This is the third in a series of posts on POV’s Documentary Blog about the regrettably underappreciated process and craft of documentary editing. Our guide is 2016 Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow Eileen Meyer. Catch up on earlier conversations with Meyer.
Pedro Kos, one of Meyer’s mentors, is an award-winning editor and director known for his character-driven films. This past June, he was invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. His credits include two Oscar-nominated documentaries (The Square and Waste Land), The Crash Reel and The Island President. In this conversation, Meyer and Kos discuss the nature of the director/editor relationship and what happens when you have to be both at the same time.
Eileen Meyer: Tell me about the film you’re working on now and what the process of co-directing and editing simultaneously has been like for you?
Pedro Kos: It has been a very long journey on this one, it’s been by far the longest edit I’ve actually been involved with — a year and four months. Which for me is really long.
This film is about a group of pioneers in the global health movement who founded an organization called Partners in Health in the mid-eighties. They started a small little operation in rural central Haiti. From the small clinic they built in a squatter settlement in rural central Haiti, the work slowly began to grow, and their models and their methods slowly began to spread. Eventually, it began to have an enormous impact internationally.
This film posed a challenge because it’s a very interview-driven and archival based film. I’ve done archival based films before, but this one was different because it’s mostly driven by interviews, and both Kief [Davidson], my co-director, and I wanted to make it as intimate, personal, and as emotional a portrait as possible. It’s a film that spans over thirty years, is set in different countries, with a story that is very big and epic, and it could have veered towards being a very issue-driven film — so that’s why it was a long road. There was a lot of reworking and reframing sections to make it more personal and intimate.
Even though the general structure has pretty much stayed the same, the beginning and the end proved very difficult to get right.
Meyer: What were the struggles with the beginning and the end? What changed?
Kos: Up until recently the beginning was feeling very intellectual and we were not connecting to it on a personal level. It is a very epic story, but we wanted to make it very character driven about these people who changed the world.
For the beginning we were trying to set up what the world was like back when they started and explain some of the reasons why things were in such miserable conditions in the early eighties, but that proved to be a very intellectual approach. There was a lot of information, and we weren’t getting it across the right way.
And just two weeks ago I just completely threw the old end out and re-cut the whole thing. It feels very different now, and yet there are still a lot of the same components parts but it’s been re-done in a completely different way. For this end montage I brought in a new piece of temp music, restructured the way it flows, and what leads into it is now a completely different, brand new scene. And the very end is also completely different.
So that was a real challenge for me juggling the roles of an editor and co-director at the same time in this type of situation. The editor in me is trying to make work what I was working with before, and the director in me is saying, ok, you need to rethink this, take a step back, and try to look at it with new eyes. And that is the real challenge of directing and editing together for me, because in editing I get really mired in the details. I get really specific on a micro level, you’re thinking on a how to make whatever’s there work, and that’s a different frame of mind from the director’s perspective, where it needs to be a much more macro perspective. So I would have to do small things, like export a cut and watch it at home, or in a different setting to take me out of this microscopic frame of mind that I get in.
In a way, that’s part of the director’s role, taking that step back to get a big picture of the whole film, and be able to say “I know a lot of work was put into this, but let’s rethink this.”
Meyer: It’s like that zoom in, zoom out thing. I feel like it’s similar to a director being on the shoot, and that’s one headspace, and then they get in the edit room and the editor has to be the zoom out person.
Kos: Yes, exactly.
Meyer: And then it has to switch.
Kos: It has to switch. Then the editor will bring their own perspective and a different point of view. I think that’s very important, to bring a different set of eyes on it, a different perspective. Then they’ll go to town on it, allowing the director to have some space from the nitty-gritty details of the footage of the film, and taking a step back.
You have to have that bit of a volley. The director at some point will have to dive back in, which is fine. But it has been a huge learning process for me, and one of the things I’ve learned is there has to be that volley, that hand off.
Meyer: So then what was your editing process like on this film?
Kos: It’s funny, for me it felt like the process was backwards. The way I started out was, because of the interview-driven nature of the film, I just started doing radio cuts [Editor’s note: a radio cut is a preliminary edit using mostly the audio from interviews to create the skeleton story]. Like big chunks and sections of the film. And I don’t know if I would have done that in hindsight.
Meyer: Really? What do you think you would’ve done?
