costing down, but now if you’ve got an Alexa camera squirting away, or three or four of them all at once… When I started, I used to consider a heavy day to be half an hour for, say, two minutes of cut material. Now six hours is a standard quantity of non-selected print coming for you to muck about with. It’s staggering amounts and, if you’re just yourself and an assistant, it’s a huge job keeping that in a database and under control.

I still think the numbers should be the same, I think it takes two assistants and an editor to be confidently and quietly appraising what’s coming in and be putting stuff together sufficiently well to feed a shoot and be informative, which is what you want to do. I mean, obviously on whopping great films like “Harry Potter” that’s a whole different animal, because you’ve got maybe three or four units all shooting, and it multiplies up. But on a more standard sized feature film I still say it takes three of us to keep up if you’re expected to produce a cut within about a week or ten days of the end of principle photography. It’s a big job and we’re all on our knees by the end of each day.

GD: So, what other changes in the filmmaking process have you seen in that digital has brought about?

MA: I think everyone will probably agree that the advantages of the are fantastic. The ability to monkey around with the film indefinitely, which is good in one sense, is harsh in another because it allows sloppy thinking. It allows people to defer decision-making, and that process is a sort of art and craft in its own right. You need to know when you’ve made a film and when you start to unmake it. So the ability to have access to raw material outside the cutting room creates a desire to endlessly mine. You need to know what sort of animal you’re making and know when that animal’s got four legs and is running. Those issues have got blurred because the possibilities are infinite. And I think that impacts on us in the cutting room because you’ve got to be very, very strong to keep the stamina and freshness sharp enough to be able to advise, and help, and keep focused. People around you lose focus, as we will do when we’re endlessly being asked to reinvent and chase our own tales.

The great savior of all this is the ability to keep versions of the movie in your back pocket and remind yourself that the thinking of three months ago is not necessarily deficient, it could actually be very, very good. When you refer back to it you can say “why on earth did we spend three months twiddling around here? What was wrong with that?” Editors should try to keep their involvement as detached as we possibly can.

GD: And over the years how have you seen the industry’s attitude to editors change?

MA: My suspicion is, although people have an enormous respect for the job and the responsibility that goes with it, that the status is being changed, perhaps diminished somewhat. Perhaps because we all have access to be able to put film material into a laptop everyone can have a go, which I think is great, but younger folks are less cognizant of the thinking that goes with it and the training – which is for me all about film construction and a relationship with writing, screenwriting. This is my big beef: to go back to the pages, to understand the construction through the paradigms of screenwriting. They just see editors as  “well, they just stick the stuff together, press buttons and do what they’re told” whereas you or I would see it differently as “here is someone who can see a film in their head and offer it to you as a director or a producer”. So I’m finding I’m having to raise my voice more in order to protect or further what I believe to be the film that I’m making. I’m finding that the voices around me are getting louder and more numerous.

GD: Tell me about Sprocket Rocket and how that fits into how things are changing in the industry?

MA: I have a memory of much more openness in making films, where people weren’t so protective of sharing the process, to me the process is what’s fun. Sharing, being able to screen things for friends has become hard because everyone’s so worried about not just things being stolen, or that someone might say something bad about your film. We’re much more jumpy about the process.

Secondly, because the work burden seems to have increased: we’re terribly busy. You have keyboard lunches, you never get away from the machine, so you’re under pressure all the time and that brings about an isolation.

So Sprocket Rocket came out of conversations I had with friends. Primarily I wanted younger editors or assistants, anyone connected through the cutting room world or visual effects, to have access to experienced people, and vice versa because we can learn a lot. So the idea was to create an informal gathering on a fairly regular basis. It’s just a way of getting people together, which was very open, and if it was very open people’s natural agendas and concerns would come to the surface. When they met and they would share, you know, the diminishing wages and the increasing hours, increasing isolation, the increasing demands. There isn’t a union of any strength anymore – this isn’t a union, it’s not a club its not anything like that it’s just a way of getting a load of friends together and bringing other people.

Also for producers to come, this is not in any way exclusive; its open to people just wanting to hang out with other filmmakers really. My original brief was “A chance to influence other filmmakers who have no influence on your chances”. Hire companies and De Lane Lea have all got excited about the idea and have helped facilitate the first get together and we’ll see where it goes from there. And there’ll be a blog and there’ll be people connecting and just sharing things and being able to make contact with one another.

If there are some keen film students who’d like to spend an hour or two with a visual effects supervisor on a big gig, then they can have a drink together and make contact that way. Obviously it come from the cutting room, but it doesn’t have to be, I have friends who are DOPs and ADs and so on and it’s as much form them to be involved in when connecting the shoot world to the cutting room. Because that’s a gap there as well. But initially composers, sound editors, visual effects people, editors, assistants of any grade, I don’t want anything to be exclusive. It’s a good chance for a jolly. That sounds frivolous but what I believe happened last time is that if it is relaxed the serious side of it will happen naturally.

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