We’re kicking off the second edition of Enter the Edit, a series exploring the regrettably underappreciated process and craft of documentary editors. Our (new!) guide will be 2016 Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow Eileen Meyer.
Eileen Meyer is a documentary film editor based in Los Angeles. After receiving her BA in Film from Hampshire College in 2004, she began her career in film and television in New York City. Since 2008, she has focused her career on editing, including an Emmy Award-winning documentary web series for MTV ($5 Cover Amplified), and a narrative short, The Thing that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012. Her latest film, Best of Enemies, was a 2015 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize nominee and shortlisted for an Academy Award® in 2016 for Best Documentary.
As the 2016 Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow, awarded to an emerging editor, she’ll be receiving a year of mentorship from veteran filmmakers, as well as the opportunity to participate in countless documentary events and screenings. Meyer’s three mentors – Greg Finton, ACE (He Named Me Malala, Waiting for Superman); Pedro Kos (The Square, Waste Land); and Kim Roberts, ACE (The Hunting Ground, Food, Inc.) – will provide the kind of education any doc editor finding their grounding dreams of.
We spoke with Meyer just before she was announced as the 2016 fellow at this year’s SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas.
POV: What’s your workflow when you’re starting on a new film?
Eileen Meyer: My first step is organization. This entails watching all the footage, making notes, and coming up with a strategy for breaking down the material. I like to spend as much time watching and organizing as possible before I make a single cut so that once I start putting things together, I can really get into a flow. I want to know where everything is and how to find it quickly so that the technical process doesn’t interfere as much with the creative process.
Every project calls for its own organizational system, whether it’s mostly dailies, interviews, archival or a combination of many elements. I find that breaking down the project is the first step in creating the potential structure of the film, because you start to see where your characters, themes or ideas insect and overlap. You can start to see scenes that will work and others that won’t, and what the film is lacking visually or emotionally. Once I’ve got everything organized by subject and I’m starting to group ideas together, the massive amount of material starts to look a little less overwhelming.
As I’m watching, I’ll make note of the best moments. I have learned that it’s incredibly important to take those notes the very first time you watch the footage because you’ll never get the chance to see the it again for the first time. It’s your only opportunity to truly be in the audience’s shoes. The moments that have energy, make you laugh, or endear you to a character are best on a first impression – you can build the information later and around those special moments.
POV: How do you approach editing a narrative piece versus a documentary?
Meyer: Since I started out in documentary, I often think about editing a narrative similarly to how I think about a documentary. I like to think about how scenes or shots can be used in ways they weren’t intended to be when they were shot, or how the narrative form can be challenged by the edit. I’m a big fan of films that cross genres, push boundaries, and take chances.
I can have a lot of fun cutting a narrative film. It’s a very different feeling to have an actual script when you start to edit, and it feels much easier at first. You can start to build the scenes and have a rough cut together much more quickly. But once you start to get into the nuances of performance, timing and story arc, the challenges of narrative make themselves known. That said, I think editing a feature documentary is a bigger job – much more challenging and satisfying. You wear a few more hats and you get to be more involved with writing and creating the story of the film.
POV: Do you have any specific goals for yourself for the Fellowship? Anything you really want to walk away from it with?
Meyer: Editing is often an insular, solitary job in the collaborative world of filmmaking. We can be alone in a room for weeks or months, and sometimes we miss out on seeing our colleagues or our own films at film festivals, and other networking opportunities. The fellowship breaks down a few of those barriers, and I’m looking forward to attending many events where I can meet directors and other editors whose work has excited and inspired me.
On a technical level, I’d like to work more in Avid and develop my storytelling vocabulary. The mentorship that the Fellowship offers is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet and learn from some of the best documentary editors in the field. I am so grateful to my fellowship mentors Kim Roberts, Pedro Kos and Greg Finton who have generously agreed to allow me to badger them with questions and curiosities throughout the coming year.
Awarded annually, the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship was created in 2010 to honor the memory of gifted editor Karen Schmeer. This year’s application deadline will be in the fall.