Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Conversation with Editor Dody Dorn

How did you get interested in film? Was editing what you always intended to do?

DODY: No. It wasn’t. I grew up in LA and my father worked in the film industry.  All of the female role models that I had were schoolteachers.  So, I just thought, I’ll be a schoolteacher.  It never occurred to me that I could do something other than that.

Aside from my father, everyone else in my family was the scientist of some sort.  When I got out of high school, I actually went to City College where I was taking math classes.  As a product of my times, I got interested in being in the workforce and not going to school.  So I started looking around for work.  And it became apparent that the film industry was a place where I could get a job without a formal education.

So, I did a lot … a lot … a lot of odd jobs in film. I was in extra, I was an assistant to props, I was a production coordinator, I did some scripts supervising, I was the location manager, a lot of things.

It sounds like a great way to learn how movies are made.

DODY: Yes it was.  It was great. I was the assistant to the producer and the assistant location manager on a movie of the week for Dick Clark productions call Elvis that was directed by John Carpenter, starring Kurt Russell.

When the film was over, they decided to make a theatrical version of the film and they brought in a different editor. The producer asked me if I was interested in staying on and working in post-production. I thought, sure. I’m curious. I’m just a curious person. So I said sure.

So I said yes to that and I self taught myself all of the things needed for being an assistant editor. From there I never looked back, because I really liked having such clearly defined skills. It was a very concrete skill set and it was marketable.

I wasn’t into film as a kid, I didn’t go see a million movies. But once I started working in film and seeing the alchemy, I fell in love with film and then I started to teach myself film history. Seeing classic movies. I’m still an avid classic film watcher. Most of the movies I watch are classics or art movies or foreign films.

I became fascinated by film and the magic of editing. And I took it from there.

You say you were self-taught as an assistant editor. How did you do that?

DODY: I called a friend and I said I’m getting this job as an assistant film editor, what do I need to know? And I learned over the phone the difference between the emulsion and base, how many perfs per frame, how many feet per second, etc.

I called the rental houses and learned all the names of the pieces of equipment that were used.  In those days, it was a pretty straightforward mechanical process, in terms of the gear.

The job of being the assistant editor, especially in a film that has already been cut--it was a recut basically--was that of being a librarian, along with distributing the materials to the other departments that they needed for completing their parts of the recut.

I learned the names of every last single part of every piece of equipment, probably in a couple of hours. I know it sounds very mundane, but that was what I needed to know, so I learned it.

And I was very active, going and talking to all the people in all the facilities where we were working. I learned all about the lab and what was in the lab and how things were done there. I just had really good communication skills with the providers of the services. Whatever communication I could have, I did have, and learned that way.

Did you have any union issues?

DODY: No, because I got into a union on my very first job.

How did you do that? When I talked to Carol Littleton, about half of our conversation was about how tough it was for her to get into the union.

DODY: I don’t even know how much of this is legitimate or not legitimate, but I was working for union company and I was gathering my days. I worked for long enough that I got my days and I went to the union and I got my checkbook out and I said, “Here are my days.”

I met with the field rep at the time and I said I’m ready to sign-up. And it went from there, I signed up and I was in the union. Because I was so forthright, just standing there with my checkbook open, maybe the field rep just thought, “Ah, she’s just a good kid.” I don’t know.

You said you self taught yourself film history. Do remember what you found to be the most useful?

DODY: There are so many great books out there about cinema, and I just went back to the early ones. Eisenstein and his theories about editing are fascinating. I was just voracious, watching and reading what I could. But that was later, by the way. The first two or three years, I was just doing my job and feeling good about having a marketable skill.

And then once I knew it inside and out, it became kind of boring, and I started to look deeper. And then I started working in sound, and when I was working sound I was examining the film in a different way. Because as an assistant film editor, you’re not really examining the film. You’re really more of a librarian.

Now it is easier to examine the film in its progressions. It wasn’t so easy in the days of 35mm. Because you’re handling the film with such kid gloves. You were just popping it up on the Movieola and watching the cut as it progressed. You, as the assistant editor, were cleaning it and repairing splices and making sure it didn’t get damaged. You weren’t necessarily in dailies, you weren’t necessarily in the discussions between the director and the editor. And that was the thing that kind of bummed me out. I was very appreciated as an assistant, but that is what I did. I was an assistant. I wanted to do more.

