Director or Editor – Who is the More Creative Craftsperson?

One thing that’s interested me since I first became a film journalist and took notice of what was going on behind the scenes is the concept of film editing. What does editing mean? What does an editor do that a director doesn’t? How does the creative relationship between them work? Who’s in charge out of the two? Who’s the more creative craftsperson? Who’s responsible for the version of the movie that reaches the audience? Who’s the true author of the film?

Christopher Nolan. Photo credit: Variety

The answers seem obvious, but mix them up in the same big ball of wax and the waters grow a little bit muddy. It seems there’s a different answer to the above questions based on the film, the people involved, their experience in their respective fields and even how famous they are.

For one thing, editing is a lot more important in some films than others. In Dunkirk, Chris Nolan talked about constructing the story according to musical principles, and the constant application and increase of tension throughout the 106 minute film was a result as much (maybe more so) of editing than principal photography on the day.

Then consider something from the Judd Apatow stable like The 40 Year Old Virgin or Funny People. As a director, Apatow is much more about actors and their skills, letting them off the leash (and script) to do what they do best and pointing a camera at it. Any artfulness in the editing is just a matter of where to start or end a scene or change to another camera angle that was captured on the day.

Editing is described on Wikipedia as ‘a technical part of the post-production process of filmmaking’, and the first use of editing was to establish continuity when movies started containing more than one shot. If one character said ‘La Seine déborde’ and the shot changed to show another responding with ‘Mon Dieu!’, the editor might be the one to point out that one character take was done on a sunny midmorning and the reaction was shot on a rainy afternoon.

Early on, editing was simply the skills employed in using the film cutting and stitching technology at the director’s behest, giving them the familiar nickname of ‘cutters’. Because it was considered a below the line job with little more prestige than that of a typist, it opened the doors of the movie industry to a corps of female artists who became masters in their own right.

But somewhere along the line, editing began to take on a mystique all its own. Editors were seen as being skilled and experienced at using their trade to build everything about the narrative from pace to tone, often doing so for less experienced directors. Crucially, editors started to get formal recognition for their artistic contributions to films.

Editor Eddie Hamilton working on Kingsman The Golden Circle. Photo credit: Johnny Elwyn

Spielberg was said to be quite incensed when veteran editor Verna Fields won her Oscar for Jaws and he missed out on both Best Film and Best Director. The 2012 film Hitchcock, about the making of Psycho , shows Hitch (Anthony Hopkins) despondent at his initial cut, describing it as ‘stillborn’. It’s up to his creative soulmate, continuity right hand and wife Alma Revelle to assemble it into the nerve-shredding masterpiece we know today.

Despite the industry’s view of the director as the near-mythic figure responsible for everything we see on screen, it’s often far more talented editors behind the scenes that are responsible for the final product, more so than the director who’s named on the marquee.

Here’s a classic example. David Ayer is said to have shot 200 hours of footage for Suicide Squad. John Gilroy is the credited editor, but word has it Warner Bros ordered a total of seven edits of the film, none of which were necessarily done by Gilroy, overseen by Ayer or included anyone whose names we know.

It happens when the studio (which has ponied up the money, after all) gets some nameless Avid operator with a marketing executive hovering over his or her shoulder to churn out one cut after another until they have one they think they can most effectively sell.

Did that Avid operator and marketing executive do a good job? In the case of Suicide Squad, not even close. But while the true stories will ultimately be buried by time and non disclosure agreements, plenty of ‘good’ films are saved when they’re taken off the director and handed to an editor to salvage into a workable narrative.

So when it comes time to hand out awards for an art form that’s creative rather than technical (there’s no Oscar for Tungsten Light Placement or Best Use of File->Export To Build An Alien Army Using Weta’s Massive, after all), we think of names like Verna Fields, Thelma Schoonmaker and the late Sally Menke just as readily as the directors they’re synonymous with like Spielberg, Scorsese and Tarantino.

Still, that doesn’t really answer the question. Does Scorsese sit next to Schoonmaker in the editing suite and say ‘okay, I want to cut there after that ‘fuck’ and go back to Leo DiCaprio in a mid shot’, only for her to say ‘no, we’ll stay for three more fucks from De Niro and then cut to the severed forearm’.

That might be splitting hairs, and you probably think (which is no doubt the case) that Schoonmaker and Scorsese share ideas and feedback informally after their combined decades of experience, like all good editor/director partnerships.

As the director, Scorsese probably just has the ‘official’ final say, but wait. That trips us up again. We like to think directors have a clear creative vision of the final film, prepared to find moments that augment it through a little actor improv and editing finesse but with a well thought out track in their mind.

Behind the scenes of Suicide Squad. Photo credit: Hollywood Stream/ YouTube

But as Suicide Squad proved (and as countless hacks throughout film history have no doubt been through), there might be plenty of instances where the director has no clue what they’re doing, merely dumping dozens or hundreds of hours of shots at the editors feet and throwing his/her hands up in exasperation. Michael Cimino’s original cut of Heaven’s Gate was over five hours, leaving it up to the producers and United Artists to fight him to find a decent cut to release and nearly bankrupting the studio when it bombed.

Not to accuse Ayer of being a hack. His other movies like End of Watch, Bright and Fury have proved he can direct a cohesive story. It just seems Warners had so much riding on Suicide Squad they took it off him to repurpose according to corporate strategies that came out of DC Comics and studio marketing.

There are probably far more examples of editors saving a film than we’ll ever know. Why else do we so often hear the metaphor of ‘finding’ the story in the edit or editing being the final stage of storytelling, after all?

When that happens, why do we credit the overall creative success to a director? Even if it’s accepted and acknowledged that the editor has been just as instrumental in creating a finished film, why doesn’t he or she accept all the awards along with the director? The days where editing meant you knew how to use the cutting machine are long gone, and big name editors these days probably have teams of interns and underlings to move the timelines and click the mice for them.

A writer writes the script, a director manages the image acquisition on the day (oversees construction of the sets, tells a DP how he/she wants it lit, tells the actors how he/she wants the line delivered, etc), but I’d argue a good editor is no less a storyteller than either of them. But I still don’t feel like I’m still any closer to answering the central question.

What do you think?

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