What do editors do?
It’s a standard complaint from moviegoers any time a film crosses the two hour mark: ‘pretty good but could have used an editor’. The editor’s job seems to have become commonly perceived as reining in the director’s excesses, a voice of reason who says ‘no one is going to sit through this’ or ‘the human bladder simply can’t hold out that long’ and relegates large chunks of the film to the deleted scenes section of the Blu-Ray. This, needless to say, is a gross misunderstanding of what an editor actually does.
Let’s look at a concrete example: Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, one of the most celebrated director/editor pairings in the history of cinema. Both now approaching 80, Schoonmaker has worked almost exclusively with Scorsese since 1980’s classic Raging Bull, having first worked together on the latter’s feature debut, 1967’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door?
For four decades now, Scorsese hasn’t made a narrative feature film without Schoonmaker, an incredible run that includes the likes of The King of Comedy, After Hours, The Age of Innocence and Goodfellas. She’s won three Oscars for her work, all for Scorsese films: Raging Bull, The Aviator and The Departed. She is arguably the world’s greatest living editor, the high watermark of the craft that we can all strive for but few can ever approach, blessed with impeccable rhythm, a remarkably keen eye for the nuance of performance, and an immaculate sense of how to construct a scene. She is, by any conceivable measure, good at what she does, and an indispensable collaborator on Scorsese’s work.
And yet, as Scorsese has tended towards lengthy runtimes in recent years - looking at his last three features, we have 180 minutes for The Wolf of Wall Street, 141 minutes for Silence, and 203 minutes for the forthcoming The Irishman - the usual complaints resurface that these films could ‘really use an editor’. Well, they have one. She’s literally the best editor in the world. If the films are running long, then that’s how long Scorsese and Schoonmaker have decided they need to tell their story adequately.
Whilst an editor can certainly make suggestions to the director if they feel like a scene just isn’t working, you can’t measure how well a film has been edited by how much it’s been cut to the bone; an 85 minute film isn’t a better edited film than a 185 minute film by default.
So if an editor doesn’t just make a film or TV show as short as possible, then what do we actually do? The simplest way to think of it is to view unedited footage as a jigsaw puzzle without a finished picture to guide you: you have all these pieces of video that fit together somehow to tell a story.
Unlike a jigsaw puzzle, there isn’t necessarily only one way to do this - there are various ways the pieces can fit together, and all of those different combinations end up telling the story differently. So the editor’s job is to take those pieces and find a way to fit them all together in a way that they (and the director and producer) think best tells that story.
So when something like The Wolf of Wall Street comes in at three hours long, it’s by design, not just because the editor doesn’t know what to cut. It serves the story’s indictment of the corrosive effects of rampant capitalist excess to have what might at first seem like a fun, consequence-free, high energy lifestyle deteriorate into a seemingly endless purgatory of quaaludes and degradation.
Of course, especially when you’re making a TV programme that has to fit into a predetermined time slot, there is an element of pruning those pieces back to make them fit while still keeping the sense of the story; with something like The People’s History Show, we’re regularly trying to fit real, complex stories into six minutes or less, so inevitably there are some details you love that just don’t fit and have to go.
But that, ultimately, is what makes an editor: being able to pick out the most important parts of the footage they’ve been given and build the rest of the story from there.