This is the third (!!!) edition of Enter the Edit, a series exploring the regrettably underappreciated process and craft of documentary editors. Our guide is 2017 Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow Leigh Johnson. Catch up on earlier conversations with with Johnson.
Geoffrey Richman is the editor of Murderball, Sicko, and The Cove—the 2006, 2008, and 2010 Academy Award nominees for Best Feature Documentary, and Time Freak, the 2012 Academy Award nominee for Best Live-Action Short Film. Other documentary credits include God Grew Tired Of Us, The Order of Myths, Racing Extinction, and Before the Flood. Narrative film credits include Detachment, Sleepwalk With Me, Don’t Think Twice and Knight of Cups. He is a mentor to Leigh Johnson through the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship this year.
Leigh: As both a documentary and narrative editor, you’ve mentioned that narrative films tend to try to be more like documentaries and vice versa. Can you talk about that?
Geoff: The first cut of each is when they’re most like what you think of as fiction or documentary. The scripted films feel very scripted, and the documentaries feel very unstructured and informational. And over the course of the edit, I find that you’re pushing them in the opposite direction. So the narrative films get to feel less scripted and staged, documentaries get to feel more and more structured and narrative. The first cut on a documentary doesn’t necessarily even feel like a movie. It can take a few rounds of editing before it even gets to the point where it feels like a bad rough cut of a movie.
Leigh: The most obvious difference between narrative and documentary editing is that narrative films start with a written screenplay whereas documentaries are “written” through extensive experimentation in the edit. But I imagine there’s an immense amount of experimentation and rewriting in a narrative edit as well.
Geoff: Definitely. There are obviously more constraints on a narrative film. But the most fun I’ve had on narratives is when the edit felt similarly open to experimentation as on a documentary.
On Peter and Vandy, which was a love story told out of order, the scenes could go in pretty much any order. So there was a lot of trial and error to find the right way through the story. And we could use snippets of scenes from later in the film, or from deleted scenes, at any point to help with the edit.
On Sleepwalk With Me, it seemed like a straightforward edit at the start, but we ended up doing lots of fun experimenting. The screenplay was based on Mike Birbiglia’s story that had been previously performed on stage, written, and edited many times, with a lot of the same funny jokes. But when we presented rough cuts of the film version to people, they weren’t laughing. It took a little while to figure this out, but the story is kind of tragic, his sleepwalking problem, his relationship problem. The difference when Mike would tell the story on stage or on the radio is that you understood inherently that he’s telling you a story that happened in the past and he’s okay now, so it’s okay to laugh about it. You know how comedy is tragedy plus time? The film lost the time element. It was really interesting and totally surprising. So we experimented with different ways for Mike to talk to camera, from the future, and him driving in his car talking to camera ended up becoming the throughline of the film, placing the rest of the story in the past. The early cuts were also missing a lot of his performance material, so Mike shot a bunch of actual performances at different comedy clubs, plus b-roll of him on the road, writing notes, that kind of thing. With all these new ingredients in play, which could be used anywhere in the film like on a documentary, it gave us a lot more freedom to experiment with scenes and structure.
Leigh: It’s funny how it’s so obvious in retrospect when you figure out why something like that wasn’t working. My dream is that one day with more experience I’ll be able to predict these things and not get lost in the weeds, but I have a feeling it’s the same thing again on every film.
Geoff: It definitely is. Probably one of the best lessons to be learned with experience is that getting lost is part of the process. It’s a roller coaster of euphoria and frustration, coming up with solutions and then seeing why they don’t work. You might get better at judging why certain things work better than others, but the best edits are always the ones that surprise you, not the ones you predicted would work. Often what seems obvious is only the result of having done it hundreds of different wrong ways first.
Leigh: One of the most difficult or last things to come together in a documentary is often the beginning. Has that been the same for you on narrative films, or is there another common challenge?
Geoff: It’s not always the last thing to work, but I do find that openings go through the most radical changes, on both documentary and fiction. On Don’t Think Twice, the earliest cuts opened with a group of friends watching an episode of the movie’s version of SNL, wishing they were on the show. Then it’s them getting ready backstage at an improv theater. Pretty straightforward. These are the main characters, this is what they want, and this is their life now. But we kept having screenings where the audience just didn’t like them. One memorable comment during the feedback session after a screening was “they’re all losers.”
