Art of the Cut: Monty DeGraff, ACE on Blazing a Trail for the Next Generation
Today we’re speaking with Monty DeGraff, ACE.
Monty is a prolific TV editor who first moved to the editor’s chair for the legendary Star Trek: The Next Generation!
He’s also cut episodes of Melrose Place, almost 30 episodes of Law and Order, Soul Food, Beauty and the Beast, Carnivale, Necessary Roughness, Daredevil, Designated Survivor, NARCOS Mexico, and most recently The Man in the High Castle.
Check out the Art of the Cut podcast to listen to this interview, and stay up to date on all the latest episodes.
HULLFISH: Your career is long and varied. I am so impressed at a huge number of series. Do you know the number of episodes you’ve edited? Do you have a count yourself?
DEGRAFF: No, I’ve never sat down and figured it out. It’d probably shock me.
HULLFISH: I don’t have an exact count myself, but it’s close to a hundred. It’s probably more than that, but that’s what is on IMDB if you look through it. That’s a lot of episodes.
Tell me a little bit about your career to start with. The way I came to know about you was people that knew you at Dick Wolf Pictures.
DEGRAFF: That was probably my actual beginning as an editor. I was hired first to work on a show called New York Undercover, about a Black and a Puerto Rican undercover cop. Then, I did three or four episodes and got switched over to Law and Order. This was when Law and Order was being nominated almost every year for best drama. So, it was very exciting to be part of that show.
I think every editor needs to be working regularly to really get going in terms of the craft itself. I’m very grateful for that opportunity to really hunker down on a high-quality show and work with really smart producers, directors, and writers and learn about our craft. That was the place that I more than got my feet wet and started really learning about what storytelling is.
HULLFISH: Tell me about getting your feet wet and getting to know the craft better. It’s so much a part of just getting the time in the seat.
DEGRAFF: It certainly is. I got my start working for an old big production company, Lorimar, as an apprentice, and within a year I got an opportunity to be on a show called MacGyver and worked one season on that as an assistant.
Lorimar introduced non-linear editing to television. They had big shows like Dallas and Knots Landing. Those shows, which had been shot on film and edited on film, got switched over to non-linear editing. So, it was the beginning of the wave of that as an assistant. Because of that, I got a lot of work because the few people who knew it got to work.
The systems kept changing. We worked on an EditFlex system, we worked on a number of systems that only were popular for a year or two, and then we learned a new system. From MacGyver, I got hooked up with an editor who was going on to cut the pilot of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and they were using a system called Montage, and I learned that.
Also, because it was non-linear, it was the beginning of cutting as an assistant and not affecting what your editor was doing, which prior to that on film was a much more complicated process for an assistant to get actual cutting experience. So, I got my first credit on Star Trek: The Next Generation and was very proud of that. I just happened to see it on Amazon. I haven’t seen it in 30 years and was delighted. It’s not as dynamic as present-day television, but it still held up story-wise and entertainment-wise.
So, that was my first opportunity to cut, and then for the next four years, I just bounced around as an assistant, trying to get an opportunity, cutting something here, getting a little half-credit there. It wasn’t until Dick Wolf and Arthur Forney, who’s in charge of post over there, giving me an opportunity to work on a high-quality show for an extended period of time.
HULLFISH: When you were cutting that show, I was in Chicago working for the TV station that aired Star Trek: The Next Generation. So, I was cutting the promos for those shows, thinking, “I wish I was cutting the show.”
I thought that was a fantastic show, Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’m sure you were very proud of that. Was it hard for you to have cut something and then do a couple of years of assistant work?
DEGRAFF: Well, I didn’t think that one episode would ensure my career, but I was hoping to stay with Star Trek itself because it was clear that not only was that show going to be a success, but they were already, after the first and second season, talking about spinoffs from it. So, it looked like a place that people could grow, and in fact, that is what happened. Many people got opportunities, many assistants do become editors, many actors and editors do become directors. So, I felt I was in the right environment, but the gentleman who was the associate producer really did not get along with me, or I didn’t get along with him. So, it was clear that I wasn’t going to get an opportunity to grow with it that I needed to.
There was a wonderful editor there who was going on to another project, an ABC show called Elvis: The Early Years, and I went with him. Even though I wanted to be on Star Trek: The Next Generation for a bunch of reasons, one of which it was a really fun show to work on, I was very anxious to work on different types of shows because I wanted to do a wedding scene, I wanted to do a lovemaking scene, I wanted to do a sports scene. So, that journey of actually landing someplace was equally frustrating, but it helped me grow as an artist to work on different things and see how editors approach going from one type of show to a totally different type of show and succeeding with that.
