The first ACE EditFest New York kicked off tonight at the Directors Guild Theater in New York City with a panel discussion featuring six editors sharing their best advice for getting that first gig as a film editor. The five panelists, along with moderator (and ACE President) Randy Roberts (One From the Heart), swapped stories about breaking into the business that occasionally dated back to those bygone days of linear film editing.
The understanding throughout the evening was that, while some things have changed, other principles of getting a job have remained much the same. Roberts began by recalling his tenure in the Warner Bros. mailroom, which started in 1965. He hooked up with film editor Rudi Fehr as an apprentice in 1968 and finally made his breakthrough working on the 1977 Richard Pryor film Greased Lightning. But, he cheerfully admitted, he's "one of the lucky winners of the womb lottery." Sam O'Steen, the renowned editor of The Graduate and Chinatown, was his uncle.
Having a family member in your chosen profession is still a good way to get a leg up, but the panelists stressed that it's important for anyone who wants to work in film to figure out as early as possible what it is that they want to do. "Look at the jobs at the top that you might want to do, and get on that path," counseled Plummy Tucker (Aeon Flux, Jennifer's Body), who got her start in the business as a location production assistant on Dead Poets Society before quickly segueing into an editorial career that included multiple editorial-team gigs with John Sayles. And Troy Takaki (Hitch, Fool's Gold), who worked in TV before connecting with feature director Andy Tennant for Sweet Home Alabama, followed a similar trajectory. "I was a really good PA from 9 [a.m.] to 7 [p.m.], and then I would hang out with the assistant editors," he recalled. "I spent a lot of extra time — my own time — learning to be an assistant editor."
But he warned against spending too much time excelling in the wrong department. "You'll be doing really well as a props person," he suggested. "And you'll never be an editor."
Lee Percy (Boys Don't Cry, Maria Full of Grace, Re-Animator) almost looked a little sheepish in that company, as he described falling into an editorial job through "serendipity." He had studied at Juilliard to be an actor, but ended up on the set with an unusually enthusiastic director who printed 1.2 million feet of film. The crunch of work was too much for the existing editorial department and somebody eventually looked at Percy and said, "You went to film school; start editing." He ended up studying movies by running scenes frame by frame to figure out how his favorite editors cut scenes together, he said.
One story that resonated with the aspiring editors in the audience was an anecdote from Scott Brock (The Moderns, Limbo) about the moment he realized what he wanted to do with his life. A buddy of his tipped him off, back in the day, to a trippy science fiction film showing at the local Cinerama Dome in Northern California. Brock went to see the movie, which turned out to be 2001: A Space Odyssey. He vividly remembers the moment when one of the film's pre-evolutionary ape men threw a bone into the air which tumbled, began to descend, and suddenly — jump cut! — became a spaceship. "I nearly got out of my chair and said, 'I have got to do this,'" Brock said. Later in the panel, he said the realization he felt upon seeing that particular edit was that "I can fashion that with my hands."
Eventually, Brock went to work for pioneering non-linear editor vendor Lightworks. In the mid 1990s, he was transferred to the New York office, where he met editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Rolling the dice, he asked her if she had room to take on one more editor. And that's how Brock became an assistant on Casino and a subsequent regular on the Schoonmaker/Scorsese editing team. That was another theme of the evening: you've got to be careful not to bug people, but it never hurts to ask if they can help get you a job.
Summing up some of the panel's wisdom, Takaki said, "We work really hard, and we work for free quite a bit." Bill Pankow (Casualties of War, The Black Dahlia) put a slightly different face on it. "Get an internship," he said, adding, "if that's how you want to describe 'working for free'." Tucker described a specific example from her career, when she worked for free on a particularly arduous ADR job. But eventually, through networking — and the luck of being in the right place at the right time with a working car — she was able to make that crucial fruitful connection with the John Sayles team.
Roberts eventually brought the discussion around to one of the more critical elements of the editor's skill set — personality. He talked about it in the context of what he called "cutting-room etiquette."
"It gets touchy, sometimes, with directors and producers in the room," he explained. "You have to figure out when to be quiet and when to speak up." Or, as he put it more bluntly: "Editing is 40 percent talent. The rest is personality and politics."