“How Dare You Edit Your Own Film,” And Other Creative Alienations


Why is it that so many people have such rigid definitions of what constitutes art or the artistic process? To me, it seems to defy the very definition. My experience working as a filmmaker in Hollywood has brought me face to face with folks who are striving to say something, and others who place little value on artistic self-expression. But what’s most difficult to navigate for me, is the artist who appears to have given in to the notion that there is a right way and a wrong way to make a film.

I recently had a conversation with two friends about film editing. They are both extremely intelligent, extremely creative people. One of them has directed a feature that got taken away from him in post, the other is about to embark on his directorial debut. Both suggested that it was not in the best interest of the film or the story for the director to edit his/her own movie.

“You have no perspective,” was the reasoning.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I do not believe every director should edit his/her own movie. Quite the contrary. Editing is an art form all its own. It is also a skill that is developed. And there are some extraordinary director/editor relationships that are downright biblical (Scorcese/Schoonmaker, Coppola/Murch, Tarantino/Menke).  These artists have found a creative connection that inspires; they each feel that they are better together than separate. It has become an integral part of their creative process. And, of course, this extends to writer/director relationships (Powell/Pressburger, Ivory/Jhabvala, Lee/Schamus), director/cinematographer relationships (Bergman/Nykvist, Mann/Alton, Bertolucci/Storaro), and director/actor relationships (Scorsese/DeNiro, Allen/Keaton, von Sternberg/Dietrich). I doubt there are many people out there who would rather these relationships didn’t exist. But just because these teamings are successful, does that mean writers should not direct? Directors should not shoot? Actors should not direct? Or in the case of this discussion, directors should not edit?

There are no rules to the creative process. Every artist must approach their art in the way they believe leads to the end goal. And to do so, one needs to have an end goal in mind. That goal can be something concrete, or it can be something amorphous, more a feeling, a tone, something instinctual. I love the collaborative creative process. And I love the solitary creative process. As a writer, I remain solitary. Until I feel that I can go no further without the creative input of those I trust and admire. Some folks prefer having a writing partner. I’ve done both and, currently, I prefer the former. I have found it to be more creatively freeing and inspiring. For me.

There is not a one-size-fits-all roadmap to making art. To storytelling. To self-expression. To filmmaking.

Woody Allen claims that one should never try and write a script without knowing exactly where it’s going; that if one attempts to write that script otherwise, they will hit a wall around page 60 and have no idea where to go from there. I am a life-long admirer of Allen’s work. I think he is a brilliant, insightful writer/director. However, his take on writing is true for him. And, I am certain, for many, many others. It is not, however, the approach I have found works best for me in achieving what I want from a script. I prefer to work stream-of-consciousness. I have learned to trust my subconscious to create things in the moment that reveal themselves to me later. It is that very same experience I want to take with me onto the set AND into the editing room. As the writer/director/editor of a film, I am fully engaged in the writing process which, for me, not only continues through editing, but finally arrives at editing. It does not cease simply because I have moved beyond the script. I am telling a story. Hopefully, with a unique voice. The writing of that story, in film terms, is not complete until the picture is locked. So until that happens, my subconscious is allowed to run free.

After writing and directing my first feature, I lost that film in post-production to the powers-that-be and the film was re-edited from scratch without my participation. The result was a story and film that showed virtually nothing of who I was as an artist, filmmaker, director, writer or human being. During our editing conversation the other night, my friend suggested that there are only so many ways an editor can change what you’ve shot.

There are very few things in this world I disagree with more.

There are infinite possibilities for how a film can be put together based on the footage shot. Tone, style, pacing, meaning, even the very story itself, can all be different from what was initially intended. All via the editing process. Performances can be dramatically altered. Even main characters can be turned into secondary characters. Unless, of course, one is editing an Alfred Hitchcock film. Hitch, to maintain creative control, would edit his films, essentially, in-camera so that there was only one way to put the images together. He found a way to be the editor on his own films without entering the editing room.

Barring that approach, anything is possible in the editing room. There are thousands of ways to edit together a single scene. Millions to edit together an entire film. One has to truly understand this in order to comprehend the enormous power and potential of film editing. It has been my experience that most people do not.

