What is your current project?
The Next Three Days, directed by Paul Haggis and edited by Jo Francis. I’m assisting Jo and having a ball. We’re just wrapping up a three-month stint in Pittsburgh, which has been fantastic because I have family there. But we’ll be back in New York to ring in 2010.
Describe Your Job.
What I love about this freelance career is that each job is different. This is especially true since I’m in that transitional place where I’ll assist on one or two films, then cut one or two indies, then assist again. On this job, I get to do a little of everything, and I love that balance.
I often compare assistant editing to librarian work, since organization is so important. You really have to sort everything meticulously so that the editor always knows how to find any piece of footage or music or sound. I’m more tidy and list-oriented at work than I am at home, because I can’t afford to lose track of what I’m doing—there’s so much that can come up in a day! In addition to the normal dailies routine, I’ll find myself doing quick temp mixes, mocking up visual effects, fixing bad sync in our footage, talking to the lab, talking to the studio, sending references to the set; itt gets hectic. The most rewarding part is when I can just sit and talk with Jo about scenes that she has cut. That’s true on every film—analyzing what works or doesn’t work, and why, is the best.
How did you become interested in this line of work?
I always, always knew I wanted to do something in the film industry, but I didn’t have a clue what it would be until college. I took a couple of cinema studies classes, in which we were given the option to edit together a video (using clips from the films we’d watched) instead of writing a final paper, and I realized that I could convey so much more with editing than I could with words on paper. Editing appeals to me on every level—it’s storytelling and problem-solving; it’s creative, technical, intuitive and collaborative. I knew pretty quickly that I’d found the right pursuit.
Who gave you your first break?
I feel like I had a few first breaks, because I wound my way around documentaries and sound editing until I landed in a big feature cutting room. But my really-truly-first break came from Rick Smigielski, who hired me on a documentary he wrote and directed for The History Channel.
What was your first union job?
My first union job was on Griffin Dunne’s Practical Magic, as a sound editing apprentice. That was a great first gig, a real crash course in sound editing and mixing. We ended up going to LA for two weeks to finish at Warner Bros., and to this day that’s still the most time I’ve spent on a lot. Not by choice though—I hope to change that soon.
Which of your credits or projects have made you the most proud and why?
I’m probably most proud of Liev Schereiber’s Everything is Illuminated, first of all because I love that film so much, but also because that was the first movie where I was really involved in the dialogue in the cutting room. I learned so much on that one.
What was your biggest challenge in your job (or on a particular project) and how did you overcome/solve it?
I can’t think of a specific challenge that seems more daunting than the others. I will say that I have gotten to a point where I almost use fear as a litmus test when I’m about to start a job. If I’m scared at first that I’m not up for it, then it means I must be about to do something new. That means I’m still learning, and that’s a good sign. I want each job to present new challenges. And usually, by the end of day one, when no machines have died or anything, I know everything’s going to be fine after all.
What was the most fun you’ve had at work?
I might have to say I had the most fun working on M. Night Shyamalan's Signs in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, but that almost feels like picking a favorite child. I did have a particularly great time on that one, though. There was just something really fun about traveling to work on a big crew on a big movie. I’ve done that a few times, and always really enjoyed it, even though it’s hard to be away from home.
Job wise, what do you hope to be doing five years from now?
I hope by then I’ll be editing features full-time.
What are your outside activities, hobbies, passions?
I think I’m more passionate about film than anything else. I do love to do yoga and to travel, but I don’t do either consistently. And I take up various hobbies like knitting or crosswords for a while, but then drop them when I’m busy. I always love watching and talking about movies, though. In the last few months, every moment of my spare time has gone to my niece and brand-new nephew in Pittsburgh, which has been amazing.
Oh no! I should write them down when they occur to me; they change all the time. A few of the old stand-bys are Rear Window, The Godfather, Fargo and Memento. More recently, I adored Happy Go Lucky.
Favorite TV Programs?
I have a much easier time answering this for TV shows than movies. I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and pretty much bond instantly with any Buffy or Joss Whedon fans. That’s a nerd thing that makes people either roll their eyes or go, “Cool, me too!” But I discovered not long ago that there’s a show I might love more, which is The Wire. I was late to that party, but I loved it so much that I’ll definitely watch the whole series again someday. Both of those shows are so smart, but in totally different ways.
Do you have an industry mentor?
Yes, the incomparable Craig McKay. He taught me everything I know about editing. More than that, he taught me the importance of passing it on. It can be hard for editors to remember to engage their assistants in dialogue about the creative process these days, particularly when everyone’s in separate rooms on their own machines. But Craig does much more than that; he’d sit with me and talk about what worked, what didn’t, and why. Even if we didn’t agree all the time, his patience with me––and his dedication to the craft––were inspiring every day. I’d love to do that for someone else someday.
What advice would you offer to someone interested in pursuing your line of work?
Don’t pay for film school—this is the perfect craft to learn on the job. And don’t listen to those people who say, “Turn back while you still can!” More than a few have said that to me. In spite of the long hours and the stress of freelancing, it’s a fun career. Do be prepared to work hard, and be tenacious when looking for work!
Was there ever a circumstance when you had to rely on the Guild for help or assistance?
More than a few times––Jen Madar in the New York office has helped me navigate dealmaking on more than one occasion, and they have all been there to help me understand whichever contract I’m working under. I love how accessible they all are.
Is there anything you’d like to say to your fellow Guild members?
I’d encourage other assistants who want to become editors to help create opportunities for themselves by asking to practice cutting scenes. Many editors I know want assistants to show that interest in cutting, but they know how busy we are and don’t assume we want to take more on. But I also generally think that union members should do as much to help each other out as we can—take time to train others, talk openly about negotiating deals, that kind of thing. Everyone benefits when we look out for each other.
- Michael Kunkes