ART OF THE CUT with editor Leo Trombetta, ACE of “Mad Men” “Narcos” “Roswell” and “Luck”

By Steve Hullfish

Leo Trombetta, ACE has professional credits dating back into the mid 1980s and has been in the editor’s chair since the early 1990s. He has edited more than a dozen feature films, like “Twin Falls Idaho” and a range of TV shows like WB’s “Roswell,” Michael Mann’s “Luck” for HBO, AMC’s “Mad Men,” FOX’s “Wayward Pines,” and Netflix’s “Narcos.” He has also worked as a sound editor on such films as “Bonfire of the Vanities” and David Mamet’s “Homicide.”

Trombetta won an Emmy and an ACE Eddie for editing “Temple Grandin” for HBO Films as well as additional Eddies in 2011 and 2012. He will appear at the Manhattan Editor’s Workshop’s “Sight, Sound and Story” event in NYC, June 11th.

  Don Draper (Jon Hamm)  Mad Men  Season 1, Episode 1 – Photo Credit: Craig Blankenhorn/AMC

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) Mad Men Season 1, Episode 1 – Photo Credit: Craig Blankenhorn/AMC

Usually I do these interviews over the phone or Skype. Trombetta was in the middle of a project and it was difficult to schedule an interview so we discussed his work through email.

HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about your approach to editing.

TROMBETTA: To be honest, I find answering questions about editing difficult because, for me, editing is an intuitive process. I don’t really know why some things work and some don’t. I just know what feels right to me. It’s been my experience that the less I think about what I’m doing and trust my gut, the more successful I am. That’s not to say that there aren’t rules. It’s just that the best work always seem to come from a place deeper than my conscious brain. It’s difficult to analyze and, whenever I’m asked to do so, I find myself making things up, trying to concoct some overriding philosophy or formula that dictated the choices I made when, in fact, I was just responding to the material in a personal way and doing my best to deliver the intent of the scene as best I could.

HULLFISH: What got you interested in editing?

 WAYWARD PINES:  Ethan (Matt Dillon) patrols Main Street in the “Cycle” season finale episode of  Wayward Pines

WAYWARD PINES: Ethan (Matt Dillon) patrols Main Street in the “Cycle” season finale episode of Wayward Pines

TROMBETTA: I’ve been editing since I first started making my own 8mm movies when I was 10 years old. Then later, I used to take my camera to rock concerts and shoot roll after roll of Kodachrome. Putting the footage together later in my bedroom, I was learning by osmosis about screen direction, pacing and matching cuts.

HULLFISH: Do you have any editing heroes? Who are they and why?

TROMBETTA: I never had any editing heroes growing up – editors being the unsung heroes in the filmmaking process – but there were certain sequences and moments in movies I watched that made an impression on my young mind. Frank Mazzola’s montages in Peter Fonda’s “The Hired Hand” made a huge impression on me. I also enjoyed Peter Hunt’s bold jump cuts in the early James Bond films. As an adult, I’d have to say I’ve been inspired most by the work of Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese. Not just the kinetic style of “GoodFellas” but the elegant montages in “The Age Of Innocence” and “Kundun.”

  Kate (Carla Gugino) in the “Cycle” season finale episode of  Wayward Pines

Kate (Carla Gugino) in the “Cycle” season finale episode of Wayward Pines

HULLFISH: What is your basic approach to cutting a scene? How do you begin to attack it? Do you use selects? What sense tells you that you’re done working on a first pass at a scene and that you’re ready to show it to a director or move on through the process?

TROMBETTA: The first three films I worked on were cut on a flatbed where, of course, making selects was necessary and a great time saver. Now, with everything accessible in the click of a mouse, I like the freedom to regularly move from take to take, judging each moment against the others. A question I sometimes get when I’m interviewing for a job is “how would you cut this particular scene?” and my response is always “it depends on how the director shoots it.” That said, I approach every scene as if I were directing or storyboarding it. Having read the scene to understand it’s intent, I look at the material that’s been given me and choose the shot that I feel will open the scene best. Then, it’s a matter of choosing the best place to be, moment by moment. Of course, I often have to make adjustments based on my not having a shot I would like or because of a performance that is either so compelling that you can’t cut away or, conversely, so lacking in emotion that you have to protect the actor and convey the emotion through other means – either by judicious cutting around the weaknesses or sometimes by taking more emotional line readings and placing it in their mouths. (I once cut a scene where the emotion on the actor’s face was so powerful that every other take paled in comparison. However, the actor’s voice was far too shrill and was pushing too hard. We ended up replacing every line of dialogue from various other takes and, amazingly, that scene was cited in a number of reviews for its emotional power.)

  Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris and Bruce Greenwood as Richard Burghoff  Mad Men  Season 7

Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris and Bruce Greenwood as Richard Burghoff Mad Men Season 7

HULLFISH: When you watch the editing work of others – maybe to vote in the Emmys or Eddies or Oscars – what makes one movie or TV show stand out against the others as being well edited? What appeals to you in the editing of others? What stood out for you when you watched a movie or TV show and felt the editor did a great job?

  Kate (Carla Gugino) in the “Cycle” season finale episode of  Wayward Pines

Kate (Carla Gugino) in the “Cycle” season finale episode of Wayward Pines

TROMBETTA: As editors, we practice what my high school English teacher referred to as “the art that conceals art”. It’s impossible for anyone to know how difficult a scene was to cut without having access to the original dailies to see what problems he or she might have had to work with. This is why I find voting for the Oscars, Emmys or Eddies extremely difficult. On the one hand, if I’m noticing the editing too much, that’s usually not a good thing. There may, of course, be sequences where the craft is a little more apparent, but as long as it’s enhancing the experience and not merely showing off, it doesn’t bother me. I suppose I’m more aware of bad editing, where the pace drags or where the rhythm of the cutting seems arbitrary. However, in the case of awards contenders, the truth is all of the editors are worthy and it just comes down to a gut response as to which film or episode you had the strongest response to. It’s never easy.

HULLFISH: Discuss the importance of the sound editing and sound design in helping to sell the visual cuts and in keeping the audience in the story.

  Jon Hamm as Don Draper  Mad Men  Season 7

Jon Hamm as Don Draper Mad Men Season 7

TROMBETTA: I was a sound editor for a number of years and can’t underestimate the importance of sound in creating an environment or even allowing you to disguise some outrageously bold cuts that would be jarring without it. (Try watching “GoodFellas” with the sound muted and you’ll see what I mean.)

HULLFISH: How do your assistants prep scenes for you?

  Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff) and Don Draper (Jon Hamm)  Mad Men  Season 1

Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff) and Don Draper (Jon Hamm) Mad Men Season 1

TROMBETTA: I like to have everything that was shot available to me. My assistant will then mark those takes that were considered “printed” and those that were the director’s select takes. Sometimes the director will have more than one select take and, of course, those are the ones I’ll go to first. However, the difference between judging a performance on set, with all the potential distractions and chaos and judging it in the quiet of an editing room is often profound. Also, due to the advent of digital cinematography, even a relatively simple dialogue scene will often be covered by 2, 3, and even 4 cameras. In these cases, I like to work in “group clips” where all the angles from the various cameras are linked together in one clip making it possible to switch between angles with the touch of a key.

  Guest star Charlie Tahan in the “Enemy Lines” season premiere episode of  Wayward Pines

Guest star Charlie Tahan in the “Enemy Lines” season premiere episode of Wayward Pines

HULLFISH: What affects your sense of the micro-pacing or shot-to-shot pacing of a scene? How do you know you’re “in rhythm?”

TROMBETTA: Pacing is always an issue when I’m editing a scene. Sometimes an actor will pause a little longer than you’d like while delivering a line and, in a case like that, rather than cut away from him to pace it up, I often rely on two effects in particular: the fluid morph and the split-screen. The fluid morph allows you to make a jump cut and then “morph” both sides of the cut so that the jump is imperceptible. I use the split-screen in conjunction with the fluid morph when there is someone else in the frame whose face or position would noticeable shift at the jump. This of course only works if the camera is steady or, in the case of a hand-held close-up, if you choose a spot to make your cut where the camera would be in the relatively same position. A lot of trial and error goes into this as you can imagine.

  January Jones as Betty Francis  Mad Men  Season 7

January Jones as Betty Francis Mad Men Season 7

HULLFISH: How do you separate good editing from good directing?

TROMBETTA: That’s a good question. It’s impossible to tell, without having been a fly on the editing room wall, what influence an editor had on a particular film. In the best cases, the relationship with the director should be such that, by the time you reach the end of the project, the distinction is all but meaningless.

If you are in NYC in June, please check out the Manhattan Editor’s Workshop’s “Sight, Sound and Story” event in NYC, June 11th. Trombetta will appear as a panelist and guest. To read more interviews in this series check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter at @stevehullfish.