This is the fifth (and last!) in a series of posts on POV’s Documentary Blog about the regrettably underappreciated process and craft of documentary editing with our guide, 2016 Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow Eileen Meyer. Catch up on earlier conversations with Meyer.
Aaron Wickenden, ACE has over 15 years of extensive experience in documentary. As an editor, his filmography includes The Interrupters (2013 News & Documentary Emmy winner for Outstanding Informational Programming – Long Form), The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2015 News & Documentary Emmy winner for Outstanding Historical Programming – Long Form), Finding Vivian Maier (2014 Academy Award® Nominee), Almost There (also as co-director). He co-edited Best of Enemies with Meyer, which was nominated for a 2016 Cinema Eye Honor for Outstanding Achievement in Editing.
Eileen Meyer: You are the master of archival film editing – what initially drew you to these types of films?
Aaron Wickenden: I’m going to answer your question in a roundabout way if that’s all right. If you think about it, all documentaries are archival films because they all traffic in using documentation of the past. So for me a doc like Weiner is as much an archival film as a film like Amy. In the former, the directors generated the materials and in the latter the director licensed the materials. But it’s all the past. The goal of both films and all films I love is to use these collected relics to transport the audience towards feelings of immediacy and intimacy with the subject. We want to evoke for the viewer the same feeling you have when you’re in the midst of a deep discussion with your best friend. That feeling you have when you are in the moment. How to achieve that is the real trick of the trade.
Really, the main difference between so-called archival films and other docs comes down to the ownership/provenance of the source materials, their vintage and how the director chooses to craft all this stuff on their hard drives. So to answer your question from an artistic standpoint, I’m drawn towards collaborations with directors who have an intellectual curiosity and look at their editorial process as key part of an evolving inquiry. To answer your question from a practical standpoint, these are just the gigs I’ve been offered so far…and I have tried to master them before they could master me.
It may be helpful for your readers to know that films that rely on licensed materials can be an incredibly delicious challenge. As an editor you have to work within the constraints of what your team digs up and can afford to license. In my editing it’s often the constraints that fuel the innovations.
Meyer: What is different about working with archival as an editor versus working with vérité footage?
Wickenden: With licensed or pre-existing materials you have the benefit of them being captured for a purpose other than what you’re using it for. This stuff tends to have an imperfect texture and musk that smells of authenticity.
With vérité you have the benefit of the opposite. This stuff tends to have been filmed for a specific purpose related to what the director wants to say with the film and there is more control expressed over the subject and its formal qualities: lighting, framing, etc.
With both you are asking yourself as an editor – what is the story we’re trying to tell here and how can we do it in the most cinematic way possible? With every scene I cut I’m always challenging myself to create a cinematic experience and communicate with a spectrum of emotions. Even if I’m just given sit-down interviews and licensed materials to cut with, there is still a way to craft that stuff via juxtaposition so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That said, at the end of the day your success really comes down to how close the director is able to get via their unique access to materials that can illuminate the beating heart of their subject.
Meyer: How do you prepare for a new film project when you don’t necessarily have all the material or sometimes very little? How do you find the story?
Wickenden: That’s a great question and I’ve come onto a number of projects relatively early in their production cycles. On The Interrupters I started editing while the filmmakers were in the field so as to give them a sense of how the characters were developing. Almost like editing rushes from a fiction film. On Finding Vivian Maier I started when about 70 percent of the interviews were done but only about 20 percent of the footage with our narrator John Maloof had been generated and so I was very involved in helping to figure out what was needed for that part of the story.
From an editorial standpoint, working with an incomplete palate can be a tough challenge and I don’t think I would take on a job unless the filmmakers had already gathered a critical mass of materials and also had a compass of some kind that they were using to guide their inquiry. Ideally that story will only become stronger when the new materials come in. That means that as an editor you end up throwing out a lot of things you edit along the way. That’s fine. Bret Easton Ellis rewrote his masterpiece Less Than Zero four times and each draft had a totally different approach to the story. Why should editing be any different? This is especially true if your goal is to create something singular and timeless.
