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Taxi Drivers and Midnight Ramblers: A Conversation with 'Shine A Light' Editor David Tedeschi

By Tom White

Shine A Light, the much anticipated concert doc featuring the Rolling Stones and directed by Martin Scorsese, is the latest in a long line of films about the British rock 'n' roll legends, with Gimme Shelter (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin), Cocksucker Blues (Robert Frank), Charlie Is My Darling (Peter Whitehead), Let's Spend the Night Together (Hal Ashby), Sympathy for the Devil (Jean-Luc Godard) and Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones (Rollin Binzer, Steve Gebhardt) highlighting the canon.

Shine A Light is actually the third collaboration between Scorsese and editor David Tedeschi. Scorsese first contacted Tedeschi to work on From Mali to Mississippi, his contribution to The Blues, the 2003 PBS series that he executive-produced. Next was No Direction Home, the monumental documentary about Bob Dylan that aired on PBS' American Masters in 2005. Future projects for Scorsese and Tedeschi include docs about Bob Marley and George Harrison. Tedeschi himself has worked with a number of other distinguished directors, including Michael Moore, on The Awful Truth series for Bravo, and RJ Cutler, on American High, which aired first on Fox, then on PBS. IDA caught up with Tedeschi by phone as he was putting the final touches on Shine A Light.

IDA: How do you and Martin Scorsese find each other? I know your first project together was on The Blues, or his particular segment.

David Tedeschi: I was in LA at the time and I got a phone call. Essentially they were looking to hire an editor. There aren't that many doc editors who had done narrative work. I had [also] been a commercial editor and music video editor. At the time I was working on The Osbournes. They were looking for someone who didn't have a typical documentary background, who had a varied background.

IDA: Along those lines, I was curious why Scorsese didn't work on this particular project and the subsequent ones--No Direction Home and Shine A Light--with his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. But then, she wasn't the editor on The Last Waltz or My Voyage to Italy either. Did she just not want to get involved with these kinds of projects, or was she not available?

DT: To be honest with you, I don't know. I know that she was never intended to cut The Blues or No Direction Home or this, for that matter. And, by the way, all year she'd been working with Marty on a documentary about British cinema. He's a pretty prolific guy in terms of what he does, and I think somehow in using me he could get a little bit more done for all his projects, meaning that all the time I've been working with him, Thelma's been working with him on something else. Take the period of No Direction Home--Thelma was cutting The Aviator at the time. So I think that's what it comes down to.

IDA: In the three projects on which you and Scorsese have collaborated, what was the dynamic and style in the classic director/editor relationship?

DT: That's tough to put in a few words. He's a director with tremendous vision. He knows what he likes and he knows what he wants. He generally has the shape of the film in his mind, and in that sense it's very easy to work with him because his emotions as a person and as a filmmaker are right there. That's kind of the starting point. And the period of editorial is a period of exploration.

IDA: A bulk of your nonfiction/documentary work has been in TV. In terms of the dynamics of working in TV, there are certain limitations and there are certain freedoms.

DT: I could have juggled more than one career, essentially, and I would say that TV is really different. I like working with good directors and that's how I would differentiate it. In feature docs, I've worked with Barbara Kopple and I've worked with Michael Moore. The very first project I ever cut was a feature doc that was for Univision with a guy named Orlando Jiminez-Leal. It was film. You had a director with final cut who could do whatever he wanted to do. In my narrative work I was lucky enough to be able to work with people like that, so I did three or four films with Leon Ichaso, and his style is a certain kind of raw filmmaking where you make it in the editing room, and that's what I really like to do. Working with someone like RJ Cutler is like that, even if you're working with Fox. He is a filmmaker and he has a really intelligent and emotional point of view. If you work on MTV or VH1, there are just some limitations. If you work on a series like True Life, it's an informational series; it's in the news division. So they're not looking forit's not filmmaking.

IDA: Sequeing to Shine A Light, this is your first doc feature for theatrical release since My Friend Paul in 1999. Going from The Blues and No Direction Home to Shine A Light, how different was the dynamic in the editing room?

DT: I don't think it was different. I think No Direction Home could've gotten a theatrical release, except it was four hours long and for whatever reason it had been presold in such a way that it wasn't intended for theatrical. But I think it would have played in a movie theater, and we would have liked it to get a theatrical release. I don't think the dynamic was really any different except that the films are so different. Shine A Light is a concert film.

