What It’s Like to Be an Editor at the Sundance Labs

Creative Advisor Lee Percy and writer/director/editor Matt Ruskin. ©Sundance Institute | Brandon Cruz

Anne Lai & Shira Rockowitz

In recognition of the crucial role of editors in the art of storytelling, the Feature Film Program has created a series of initiatives to focus on the craft. The Rough Cut Screening series is a year round initiative that supports approximately 20 feature films in post production, providing feedback to projects that are alumni of the Feature Film Program. Two other initiatives – the Sally Menke Memorial Editing Fellowship and the Editing Intensive – took place just this past month in conjunction with our annual Directors Lab. Putting a spotlight on the critical part of the discovery process that takes place in the editing room, the Sally Menke Memorial Editing Fellow, which honors the memory of the beloved Sundance Institute mentor and prolific editor, Sally Menke (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, All the Pretty Horses, Kill Bill, Inglorious Basterds), joins the annual Directors Lab to work with two directors on a series of workshop scenes from their feature screenplay.The Sally Menke Memorial Fellow also receives a yearlong mentorship outside of the Lab, as well as associate membership with ACE.

Separately, in seeking to expand our support for projects in post-production, we recently created a new Editing Intensive (now in its second year), a week-long program that takes place during the Directors Lab, which supports two filmmaking/editing teams working on their picture edit by providing a dedicated Editing Mentor and access to the other Creative Advisors at the Lab.

So what’s it like editing at the Directors Lab? We thought we’d turn things over to this year’s Sally Menke Memorial Editing Fellow, Abbi Jutkowitz, and the 2016 Editing Intensive Fellows/teams, Rachel Israel (writer/director) and Alex Camilleri (editor) with Keep The Change and Matt Ruskin (writer/director/editor) of Untitled Colin Warner Project to give us the inside scoop.

2016 Editing Intensive

Matt: Do you want to tell me in a nutshell what your movie’s about?

Rachel: Sure. So our film is called Keep the Change. It’s a love story between adults on the autism spectrum. It’s a project we’ve been working on for a while. Actually Alex and I made a short together, edited a short together with the same cast. What drove me to make the film was my relationship with the lead actor who’s on the spectrum and is a friend of mine.

Rachel: Tell us about your film.

Matt: It’s a true story of a wrongful conviction and what’s sort of the heart of the film is [the story of] a guy who devoted his life to try to exonerate his friend and get him out of prison. And you know, it’s definitely associated with a cause and that’s important for me. I really want to make films that have some social value to them, but I was really drawn to it because of these ordinary people doing extraordinary things at the heart of it. I had adapted it from [the radio show] This American Life. I just heard this story one day and I could not get it out of my head, so I kind of began this long process of trying to track the guys down and see if we could adapt it into a film.

Rachel: When did that start for you?

Matt: I heard it on the radio 5 years ago, 6 years ago. And then I got the rights about 4 years ago. So it’s been a minute.

Rachel: Just a minute. We’re really curious about your editing trajectory before you came to the Lab.

Matt: I had spent years editing and working as an editor. And I first started with another editor [on this film]. We kind of got to a first cut, and then I spent a couple of months editing myself. And then when we found out about the Lab – it was a great moment because we were just really in need of a new set of eyes on the film. I felt like we were at a real crossroads with the edit.

Rachel: And you’re also in a remarkable situation of being the writer, director, and editor.

Matt: All the more reason to need some outside feedback. So, what about you guys? Where were you at in the process when the Intensive came along?

Rachel: We were between a 3rd and a 4th cut of the film. We shot over the summer of 2015, wrapped in September, and I spent a couple of months on it before Alex came on. We have a huge amount of material and I wanted time to sit with it and play with it before we started making something. Once Alex came on, between our early cuts, I felt like there was a great deal of progress, but we also had reached this point where we were having diminishing returns on the changes we were making.

Matt: I know the feeling.

Rachel: Yeah. And we had kept it pretty much within our film’s family in terms of feedback. We had a couple of fresh eyes screenings just before coming to Sundance, which were really helpful but I was surprised by how much the Creative Advisors at the Lab helped us further understand and utilize that feedback. Some of the notes we got before coming to the lab were….what’s the word?

Matt: Intangible?

