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Cutting Comments: A Women Editors Roundtable

By Lisa Leeman

Participants in the editors roundtable; Left to right: Lisa Leeman, Ondi Timoner, Yana Gorskaya, Yaffa Lerea, Lillian Benson, Kate Amend. Photo: Barbara Leigh Gregson

Editor's Note: International Documentary assembled a group of top editors to discuss the art, craft and process of their work, as well as issues of ethics and economics, and particularly for this magazine issue, the difference in editorial style--if one exists--between men and women. Kate Amend, Lillian Benson, Yana Gorskaya, Yaffa Lerea, Ondi Timoner and roundtable moderator Lisa Leeman represent a range of experience, sensibilities and award-winning work.

Amend's editing credits include two films that garnered Academy Awards for Best Documentary--The Long Way Home (Mark Jonathan Harris, dir.; Richard Trank and Rabbi Marvin Hier, prods.) and Into the Arms of Strangers (Mark Jonathan Harris, dir.; Deborah Oppenheimer, prod.)--as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Short, for On Tiptoe: Gentle Steps to Freedom(Eric Simonson, dir.; Leelai Demoz, Corinne Marrinan, prods.). She also received an American Cinema Editors Eddie Award for Into the Arms of Strangers.

Bensen, ACE, was nominated for an Emmy Award for her work on Eyes on the Prize II (Henry Hampton, Blackside, Inc., prods.). She recently produced, directed and edited All Our Sons: Fallen Heroes of 9/11,the story of the 12 black firefighters who died at the World Trade Center. Benson freely goes back and forth between documentaries and fiction features, which she says invigorates her work.

Gorskaya is best known for editing the Academy Award-nominated Spellbound(Jeff Blitz, dir.; Sean Welch, prod.), which she started while in graduate school at the University of Southern California and for which she received an Eddie Award. She's edited several award-winning docs since then, and is about to cut a new film for theSpellbound team.

Lerea has edited for top filmmakers Ken Burns (Baseball, Empire of the Air [associate editor], The Congress [assistant editor]) and RJ Cutler(Freshman Diaries; The Residents). She edited and consulted on the Academy Award-winning short documentary Twin Towers (William Guttentag and Robert Port, dirs./prods.), and produces as well as edits documentaries.

Timoner adds the perspective of director/editor. She spent eight years shooting and editing DIG!,a documentary about the obsessive rivalry and friendship between two rock bands. She sought out an editor, but, by default, cut the film herself, and it went on to win the Sundance Grand Jury Prize.   

Former IDA President Leeman alternates between editing and directing/producing. She has spent the last year editing and co-directing a documentary with cinematographer Haskell Wexler.

Lisa Leeman: Do you feel that there's a difference between how women and men edit?

Ondi Timoner: My process is creating little towns and then linking them together, like little ideas, thought bubbles. And I often do that around more emotional or psychological underpinnings of what's actually going on.

Yana Gorskaya: Honestly, I don't know that there's any real difference. In fact, I was kind of curious as to why focus on women editors, except it just seems like a field that women were able to find their footing in more easily. It's not that we necessarily edit differently, but people seem to be more comfortable working with a woman as a collaborator.

Lillian Benson: One of my favorite directors prefers to work with women; he says it's because it's less contentious in the cutting room. He is a person that I consider a genius in terms of executing films, so it was a kind of a surprise to me that that was his preference. But he feels that women are more open to the "softer side" and "emotional side" of issues.

Yaffa Lerea: There's the classic theory that men are hunters and women are gatherers, and so the men go out, and then shoot the film, and the women do something with it. It may or may not have truth to it, but certainly, historically, women have been the gatherers and the storytellers in the film world. And I think there's something of the fluidity of putting pieces together, like weaving and quilting, and all those kind of things that women have been doing for centuries, that maybe there's something to that.

I would agree that there are a lot of male directors out there who I think feel more comfortable working with women as editors because--I wouldn't say just for the contentious thing, because I think a lot of us can be very strong-willed about our opinions--but I think it's more the yin and yang, the balancing of ways of looking at the same footage because of the male-female interaction.