Kos: I would have actually tried to cut full scenes instead of doing radio cuts. And the way I would cut the scene, I would start with a radio cut but then work in the footage as well at the same time. Like the way I cut The Crash Reel. Where I would edit scenes first with the radio cut and then I’d fill in the skeleton. But in the current case it was different and I think it showed because in the first few cuts I did it felt like it was not my style. I am being so candid right now, but it’s a beneficial sort of thing. I looked at the film, the first cut, and I didn’t see myself in it. And that was really difficult for me.
Meyer: Because you’re starting out with information as opposed to feeling?
Kos: Yes exactly.
Meyer: Do you think some editors work that way and some editors don’t?
Meyer: That’s interesting because in the Master Class you did at True/False they were talking about two different ways of editing — like building a sandwich or boiling down a sauce.
Kos: Yes exactly!
Meyer: And that’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. Because I started out being the type of editor that is the boiler down type, but then it seems like that process is so slow in terms of really trying to find tone and rhythm and feeling.
Kos: All those things impact the process especially if you do a radio cut first, they come in afterward but a lot of times they should inform a lot of the decisions that you are making within how you structure the story. Because the films that I want to make — I want films that move — that take people on a ride, on a journey, and so much about that is about emotion. And if you are leaving the emotion for later, then it’s gonna completely change the experience.
Another thing that I was reminded of is that you have to give yourself room to fail and the ability to fail. A lot of time there isn’t, because there are external and internal pressures. Like this has to be perfect, or it has to be close, or that we don’t have time for experiments. All this and is very counterintuitive to my process, because I wouldn’t be taking the risks that sometimes you need to take in order to elevate the film to another level.
Eileen Meyer: So, what do you take from your experience as an editor when you become a director, and when you start to work with an editor now?
Kos: I am trying, because I haven’t just directed yet, I’ve been still sitting in an editorial role, so I’m still figuring out the director side of it. It’s one that I want to figure out more, and it’s one that I’m excited about bringing in the creativity of an editorial collaborator. I’m trying to think on a bigger canvas, looking at a canvas as a whole, and trying to use that creative energy from my collaborator, and try to guide them in a certain manner. It’s a role that I’m still carving out.
I want to give them space to do their thing. Usually what I like to do is have a meeting of the minds before any cutting is done. And say, this is the style, this is the structure, and sort of accompany them along the way. What scene are they tackling next? And how they approach? It’s kind of like working with an actor. When an actor is about to act in a scene, it helps them to get in character if you frame where the scene falls, and what it means for their character emotionally within their journey, etc. Same thing with the editor, just sitting down with them and saying this scene you’re about to cut means ‘this’ and ‘this is how it fits in my head within the journey of this film’ and ‘this is the significance of it.’
We’ll also have aesthetic conversations of what we both feel works and what doesn’t work in terms of tone, pace, rhythm, etc. Once that’s all discussed, and we’ve gone through a lot of the material together and what I’m responding to, then I think they have enough arsenal on their side for me to step away. Then, come back when they’re ready for you to come back. There are certain things that, as editors we see things cut in our head and so we step in and cut it ourselves.
I am very much a believer in giving that space and letting them do their thing and because they will bring much more to the table. The same thing with actors, you give them that space — the performance is going to be so much stronger if they’re doing it from a place of feeling and it feels organic and right for them.
I love it when someone says ‘I have a crazy idea.’ I love crazy ideas. I love them because usually that’s someone thinking outside the box. A lot of times whatever idea it is, it’s not going to work. But at least it means you’re giving that space. I love creating that environment where those ideas, and those risks can be taken, because that only can help elevate the film.
Meyer: On your next project, do you want to keep directing or do you want to just go back to editing for a little while?
Kos: No I want to keep directing. I actually want to take further steps back from editing. I’m a little tired of the edit. And thankfully I’m diving into another project right away so I’m excited about that.
Eileen Meyer: Do you think that will be hard for you?
Kos: I’m sure my hands will get in there at some point and I’m totally fine with that, but I’m excited that I’m going to have some space from it. I want to have hands off. I’ll be filming the footage, and then hand it off to someone else with a different set of eyes, a different perspective, who’s going to put it together, and then I can come in with a fresh set of eyes.
I like being challenged in the edit and I like having another perspective, I think it only makes it better.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Awarded annually, the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship was created in 2010 to honor the memory of gifted editor Karen Schmeer. The 2017-18 open call begins August 3 and the deadline is September 30.