3 Oscar-Nominated Dox Editors Talk

For Class #11

 Instructor: Norman Hollyn T.A.: Beth Moody
 Office: 310-821-2792 Phone: 323-472-1164

 E-Mail: nhollyn [at] cinema.usc.edu

E-Mail: elizabethmoody [at] gmail.com

By Cecil Seaskull
Mar 23 2001

EditorsNet recently met up with three documentary editors whose films are nominated for this year's best documentary Academy Award: Kate Amend, editor of "Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport"; Ann Collins, editor of "Sound and Fury"; and Jean Tsien, editor of "Scottsboro: An American Tragedy." Also nominated this year are "Legacy" and "Long Night's Journey Into Day."

As usual, items of interest to our present or recent discussions are highlighted in yellow.

Kate Amend began her editing career as an assistant editor on the documentary "Right Out of History: The Making of Judy Chicago's Dinner Party." Her feature documentary project, "Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport," tells the highly emotional story of the nine months before the beginning of World War II, when Britain opened its doors and rescued more than 10,000 children, most of them Jewish, from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. The producer of the film, Deborah Oppenheimer, started the project after discovering that her mother was one of the children rescued. "Kindertransport was directed by Mark Jonathan Harris, with whom Amend had worked on "The Long Way Home."

" I see "The Long Way Home" as kind of epic. It's very personal, and it's about children and families in a very, very emotional way. After reading a lot of material that Deborah had gathered, we both agreed to do it."
"They filmed between 12-15 interviews, and we had a researcher gathering the archival footage. We probably had 35-40% of the archival footage and the bulk of the interviews when I started cutting. The first thing we did was gather in my living room and watch all the dailies for a week. And we passed the Kleenex around. It was very emotional, but we submerged ourselves in everybody's stories. Then we started cutting the film."
"There was no footage of the departure and the Kindertransport in Germany, but fortunately a lot of the people had kept and maintained their family photos. We were able to use the photographs extensively."
"The biggest challenge was that it was incredibly sad. But the people had such courage and dignity, and I wanted to emphasize that, and how it was ultimately a story of sacrifice, triumph and courage. The danger was that the film might become too sad or devastating for an audience to really watch. So the challenge was to not slip into the sentimental, as well as to bring in any humor that we could from time to time. I really took my cue from the dignity and the courage of the people in the film."
"After Mark had selected the interviews he wanted to use and figured out the transitional and expositional narration, I recorded it as a temp track. He and I met a couple of times a week, and once we got into the editing in the fall, we met at least once a week with Deborah. We screened together. It was probably four months until we had our first rough assembly."
"I love it when there is no script. Being able to create scenes, characters and conflict from raw material is the most fun and the biggest challenge. Cutting narrative films is fun in a different way, and it's also a challenge, but I feel like with documentaries, I'm the writer in a way. Writing visually -- doing more with images and less with words -- is also a big challenge and lots of fun.
"I teach at USC and I tell my students, 'If you fall asleep during dailies you shouldn't be in this business.' You've got to be riveted, you've got to be paying attention and you've got to be checking your own reactions to things. I really enjoy that process, watching an event unfold and then trying to collapse it in time, but giving it the same rhythm and the same impact."
"This film is a lot about memory and dreams. We manipulated the footage by slowing it down and by looking for things that were a little bit evocative, poetic or abstract -- like the steam from the train or the conductor lowering this European signal for starting the train. To me, that is one of the eeriest images in the film. With 'The Long Way Home,' there was a lot of actual news footage of the event, so it was cut more realistically."
"We were almost done with the film, and the only real footage of the Kindertransport we had was when they arrived in England and all the news crews were there. We had just about locked picture when Corrine found a reel of outtakes from the first Kindertransport arriving in Britain. As I was scrolling through it, I saw someone who looked like a picture we had of one of our people, Lore Segal. She's also the one that holds up her number and says "I was number 152." The footage was tiny and very brief, but I slowed it down and went back and forth, and I found one frame where it looked like she had the number 152 around her neck. I was positive that it was her. I screamed and got everybody to come into the editing room. We were all so ecstatic that we'd actually found a picture of her getting off the boat."
Ann Collins career began as an assistant "Sound and Fury" is about whether or not a little deaf girl should get a cochlear implant which would enable her to hear. Her parents, who are also deaf, ultimately decide not to give it to her.

