The Most Direct Path to Lead Editor May be a Detour to Indie Films

Editor’s note: Today we have a third post in our series on career advice for young or aspiring editors. One of the things I love about filmmakers is how passionate they are about what they do and how they do it. Topics you think would be mundane can start the liveliest conversations.

Over the years I’ve seen online discussions about codecs and color space as heated as any debate on Facebook about Brexit or U.S. international relations. This series has been no exception.

Whether the topic is where you should live to improve your chances of landing a big “Hollywood” production, or it’s a list of strategies that includes working for free to build a portfolio, you have chimed in and told us what you think.

Today we bring you the advice of three working editors (including the awarding-winning editor of “Roma,” Adam Gough) about how they took a chance and made a detour to indie work in order to advance from assistant to lead.

As always, we’d love to know what your experiences have been.


  • Making the jump from assistant editor to lead can be difficult when there are already so many leads.
  • Lower-budget productions can provide a better opportunity to be assigned greater responsibility.
  • Limited resources of indies can lead to increased responsibility and creativity.
  • Lead work on indies can get you more hands-on cutting time.

You’ve been an assistant on high-level films or TV shows for a long time and feel like it may be time to make your move from assistant to editor.

But big-budget productions come with big names sitting in the editor’s chair—which means it’s not necessarily going to be easy to make that move in one easy step.

That’s why taking a detour into indie territory can be a great way to make the jump. A small side-step can pay big dividends.

For one thing, the lower budgets of indies often mean that roles are less clearly delineated, which opens the door to greater opportunity and responsibility. It can also mean that the filmmakers are more open to giving talented (but less experienced) editors a chance to prove their abilities.

We spoke to three editors about the challenges of transitioning from assistant to lead editor, and how working on indies helped them make that leap.

Move forward—without looking back

Lawrence Jordan, ACE is a Hollywood cutting room veteran known for countless big-studio features and TV shows including Naked, The Spy Next Door, Riding in Cars with Boys, and Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. Lawrence supports making the big step and never looking back. “One of my mentors told me that once you make the transition to editor, you can’t go back to assisting anymore,” he says. “It was a challenge, but I was determined and stuck it out.”

With a father and grandfather in the business, editing is in Lawrence’s DNA. After starting his career at an editing equipment supply company, he quickly progressed to apprentice editor on Terms of Endearment. From there, he worked on numerous large-studio pictures such as Back to the Future and The War of the Roses as an assistant or apprentice.

His first full editor credit, however, was on an indie horror flick called Dead Space, directed by Fred Gallo, a protégé of indie horror legend Roger Corman.

That led to his role as additional editor on Jodie Foster’s Little Man Tate, and from there his editing career was cemented.

Another advantage of working on indies is that lower budgets and reduced resources encourage the kind of ingenuity that leads to honing problem-solving skills. “Working on indies opens up opportunities and gives you a lot more autonomy and often the freedom, and sometimes the necessity, to be more creative,” Lawrence says.

Prove your worth on smaller projects

All good assistants know that if they are lucky enough to work with top editors, there’s a lot to be learned at their sides. But beyond that, establishing good relationships with well-known editors can help further an assistant’s future career.

Richard Sanchez, whose transition is still a work in progress, began his career in unscripted television, but has developed a close working relationship with Lawrence Jordan over the years.

The trust Lawrence has in Richard has afforded him opportunities to work on cutting scenes, in addition to his assistant responsibilities. “When I’m going through dailies, if a scene looks particularly interesting, I’ll say, ‘If you don’t mind, I’d love to take a crack at that,’” he says.

While some editors may not have time to really go through a “practice run,” Richard has found that it’s more likely that an editor will be receptive to letting him spread his wings creatively. And that kind of trust comes from being a solid, dependable, eager assistant.

Working with Lawrence and honing his creative chops has helped Richard get higher-level positions on smaller projects. In 2014, he edited an indie feature called Leftovers, directed by David Rosiak, and from there he’s gone on to assistant stints on such high-profile films as Suicide Squad and Naked, a Marlon Wayans’ Netflix project—with Lawrence as editor.

“Indies were my gateway into features from television.  I’m indebted to indies for that reason,” Richard says.

Like his mentor, he echoes Lawrence’s point about how the limited resources of indies can lead to increased responsibility and creativity. “Being thrown into the fire like that can be invaluable in learning the whole process of feature workflows,” Richard adds. “It certainly was for me.”

Gain experience where you might be lacking

Adam Gough (pronounced “goff”) has had the kind of career of which editing dreams are made. Following a brief stint as the editorial runner on the 2006 teen spy movie Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker, Gough landed a position as editorial trainee on Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men.

That led to more trainee positions on major films such as Fred Claus and Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd. He continued to climb the ladder, working as second assistant and then assistant on numerous big-budget studio films such as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Parts 1 and 2), X-Men: First Class, and In Bruges.

As a big-budget assistant editor making the transition to lead editor, Gough is quick to extol the virtues of working on indies in order to get the editing credits you need. “When I was working on Harry Potter as a second, I started motivating myself to edit shorts on the side, bought myself an iMac and a copy of Avid, and set myself a challenge of trying to do a short a month for a year.”