And so I went over to sound. At the time, a lot of people said, why you moving into sound? It was looked upon as a step down. For me, I am just curious by nature, I like to learn new things. So I felt I had learned as much as I could as an assistant editor, and I didn’t see myself getting into the room with the film editor and learning about cutting from that.

So I became a sound assistant. And very shortly thereafter, I was cutting sound. When you’re cutting sound, you see the editor’s version come through and then the new version comes through and you see what’s different and you begin to understand what the impact is.

My main things that I cut were dialog and Foley. And cutting Foley was very instrumental in teaching about editing because it’s all about rhythms. And again, because you’re watching the same material over and over and over again.

When cutting dialogue you also learn about rhythm, because you see how the cuts are made. Sometimes because they made them in the middle of the sentence. You saw which parts of which sentences could go together, and where you can make those joins. And what the impact of those things was.

So this lateral move was a very conscious choice on your part?

DODY: You know, I’m not all that sure that it was. I’m not sure that it was conscious. Mainly it was a form of appetite, more than a maneuver. I think of myself as a naïve person. In terms of politics and how to get ahead. Positioning has never been one of the things that I wanted to do. I figured I should just do what I do as well as I can. And see what happens.

But because I’m so curious, and so willing to go sideways or down or up or around, I learn a lot more.

So how did you move into the position of editor?

DODY: The same way. I was a sound editor, and then I was a supervising sound editor, and then I started a company. At some point, again, it became kind of boring, because I was doing the same thing, doing it by rote.

And then I wanted to move back into the picture department. I had been a sound editor and a supervising sound editor, by then, for 10 years. I couldn’t go and be an assistant editor. So I started to look for work as an editor. And I found that I couldn’t get arrested. So I went back down to the bottom, and started working for free. As a picture editor.

I worked on shorts and low budget features. I did something in Germany that was not for free, but for low pay. If it needed editing and I found it interesting, I would edit it. I was not making the salary important. That wasn’t important to me. It was important that it was interesting to me.

Do you feel that you were not getting opportunities that guys were getting?

DODY: I have to say I did not perceive that, if that was true. I did hear, once in a while, someone would say, “Oh we’ll hire him, he’s got a wife and kids.” And that would gall me. Because I did not feel that should be a criteria for filling a position. Especially a creative position.

And I have to say, I struggled quite a bit to become an editor. By struggle, I mean I worked a long time for low or no pay. And it was difficult to get into a position where I was considered.

By then, with all my work on sound, I had worked with some great directors. But those directors were not interested in giving me a shot as a picture editor. So that was frustrating, but I understand it – you need to know that someone can do what you need them to do. It’s a really important position.

What was the first movie you worked on as an editor?

DODY: I did a movie called Floundering. Peter McCarthy directed. He was a producer. He produced Sid and Nancy. And that was a no pay job. After that I did an extended cut of Terminator 2 for Jim Cameron.

And then I did Guinevere with Sarah Polly and Stephen Rea.

Looking back on it now, do you recommend the approach you took, the whole process of learning?

DODY: I do recommend it. I have recommended it to quite a few people. One thing about life is that it is not a thing where you just work and you arrive. It is a series of ups and downs. It’s a journey. To look at the goal as an endpoint, I think can cut you off from a lot of opportunities. If that makes sense.

Have you seen the results of that advice?

DODY: One guy in particular, Matt Clark, who has cut several films for Kirby Dick. And Matt is a guy came to me with a question that most people have, maybe not expressed this naïvely. He called me up and he said, “I want you to tell me how I can get work at the Studios.”

And I thought oh no. And I said, “Are you sitting down? Have you got a pencil and a piece of paper? Never ever ever ever ever call anyone ever again and ask ‘How do you get a job at the studio?’”

And then I gave him my recipe. It’s not really a recipe, it’s my advice. And I was very forthright about it. And he followed it pretty aggressively. And he became a film editor.

One of the things that I said--and I learned this from somebody else--when I was fresh out of high school or looking for work, I had one of those very similar conversations. I was meeting somebody that I’ve known from my father’s business. And I said, “I’m thinking of working in film.”

And he said, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “Oh I’ll do anything.”

And he said, “Never say you’ll do anything. Say you are a this or you are a that.”

And that is something that I took forward and I take seriously. I am a film editor.