"I initially talked to Roger Weissberg, the film's producer, and Josh Aronson, the director, about working on 'Sound and Fury,' I was immediately drawn to the project because it tells the wonderful story of a decision that a family has to make about their deaf child, but it also encapsulates, within that one family's experience, every side of the controversy and every side of that decision. I thought it was a great story."
"Of course, more than half the people in the film are speaking in sign language. So I made it my business to learn sign language, or at least to learn all of the sign language that was being used in the film, so that I would know what people were saying, and so that I could edit the film in such a way that a deaf person could completely understand the conversation. I wasn't cutting off the ends of sentences. I was paying as much mind to the sign language as I was to the spoken word in the film."
"The particular challenge for me, being a hearing person, was telling the tale of a deaf person's journey in the film from a deaf person's point of view. In the beginning, I naturally agreed with a lot of the arguments of the hearing members of the family. But of course you can't do that. What I really needed to do was to really consider the point of view of a deaf person."
"We had about 120 hours of footage and we edited for six months to get to a rough-cut stage. Meanwhile, things were happening in the family, changes were taking place and some events were coming up. So we stopped for three months so that Josh and Roger could continue filming, and then we regrouped and edited for another three months. It was a yearlong process, but we spent nine months in the editing room."
"What's wonderful about working in documentaries is that you're constantly involved in projects that focus on subjects that you would never ever, in your own life, find yourself drawn to. And yet you go into a project about something that you may initially have no particular interest in, and you end up being this expert in a field that you would otherwise have never gone into. You learn everything there is to learn about the subject. It's a wonderful byproduct."
"Editing, like any other art form, is a lifelong craft. I never sit down at the beginning of a project and feel like I know exactly how to edit the film because I've edited so many other films. While I may have a lot of tools and a lot of experience with me when I begin something, I always start fresh. I always think I've never cut this exact film before. I've never told this exact story before."
Jean Tsien, originally from Taiwan, attended New York City's prestigious Music and Art High School for fine arts before studying at NYU Film School. "Scottsboro: An American Tragedy" is the story of nine black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women. The case became notorious for the horror of racial hatred and injustice it revealed.

"I try to take different types of documentaries. I've never done a historical film like 'Scottsboro.' Normally I prefer cinema verité, because you have more creative control. But I wanted to see if I could do this kind of documentary storytelling. There was a lot of re-creation, so there are many impressionistic shots to re-create the moment of time. And stills. The whole middle part is just trial after trial. It's courtroom drama in a way. We had very few photographs of Victoria Price, the woman, and the lawyer Leibowitz. Using photographs to tell stories was the biggest challenge."
"They basically left me alone. We watched the interviews. I was given some selects and then I just played. The first two months I was working by myself, pulling the story together with some kind of guided script. That's the time where I was really learning. Daniel gave me the freedom to do my version."
"We started in February, 1999. It was supposed to be an eight-month editing schedule, but I said that I needed to take two months off in the middle of the project to go to China with my father. So I put an assembly together, which took me two months. Then I went to China and I came back to finish the work. We took a lot of time off, which I think benefited the film because it gave us some distance from it."
"This project was different than what I'm used to. I'm used to telling a story through the footage. There's a film called "Travis," about a little boy with AIDS, and we had about 300 hours of footage from three years of this boy's life. But "Scottsboro" was very different. We know the beginning, middle and end. The story is linear. But the challenge is to find pictures that match the wallpaper, that really provoke a feeling and tell the story."
"I go in like a first grader. Everything is fresh and new and I learn everything. I'm usually just one step behind the director. And I think that's good."
"When you first read the treatment, you can't even imagine what the final product is going to be. The process is really like having a baby; you don't know what it's going to look like until you're finished."

© 2001 EditorsNet

Excerpted from a longer interview that used to be up at EditorsNet.

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