A Cut Above: Kate Amend on the Creative Contributions of Documentary Editors
At this year's IDA Academy Awards reception, several producers introduced their editors and thanked them for their work. No longer considered just "cutters," documentary editors are starting to be recognized for their creative contributions. Kate Amend has been editing documentaries for 15 years, working with such directors such as Joan Churchill, Johanna Demetrakas and Mark Jonathan Harris. Her body of work includes the Academy Award-winning documentaries The Long Way Home and Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport. She is currently editing Rory Kennedy's new film Pandemic: Facing AIDS, on the global AIDS crisis. Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and HBO, the film tells the stories of people coping with HIV/AIDS in Brazil, India, Russia, Thailand and Uganda. International Documentary recently caught up with Amend to discuss her approach to editing.
What are the key elements in creating a successful documentary?
Kate Amend: Character and drama. As in fiction films, great stories are propelled by strong characters. So when we talk about "casting" a documentary, we mean finding people whose lives are compelling on screen. And when editing, I always look for moments both subtle and broad that reveal character, that contribute to an understanding of a person's complex make-up.
Must a great documentary have conflict in it ?
Whatever is happening on the screen has to be compelling and interesting, but it isn't always conflict. You're always looking for it, but you don't want to manipulate a conflict that isn't there. Some docs are about a phenomenon or subject, where conflict between a protagonist and antagonist is just not going to be there. Conflict is important, but it's not crucial.
Many of your films weave multiple characters and story lines. Do you have formulas or rules that you follow?
Interweaving stories is one of the great challenge, but I don't think there's a formula. It's trial and error. Each individual story has its own beats and dramatic arc, and you can often but not always—fit into a three act structure. You keep moving things around until you've found the right dramatic build. It takes time, patience and openness to try anything, and the ability to keep experiencing the material anew.
What role does music play in your films ?
I remember when we weren't "allowed" to use any music. With pure cinema vérité, you would never enhance anything. I think that's changed quite a lot. I don't have a problem with it because I do see documentary film as an art form, just like a novel or a fiction film. You use the tools that you can to tell the story. So, I like to use music for dramatic emphasis. However, I try to hold back on using music to underscore interviews or vérité scenes because they contain their own inherent power. I think that can be dangerous and feel manipulative.
An example of where I did use music under an interview is in Into the Arms of Strangers; there's a montage sequence at the end where we see each of the main characters grow up through photographs. Each character has a final statement. I linked that together with music because I saw it, structurally, as one entity. And I think it worked dramatically, because the music by Lee Holdridge was extremely restrained and tasteful.
How do you work with the composer?
Well, I usually use a lot of temp music. Some composers want the temp music in there as a reference; some don't. In Into the Arms of Strangers, Lee said that he pretty much followed the music deign that I had laid down on the temp track. But other times, I've been completely surprised by a composer doing something that is exactly counter to the music that I put in there. And I'm completely open to it.
What role does sound design play in your films?
When I edited Asylum with Joan Churchill, we only used the natural sound of the prison atmosphere. During the filming one of the inmates was sitting on the lawn playing "Danny Boy" on the flute. We used that for our end-credit song. I like using the music that you find in the footage. If someone is playing the guitar, or singing a song, I try to incorporate that.
Yet, The Long Way Home had incredible sound design.
In The Long Way Home, sound designer Fried man created a very real, naturalistic sound. In Into the Arms of Strangers, we did something different. The director, Mark Jonathan Harris, saw it as a memory film, as people recalling events 60 years later, events that happened when they were children. So, we wanted the sound to be impressionistic, more reminiscent of a dream or a nightmare. Gary Rydstrom, our sound designer, used a lot of abstract sounds and haunting tones. Mark said even if we show Nazis, we don't want to hear the sound of boots. Instead, we used a low, rumbling kind of roar that builds.
When do you decide to use narration?
I think my instinct, and that of most of the people that I work with, is to try to use as little narration as possible. If your film is interview- based , you want those people to tell the story as much as possible. In Into the Arms of Strangers, the narration was really used for exposition. It was simple prose that helped make transitions, explained historical facts and details, and reserved the characters—the subject interviews—for telling their own personal story.
On the other hand, when your character says something expositionally, and it's just not interesting, I'd rather have a narrator tell it than try to piece together someone saying some thing that has nothing to do with himself, personally.
What is the difference between video and film? Is more footage better?
Not necessarily. I think you're more disciplined with film because you only have 11-minute reels. You also have the cost to develop work prints and code. With video, people are definitely shooting more. The logging and transcripts become much, much more important. In 16mm, I could practically memorize every reel, every shot. With films that have 80, 90, 100 hours of video, I still have a good sense of what's there, but it seems like you spend more time searching, and it takes longer to edit. It's important for the director and producer to be disciplined when they're shooting. And that comes from experience.
What is your approach to working with stock footage?
Since I've done a lot of World War II films, the challenge is always to try to find footage that is fresh. In Long Way Home we specifically looked for faces and close-ups. We tried to evoke a mood. We really wanted to look into people's eyes and find shots that we could hold on to, of people who had been rescued at the camps. There was one shot that we found of a naked man with Gis standing around him and spraying him with DDT. It's a tilt-up and goes all the way up his body, and the GIs are standing there watching. It ends up in a close-up of his face, and his eyes looking right into the camera. I'd never seen that shot before. And it worked perfectly for what we were trying to do show the dehumanization that happened to the concentration camp victims.
What advice would you give a new filmmaker?
You have to be passionate about your subject, and be willing to spend as much time as possible to build a relationship with the people that you're filming. You can tell in the footage when the relationship is there. You need to develop trust and develop a relationship to really get the good story. And you don't always know where the story's going to go. I think you should be able to let go of your preconceived notions and follow the story where it takes you.
What's your next project?
I am planning to finish a documentary about the actress Beah Richards. The film is directed by LisaGay Hamilton and executive produced by Jonathan Demme. I was drawn to the material when LisaGay showed me the footage she had shot during the last year of Beah's life; it was some of the strongest interview material I'd ever seen. Although Beah was dying of emphysema, she gathered her strength to tell her inspiring and heroic story to LisaGay. Beah's spirit and wisdom really stays with you—and our charge is to give that experience to the audience.
Christine Fugate is a producer and director. Her latest film, The Girl Next Door, will be released on video and DVD this fall.