The other thing that happened was that assistants in those days sat in the room. There was one machine and we sat in the room with your editor, and it sounds absolutely crazy now, but sitting in a room and watching somebody is like watching paint dry on one level. I was always amazed that editors would go over something over and over and over, and I’m thinking, “What are they doing? It looks great.” Now I know what a big difference one frame can make, and I see why quality work takes time.
I worked with one editor, Larry Mills, early on in my assistant career, who had won nine Emmys, and he was meticulous, he took his time, and it made a difference. I would see a scene that would look fabulous, and he would go back and work on it for another 45 minutes. I’d think, “What is he doing?” and it would look better. I could see what he did and it really brought home to me that quality takes time and to be willing to be patient with it.
HULLFISH: Yeah, my old boss used to say, “Good, better, best. Never let it rest.”
DEGRAFF: There you go. That’s a good one.
HULLFISH: Since you got to sit in the room with him, I really think that’s an important, valuable thing not just for watching the paint dry, but watching the interactions with the people that came into that room. Can you talk to me a little bit about some of the things that you learned, or that you were surprised about when you were sitting there like a fly on the wall?
DEGRAFF: Two things: one, not about cutting, but about the courage muscle that editors need to work on to do good work and work with strong-willed producers, directors, and others.
On the very first show I was on, MacGyver, my editor—the fantastic Tom Benko—got fired by our showrunner. It was a very tumultuous scene. I was in the room and was shaken by it. The union found out that he had gotten fired and said, “We’ll back you up and we’ll make sure you get paid for three months and blah, blah, blah.” He said, “You know what? I’m going to get a job really quickly. Let’s not even worry about it,” and in fact the next week he got a job on a Michael Mann show, Crime Story.
But the producer was very abusive of the editors, and if he sensed fear he dived all over them. He would say, “Why did you make that cut?” and if they said, “I made that cut because it’s the best moment to reveal whatever,” he was satisfied. But if they hesitated and showed that they weren’t sure, he would really rip at them until their confidence would be weakened and then they would get fired, but Tom was a competent and very confident editor, and he was never shaken by our producer’s attitude. So, when this big confrontation came, he demonstrated—he wasn’t doing it for my benefit, but it did benefit me—he demonstrated that if you’re doing strong work and you know what you’re doing, nobody should be able to abuse you. You don’t have to take that, and it has stayed with me my entire career.
“If you’re doing strong work and you know what you’re doing, nobody should be able to abuse you.”
The last time I saw him I thanked him again for modeling early on in my career that we have to demand respect for ourselves to get it. That has served me really well. I’ve only worked for one or two people that I would consider difficult and they all are, in their own way, asking for those that are working with them to be confident about what they’re doing and show that. That was the first year that I was working as an assistant.
So, that’s not about the craft of editing, but it’s an important factor in getting hired because getting hired requires people to have trust in you and have confidence in you. It’s an intuitive thing of how people pick up confidence in another person. Especially when I was beginning, I’ve been in interviews where I was nervous, but I was still able to project enough confidence that people could see that this person could probably handle what our show is about.
The second thing about being in the room was I got to learn early on that I could hear the note under the note. The same editor, Tom Benko, who taught me about courage, we were on Star Trek together and he had cut the pilot. They loved his work, and the executive producer who was new to the job would articulate a note, but it wouldn’t be what was really bothering him. So, he might say, “Get rid of that shot when the captain gets up and starts to walk towards the door. We don’t need to see him go through the door.” So, Tom would do that. That was the note. I took notes. He would do the note, show it to our executive producer, Rick Berman, and then Rick would go, “Nah, that’s not….” and I started to understand what he was really asking for, which was to speed up the moment that he goes to the door.
So, after a while, I started saying, “Tom, here’s the note. He said to get rid of the shot, but what I really think is this,” and Tom would say, “Well, if the note is that, I’m going to do the note.” I said, “Okay, but I just want you to know I think it’s this.” After a while, Tom got to see that I was interpreting our producer correctly and started to trust what I was understanding he was trying to say more than what he specifically said. It taught me that you can’t always depend on what a person specifically says, you’ve got to try and figure out what’s bugging them about something or what they are trying to go towards. That was kind of a revelation.