IDA: How did the project come to you?

DT: I know that Scorsese loves the Rolling Stones, which you have to know just from The Blues and a lot of his stuff. One of his passions is preservation in general, and as a doc maker one of his passions is preservation, whether it's Italian cinema or world cinema or American movies. I think he really wanted to capture the Stones. He thinks they've played as well as they've ever played. It excites him to be able to capture them on film, to capture the magic of their performance.

IDA: You've incorporated archival footage in the film. I assume there's a real trove of footage, given the band's 45-year history. What were you looking for in terms of how this would service and move forward the narrative?

DT: I'm going to let the movie speak for itself. On the one hand, it's a concert film about their performance, and everybody looks to see something like The Last Waltz. And maybe people want interviews with the band. But I think Marty's sense was that this was a band that so much has been done with, and they're not that interested in doing interviews--they're on the red carpet or in front of the press corps weeks out of the year. And I think Marty's sense was, What would be really interesting is to capture them in an intimate way, rather than, say, the Hal Ashby film Let's Spend the Night Together and a lot of those Stones films. There had been talk at one point of shooting a concert in Rio de Janiero, which is right on the beach, and there were supposed to be more than one million people in attendance; it might have been one of the biggest concerts of all time. But Marty thought about it and said, Yeah, but wouldn't it be really exciting to shoot it in a really small venue to capture it in a really intimate way? I think all of that speaks for itself.

IDA: There are some verite scenes that open the film. Did you consider having more of those scenes?

DT: We did, but it really didn't seem to fit. It seemed like a really good way to launch the movie. I think part of it is that this is what it comes down to: It's humorous. It's supposed to be humorous. I think that's Marty's understanding of where this falls in terms of the history of the concert film. Rock 'n' roll is funny, and what's left to be said about these guys and about rock 'n' roll? Well, this was another way to go.

IDA: You referenced Hal Ashby's film--and there's also Ladies and Gentleman, The Rolling Stones and Rolling Stones at IMAX. What about those concert films did you admire and what did you find somewhat deficient?

DT: I think they're all really good films. I think it's that issue--that Marty wanted to capture them in a really intimate setting. The idea was to go smal--lwhich is ironic, of course, because we have an IMAX release!

IDA: Were Gimme Shelter and Cocksucker Blues on your mind, looming large over the cinematic canon of the Rolling Stones?

DT: Sure. And Charlie Is My Darling, which might be the best of the Rolling Stones films, from which we actually used that interview with Charlie [Watts]. You know, it's these masters, whether it's Godard or the Maysles--they've really done very well with it. So what else is there left to say?

IDA: The Rolling Stones served as executive producers on the film. Were they a presence in the editing room? How much autonomy did they confer on you?

DT: I would say that Marty and the Stones essentially wanted the same thing. They were very clear going into it what the film was going to be. Both Mick and Keith saw the film pretty early in the game. They had a lot to say, but it's their music and it's their performance. Their comments were basically about that, and they were always extremely supportive of the process. We actually went to Rome when we first had a cut because they were on tour a lot of the time we were working, and they had a break in July, so we figured, Let's show this in Rome because that's the only time we could get them in the same room in the same city. Of course, Marty has worked in Rome with some frequency. He would say that dubbing was invented in Rome by Mussolini; sound is not necessarily perfect, and it might not be the best place to preview a sound-driven movie! But luckily Technicolor had a mixing room that they used as a screening room, and it sounded fantastic. We were really lucky.

IDA: And you're going to work together in the Bob Marley doc?

DT: We're supposed to, but actually, I start, as soon as I'm done with this, on a documentary about George Harrison.

IDA: The projected release date for the Marley doc is 2009?

DT: 2010.

IDA: And what's the timeline on the George Harrison film?

DT: I don't know, but it's going to be finished first.

IDA: What are some of the preliminary goals?

DT: We're really just in that stage of figuring stuff out. Gathering this great archival material, [we're finding that] he's such an interesting man with such an interesting story, and the complexity of it prevents me from giving you a simple "This is what it's going to be."

Thomas White is editor of Documentary and content editor of