This is the fourth 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.
Greg Finton, ACE, has worked for over 25 years in documentary, television and film. He began a collaboration with director Davis Guggenheim in 2000 with the documentary short, Teach. Greg has also edited the films He Named Me Malala (2015, Oscar short list, ACE Eddie and Emmy Award nominee), Waiting for “Superman” (2010, Oscar short list, ACE Eddie Award nominee), It Might Get Loud, Teach (2013), and A Mother’s Promise: Barack Obama Bio Film (2008). He has also had notable collaboration with director RJ Cutler, editing such projects as, The World According to Dick Cheney (2013), which he co-directed with Cutler, the TV series American High (2000), Black, White, and 30 Days (with Morgan Spurlock, 2005-08). His most recent film with director Marina Zenovich, Fantastic Lies, aired as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series this past March.
Eileen Meyer: To start at the beginning, how did you become an editor?
Greg Finton: Like many people who enter the film business, I wanted to be a director when I first came to Los Angeles out of film school. I was so naive I didn’t really know how to go about it. I thought if you want to be a director, then probably the best place to start would be as an assistant director. I managed to get hired as a 2nd AD on a low budget film the first day my phone was installed in my new apartment. That first job led to another, and then another, and the next thing I knew I had been working as an AD for about a year. Even though I was well on my way to reaching my required days to get into the DGA [Directors Guild of America], the position really wasn’t something I ever embraced. One day while I was on the set, I overheard a grip talking about his cousin who was an editor and how he might work as his apprentice. It was like a lightbulb went off in my head. I had loved editing when I was in film school – why not give that a try?
My first day in the cutting room I knew that was exactly where I belonged. As an AD I had seen things on the set and I would think, “Oh maybe that will work. Maybe it won’t” I never really knew for sure. But in the editing room, I saw exactly why something worked. And exactly why something didn’t. I was able to work my way up from apprentice to assistant editor pretty rapidly. Within just a few short years I found myself working as a 1st assistant on big studio films, being mentored by two amazing editors – Sandra Adair and Bob Estrin. I loved being involved in the entire process of seeing a film take shape, and couldn’t wait to get into the editing chair myself.
My first big break came when RJ Cutler offered me a job on a TV series he was doing for Fox [Television Group] called American High. This was another light bulb moment for me as it introduced me to yet another area I hadn’t considered working in before – documentary.
Meyer: It sounds like being mentored was an important aspect of your career, how did that work exactly?
Finton: In those days (the pre-digital era) an editing room was run so differently from the way it is today. Film had to be physically cut by hand so it was much more labor intensive, and much of that physical labor fell to the assistants. When I was assisting either Bob or Sandra, they would rarely cut a frame of film without me sitting next to them. They would usually cut the picture while I would cut the various sound tracks, keeping them in sync. It was an amazing first hand way to witness the birth of a movie, and witness everything an editor goes through while making a film.
I would watch them find the best place to cut into or out of a scene. I would see them try out different tracks of music, until they found the perfect one. Change from a wide shot to a close up and completely change the emotion. Remove an establishing shot and increase the pace. Add additional reaction shots to slow the pace. It was such an education! But equally important, I could observe them navigate relationships with directors and producers. I quickly learned that knowing how to edit is such a small part of the editor’s job. Collaborating in a productive way with other key people involved in bringing a story to life is really the most important – and even creative talent we can bring to a film.
Meyer: What do you love and hate about the job?
Finton: When I worked on big studio films, it occurred to me that we were always taking these larger than life, big name actors, and doing everything in our power to make them seem like average, everyday people. And with documentary editing I think we do the opposite. We take average, everyday people and we do everything in our power to make them larger than life heroes for the most part. And I just find that so much more satisfying. Another thing I love about documentary editing is the fact that we are basically writing the story and finding the film’s structure while we edit. I love being able to work with a director during that “process of discovery.” Being able to suggest scenes we might shoot, or people we might interview as the film is being made is input that most editors in other genres aren’t allowed to have.