Kate Amend: Are you asking about stylistic differences as well? I really don't think I could tell. There's only one time that it actually occurred to me, "I know a guy edited this." And that's because it was a sports documentary that could have been a really emotional, dramatic story, but was done as this relentless sports montage, rather than the peaks and valleys and the dramatic moments. It was all at one intensity, and even when that thought went through my mind, I thought, "Well, that's a sexist thing to say." In fact, I was right.

YA: When I worked on Baseball, with Ken Burns, his three main editors were two women and a gay man. The three of us didn't know anything about baseball, and he said, "Well, that's who I want to edit this, because it's for people like you who I want this to speak to and to tell the stories, and not just be so excited about the game."

LL: Let's switch gears and talk about the director-editor relationship. What makes a good collaboration, and what are red flags for bad collaborations?

KA: To me, a director who wants to be in the room all the time is a red flag. I like to work with the director, and we look at footage, discuss the scenes or an act, and then I'm left alone for three or four days. And then they come in, and we look at the scenes and re-work them together. I'm very open then to collaboration, sitting side by side. But the first pass at everything, I really love to just be alone with the material.

YA: Except for my Ken Burns experience, I would say I've had pretty much absentee directors on just about everything I've ever worked on.

OT: So much of directing is in the editing room. How much footage do you guys usually have?

KA: About 200.

OT: Two-hundred hours is average?

KA: For the films that I've worked on, that's the average.

OT: And do you end up watching all of that?

KA: I fast-forward a lot of that, but yeah, for the most part.

YG: I have to say, since working in features, with documentaries, I've never had a fight in the cutting room. And I think a big part of that is because I'm very, very careful about who I will work with from the beginning. One of the things I look for is someone that I think I would want to spend time with in my regular life.

LL: I want to talk about that collaboration, but first, Ondi, why did you choose to cut your own film?

OT: Because I had 2,000 hours of footage.

KA: Oh, my lord!

LL: Some directors will whittle down their material--usually not 2,000 hours--and then give a five-hour assembly to an editor.

OT: I had a five-hour assembly, and I attempted to hire three different people. And it wasn't working. It was just impossible to even grasp the story. I was very pregnant, and I wanted not to be editing. And I knew that I had lost perspective, and it was not me being controlling or anything. And so, it just didn't work three times. I really felt like I had to finish what I started, and so I had to just cry my way through it. Finished the film three days before I gave birth, two all-nighters...

LL: How long did it take to get to the five-hour assembly?

OT: Two-and-a-half, three years, I think.

LL: But not cutting full-time?

OT: Yeah, I financed the film myself by directing EPKs, music videos, music documentaries and television stuff. But my second bedroom of my house was always DIG!. I would just go in there every day that I had off, basically, and just work on it.

YG: How did you know when it was done?

OT: When I was gonna go into labor! Even at Sundance, I was taking notes. I was, like, "This could be so much better." And I did make a round of changes before blowing it up to film.

LL: You did?

OT: Yeah. But I had a deadline I couldn't push, finally. He was coming out. Thankfully, he waited for his due date!

LL: We've all been on projects that have taken many years-not as long as Ondi's--but how do you keep your objectivity?

OT: Leave. Go do something else for a few weeks, and come back. I don't think there's any other way, really.

YG: Bring in someone else to watch it with you. That's the ultimate cure-all--someone who hasn't seen it. That brings it alive.

LB: The first editor I assisted told me that you always had to remember how you felt when you first saw the dailies. She suggested writing that stuff down. When you see it again and again, something that made you cry or made you get a rush of fear, or anxiety, or nausea--see it ten times, 50 times, it's gone.

So, you really have to remember how you felt, because that's how the audience is going to see it, and they're only going to see it once.

Another director I worked with would make a list of stock footage, and put stars next to them. I thought that was excessive, but when we were going through gobs of stock footage, it helped. And at one point he said, "I want to make sure every single four-star shot is in." And we went over the cut, and they were. When they weren't in, in places that he told me to put them in, he just said, "These are ones I love; you have to use things I love."


