"You have to be open to all possibilities and just see where the footage leads you."
June 15th, 2011

Andy Grieve Film Editor

Andy Grieve is a film editor based in New York whose work can be seen in the films Standard Operating Procedure and The Carter, among many others. Editing a movie is about as important as directing it, yet most people have no sense of the job or those who do it. Remember who won the Best Editing Oscar this year? Us neither. We asked Andy to shed a little light on this behind-the-scenes linchpin of the movie-making process, and the conversation ended up filling out our entire moving-going experience.

What would a movie look like without a film editor?

Firstly, I mainly edit feature-length documentaries. The process for editing a huge budget, narrative feature like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter is way different. But a documentary without an editor would basically be countless hours of raw footage–interviews, vérité, b-roll, archival, whatever your working material is–so they are more or less “written” in the edit room. As an art form, documentaries are an inherently investigative process, or they should be; most of the time, directors don’t really know what the story is while they’re shooting. When I begin editing, I first like to watch all the footage in the order that it was shot; that way I can get into the director’s head and see the journey they went on to compile all the material. This takes weeks and weeks, and it’s a process of slowly whittling down.

You must have tremendous discretion regarding not only the final look of the film, but also its emotional and narrative arc. At what point are you brought on in the production?

I’m brought on either as they begin shooting or as shooting is wrapping up. It really depends. A film I edited recently was about a mixed martial arts fighter, and a large part of the material revolved around him training for a title defense. We started editing before the fight even happened. Luckily, he won the fight in a really dramatic, come-from-behind fashion, so the film ended up having a great arc and lots of tension. But we really didn’t know the outcome until it happened.

Do you discuss the structure with the director during the edit process?

I will sit down with the director and discuss style and general ideas about how the film will look and feel–Is it fast cut or slow? What kind of music?–but so much of that is dictated by how the footage is shot and what happened in reality. Something I definitely don’t do is try to put a circle in a square. You have to be open to all possibilities and just see where the footage leads you. At the same time, as the editor I do have the ability to focus and eliminate, so I can chose which parts of the story to highlight and which ones to downplay or eliminate. It’s a process of figuring out exactly what you want to say and then what is the best way to go about saying that.

Do you work with the sound editor?

The work of a sound editor is much more pronounced in a movie with tons of sound effects and more artificially created worlds. In documentaries, sound is a challenge because the shooting often happens under less than ideal conditions on a limited budget with a small crew. In the end, you just work with what you have. Once the edit is locked, the sound mixer and their team will take a week or two to clean it all up to sound as best as possible, but I have been in many situations where subtitles were necessary just for clarity. This isn’t to say that the sound team and I never use sound effects to augment a scene or smooth over crappy production sound; but I feel like a documentary audience is more forgiving when things are rough around the edges. Sometimes I even feel that when things are more raw than refined it lends itself to a heightened sense of reality. But I would say this – and this is for up and coming editors – never say to a director, “Don’t worry about it – it’s just a documentary,” in reference to something they fucked up in the shoot. That never goes over well.

Have you worked on movies outside of documentaries?

I did one horror film, but other than that, I’ve only done documentaries.

Is that by chance, or by choice?

It sort of just happened that way. I was working at a commercial editing company for years, and I happened into a film called Manda Bala (Send a Bullet). I took a six-month leave of absence to edit it, and when I came back to the commercial company, I just wasn’t into it anymore. So I parted ways and went freelance. Manda Bala went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2007, and from there I started to get more and more calls to edit other documentaries. I would love to branch out and do other types of work – commercials, music videos, narrative features – but all that is easier said than done.

Are most film editors freelancers?

There are no companies of film editors in the way there are companies of commercial, music video, or trailer editors; so like many other film editors, I have an agent. I believe most Hollywood editors are members of the Motion Picture Editor’s Guild, or MPEG, union; but most documentary work is non-union.

What do the abbreviations after editors’ names in the credits mean?

When you see ” ACE” after someone’s name, it means they are a member of the American Cinema Editors. It’s not a union but something you’re invited to join because you are badass and have been nominated for an Eddie Award, which is the yearly ACE awards that are given out for different categories. It’s sort of like the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks for film editors. Well, not really, but that sounds more exciting.

What are you working on now?

Right now, I am finishing up a film about the band, The Police, as told from the perspective of their guitarist, Andy Summers. It covers his life before The Police when he was in The Animals and other bands, then his time with The Police, and ending with their 2006-2007 reunion tour. It’s sort of a walk down memory lane, and also investigates the idea of second chances and getting to relive your past while trying to find closure, if that’s at all possible.

Do you have any favorite editors or favorite scenes?

I don’t like to name-drop, and I am really bad at qualitative judgments. Plus, my tastes are always changing, so it is really hard for me to say what my all-time favorite scenes are. The first time I got really excited by the power of editing was seeing the “Odessa Steps” sequence in Battleship Potemkin, or A Man With a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov. Both those films are really about the editing, and the juxtaposition of images to create a sum greater than the parts. In the end, that’s what film editing is all about.