Rachel: Intangible (laughter). They were like patients describing symptoms but then, with the doctor analogy…

Matt: Not actionable feedback.

Rachel: Right, so it’s like “this aches” and “it stings there” but to then be able to kind of work with a medical team at Sundance…

Matt: That’s right.

Rachel: …That say, “Well ok, this is the disease and here are some ways we can go fix it.” That happened at different levels at the Lab where we got different, fresh eyes – Creative Advisors coming in and giving those notes and then being able to work with (Editing Advisor) Lee Percy for the full week to then prescribe solutions to that was really unique.

Matt: Amazing things came out of cutting nonstop with Lee. He would come in the morning, we would work for several hours and then I would work on the notes based on our morning session every day. And we made more progress in the last four days than I had made probably in the last four weeks of editing, so it was really amazing in that respect.

Alex: And Lee just always wants to talk about the film and is always game to hear any weird idea that you have. And not just to entertain but really to process it and give thoughtful feedback.

Rachel: It made me think of – I’ve got scientists and mathematicians in my family – science nerds just wanting to talk about math or something. There’s a kind of hunger for the problem-solving of our projects that was a lot of fun.

Matt: Yeah. And being a couple of months into the edit, everybody in my personal life had grown understandably tired of hearing about my editing process.

Rachel/Alex: Right, right. (Laughter)

Matt: So it was really nice to have people that welcomed that.

Rachel: I also felt like the feedback we were getting here versus what we had come with was so directed. I had a lot of [clarity questions] about the film, [the advisors] are kind of like “yeah yeah yeah…but it’s a love story. Let’s focus on that and making that spine as strong as it can be because that’s what the film is about.” So it was good to have that. They brought that focus that brought us to a point where now, I think, that we’re in a better place to leave the week. So we’re going to be heading out with a sharper drive.

Shira (Senior Manager, Feature Film Program): What does a typical day at the Lab look like?

Alex: Do you want the true story? (laughs) Provo Canyon has a really amazing night life. Rachel doesn’t know but I’ve been sneaking out at night and that’s why I’m so tired. We’ve been working really intensely. Any minute that we have, we’re in our editing suite, which is conveniently where we live (in our accommodations), so there’s very fluid aspects to existing here and gearing all of our energy towards the film, which has just felt like an amazing shot in the arm for the film. The beauty of the natural environment is an amazing antidote to being in front of the computer screen and that’s also kind of works as a shot in the arm.

Creative Advisor Lee Percy, writer/director Rachel Israel, and editor Alex Camilleri. ©Sundance Institute | Brandon Cruz
Creative Advisor Lee Percy, writer/director Rachel Israel, and editor Alex Camilleri. ©Sundance Institute | Brandon Cruz

Matt: So tell me about the week. You came in on Thursday and then you screened. Tell me about how the week unfolded in terms of just the editing work leading up to your second screening.

Alex: The first day I feel like was one of the longer days of my life.

Rachel: Traveling in early, and then the time difference plus the excitement of screening the film and the amount of feedback that we got and having to process that – that was a huge processing day.

Alex: And I think that that was useful for us to see how much all of these people who didn’t know us a few minutes ago took such intense interest and really a care and want to do everything they could to help us. So that first day really felt like we were getting shot out the gate. Ok, you’ve got this thing and it’s precious. And look at all these people who care. And now you’re here. Creating structure for ourselves each day, figuring out what we wanted to do, and we became quite meticulous in a way that we hadn’t been before because we knew our next screening was coming up. There were three days between screenings and you can’t do everything so we set priorities.

Shira: Were there any surprises for you about any of this experience? Either in the work or the week in general?

Matt: I’ve been really burnt out. I was in a place where I had some ideas but wasn’t really sure where to go with the edit. And I never would have imagined how excited I was to dive back in after my first feedback screening.

Shira: What was your first impression? Of walking into the rehearsal hall?

Matt: It’s summer camp for filmmakers but it’s beyond that. And then you’re in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. And you look to your left and there’s some filmmaker you look up to and to your right there’s all these people that are here to be here for you. It’s an extraordinary thing.

Rachel: And I don’t think that the comfort of the environment is trivial. It has felt to me like a spa for the edit. Where like you go and get your wax.

Matt: That’s how [Sundance] should market this.