KA: I tend to push myself and work long hours and weekends in finishing up a project, and sometimes you just have to not do that. Not look at it for a couple of days. Sometimes I'll be working on something all day, and then at the end of the day, I treat myself by watching it. And I usually hate it. But if I look at it in the morning, it's not so bad.

I've found sometimes, too, that at the end, if you go back through some of the dailies, you'll find things that are little gems. But you'll also sort of reaffirm the choices that you've made, and that's helpful.

YL: The interesting thing, too, about the technology--when I worked on film, you had the time to think about what you were doing when you went to get a film trim or another reel of dailies. You were thinking about your storytelling as you were doing those activities that weren't editing. And now, because we're editing constantly, you really have to consciously walk away.

OT: Are your schedules ever built around taking a week to break?

YL: I try to ask directors to build that in.

YG: When you have a rough cut that you're pretty happy with, I send it out. But my ultimate trick is to send it to Kate and ask her what she thinks.

LL: Let's go back to collaboration. What happens when you disagree with your director? I feel like our job is to facilitate the mission of the director, but we often disagree with what the best way to do that is. So, what happens?

LB: I've never had what I would consider to be an argument in a cutting room.

You try to negotiate these things. You ask a lot of questions. I'm always trying to figure out why they're doing things, and what they want, and even what they want when they can't actually verbalize it, which is one of the important skills for an editor to have.

YG: I think it's my job to fight for what I think is working or not working in the film. I get paid for my opinion and what I bring to it. So, if something is really close to my heart, I will give it my best shot and my best argument, but ultimately, you lie down at the end of the day.

YL: Having worked in documentary for many, many years, and now doing some of these documentary series, and having to fit documentary style into the box of television hour and television attention span--that's where I've started to have some frustrations with choices of what goes in and what's not going in. There is this necessity of speed and the repetition of things that seem obvious to me, that in a documentary you would just let it breathe and let people get it themselves.

YG: I think the inverse of that question, though, is that I also try really hard not to shut down a director's ideas, even if deep, deep, deep in my gut I know it's all wrong. I've been proven wrong on a number of occasions, and I truly believe you can make just about anything work.

LL: A lot of you have gone back and forth: You've done music videos, fiction and nonfiction. How is that experience, going back and forth?

KA: After working on a historical film, there's nothing I like better than going right into a vérité and just switching loads. It's like playing the piano; you're just sort of riffing along. But in terms of how you think about it, it's still creating scenes and telling stories.

OT: I learned how to use an Avid on my first music video. I think that's really how I learned to cut. And I discovered color effects on one other music video. It was a self-taught process, an organic process. I always considered music videos like a shot in the arm. Being in documentary, which takes so long, anything else is shorter!

LB: I do think that everything that we experience--the victories, the losses, the pleasure, the pain--all go into the same hopper to make you the artist that then sits there, at whatever machine you work at, to translate either your own film, or someone else's, into an artifact that then is delivered to the public.

And everything you experience goes into making you who you are. The switching between dramatic and documentary, or long-form or short-form, keeps you on your toes.

OT: With a music video, there's no dialogue. It's all visual, so it increases your freedom to play with images. And then you go back into "documentary land," and you can take all that B-roll and all that stock footage, and really enjoy that montage more.

YG: When I have gone back and forth between documentary and dramatic, dramatic is such a breath of fresh air because there's a script. There's a story already there!

LL: Let's talk a little bit about storytelling, how you approach your material. How often do you get handed an outline? In 15 years I think I've gotten one once. And I like it that way. It's like a big jigsaw puzzle where there's no right answer. Of course, it seems like the right answer when you've finished it.

So, how often do you get an outline? And when you don't, do you just start cutting scenes? Do you try and look at the overall arc right away?


OT: For me, the form must follow the content. I believe every film is kind of predestined towards the form that it should take. And it's up to me, as a sculptor, to find that form, and to whittle, whittle,, build, build, and then...whittle, whittle, whittle.