So, that happened over the course of two or three seasons working on the show that by the time I got to cut my own episode, I really understood the values of my executive producer, even though I doubt he could articulate what they were, but I intuitively got an understanding of it. How that carried for me in my career going forward is I always want to know the DNA of my executive producer. Some are really, really clear in how they articulate what it is they’re going for, and others are not at all, but it’s our job to go under and figure out what their DNA is, what they really like.
I had a producer who never liked to see the back of actors’ heads, and it seemed to me so arbitrary and odd, but it would just throw him out of being able to see a scene. So, I was trying to figure out, “What is that about?” This is the psychology of being an editor is understanding what directors and producers are struggling with themselves, getting out of our own way of our own fears and anxieties about what we’re trying to accomplish creatively and be there as a real resource for our producers and directors even when they can’t necessarily say what is bugging them or what they’re trying to achieve.
They depend on us as editors. When they have an editor who can make suggestions that fit what they’re trying to accomplish, they reward that editor because it’s something that can’t necessarily be articulated or taught. Some people are just very intuitive in understanding those that they’re working with and some are not.
The third aspect is: those who are highly creative producers and directors also often need to be emotionally managed. They bring their anxiety. It’s their name on the project, and rightfully so. They should have people who are going to support them and to some degree manage that anxiety they feel in the creative process. So, we as editors to a certain degree have to put aside our anxiety about what we’re doing and take on managing the process for them. For me, I’m still learning about every aspect of what I do as an editor, but that’s one that I’m learning more and more.
I can tell from the times of Law and Order to now, it’s something I’ve continued to grow with. I want my directors and my producers to know I am a resource for them, and I’m serving their needs for the show. They can depend on me for that. All of us who are successful editors, I think on one level or another, provide that for our directors and producers, and that’s how we are able to have careers because they feel this is somebody who’s solid, who is backing me up.
HULLFISH: Yeah. I was just dealing with that in this project with my producer, and I could tell that she had a certain level of anxiety because of other things that were coming at her. They weren’t even about this project, it was just other stuff in her life. I just felt like I had to say, “Hey look, Val, I’ve got this. You can go do this other stuff. Count on me. You don’t have to worry about it,” and that just gave her such a great level of peace. I wanted to let her know that I had her back and I think that helps me in my career. I think that’s the reason why I’ve been working with her for 25 years is because she knows I have had her back and she can know, “I’m going to let him be for a day and when I come back things will have progressed.”
The emotional management of a client or a producer or a director is a big thing. Part of that is when you bring up problems with a scene. Talk to me a little bit about the psychology of, “This isn’t really working, or it’s a problem. I’m not going to show them this scene, or I’m not going to worry about this now because of their emotional state.” Has that happened to you before?
DEGRAFF: When we read a script we all get an image in our head of how we think it works and what it’s about, and then we get dailies and it either reveals something we could have never imagined that’s wonderful and is more than, or it’s disappointing because it’s missing some of the things you thought it should have. So, when it’s the ladder, when it’s not actually hitting what you think should be the mark, I often feel like it’s best to begin thinking about the problem solving that’s going to of necessity come up down the road. In that way, I think, “Maybe if I have this alternative ending in my back pocket which would solve this problem, this will help when we get down there and everybody’s struggling with, ‘Why did he just leave the room?'” I gave this little thing here to indicate that.
“Sometimes I don’t have a solution, but I’m at least thinking about it because I anticipate that down the road this is going to be an issue.”
So, it’s first recognizing, for me at least, where there might be problems in my understanding of the story, the scene specifically, or the performance, and then sometimes I don’t have a solution, but I’m at least thinking about it because I anticipate that down the road this is going to be an issue. When I was a beginning editor, sometimes I wouldn’t have any thoughts on it to help with the solving of it. I just thought, “The director’s going to have to help me solve this because it’s not here,” but our job is to, if not solve it, at least be aware of it and be thinking about how we might manage this difficulty. It may be you have to meld two scenes together or just use a part of the scene. Whatever it might be, you are at least thinking about it. You’re not caught unaware when it becomes glaringly obvious and everybody’s giving notes about this problem.
It’s always a delicate issue talking with them—especially if it’s a director/writer because they have even more of a sense of ownership of the project—but, once again, trust. If the director’s cut is fairly strong, that raises the level of trust tremendously. They have a sense of, “This person knows my footage. He’s got the pacing of it. We have work to do, but this person gets what our show or movie is about.” So, if you have that level of trust then your suggestions may not be all taken, but they are appreciated.
Then, the second thing is when I get notes that I feel are really wonky, I’ve learned to hold that thought. Sometimes the exploration of a bad note—or in my estimation a bad note—still reveals something that can go towards helping it. So, it’s worth that exploration. Sometimes it’s obvious it doesn’t work, the note doesn’t work, and the producer or director could just appreciate that you gave a full-throated attempt at it. You didn’t just say, “Oh, that doesn’t work, and so I’m just giving a half-ass response.” You really dove into what they’re noticed, which once again, creates trust and appreciation.
“Often there is some real problem that even a bad note is trying to get to.”
These are all things that I’ve learned over the years just by hit and miss, but I hold back criticizing notes, even some network notes that I get where I think, “What are you talking about? We set up so clearly that this guy hates the sister. What are you saying, you don’t know what this is?” But often there is some real problem that even a bad note is trying to get to. So, I’ve become far less judgmental on other people’s notes and am willing to try them because sometimes I don’t see what problems are and the note does address it, but more because often notes lead to something else. So, you’ve got to dive in and do them to the best you can.
HULLFISH: Yeah, and that goes back to that understanding of the note behind the note, which I thought was such a beautifully stated way to say that. Can you think of other things in more recent times with you that you’ve thought of reading between the lines on the note?
DEGRAFF: Sometimes experience gives you one thing that you know, “This is not working,” and that’s valuable to be clear on when something is not working. Sometimes notes are merely throwing things up against the wall to see what might work. “Let’s try this, let’s try that.” If you’ve worked with somebody over a period of time and you have a tremendous amount of trust, they will say that’s what they’re doing, but often it won’t be said that way. It will be said like, “I think this is a real straight-ahead solution, so do this.”
This is how I’ve known I’ve grown as an editor: I much more trust my intuitive urges. So, that is to say, I may not have an intellectual reason that I could explain to somebody why I want to do something, but I feel a gut-level response to go in a direction and then I just do that. That is, to me, going to the note below the note because they’re not articulating it from an intellectual perspective and I’m not hearing it from an intellectual perspective. I’m getting it from the gut level of, “Something’s bugging them. What could that be?” I’ve turned off the intellect and just go with my intuitive response to what they’re trying to articulate.
It’s sometimes a surprise to me that what I come up with is a good response to what was bugging them, and after the fact, I might be able to rationalize what it was I did, but in the moment of doing it, I just think, “Hmm, okay. I saw her blink that eye. Let me just see if we can make that mean something,” and, in the doing of it, I couldn’t really explain to anybody why I’m fiddling with this at the moment. But my process as an editor has grown that I trust myself more now that I often can’t articulate to myself why I’m cutting anything at a particular moment. Sometimes I’m shocked by what I did because I wonder, “Why did I do it? How did I do that? I did that?”
But I think we all have a level of intelligence that’s not necessarily verbal and the more we trust that part of ourselves, the better editors we can become, which is not to say there’s no room in what we do to clear articulated thought. Of course there is. That’s our biggest struggle: to get something that’s not working but that you have the materials to make work to find a path to do that. For me, it’s been a lot about turning off the rational part of my brain and trusting my experience and my intuition to go there, wherever that might be. That is to say, they give me the goal and I am just using the material to get there.
This is something else that I’ve learned about the material itself: often solutions and my ability to cut a scene the first time really is because—I’ve discovered this over the years—is because on some level I’m resisting it. I’m resisting it in the sense of, “I don’t think this is what it really should be. I don’t like how the actor is staged.” Instead of being neutral to the material, just not judging it, or the best, really being curious and loving the material, and I find it reveals more to me when I’m not resisting it. Now, sometimes it’s hard to even know I’m resisting it, but when I am resisting it, it doesn’t reveal solutions to problems, or more importantly, potential to me when I’m judging it. It’s almost like judging a person. We all know when we’re being judged and it’s hard to give your best self when you’re being judged, but you know when somebody is open to you and not judging you and how much more open you are. To me, the film is the same way.
So, when I’m curious about it and think, “Well, I thought they were going to do it this way, but they’re doing it this way,” then it reveals itself to me. I find that looking at material when I open a bin and it’s the first time I’m seeing what the director has set out, the more open and curious and excited I am about it, the more that it speaks to me and the more that I can do with it. That’s part of my progression as an editor also is to really be sensitive to when I’m judging the film that I get, judging it harshly or negatively, and how that shuts down my creative ability to find its best potential.
HULLFISH: That’s a huge lesson for me. Thank you. As you’re saying that I can picture myself being in that position, and yeah, if I was more open to that I think that would have helped. I sense a tremendous emotional intelligence in you. Can you talk about how our ability to understand emotion, to be empathetic, how important that is to our craft?
DEGRAFF: Well, it has two levels. Obviously, the level of emotional intelligence helps us work with those around us and getting us jobs. There are people I know who are wonderful editors, but it’s impacted their career that they can’t read a room really well or project their emotional intelligence. It’s something that I don’t know if it could be taught or not. I imagine it could, but it’s not taught. If you go to film school there is not going to be a class on how to increase your emotional intelligence and use it in the cutting room. So, there’s that important level. People, when they hire an editor, want to be emotionally comfortable with that person. So, the higher your emotional intelligence, the greater you can probably make that happen.
“There are people I know who are wonderful editors, but it’s impacted their career that they can’t read a room really well or project their emotional intelligence.”
Then, the second half of it is your response to the material itself. The deeper your emotional understanding of humanity, the more you can look for in, “Oh, if he said that she should probably be reacting in this way. Let me look to see what her face does.” Here’s what I’ve noticed, in scripted narrative at least, it’s the human face that really tells us what’s going on and our ability as editors to read a face. A person may curse out another person and in that moment you want a reaction to being surprised that the person is actually cursing at you. So, I always go to that moment in the take on that actor when that actually happens to see what they do, but often I’m disappointed. That doesn’t really tell me anything. So, I may find that at the beginning of the scene, when it’s a calm conversation, that look goes perfect when this person curses them out.
Now, the greater your knowledge of people—yourself, the people in your life, the people you’ve encountered throughout your life—the greater our understanding of other human beings or interest in other human beings, which definitely informs us as editors because then we have a bigger palette of what to go looking for. “Is that a good reaction or is this a better reaction? Or can we just stay on his face while this person gives this one-page speech because it reads so great?”
There are things that we all have had—different childhood experiences and things that have happened to us before we even sat in the editing chair—that can help or can limit what we do. I think if you are limited, you can still say, “Oh, this is not my strong suit. I would like to really pay attention to that,” and then that could help you grow too.
“There are things that we all have had—different childhood experiences and things that have happened to us before we even sat in the editing chair—that can help or can limit what we do.”
I would just say that my father, who is a very brilliant man, very well-read, very loving and kind, often drank on the weekends. When he drank, it was the only time he could talk to my brothers and I in a very emotional way. Sometimes he would wake us up in the middle of the night, he would come home from having been out drinking and he would come home in the night, and it would be a little scary because there was a question of, “Is he going to be volatile?” He was never violent, it was never a fear of violence or anything like that, but it was just the volatile nature of it. But I think that was the beginning of my emotional education of realizing that this person wants to make contact. The only way they’re capable of doing that is, for my father, when he was drinking, and I’m going to take advantage of it and really pay attention to him.
I don’t think you have to have an experience like that to get that. You might have a loving grandmother who really took you on as a human being and really shared who she was with you, and that could spark your emotional intelligence and depth. But whatever it is, those are what it takes, I think, to have a strong artistic sensibility. Certainly, actors have to have that, good directors have to have that in recognizing performance, and then we editors do also because we craft what that performance is, and it’s based on who we are.
HULLFISH: Absolutely. Looking at your significant filmography, it seems like you’ve interviewed with a lot of different producers. What are some of the takeaways or what are some of the tips that you could give someone about how to act in one of those interviews trying to get a job?
DEGRAFF: When I first started, I was nervous and IMDB wasn’t out so I couldn’t read up on a person’s full background and so on, but I would read the script as best I could. I was uptight. If I projected anything, it was just determination. If you hire Monty, he’s going to work hard, and that got me jobs. But I know a point came when I dropped all of that. I still did my homework. IMDB came along and I would research the person, see if we had any connections, and blah, blah, blah, but at a certain point, I even dropped that.
I went for an interview for a pilot, and it was a very, very big producer. I went to his office and he had a huge office. He had four assistants outside in cubicles just for him. It was a big deal. When I went into his office, it was filled with cameras, still cameras and old motion picture cameras that had been restored. Early in my career, I wouldn’t have even seen the cameras. Now, what I find most important is to just be in the moment and be aware of my surroundings. So, I walked into his office and I said, “Oh my God. You have one of those cameras?” I went to the University of Rochester. It’s where Eastman Kodak was. George Eastman’s mansion was turned into a museum and it was filled with cameras.
A look inside the camera storage facility of the George Eastman Museum, Rochester
HULLFISH: I’m a Rochester boy.
DEGRAFF: Oh my God. Okay.
HULLFISH: I grew up in Brockport, New York, just outside of Rochester.
DEGRAFF: I know it well. Oh my goodness. That’s so weird because my showrunner right now went to the University of Rochester also. He’s the first person I’ve ever worked with, and now you, a Rochester person.
But in any event, I love cameras. So, we talked cameras for 20 minutes and he said, “Monty, I want to hire you.” I was prepared to talk about the script and how we were going to approach it and blah, blah, blah… but that’s not what got me that job. That was kind of a breakthrough for me in that it’s important that I show up and I’m confident. If I show up, everything will be okay. Have I gotten every job I’ve gone for? No. But I’ve gotten the majority of them because, once again, to not be uptight about the mechanics of what people think an interview should be about, but more about, “I’m a guy.”
This is honest: I’m surprised when I don’t get a job. I think, “Who wouldn’t want to hire me?” I’d want to hire me. That sounds egotistical, I know, but in fact, I am a hard worker, I’m an easy-going guy, I get along with people, so I’m honest and think, “Why wouldn’t you hire me?” That’s my attitude when I go in for an interview.
I found that people, more than anything else, if you have some credits—and there are tons of us who have credits—it’s, “Do I want to spend time with this person?” I don’t think there’s one type of person that people want to spend time with. People are looking for authenticity. Authenticity is whoever you are. If you are in touch with that and you’re comfortable with that, people will be comfortable with you. That was a big breakthrough for me.
The second part of that is, “Do you have curiosity as an editor with who you’re interviewing?” So, I don’t interview the people that are interviewing me, but, for example, I went to an interview and a producer had on his desk a coffee table book called Schadenfreude. I thought, “A book called Schadenfreude?” We talked about that for ten minutes. One thing led to another and then they thought, “Okay, I want to hang with this person. I’ll hire you.”
We’re all unique, and we all want to be with a person who shows up who’s themselves, whoever they may be. That feels comfortable. So, I would recommend that everybody stop acting what they think people want to see and just be relaxed and be yourself. Now, if you curse like a sailor and you have a foul temper, I might want to pull some of that back, but if you have a sense of humor with it, people love authenticity. So, I think that’s the key to really having a good interview.
Then, in the process, you find out about who you’re working with and that’s critically important too because you’re going to be working with them, and you want to have a sense of who it is you’re working with.
HULLFISH: I also think that failing to be authentic could get you the job that you then don’t want because you weren’t authentic and so now they think, “Wait, who is this guy that I hired? This is not the guy that was in the interview.” Then, you’re in worse trouble probably.
DEGRAFF: I would agree.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk a little bit more about the craft and approach. In television, the deadlines are a little tighter than for some other things like documentaries or feature films sometimes. Tell me how you approach a scene. As you said when you open up that bin and a director has given you all this material, what do you do? How do you start the process of building that timeline?
DEGRAFF: One, I have to say if you’re working on better shows, you generally have more time. The show that I’m on now has an amazing seven days editor’s cut. I’ve never worked on anything quite like that and so it’s quite amazing. But when I open up a bin and it’s a complicated scene, if I get that little twist in my stomach thinking, “Oh my God. I have no idea how I’m going to approach that,” and that happens fifty percent of the time.
“Oh my God, how am I going to start this thing? I literally do not know how I’m going to cut this scene.”
There are some scenes that you can say, “There are two people that walk in the room, they sit down, they talk. I can do this.” But when I open a bin and it’s complicated and I could start it here or I could start it there, I think, “Oh my God, how am I going to start this thing? I literally do not know how I’m going to cut this scene.” I now have the confidence to know that I just have to get started. That’s the biggest thing. If I get started, one thing leads to another and before I know it I have a living thing going, and then it’s helping direct me or it’s working with me to fulfill itself. The intention of the director and the actors and the writers is in there, my intention to make it the best I can is baked in there, but the hardest thing is literally getting started.