Rachel: There’s the steam and then you get facials and seaweed wraps and all that. The spirit that you create around this part of the work process which can so often be sitting around a dark room but here we’re filled with light and the sound of water and mountains.

Matt: And there’s a coffee shop.

Alex: There’s a coffee shop? Really?

Rachel: And still the resources. Like Alex said, we spent most of the time actually just sitting in front of the computer working, but the access to screenings and readings and that creative community outside, we do feel that heartbeat out there. Also, for me particularly for the editing phase, I don’t know if there’s anything else like this. There are lots of screenwriting workshops but I don’t know of anything else like this for the edit phase.

Shira: So what’s next for you? What is the next step in terms of taking what you got here and continuing your work when you get home?

Alex: Beyond the scope of this week, one of the best things to come out of it was that we have an amazing amount of things to work on, which it already feels like the experience of the Lab is extending beyond the parameters of this week and this place. There’s more for us to do, but I think in a real tangible way we’re now seeing really what the film can be. And understanding its potential. And having a roadmap to getting to where we want to be.

Rachel: We’ve been re-centered.

Matt: I feel like I’m leaving here with a really good sense of what is working and what isn’t working and I have time this summer to build on that.

Shira: Favorite non-editing related thing about this week?

Matt: Watching The Candidate and then listening to Robert Redford talk about it. And then watching The Visitor and listening to Richard Jenkins talk about it.

Rachel: Watching the Directors Lab scenes, because while we were the quiet moles working in the editing rooms, that energy buzzing around people in the earlier stage of filmmaking – in production – was a nice energy to have around us. And then seeing what they were making at that screening was exciting. Cycle of life.

Alex: It did feel like a cycle of life because the directors were right at the beginning of it and I felt that energy too and it was motivating to us because it seemed like everyone was trying to make the best film possible. Here we are, and we’re kind of at the end of it, and in a way, you could see who your audience was. Film lovers are surrounding you. And this goes for the staff, the mentors and the other filmmakers here. So I really drew from that energy. The love for independent film was just in the air.

Matt: The most rewarding part of the week for me was working with Lee.

Alex: The rewarding thing for me is just the arc of the week, where we started and where we are now. And screening for the second time and really feeling the progress. The days in between we were really in the trenches and it was a little more difficult to see exactly the progress we were making, although we knew we were on the right track. But then screening again I could look back just a few days ago and see how far we’ve come.

Rachel: I’m with Alex. That second screening, even before we had the mentors chime in and say where they had seen it progress, that we felt it, that we could feel it on our own.

2016 Sally Menke Memorial Editing Fellowship

As the recipient of the 2016 Sally Menke Memorial Editing Fellowship, Abbi Jutkowitz has just wrapped the Directors Lab where she collaborated with Directing Fellows Pippa Bianco (Share) and Boots Riley (Sorry To Bother You). The Editing Fellowship honors the memory of the beloved Sundance Institute mentor and prolific editor Sally Menke (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, All the Pretty Horses, Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds) by supporting an emerging narrative editor’s understanding of craft, expanding their artistic community, and providing momentum to their editing career through participation in the June Directors Lab and year-round mentorship from several accomplished editors. During the Lab, Abbi had a chance to spend time with Editing Advisors including Dylan Tichenor, Nancy Richardson, Barbara Tulliver, and Lee Percy.

We asked Abbi to reflect on her experience at the Lab…

1. Why were you interested in applying to the Fellowship? What did you hope to get out of it?

I didn’t know much about the Fellowship, but working on a lot of indies in NY made me aware of it. This past winter, I saw Craig McKay (editor Cop Land, Philadelphia, Silence of the Lambs) whom I had been fortunate enough to work with as an assistant; he told me I should do it and nominated me. I felt it was an amazing opportunity for a beginning career editor to get. I’d cut shorts and one feature, so it felt like the right time. I was interested in an opportunity to gain more experience, specifically in a challenging but also nurturing environment. The best way to improve at anything, I think, is not to read about it or think about it, but to actually do it.

2. What were your expectations going into the Directors Lab?

In general I try to approach things with openness rather than expectations, and the lab was no different. I had a chance to talk to a few of the previous Menke Fellows, to try to understand the pace and expectations of the editors at the Lab. I expected it would be a lot of hard work but also extremely rewarding. I knew it was about experimentation and about serving the director’s exploration. For me, editing is very reactive; I don’t try to impose on the material.