I also love being completely absorbed into worlds and subjects, and people’s lives that I often wouldn’t even have exposure to – like a teenage girl from a remote valley in Pakistan.
I suppose something I hate about the job is that we are often expected to “make something work.” When something is not shot properly – or not shot at all. When dialogue can’t be understood. When a key person isn’t in a particular scene, etc.We are the ones who have to make something out of nothing, which can be extremely difficult and frustrating.
Getting bad notes is never any fun either.
Meyer: Every film and relationship has it’s challenges – how do you navigate those situations?
Finton: As I mentioned earlier, I think this was one of the most valuable observations I was lucky enough to see when I was an assistant. And I do think it’s an art form, so every single person handles it differently. For me, I try to stay open minded and not be dismissive. To really try to see something from the perspective of whoever is giving the note. I really try to remove ego from the discussion and always keep what is best for the film at the center of every discussion. And I find that that usually will get to the heart of most disagreements. What is best for the film? How does this make the film better? If there are good answers to those questions then it is impossible to dismiss them.
I think that a “bad” note is usually one that doesn’t come with a solution – so just having that conversation will often times lead to a solution.
Meyer: How do you choose the films you work on? What are the elements you consider, including subject matter, style, director, work schedule, etc.?
Finton: I think the biggest factor for me in choosing a film is the subject matter. If the film is going to be about something that I’m interested in learning more about, then I will definitely consider it. The director is a big factor too because I have to know that I can trust the person I’m going to be spending at least a year of my life with to tell this story in a truthful, honest, and respectful way. And that when things get tough, as they always do with every type of film, will the director be supportive? The schedule is important as well because it has to be reasonable. Most of my films have taken me more than a year to edit, and they simply could not have been made in less time than that. I know that we could not have made He Named Me Malala in 15 weeks! And when I hear a producer or director suggest that something of that scope can be done in that amount of time, I become very wary of that project.
For me, personally I think that the style of a film is dictated by the subject matter. I know that I have an overall general style to my work, but the way that I cut the music docs I have done certainly is different from the style I used in The World According To Dick Cheney.
Meyer: What advice would you give to young editors trying to break into the documentary world now?
Finton: Try to get yourself onto an unscripted show or film which has experienced editors. If not as an assistant editor – then as a logger. A post production assistant, an intern, etc. Try to observe the editors work as much as you possibly can. See how they are able to navigate their way through all of the hurdles they have to overcome. If possible, stay with the project from beginning to end, so that you can see everything that is involved in getting something to the finish line. Be patient. Don’t try to move up too quickly. If you learn a lot by working on one show – you will learn twice as much from working on two.
Also, it’s a tired cliche, I know, but don’t be afraid to ask questions. I remember when I was first starting out, I was afraid to appear like I didn’t know something, worried that people wouldn’t trust me if I had to ask questions. Luckily I realized that if I didn’t ask questions, I would NEVER learn or understand what I needed to know.
Most editors I know – especially doc editors – are very curious people to begin with. And they love to question things all the time. And they love to share the knowledge they have gained with others.
If you are having a hard time getting hired onto a show or film, reach out to editors whose work you admire. See if any of them will speak with you. Email and social media have made it much easier to do so nowadays.
Meyer: What do you think the future of documentary looks like and how is the role of the editor changing?
Finton: I think the future of documentary is really interesting. Currently we are in a period where docs are not doing well theatrically. The box office numbers have been pretty dismal over the past few years – especially when compared to the kind of golden era we had in the early 2000’s. But documentaries seem to be doing extremely well on streaming services. So there is an audience out there for docs, and hopefully that will continue.
I think the role of the editor is being appreciated more now than ever before. I think that most people who work in documentary know how important it is to have a good editor, so I feel like, in my career anyway, that we are getting more respect. I think reality TV has played a hand in that as well. You have all of these shows who don’t employ writers – just editors. And I think that a lot of people who hadn’t even known there was such a thing as an editor before, are actually aware of the art form now.
Awarded annually, the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship was created in 2010 to honor the memory of gifted editor Karen Schmeer.