A few months into editing, we started experimenting with opening the film with a history of improv and the rules of improv, to give the story a larger context. In the earliest version, it was just Sam’s character doing voice-over over archival stills. We actually had one screening where people got so confused in the beginning because they thought they were watching a documentary. We hadn’t told people what the movie was about beforehand. We then started mixing the voice-over about rules of improv into the actual improvised footage of the characters getting ready backstage for their show. Mike shot so much improv of them backstage that, like on a documentary, we had hours of verite-style footage that could be paired with the voice-over in different ways. That eventually evolved into all the characters telling us the rules of improv, not just Sam, with a mix of them improvising backstage, archival stills and archival film. So it ended up being more about creating interest in a world, with these characters bringing us in, and less about the plot points, which we pushed to later in the act.
We had a similar evolution on The Cove. We originally started the film by presenting facts. Here’s Ric, here’s Louie, here are the facts you must understand about dolphins and dolphin captivity, here’s Japan. But people weren’t interested in the story until way too late in the film. Understandably – we don’t even arrive at Taiji, Japan, the center of the story until something like 13 minutes in. What ended up fixing it was dropping all the exposition and going more tonal – night shots, guy in mask, police cars, creating a world to draw you in, and then dishing out the exposition and plot within that.
Leigh: You edited Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, which also contained a lot of improvised material, is that right?
Geoff: That’s right. There was no script really, just lines of dialogue that the actors could say whenever they wanted. And he shot a lot of footage so there was plenty of room to experiment in the editing room, which he always encouraged.
Leigh: We’ve talked about how being in the edit room can be similar to improv in terms of the “Yes and” rule, so it’s almost like you’re improvising with the footage and with each other.
Geoff: I never thought of it that way until working with Mike, but I’ve worked with other filmmakers who take that philosophy into the edit room – always being open to other people’s ideas and then trying to build on them with your own. I love the accidental discoveries that come from experimenting with so many ideas.
I was talking before about the opening of Don’t Think Twice, but the end was the last thing we figured out on that film. When Jack and Sam are alone on stage and she says the relationship is over, you hear her voice-over come back from the beginning of the film. That was a total accident. The day before picture lock, we were experimenting with a voice-over montage that comes after that scene, and we pulled a couple shots from them on stage where they were looking at each other. The idea was to try to have their relationship end in the montage, not within the previous scene. That idea didn’t work, but their closeups played so nicely against the voice-over that when we put those shots back into the original scene we brought the voice-over with them.
I think it’s really important to always be open to experimenting, especially since a lot of the best discoveries happen in the final weeks of the edit. But at the same time you obviously have to keep an eye on what is working and hold onto that. We did a last minute change on The Cove the day of picture lock. We were super happy with the cut, everything was working, and we were confident with our understanding of the structure. So at the last minute, we took two scenes in the first act and flipped them. One was a really fun scene, the other an important but not as fun scene, and we figured it would be better to get to the fun scene a little earlier. So we flipped them, locked picture, and did all the turnovers to sound and color, and then that weekend we all watched the cut. The whole movie broke. It was the most drastic ripple effect I’ve ever seen. So we had to reopen it and do new turnovers after putting it back.
Favorite documentary of all time? Dear Zachary, The Fall of Fujimori
Favorite documentary of the past year? Long Strange Trip
Funniest documentary you’ve ever seen? King of Kong, Anvil! The Story of Anvil
Editors whose work you admire? Fred Raskin, Affonso Gonçalves, Sam Pollard
Favorite film festival? Sundance
Avid, Premiere, or FCP? Now Avid, but if you asked me three years ago, I’d say Final Cut
Software tip or trick that changed your life? Raising or lowering the volume on multiple clips at once using the keyboard
Favorite snack or pick-me-up in the edit room? Coffee, about three cups a day
Any morning rituals or things you do to focus? I’m a very to-do list guy, I’ll order all the things I want to finesse, start, or finish at the end of the previous day so I can start in the morning without thinking about it
Most footage you’ve ever worked with for a film? Over 1000 hours
Ideal length for a documentary? 86 minutes not including credits
Shortest edit you’ve ever done? Doc 6 months, fiction 12 weeks
Longest edit you’ve ever done? Almost 2 years on Knight of Cups