This, Gough says, provided him with a steep learning curve. “You learn a lot more because you’re challenged.  Either you don’t have the coverage or there are storytelling gaps that make creating a coherent flow more difficult.”

Gough then decided to tread the indie path in order to get more hands-on time cutting, something he felt he was lacking during his time as an assistant. He edited a variety of indie projects including Bees Make Honey, #Sugarwater, Hands of God, and the 2016 documentary about Keith Richards directed by Johnny Depp.

All of which has led to Gough’s career coming full circle. His first high-profile solo editorial credit is on none other than Alfonso Cuarón’s, Roma, which has garnered rave reviews from film critics worldwide, as well as numerous awards including two Golden Globes. It’s also earned Gough BAFTA and American Cinema Editors nominations (among others) and there’s substantial speculation that he’ll get nominated for the upcoming Academy Awards.

The irony that Roma is basically an indie film is not lost on Gough. Cuarón funded the project himself, without taking studio money. The takeaway? Just because a film falls into the “indie” category doesn’t mean that it won’t be a quality, or even pivotal, experience in terms of career building.

A different way of working

All three of the editors we spoke with followed different paths in their journeys from assistant to lead editor. But all agree that indies serve as a fertile training ground.

The real art of editing a film is very different from the kind of tasks that make up the role of assistant editor. While assistants are busy with the mechanics of the cutting room—prepping dailies and bins, doing turnovers, managing the databases or code books—the editor is first and foremost concerned with story.

“Editing is a very different skill set to assisting,” Gough says.  “You know your way around the Avid as an assistant, but then going into trim mode is something you don’t really do very often. So getting some time in on that is important, too.”

In addition, Gough cites logistical challenges to being a first-time editor. “Editing with someone in the room is strange because you never work with someone behind you as an assistant. As an editor, the difference is that you’re editing a scene while realizing you have to manage someone else’s ideas and agenda.”

What many new editors also don’t perhaps fully appreciate is that being the editor also means becoming a department head. It’s a big change in rank from being part of a team of assistants.

The advantages of the indies

One of the biggest challenges to filmmakers on an indie is that the film can often end up being too long. And this is exactly the kind of creative opportunity that ends up in the lap of the editor.

Was there extra footage that was shot ‘just because’? A beautiful last-minute set-up that wasn’t part of the original script? Or is a new director so in love with every frame that they can’t let go of a single one?

This is where editors are challenged by the on-the-fly creative decision-making process, and get to practice honing their client communication skills and keeping a cool, even temperament. If you’re cutting for the first time, helping the director construct the best film from all of the raw footage available is no easy feat.

Similarly, limited budgets mean finding ways to create “happy accidents.” It’s not unusual for indie directors or DPs to try unorthodox camera rigs or use production shortcuts that will require some post-production tricks to succeed. Downstream, the editor will need to be equally creative to pull off the filmmakers’ intentions. Invention, resourcefulness, innovation—all vital skills in indies as well as in bigger-budget films.

On the other hand, lower budgets can mean less big-studio scrutiny. Richard Sanchez explains, “More money means more pressure, more politics, and more security.  I think that’s the biggest difference between indie and big budget films. When a studio puts $200 million on the line, they’re going to be nervous that their crew is taking every precaution to ensure that the data is safe. It’s a big investment on the studio’s part. Reputations are on the line, and people are walking on eggshells.”

Adam Gough agrees. “I think creatively it’s more pleasant on those smaller projects because there aren’t the kind of security concerns you have on, for example, a Harry Potter movie or Bond movie where encrypted drives can’t go anywhere. On a smaller movie, I can take an external hard drive home and cut with it there. On the bigger ones they send in experts who encrypt the drives and take the media away.”

Getting from here to there

Would our contributors have done anything differently? And do they have any sage advice?

If Lawrence Jordan had it to do over, he’d work on patience. “I’d wait for the projects that really appealed to me as an artist and not just jump at the next film that was offered to me. I’d learn to be more selective.”

Richard Sanchez recommends trying to take the best out of every situation. “Sometimes you’re on a project that’s interesting and provocative, and sometimes you’re working because it’s a paycheck,” he says. “As a freelancer, jobs come and go. I can think of several projects that I went in for and didn’t get, but in all of these situations, I ended up getting a different job that worked out well and that I learned a lot from.”

Adam Gough realizes that his path was perhaps slightly more difficult in some respects because, unlike others, he didn’t work with the same editor/mentor over and over. “When I was an assistant, I didn’t really cut anything on the projects I was working on. I think if I’d ended up working with the same team, I would have been able to develop that relationship where you end up being given scenes to edit.”

But all three are proof that indies can provide golden opportunities that allow aspiring editors to gain experience in the cutting room. They can offer a wider variety of challenges and, most importantly, help you expand your creative skill set.

So as you think about your future career path, you might consider indies as a launch pad rather than a step backward. And who knows? It might end up propelling you into Oscar territory!

Niki Smith

Niki Smith is a freelance film writer. You can't scare her with subtitles, shorts, or experimental films, but you will find her shaking in her boots at the merest whiff of a horror film... even Ghostbusters. Really. And she has never seen Avatar. She's not ashamed. Connect with her here: