Editor vs. Director: What Can Editors Learn From Directors?

If you’ve already seen the first two parts of this series—Editing vs. Screenwriting and Editing vs. Performance—you’ll know that we’ve been looking at how skills from outside the editing bay can make you a better editor. In part three, we’ll be diving into the collaborative relationship between editor and director and what we can learn from our directorial partners.

More than any other article in this series, this one is mostly about understanding the nature of interpersonal relationships, rather than specific creative techniques or overarching editorial principles.

The editor/director relationship can be a lot like a marriage in that it’s as much about chemistry as it is about commitment and compassion. Over a long project, it’s often the editor and the director who are alone in the room, walking the creative path towards the final product.

The intimate and essential nature of this working relationship explains why so many directors work with the same editor time and time again. Once they’ve put in the hard graft of building trust, understanding each other’s intentions and anticipating different creative preferences, why throw that all away to start from scratch with someone else?

Multi-decade Director and Editor partnerships like those of Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, Steven Speilberg and Michael Kahn, Quentin Tarintino and Sally Menke, Spike Lee and Barry Alexander Brown or Clint Eastwood and Joel Cox are a testament to how valuable getting that relationship right is to the creative journey and successful final film.

So let’s take a closer look at what editors can learn from directors, and how we can all calibrate our working relationships through a better understanding of exactly who it is we’re working for.

Know thy director

Put simply, different kinds of directors require different types of editors. So to work effectively with a broader range of directors, you’ll need to be flexible.

It’s as much about being a diplomat as it is about being an artist, technician or team leader. You have to be able to read the room, feel-out underlying alliances and conflicts, and deftly side step anything that might drive a wedge between your loyalty to your director. All while (gently) pressing ahead with your best creative arguments for steering the project in a certain direction.

Here are a few ways in which directors differ, and how editors should too.

Directors as editors

Directors generally fall into two broad categories. Those who like to be hands-on and those who prefer to be hands-off. The former will often prefer to sit with you and work through every take and every cut, effectively becoming a second editor. Going a step further, some might even run a second edit station and work on their own scenes.

Conversely, others prefer a lighter touch, coming into the suite only to review scenes or sequences when they’re ready. Offering feedback, suggestions and creative decisions and then heading back out the door, throwing a casual “Call me when there’s something to see.” over their shoulder.

Star Wars Editor Paul Hirsch shared his reflections on this fundamental difference in working style, when he compared his experience of working with two different directors, Herbert Ross and Brian De Palma, in his excellent memoir on the craft A long time ago in a cutting room, far, far away.

I asked Herbert how he wanted to give me his preferred takes. With Brian, I would sit next to him while we watched dailies and write down when he liked a take or a line reading.

“No, just use whatever you think best,” he said. “I have a very good memory. I know what I shot, and if I don’t see it in the cut, I’ll just ask for it.”

“If you liken cutting a movie to driving a fine car, some directors like to sit behind the wheel, with hands-on control. Others, like Herbert, and Brian, to a degree, like to be chauffeured.

I prefer this, since I enjoy the “driving”. It also affords me a great deal of autonomy, which for me is directly proportional to my job satisfaction.

I have worked for directors who prefer to exert total control over the smallest minutiae. It is no fun. Herbert accorded me respect and gave me freedom.”

—Paul Hirsch, from A long time ago in a cutting room far, far away.

You’d hope that a conversation around working styles would be something that might come up in the initial interview with the director, but as with any job interview, it often feels necessary to say whatever it takes to land the gig, and deal with the consequences later.

However, in order to build a sustainable career, one skill for editors to develop is the ability to find a way to work with both kinds of directors, without sacrificing too much job satisfaction along the way.

Directors as insecure humans

Another important way in which directors differ is in their response to criticism—how receptive they might be to the idea that their creative choices aren’t working, and might never work. No one’s saying “That was a dumb idea, you must be the worst director ever.” But that’s what some directors might hear, regardless of how the feedback is offered.

One of the most painful parts of the creative process is showing the director the ‘first assembly’. It’s the worst version of the project that will exist, and it’ll take hours of subsequent creative work to gradually, iteratively make it better.

There are two important things for an editor to understand at this point. Firstly, that the director is in a vulnerable and insecure position. Their project is about to be laid before them, warts and all. So they’ll need a trustworthy creative companion and collaborator to help them navigate the upcoming editorial journey.

Secondly, you’ll need to understand how this particular director responds to criticism, because that response will indicate the most prudent way for the editor to proceed.

In his fantastic book on film editing, From Footage to Film Israeli editor Arik Lahav-Leibovich shared his insights on the different types of director he has worked with and the various ways in which they tend to respond to criticism.

“The situation where I sit across from a vulnerable director who has worked on their film for several years, and is revealing it to me for the very first time, is a volatile one.

The director wants to hear my criticism of every component of the film, and I have to navigate the minefield—to be authentic and critical, without insulting the director or pushing them to become entrenched in their positions.

Arik Lahav-Leibovich, from From Footage to Film.

Arik identifies four basic groups of directors:

  • Arrogant. Directors like this pretend that everything was planned and there’s no problem.
  • Stubborn. They dig their heels in, and resist anything that’s different to their original script and vision.
  • Angry. They’re ‘devastated by criticism’ and take critique of the film as a direct criticism of them personally.
  • Confident. These are ‘less preoccupied with proving they are right’ and more concerned with letting the best ideas win.

With each type, Arik takes a different tack to advancing the film, adjusting the tone of his notes and often the timing of his criticism accordingly.

Developing this kind of intuition and aptitude definitely comes from experience with different directors, so there’s probably no quick path to perfecting this delicate dance. But by at least starting with an awareness of who sits before you, you’ll be better positioned to proceed successfully. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.

From footage to film
Arik Lahav-Leibovich’s book From Footage to Film is available in print and digital formats.

As a quick aside, the whole of Arik’s book is brilliant and I’d consider it a must read for every editor, especially as it’s currently only 99 cents on Kindle!

Editors as directors

The flipside of becoming aware of the influence that an editor has over the project in their hands, is that they can become over-confident. And this can lead to the idea that they’re also a director.

I don’t think this ever happens intentionally, but it’s a subtle shift that can easily happen as an editor invests themselves in the project.

We give a tremendous amount of ourselves to any edit, constantly trusting our instincts, utilizing our experience, and incorporating our personal tastes and perspectives into the material. This is inevitable and desirable! But it doesn’t mean that you get to assume ownership of the final cut.

We give a tremendous amount of ourselves to any edit, constantly trusting our instincts, utilizing our experience, and incorporating our personal tastes and perspectives into the material.

It’s a difficult balance. On the one hand, you need to be fully committed to delivering the creative choices you believe in, while on the other, your ultimate goal is to serve the aims and preferences of the director.

If you’re fortunate enough to be working for a ‘hands-off’ director and are sitting alone with the footage and all the creative control, this can be a great opportunity to present your best interpretation of the footage. Some directors will love this opportunity to benefit from a fresh perspective. But you’ll get better traction for your version if you present the “as shot/planned/intended” cut first. Present your alternative afterwards, when you’ve got an idea of where the land lies.

Personally, I’ve found that it helps to calibrate my commitment to my own choices against the compromises necessary to keep the client happy based on the stage of the project. At the beginning I’m much more enthusiastic about arguing for and defending my editorial choices, but as the project approaches the finishing line, I’m increasingly inclined to make sure I’m delivering what the client asks for, even if I disagree.

Creative differences

Editors also need to be sensitive to instances when their creative choices really don’t align with those of the director (and how you find out). For example, if the director questions your choice of performance selection and does so in a way that shows they lack confidence in your instincts, you can quickly find yourself on thin ice.

They might want to go back and unpick all of your work, revisiting all of the takes, to make sure they’re satisfied with your choices. In some ways this is the editorial equivalent of a colorist’s calibrated monitor being called into question; when that trust begins to slide, it’s hard to get it back.

A caveat to this scenario is that some directors just want to go back into all the takes to be satisfied for themselves that this really is the best one. These tend to be the hands-on types!

So remember: editors are not directors. But being alone in the edit suite, with or without the director, affords them a satisfying level of influence over the story, the material and the final product. The trick is to find a way to do this without over reaching your role, which is to serve the director.