For your ego, it’s important to cultivate an attitude of passionate detachment with your editing. You have to care deeply about what you’re making, put a lot of heart into it, and then be detached from the outcomes. Maybe you spend a month on something and it gets cut. So it goes. Hopefully you learned something along the way and maybe that even helped deliver the film to its next level.
I like to read books about screenwriting as I find it’s a helpful corollary to what we do. Lately I’ve been taking Aaron Sorkin’s writing masterclass online and he defines drama as when you have a character with a strong and clear intention and then they are presented with a formidable obstacle. The drama is them trying against odds to get what they want. I approach documentary editing in a similar way, asking myself what does the subject/character want and how is each scene advancing that journey.
Meyer: What do you look for when you watch footage for the first time?
Wickenden: Editing is a very contemplative process and when it’s going well I’ve found that it shares some similarities to meditation. You see, in mediation the teachers put a lot of emphasis on being able to observe your own thoughts and emotions…thus separating them from your definition of self. One Buddhist teacher I read named Pema Chödrön uses the metaphor of your thoughts as clouds drifting along and your self is the clear blue sky. When I screen footage for the first time I am trying to figure out what part of what I’m seeing are the clouds and what part is the sky. What is causing the clouds to be there and what the hell do they mean?
There is a word for this style of viewing, “hearken,” which means to listen attentively and that’s what I try to do. I attempt to approach each piece of material with openness to both what it is and also to what it could be used for. Practically speaking, I’ve found it hard to maintain this type of open focus for long periods of time during a given day. Watching endless hours of footage can make you numb and you get that same feeling you get when you’ve been in a museum too long. You stop feeling the art. I avoid this feeling by going on periodic walks in the sun and drinking lots of coffee.
Meyer: How do you keep your thoughts organized?
Wickenden: To organize my thoughts, I like to write things down by hand with a great pen in a hardbound journal. I remember hearing years ago about how Malcolm X transcribed an entire dictionary by hand so as to master the language…and I’m the type of person for whom that sounds like a good use of time. So while I like having transcripts, I also like to just watch stuff, react, contemplate my reactions and write all this down someplace. I think of this as the equivalent of slow-cooking a meal, which is ironic because most editors I’ve collaborated with have remarked at how fast I am with editing. I think the speed comes from listening.
Meyer: I learned so much in such a short period of time from co-editing with you on Best of Enemies. Do you have any tips, tricks, and/or editing philosophies that have been passed down to you from mentors that resonate with you?
Wickenden: My mentor and role model Steve James often said the following when looking at my earliest edits: “Don’t borrow trouble.” I’m a forgetful person so I can’t quite remember exactly what he meant by this but what I think he was saying was that with editing you should look for the clearest way to articulate what you’re trying to communicate. Don’t clutter things up for yourself trying to be cute doing acrobatics to impress people…just get from A to B with emotion. In the long run style never wins over substance. Brevity is the soul of wit, right?
I worked with Steve on a variety of projects from about 2002 through 2012, and the core of what I learned to do during that time was to build out story beats aka scenes aka the bricks. The mortar that connects those bricks and makes the film cohesive was something I learned how to make as time went on. I remember one particular conversation with Charlie Siskel (who co-directed Finding Vivian Maier) where he described how, in an early edit, I was “skating” from one scene to another. By that he meant that I wasn’t creating handoffs between scenes that would throw you to the following one as if it was the inevitable next thing the viewer yearned to learn. Charlie was totally right and as I edit to this very day I am always asking myself – how am I igniting my audience’s curiosity and then satisfying it.
Bill Siegel, my director on The Trials of Muhammad Ali, would have talks with me about how our audience is what completes the picture. One shouldn’t throw a bunch of information at them but rather figure out strategies to engage them in a co-created experience. My wife Jennifer Brandel is actually doing this very thing for journalism with her company Hearken.
In closing, I hope this dialogue has been useful and good luck to all you editors out there. Keep up the good work! You inspire me.
Meyer: Thanks Aaron! You’re the best!
Awarded annually, the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship was created in 2010 to honor the memory of gifted editor Karen Schmeer.