Then, once I get going, I’ve found that rushing is so wrong because I will miss important things and I’ll miss opportunities to make a nice moment. Even if I’m under a tight deadline, I do not let that rush me, and I take the time that it takes to make the scene work. Generally, by doing that, it goes faster than me trying to go fast and having problems.
It’s not unusual now to get four hours of dailies every day minimum, and it’s very difficult to look at all of that footage with intensity and know it, so I don’t always attempt to look at every take. I know many editors would frown on that and I totally understand why because even takes that weren’t circled might have something in them, but I find that in television the director is working towards something, and usually what they’re working towards is in the last two or three takes. So, that’s what I start with. I look at those and then as I’m cutting, I look in the other takes for something better or something that I don’t know. Before they got it together, is there a little moment that I can use? Because at this point, I need something else.
I got ten hours of dailies one day working on Daredevil, and it was overwhelming. I thought, “How do I even approach ten hours of dailies?” Once again, you start at the beginning. What’s the first scene? You just go through it. I couldn’t look at every take, and I thought, “I hope I’m getting it all.” But in fact, when I’m cutting, I go back to the other takes so when it’s all said and done, I don’t feel like there are any surprises in there or something I don’t know about that’s not in my cut.
HULLFISH: I totally get it. It sounds like you’re not a selects reel kind of person. Are you going straight into a take in a bin?
DEGRAFF: No. When I look at my takes, I mark them. I put a marker on what’s interesting. It’s my way of doing selects, but it’s not as purposeful as selects which is like: there’s the moment where he grabs the gun, I’m going to cut that. What making selects for me does is it burns in my brain, “There’s that moment. I’ve seen that moment.” So, when I’m cutting it, I think, “I know there’s a moment where he… Oh, that’s in that.” So, my visual memory is now really strong. Anybody who does what we do for a long period of time, your visual memory gets really good. I feel like with my method I really know what my material is by doing that, by just looking at dailies and marking anything that’s interesting to me.
Sometimes I go back and look at those marks, but most of the time I just know that that thing is there and this is probably where it is and I can very quickly do it. So, I don’t need a script and I don’t do selects, but I totally understand that some of the best editors I know do that process. It’s not like I’m saying my way is better. It simply works for me.
HULLFISH: That’s why I do these interviews because nobody has the one right way. There are people that love selects, and there are people that hate them. There’s just absolutely no right way and there are a lot of people, as you pointed out, that say the last two or three takes are going to be the best ones, so you probably gravitate towards those.
When you’re watching a scene do you have a preference of watching various setups in order? Do you start with a wide shot? Do you look at the closeups? Do you pick a nice two-shot?
DEGRAFF: I literally go in the order that they were shot, so it gives me a sense of how it’s grown. Then, by looking at it in that way I can see that there are actors who don’t have it together early on and there are some actors that do, and I’m seeing that progression by looking at it in order. I’m getting a sense of why the director did ten takes in this particular setup, and I think, “He’s really going for something here.” Those kinds of things for me get revealed by looking at the scene in the order that it was shot.
HULLFISH: The process is another part that really fascinates me because once you’ve got the scene cut the first time, you’re not done by a long shot. Obviously, you’re working with a director who really doesn’t have ownership of the piece usually in television. Talk to me a little bit about working with the director and then moving along to a showrunner to continue working.
DEGRAFF: I’ve worked with a number of directors on episodic television who come in and they want to show the showrunner another show. They’ll say, “I talked to him about doing this,” and usually everything they do is thrown out because the showrunner has an idea of the show he wants to do. The smart directors want to know from the veteran editors who’ve been on the show not, “This is how we do it so you have to do it this way,” but, “This is the sensibility that we’ve established that you should at least honor.” So, I don’t initially say that to the directors. I take their notes and I just do their notes.
Then, when we actually have a conversation. When I’ve established some trust with them I might say, “That long opening tracking shot with no dialogue, it’s going to go. I know you want to show them your beautiful shot, but knowing that, could we cut it all out and use the beginning for voiceover from the last shot?” If they don’t go with it, that’s fine. I’ve already thought of how we will solve this when we get to the next stage when I’m working with the showrunner.