It's like you're banging your head against the wall, and then the next thing you know, you have it, and it just feels right. It's just all about feeling it out.


LB: I absolutely agree that the material talks to you--especially when you have so much footage.

I, for one, don't mind a script. And I prefer the directors that say, "Well, this film is about..."--the one-liner that we're all told you're supposed be able to distill our films into.

YG: My favorite part of the process is to sit down with the director--and this also has a lot to do with whether or not I want to work with them--and they tell me the story of what they think their film is, and the story of their experience with each of the characters. And that really helps to guide me in looking through the material because then I'm trying to pull things that support what they felt that experience was about.

LL: Well, I think a director has to have a point of view. We're in trouble if the director doesn't have a point of view.

KA: I've worked both ways. The historical films have had more of a script or an outline. But other than that, I think it's more the director saying, "Well, we went out and we got this story in India," and then me looking through the material and finding everything that supports that, and everything else that I find interesting along the way, too.

So, to me, there are two processes, and I love them both. One is doing individual pieces-

LL: Cutting scenes.

KA: Yeah, the building blocks; and then, it's working with the whole structure.

OT: But when you say a director's got to have a point of view or we're in trouble, I think you can be also in trouble if the director's point of view is unflinching, because I have my emotional feelings about the people I meet.

I made my last film--my main protagonist's behavior's deplorable in a lot of ways. And that came through in my first cut. And, the four confidantes I had had enough perspective to say, "Great footage. Great story. We can't stand your protagonist long enough to watch him. I don't think people are even gonna like him." So, I had to retreat from my point of view and reach deeper in my heart and find more compassion. An editor probably would done that for me, but that was a process, where, thank God, some people said, "He's too much of an asshole; nobody's gonna like him."

So, then, I had to deviate from my point of view and bury my judgment. And I think that the balance of a director and editor can be very helpful.

YL: The film I did about 9/11 was shot before 9/11 with these guys, and then 9/11 happened, and so these guys were pulled in for interviews. The way that I organized it was, all of these guys saying what they do on the job, how they feel about their buddies--categorizing all the interviews by topic, because there wasn't going to be narration. I would just organize it so that every step of the story is told by way of interview. And then I have an outline of what the story is, then I start putting the images together.

OT: I don't like narration, but I ended up with narration. It was just something that I had to realize was important for people who weren't as intimate with the story.

And I had recorded 2,000 hours in an attempt to record every aspect of life so that I wouldn't have to do narration, and that I could have it unfold like a narrative feature.

And so, I recorded 300 audio tapes of phone conversations and stuff like that. But it didn't work because there was no way that I could possibly listen to all those tapes in addition to the editing, so I decided to do narration. I'm really glad I did.

LL: Why did you choose to just have Courtney Taaylor-Taylor narrate, and not Anton Newcombe also?

OT: First of all, I couldn't have Anton narrate the film, because he would never do something like that. The other reason is that I really liked the idea that this is a story of two musicians and two bands, and the one that becomes more successful and actually has a voice in the press and in the world tells the story of the one who is so self-destructive he can't have that voice.

LL: How often do you find yourself writing narration, or do directors write it?

YL: Well, I used to say, "Here I want you to write this. Here, I need this." Now I write it, because I realize that I'm a writer. I'm an uncredited writer on several films, and I've decided that that's not an acceptable position for me at this point in my life.

YG: I think the writing credit on documentaries is tricky unless there is narration.

LB: Well, there's a director that I've worked with, who called several friends before she took a writing credit. She was the producer-director, though, on the show that had no narration. Her colleagues said, yes, she should take a writing credit, "Because you did the structure," and she did.

LL: Well, if you're providing the structure, I think that's reasonable.

YL: But that is what happens in writing. There is providing structure most of the time, and it is a very murky situation. And I've talked to a lot of editors about it, and they should get "story" and "editing" [credits].

YG: But that's what editing is. I would never ask for that because I feel that's what I do as an editor.

LL: It's a complex collaboration, and often, I feel editors really are co-directing. What are your feelings about that?