When I sat down to create my own cut of the film that the studio took away (something I was told I could not do, but did anyway), I learned something I never knew before: I loved editing more than any other phase in the filmmaking process. I experienced a level of intimacy with the story, performances and footage that turned this part of the journey into one of the single most satisfying creative undertakings of my entire life. I was connected to the film in a way that transcended where I had been. And believe me, after 8 years of fighting to get the film made and living through the all-encompassing experience of directing it, I was already pretty damned immersed in the world of my story. But this was far more intense and personal than the seven weeks I spent working with an editor before the film was taken away and re-cut by the studio.

It was thru editing that I was able to complete the story, in my own voice, and impart an experience on to others that matched, not only what I had envisioned, but what I had felt. By that, I don’t mean to suggest that I put the film together exactly as I had storyboarded it. Or even exactly as I had shot it. There is no point in the creative process when I want to close myself off to inspiration. Editing was more creative and instinctual a process for me than the actual writing itself. It was a crucial extension of the storytelling journey and the final piece of the puzzle I was looking for. And I am certainly not the first filmmaker to feel this way.

“I love editing. I think I like it more than any other phase of film making. If I wanted to be frivolous, I might say that everything that precedes editing is merely a way of producing film to edit.” –Stanley Kubrick

When asked which area of filmmaking he most looked forward to, filmmaker John Sayles replied:

“It’s editing, actually. So often when I write a movie I have no idea if I’m going to get to make it — or make it in the next decade. It’s taken us so long to get some of our movies made, and I’ve had to do other lower-budget things first, that you can feel like a real sap when you sit down and write. I like a lot about directing, but it’s really stressful because there is always disaster looming with each new shot. The sun may go away, or you might have an actor who starts a new film tomorrow and you still have five scenes to shoot with him. So many things are totally out of your control. It’s a bit like trying to write something very serious with a taxi meter next to you. You just see the money ticking off every second you’re thinking. When you get to the editing, you’re still making the film, you’re still working with the actors, their performances, the rhythm of the film. You’re still rewriting, but there’s not that pressure. It doesn’t matter if the sun is shining or not. I know, at that point, I’m gonna make the movie. I know it’s not going to fall apart and the money isn’t going to disappear from the bank if we get it that far. It’s one of the reasons I continue to edit. It’s more fun.”

From what I was able to gather, my friends felt as if, in denying the editing of the film to be done through fresh eyes, I was not taking advantage of all of the opportunities offered in the filmmaking process, hence not putting the film first, but my ego instead. I suppose the same could be said of a writer who does not allow another director to take over and interpret the script through fresh eyes. Or a director who does not allow someone else to shoot and light the film. Or a director who does not allow someone else to star in the film.

I will repeat: there are no rules in art.

There is no question that a healthy, creative relationship with an editor can and will yield amazing results and unpredictable discoveries. But it is not the only valid approach to making a film. The filmmaker’s storytelling palette, if it extends to editing, may bring something of equal or greater value. It works both ways. To suggest that the filmmaking process is dependent on hiring someone else to edit is to limit the creative process of the individual. It is just as valid to edit the film oneself as it is to have an editor. But one must want to go on a solitary editing journey. And have the skills to do so. And they must have a strong vision and be open to discovery. And trust their instincts. And their subconscious. All approaches will yield something different. All are equally creative. But to limit that process to one way and not another is, well, in my opinion, a misguided lesson to impart to future filmmakers. Were everyone to believe that a director should never edit his/her films, then the filmmaking world would be missing some of the great works by the Coen Brothers, John Sayles, Robert Rodriguez, Steven Soderbergh… All filmmakers who edit their own films. Some, like Soderbergh and Rodriguez, even shoot their own films. Are they not artists who serve their stories?

Yes, film is almost always a collaborative effort. But what portions are collaborative are up to the artist, assuming one has control. Does the writer have to have a writing partner, or is it equally valid to write the script oneself? By dictating an artist’s palette, we risk destroying the very creative process itself.

From Sean Smith’s dismal, misguided Newsweek article “Career Intervention.”

“When someone is given total artistic freedom,” says one blockbuster producer, “the result is usually bad.”

Yes, there are producers who feel directors should never have creative control. Does that make it so? This is undoubtedly true for that particular producer’s approach to making a film, but if it were to be accepted as the way to make a film…

In an excerpt from that same article, one indie exec comments on the negative repercussions of filmmakers (like Stanley Kubrick) who choose to live and work outside of Hollywood:

“The smaller you make your world, the less of an artist you can really be.”