Based on a prep call prior to the Lab, I understood that the fast pace would the primary challenge. Not having the time to do an assembly or rough before the director comes in the room was a new way of working for me, so I had to quickly get up to speed on the footage that the director was already familiar with of course, having shot it. The Lab experience was an unusual opportunity to explore without the pressure of the end product. But, it’s also about focus – because of the speed in which we’re trying to do everything – and really knowing what to focus on. What’s the emotional journey – moving from A to B to C. Not worrying about angles, plot points – but what are the emotional beats and outline of the scene.

Sally Menke Memorial Fellow Abbi Jutkowitz and director Pippa Bianco editing Share. ©Sundance Institute | Jonathan Hickerson
Sally Menke Memorial Fellow Abbi Jutkowitz and director Pippa Bianco editing Share. ©Sundance Institute | Jonathan Hickerson

3. Did you do any prep before the Lab with your filmmakers?

I met my directors via email and asked if they had any references they wanted me to look at, especially to understand the pacing and rhythm they were looking for. And, even though only a few scenes are shot and edited at the lab, I read the full feature scripts for both films so that I could edit the scenes within the context of the whole film. Once we were all on the mountain, I was then also able to talk through more specifics with each director.

4. What was the process like working with two directors, on two projects–especially such different ones–at the same time?

I found it invigorating, and it kept me on my toes. Despite how different Pippa and Boots are individually, and also how different their films are, they both have the same relentless drive and dedication to their vision.

Pippa (Share) is making a film that’s very subjective, told very purposely through just one character’s point of view. But, in order to understand her point of view, we have to understand other parts of the characters world as well. So, a lot of our discussions in the editing room were about when to show the main character, Mandy, versus when to show what she is seeing. And, when we showed what she is seeing, we had to keep it still in her point of view. We see very little that the main character doesn’t see, which is a fascinating challenge, but made all the easier due to Pippa and her cinematographer capturing such intimate and interior feeling footage.

For Boots’ scenes (Sorry To Bother You), we were in a totally different world filled with surrealist elements. This was a blast to play with, and so the challenge was how to keep the surrealism and the comedy grounded and character-based so that we stay invested with what turns out to be an incredibly powerful story about our world, our future, and our humanity.

5. Can you share a favorite memory from the Lab?

It’s hard to pick just one. Everything that comes to mind for me really speaks to how terrifically the Labs foster individual confidence as well as community. The first week was tough, like running a sprint for five days. I was hunkered down with my two directing fellows and had little awareness of how everyone else’s scenes were going. So then, on that first Sunday when we watched everyone’s work for the first time in the theater, it was like a revelation and one of the most inspiring experiences of my life. That first screening is what created a bond with everyone here. It speaks to a primal reason why we make movies – to have an emotional experience together. But, in this case, it was more than just a movie theatre experience because we knew how much work had been put in to get to that screening. It was like that moment when you jump off the diving board – you still have a long way to swim, but it was the leaping off point. Everything coalesces, and it’s incredibly inspiring.

6. Beyond the Lab, can you talk a bit about how the year-round Fellowship support impacts you? Mentors, associate membership in ACE, etc.?

I was excited about how the Fellowship supports editors beyond the Lab. I had been lucky enough to work as an assistant for some amazing editors who always gave me opportunities to practice cutting. When I was Kristina Boden’s assistant, she encouraged me to cut scenes, and I got my first editing credit as an “additional editor” on a project she brought me on to. Even though we never called it a mentorship, I always felt it was, and am excited to form new relationships with other editors.

7. What’s next for you?

I’m thrilled to be cutting Damon Cardasis’s first feature film, Saturday Church, starting in New York in late July. It’s a beautiful story about a teenager in the Bronx who, in the wake of his father’s death, deals with finding himself and how to express his unique identity and individuality in the world, while still staying connected to his family, some of whom are religious.

8. Do you have a takeaway for other young editors?

So much of an editor’s job is not the editing of the film but the relationship with the director and communicating how best to tell the story. I wanted to work on that. That’s the main thing that I take away from the Lab. The experience of learning how to work with a variety of creative mindsets is invaluable.

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