KA: Did you see The Endurance, the Shackleton doc? That credit was, "Director of Editing" [ Joshua Waletzky] That's the only time I've ever seen that.

YG: I have so much respect for my own profession, I have to say that I feel like it's in the job description. And it's funny because I've turned down producing credits under that feeling like that's part of what I bring to the table. It's what I do as an editor.

And I've been to festivals where I've told people that my husband was an associate producer so we could get tags, and people direct all their questions at him! And it's just completely mind-boggling to me.

LB: What do you make of that experience?

YG: It's kind of changed my mind a little bit. If someone offers me a credit, I don't say no anymore.

OT: We should figure out how to change the public perception of this. Because, with my film, it seems like the most compliments that I get in the press is for the editing. I think people recognize that that's where the storytelling is.

LL: I'm thankful for Johanna [Dematrakas]. She cut the Bus Riders Union doc for Haskell [Wexler]. He said that when he hired me: "Johanna trained me. And I realized what her contribution was as the editor. She taught me that she's co-directing the film."

But to shift gears a bit to directors, what would be your top five things that you want directors to be mindful about when they're in the field?

KA: Hire the right camera and sound people.

OT: Make sure you have good sound. And if you're shooting a band, shoot the audience.

YL: And one thing with interviews is, letting the interviewee speak and go through emotional changes on their faces, and not step in too quickly.

YG: This is an obvious one, but get coverage.

YL: Try to get scenes; get them on their feet.

OT: Think shoe leather. Think, "door open-door closed," "beginning-end." I think a good tip is to form your relationship with your editor early on so that you can actually have that interaction.

KA: That's a good point, because I can't tell you how many calls I get: "Well, I just shot a documentary. We got 200 hours of footage, and now we're looking for an editor."

And I thought, well, why weren't you looking before you shot it, when you were shooting?

LL: I actually think that all camera people should be legally mandated to edit sequences before they go out and shoot.

OT: When somebody approaches you with 200 hours of footage, how long do you generally say that's gonna take you to cut?

YL: It really depends on what kind of a handle they have on that footage, and what kind of a film it is. Is that multi-camera, or vérité? But for me, I like a five- to six-month edit.

LL: And it often turns out longer--

YL: Yeah, with a little cushion.

LL: In terms of the things that I would want a director to know, it actually is about keeping in mind that the more you shoot, which is what happens in DV...

OT: ...the higher the mountain you have to climb.

LL: It's exponential, in terms of their budget, in terms of our time. Schedules must increase, the more you shoot. And people forget that.

LB: And the non-linear equipment doesn't cut that much time off the schedule.

LL: No. People need to realize that it's more transcribing time and money, it's more viewing time and money, it's more cutting time and money--

KA: More Telecine--

YL: It's more processing of the story--

OT: And you're always on projects that can afford transcription?

KA: I don't work without transcriptions anymore--

YL: And a good assistant. Well, there is that thing with editing, when you have all this footage, and when you do screen it, even if it's just once, it's in there [points to head] somewhere.

And when I first started out, I assisted Sally Menke when she was editing for Ken Burns on The Congress, and I came on at the end of the project, pretty much, to finish it.

And she was going crazy; this was on 16-millimeter film. "I want the medium shot of the Capitol Building. There's a thing on the side." And everybody's going crazy because we're going through the dailies: "There's a close-up, there's a wide-shot. What's she talking about? There's no medium shot." Three weeks later, somebody found this shot, and it just made me realize: She knew that it existed, somewhere in the back of her mind.

KA: But not being able to find it is maddening, and now you've got 200, 300 hours.

LL: In the old days, I always looked at everything twice. Now there's no time.

YG: It's wrapping your head around the structure of 200 hours that's really tricky. That alone takes so much time

LL: Kate, you once said, "An editor can make a character a saint or a devil." I would love you guys to think of an instance--

OT: I think it's more about trying to keep everybody's point of view intact.

LB: It's a question of ethics, and everybody knows what's going on. And you know what they intended when they said it.