As if there were only one true way to be an artist. As if Hollywood were the center of the universe. In a town where people are told how things are done and what can and can’t be done, there are many who fall into the trap of believing what they’re told without actually finding out for themselves. “No one gets final cut.” If you’re a filmmaker in Hollywood, you’re going to hear that line uttered more than any other. It is not true. But I’ve heard it repeated by filmmakers themselves, regurgitating what they have been lead to believe. Yet, there are directors who get final cut. Yes, even some first-time directors. So what happens when the facts outweigh the statement, but the statement is perpetuated? What is the psychology behind this? If having final cut is not important to someone, then it is a non-issue. However, if maintaining creative control is important to you, then it can be done. It is every day.

If, as a filmmaker, you look forward to working with an editor, if that excites you, inspires you, then that is what you should do. But to dictate that approach to all other filmmakers is creatively restrictive. Every filmmaker has a different reason for making their film. Every filmmaker envisions a different outcome, enjoys a different process. We all find what works best for us as individual artists. As individual creators. As individual storytellers. Even in a town where the word “individual” is dirty and creative alienation is the soup of the day.

For more thoughts on film editing, check out my post: “The Art Of Film Editing & The Plague Of Ego.”

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“How Dare You Edit Your Own Film,” And Other Creative Alienations

4 thoughts on ““How Dare You Edit Your Own Film,” And Other Creative Alienations

  1. Karl says:

    There are no rules. But there are precedents. Precedents may or may not be useful to one: either sage advice or example from someone who forged the trail before you, or something that worked for somebody or many somebodies that you just don’t find to be much help personally. As for the concept of eschewing collaboration by the act of performing more than one function in a piece of work, that’s just silly. There are lots of tasks to be accomplished on a film set or location and as many again during post production. Just because someone completes more than one task does not make that person un-collaborative.

  2. Carl Masonberg says:

    Hal, your treatise on this subject is very comprehensive, and looks at all the possibilities that exist for filmmakers self-editing….or not.

    I think your last paragraph is a good summarization of your thoughts on the subject. It acknowledges that artistic expression fulfillment can take different forms for different filmmakers, depending on what works for them. Therefore, it is a non-argument in the sense that personal fulfillment is subjective on the part of the filmmaker, and not subject to protocols and artistic rules.

    While it is true that filmmakers can be in a paridigm regarding what they expect from their film, and that the addition of others input in the editing process could open up other areas of possibilities that the filmmaker had not considered, in the final analysis, if a filmmaker’s final satisfaction is predicated on his/her ability to create a fully personal representation of his work and efforts, then it is irrelevant what other options were available.

    1. halmasonberg says:

      Well, I have to say that they’re not idiots. Not at all. In fact, they’re very smart guys. And, in talking to both of them separately, they don’t seem to be coming from exactly the same place in their reasoning even though it seemed to me as if they were at first. I do think this town has an already established mindset of what constitutes film and filmmaking and some folks embrace that. For me, it’s a somewhat narrow mindset and results in completely ignoring or mocking certain approaches or definitions of what constitutes a film. The other thing that sometimes happens is people have a set idea of how they’re going to make a film, of how they want to best create the creative experience for themselves. And oftentimes it’s hard to imagine a route that is not appealing to you as being credible or “the best way” to reach the goal. But the whole idea is there is no “one” goal. I find myself often frustrated because what is most important to me is not usually a priority in Hollywood filmmaking. I can’t help that. Some people base their idea of film on technical expertise; using the most “talented” individuals to get your film made. And they will place that, quite often, over the filmmaker’s mode of expression or vision. For example, I recently had a conversation about directors who score their own films. We discussed John Carpenter and Robert Rodriguez. My friend suggested that some of their films would have been better if they had hired a “real” composer. That in doing the score themselves, in not being “professional” composers, those filmmakers may have sacrificed a chance to improve the quality of the film and, therefore, didn’t serve the film. My feeling, and it’s the crux of my argument, is that the “professionalism” of the score is not what’s important. And it’s not whether my friend would have preferred a “better” score that’s important. It’s whether or not the filmmaker best conveyed the mood, tone, flavor, emotion that he or she intended. Did they tell the story they set out to tell and allow me the experience of taking the journey they set out for me? If the score these guys create best conveys their vision, why would I possibly want to experience that film with another score simply because that score may be technically more proficient? I’m not going to see the film to count how many Oscar-winning, Emmy-winning artists are attached. I’m going for the experience. And I’m best served personally by that experience having a vision behind it, regardless of the path taken to bring that vision to life and impart it to an audience. Be it an audience of 10 or an audience of 300 million. Whether it’s shown in a living room, on the internet, or in a theater.

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