Editors as lie detectors

Editors are the first audience. They can be an objective emotional compass in the edit suite, there to respond to the footage, catch any technical problems before it’s too late and detect and remove any ‘lies’—performances that don’t ring true, plot points that don’t deliver, and anything that ‘isn’t working’.

This makes you the director’s first line of defense, which is why their trust in your opinion matters so much. Here’s how writer/director Christopher McQuarrie describes editor Eddie Hamilton in an interview for IndieWire:

To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, every creator needs a built-in, shock-proof, shit-detector and Eddie is ours. He’s emotionally objective and gives it to you straight. If it works for him, it works and if it doesn’t he’s able to articulate why.

—Christopher McQuarrie, writer/director

Two clear examples of how this plays out are during production and post.

During production the editor is the director’s best friend when it comes to catching problems in performance from an actor, technical issues such as soft-focus or bad sound, and holes in the coverage or essential shots.

This is one of the reasons that Editor Colin Goudie (Rogue One) recommends that editors regularly visit the set, in order to establish a positive working relationship with the other heads of department and crew in general.

By giving positive feedback and encouragement when things are going well, it lays a foundation of mutual trust and respect. This can help counter those moments when you need to offer that crucial feedback when things aren’t going well or have been missed entirely.

“They might stand on set and the lighting might look good on set, the costume might look good on set, and the sound might have been good to their ears on set.

That’s irrelevant.

What’s relevant is what’s on the rushes and when you look at it and you go ‘That’s not coming across on that screen,’ that’s the first time they’re going to get that feedback.”

—Colin Goudie, editor.

Similarly, as the first audience to see the footage, removed from the fray of production, you need to hold onto (and make note of) your initial emotional impressions and responses to the material, and hold fast to them over the long, long haul of watching the piece too many times.

It’s easy for an edit to lose its luster over time, and the director needs that faithful voice to remind everyone: “Let’s not change it, it really was funny the first time.”

Conversely, editors and directors only have a certain number of times they can watch an edit before it becomes impossible to maintain that objectivity. But when a new audience, even if it’s just a few friends, are drawn into the edit suite or screening room, it allows the editor and director to see the film through fresh eyes and reset that ‘watch counter.’ That’s why the role of the audience is so crucial—but we’ll look at this in more details in the fourth part of this series, Editor vs Audience.

Directors as mentors

There’s an old saying that the director is the least experienced person on the set. And in one way this is true. The grip or gaffer may have worked on hundreds of productions for dozens of different DPs and directors over their career. They’ve spent many more miles on the film production road, while the director, if they’re lucky or good (or both) might only be on their fourth or fifth outing as the head honcho.

There’s an old saying that the director is the least experienced person on the set.

But in many more ways the old saying isn’t true, as very often a ‘first-time’ director has arrived at that position by way of developing some level of filmmaking expertise in another department.

Actors, editors, DPs, or writers with established, successful careers are often given the opportunity to direct based on that previous experience. And that can make them excellent mentors.

As an editor, I’ve learned many of my most valuable lessons on the art, craft, business and politics of working in storytelling (in any form) from the directors I’ve collaborated most closely with.

These directors have been my mentors, as much as older, wiser editors have, too. And so one lesson that you can take away from directors is to soak up as much of their experience, wisdom and advice as you can. It’s also a good idea to prioritize working with the directors you encounter who are willing to share, teach and encourage others to advance in their storytelling careers.

Look for that good fit

Not all editor/director relationships are smooth sailing. The opportunity vs. the cost of working with ‘talented but difficult’ directors is unlikely to be worth it in the long run and unlikely to stand the test of time.

When I interviewed Black Adam editor Mike Sale ACE, he advised that “Selecting a project is the first edit. I need to make sure I’m putting myself in a position to help make a successful film.” And a major part of that, if you’re in the fortunate position to be choosy, is trying to select directors that you’ll be able to work successfully with too.

Jonny Elwyn

Jonny Elwyn is a freelance editor and blogger who has been living and working in London, UK for the past 10 years. Having grown up with a deep love for film and a healthy geek interest in all things technical, editing is his perfect job. Off the back of a decade of successful freelancing, Jonny has written a 100 page primer on How To Be A Freelance Creative—a straight-forward, practical guide to building a freelance creative career from the ground up. He also runs a blog on all things post production at jonnyelwyn.co.uk.

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