OT: I said earlier that I couldn't stand my protagonist; that was the feeling I had at the time. But I love people, and that's why I'm a documentary filmmaker. And I loved him at different times in the filmmaking, and I just had to reach to those parts of my heart. And it was just a further challenge. You have to re-approach material again and say, "You know what? I'm not being fair here."

YG: The most dangerous thing to do is the obvious cheap shot. And I think that it backfires.

OT: Yeah, how can you sleep at night? These are people that made themselves vulnerable to you or to the director; they opened themselves up and they trusted you.

YL: I had a very tricky situation on a show. It was the documentary series Freshman Diaries that was following a bunch of college kids around. R.J. Cutler did it.

He had hours and hours of footage of these kids. And one particular scene was a girl and a guy, both of whom were part of the project, ended up spending an evening together getting drunk.

The camera crew shot every minute of this thing. And they're kind of flirting. And as the evening went on, she's kind of teasing and toying with him. He's really wanting her, getting drunker and drunker, and messier and messier. But she's kind of playing with him. And it ends up with-it's not a "date rape," but he physically does stuff that she doesn't want to have happen.

So, here I am with all this footage, and it was one of those times that I could have made her look terrible. I could have made him look terrible, like it was all his fault, or all her fault, because the material was there, and it was a very short window that I had to cut this. So it was really tricky trying to make it so that neither of them were totally at fault, yet both of them were who they were that night.

After it aired, we had this website where all these kids would put their opinions in, what they thought about the show the night before.

And I felt like I really did my job because half of the e-mails were, "She's such a bitch!" and the other half were, "He was terrible!" It was really tricky because I knew I could have slammed either of them really badly.

LL: Your guiding principle here is to honor the deeper truth--

YL: They both were guilty of behaving really badly. But I didn't want them to both look really bad, either. You still want your characters likeable, and so it's a very tricky balance to keep the truth, but also to respect that.

YG: I've always tried to come, at least for my main protagonists, from a place of deep affection. And that happens from just watching that footage for so long, and we're living with them and being in their skin, and I can't help but cut them a little bit protectively, because that just happens to me as a natural byproduct of the process. Maybe that's the nature of the films that I've cut!

OT: Yeah, but what if your protagonist is kicking people in the head?

YG: I did a film on mail order brides, where the husbands were less than savory, and there was nothing that I could do about that--except to try and let them say their piece and express themselves in a way that they see themselves.

KA: The film I did about the skinheads--they were all offensive.

LB: But you can show a person as being who they are, if they have other good qualities. In a film I worked on, someone said something racist, and that's who he was. It was to the point where the lawyers for the show called for the transcripts and the original tape, to make sure that we had not made him say something from multiple sentences. And we hadn't.

LL: People are rarely one-dimensional.

OT: Everybody has a human side. It was a great exercise for me to go back, in those last few weeks, and I pulled an hour out of the film and put a new 40 minutes in. I took out some of the darkest stuff.

KA: Well, that's the thing, you know; the skinheads loved the film. Gabby loved the film Metamorphosis: Man Into Woman. Gabby had exposed herself to such a great extent; we really respected that, and in the end, it was a very honorable portrait. But she was so vulnerable, and there were people in the film that said horrible things about her. And I remember the first rough cut; I said, "I don't want to be there," so I let Lisa show Gabby the rough cut.

LL: And she had one request, and that was reasonable. But you know, I was so concerned that I had her shrink come, who was also a post-op transsexual.

YL: I think there's a real ethical question in a lot of films that I see. What is our responsibility as filmmakers if it comes to human beings, in terms of what do we bring to honor and to inspire?

YG: Well, you do find humanity in just about everybody, and if you can portray them in all their colors, then it speaks for itself.

YL: Well, it's kind of an exploitation.

KA: Yes, because I don't know why in the world anyone would be in a documentary.

So, I really respect them.

LB: That they open themselves up to you. They opened their door, they left it unlocked, we have access all the time and we have to not go in and rob them.


Lisa Leeman directs, produces and edits documentaries in Los Angeles, and teaches documentary producing at the University of Southern California.