Showrunners don’t have a lot of time. Some of them make the point of getting in the cutting room and looking at stuff, but what’s changed dramatically for me over the last ten years is that it used to be, “Is this the best performance? Let’s look at all the performances,” that doesn’t happen that much anymore in my experience. We, editors, are good at getting good performances, generally, or really in the ballpark. There may be one particular line or one particular place where we ask, “Could we do better than that?” But it’s not, “Let’s look at everything and blah, blah, blah.” It’s, “We’ve got to get it to time and we’ve got to tell the best story we can.”
So, mostly we’re just getting notes. We’re not spending hours and hours with people in the room. There are those shows where that happens, but my experience, especially in the last eight years, is it’s a notes, notes, notes driven thing. We spend a lot of time on Google notes and why we did what we did. I’m typing, “Yes, I tried that shot, but it doesn’t work. Now I’ve done this.”
“The greatest thing—and I think we all naturally do it anyway—is to watch a lot of television and films.”
So, the communications in that way between the editor and those we respond to is not often direct. Maybe on the last day of working with the director, I’ll actually physically talk with them, but it’s mostly back and forth with notes. To a great degree, I have an initial conversation with the showrunner about what the director did, and they often want to see what the editor’s cut looked like, and then we are primarily communicating through notes back and forth.
The greatest thing—and I think we all naturally do it anyway—is to watch a lot of television and films. I’m always fascinated by how incredible the editing is out there. I don’t take it apart and say, “I want to do exactly that,” but it informs me. Somebody does something really brilliant and it becomes part of my library of things. Certainly, if you still have a love for what you do and you have a love for film and television, just watch the best stuff and that’s your bar.
HULLFISH: Anything special that you’ve seen that you love recently?
DEGRAFF: Well, Euphoria, which is an HBO television show. I felt that the camera work and the editing on it was just incredible. I don’t know if I could even begin to cut a show like that, to be that challenged with it. Euphoria was the show in the last couple of years that has really knocked my socks off. It’s special and it’s incredibly well done. Every show doesn’t need to be like that obviously, but it’s one that has really knocked my socks off, and that’s out of so many shows.
HULLFISH: I’ll have to check that out. I have a question for you that we do not have to explore unless you want to explore it with me, and that is a question of race and how it either affects you in the edit room or affects your career. What would you have to say to young Black film editors?
DEGRAFF: I’m a proud African-American. Obviously, I don’t hide it because I couldn’t if I wanted to. When I was starting and I walked in a room I could literally see surprise and almost shock. That was bracing. I don’t get that now. Most people know that I’m African-American before they even bring me into the room.
I’m not the most important editor in the world by any means, but I have some reputation so my race is usually not part of a conversation unless it’s like the show that I’m working on now, which is a fictionalized version of 50 Cent, the rapper/producer. They wanted to have one of the editors be African-American and I cut the pilot of this show, Raising Kanan, so there was a specific one-to-one relationship with who I am and what the show is, but generally, it doesn’t play a big part in it.
I would just say there are enough of us doing it now that any young African-American who is interested in editing—and many are—they have models of people ahead of them doing what we’re doing. The models are not just for them, it’s in the community that we all work in what’s called Hollywood, but it’s just really individuals. The more people that have experience with various types of people, it becomes less of a thing. So, there were people for whom I was the first African-American in their cutting room, and so it was a thing, but now it’s not a thing, which is wonderful. So, it’s just about working hard and getting the opportunities and when you get those opportunities doing well.
This year has been a pivotal year in the country. There’s almost a feeling of “Can we throw off our racist past as a country?” Last year really brought that to the fore, and Hollywood’s a part of the country. I think there’s more room for an inclusive environment in the cutting rooms and certainly for African-Americans, but also for Filipinos and Hispanics and Native Americans and so on and so forth. I could be part of that too.
All these voices need to be heard, not just in specifically African-American projects and so on, but we’re all Americans, so part of the chorus. That’s happening. It’s happening at an increasing pace. It was glacial. When I and my wife, who has also worked as an editor, when we started 35 years ago, it was glacial. There were a few Black editors ahead of us, but now it’s very promising. There’s so much work and there’s more of us doing it.
HULLFISH: That’s fantastic. Monty, thank you so much for your time. I was not disappointed. You were built up to me as somebody that I really needed to talk to and people were absolutely 100% right. It was a pleasure speaking with you and thanks for sharing with us.
DEGRAFF: My pleasure, Stephen. Glad to be on your podcast. It’s a really good one. Take care.