With Matt I said, “You want to be a film editor, do you have any money? Do you have enough money to live for a year without working? Will your parents help you out?” It was that kind of conversation.

Because what you need to do is, you need to edit. You need to edit whatever you can. You just keep editing.

I wasn’t just editing anything that came along when I was working for no money. I always made sure that it was something that I would be proud to have on my resume. If at all possible.

There is one film on my resume where I noticed that the director changed the credit to an Alan Smithee film, so that must’ve been one where I needed to pay my rent. But for the most part, I tried to make sure that I was making my decisions based on the project and not on the money.

What project do you think you learned the most from or that provided the most challenge?

DODY: That’s interesting, because I feel like I’m learning all the time. I think I’m in a state of constantly learning.  I’ve learned on every project, so it’s a hard thing for me to answer. It’s like saying which one is your favorite child?

Okay, let me ask this: While you were teaching yourself film history, were there any films that really jumped out at you?

DODY: All That Jazz was really remarkable. Also I would say Bonnie and Clyde is another one. There’s a kind of poetic quality to the editing that I think is really exciting. I think it also took a lot from the French New Wave.

I still see a lot of foreign films, and I see a lot of classics. I’m not, for some reason, all that interested in contemporary films.

Are you an editor or an audience member when you watch these films?

DODY: Oh, I’m an audience member. If I’m watching the technique, I feel that it is self-conscious. On the other hand, in my career when I’m reading a script, I’m always looking for scripts where the editing gets to be a character.

Like in Memento, the editing is a character. I did another film, Guy, where the editing is a character. It’s a point of view film, and the point of view was a cameraperson who is a character. And so that person is a filmmaker and a cameraperson, making a documentary. And the way it is cut has to represent that person’s personality.

Self-conscious editing, if it’s justified, I love. Just to be self-conscious for no good reason is not interesting to me.

Requiem for a Dream was, I thought, self-conscious. I did not enjoy the self-consciousness of that. But I felt they were pushing the envelope for a reason. But it wasn’t something that I responded to.

And now an example of where the self-consciousness worked for you?

DODY: Well, All That Jazz is a great example. The way the editor and the director together placed the sound and the image, it does grab your attention. When the sound drops out during heart attack scene, there’s not a person in the theater who isn’t wondering what happened? What’s going on? They’re suddenly conscious, and thinking that the projector is no longer making sound. At least, that’s what I think happens. That’s the way I felt when I was watching it.

It is certainly a wake up call. It wakes you up. You’re not just rolling along.

You see, there’s this funny thing about editing. It‘s all supposed to be invisible. And I think there is value in that. That’s what the match cut is all about. But it is equally valid to have a strong hard cut that jars you, if it has a narrative purpose.

What were the special challenges you’ve dealt with on Memento?

DODY: Among the things that Chris Nolan and I talked about were, How much of the repeated material needed to be shown in order for you to understand that not only were you seeing the same thing again, but it was the exact same moment again? Because those are the clues that were laid that told you that things were going backwards. Nobody says or announces, there is no subtitle upfront, that says this is going to go backwards.

We did things with sound and music that were very identifiable. So if it was Muzak in the bathroom, it was a very identifiable piece of music. But we also use the exact same pieces of film. They weren’t necessarily the same length. They were often much shorter. And we wanted it to be ever shorter and shorter throughout the course of the film.

And so we were just kind of testing that, to see how little it could be before you to recognize it. And of course once the pattern is set, then there’s a rhythm about how fast we were jumping back-and-forth.

And the other funny thing about it is, that it is not really backwards. It is something that is folded in half. So you are going backwards in the color and forward in the black-and-white. And so the beginning and the end are the starting point of the story and as you are marching forward, you are getting to the middle.

And so just understanding that was fun. It was a very frustrating script to read, because you have to keep flipping pages back-and-forth and back-and-forth, because it’s confusing. But that was enthralling to me.

It was fun. It was really fun. My mother was a mathematician, so I have that in me. It was kind of like a puzzle. Like I was doing my own little puzzle. And it really required a lot of intense focus, but it was very very well laid out in the script stage. We only rearranged one scene. Everything else was exactly as it was structured in the script.

What did you rearrange?

DODY: There was a point in the middle of the script where the jumping back got too frequent. So we join two sections, and dropped one repeat.

Did you do any audience testing with Memento?

DODY: No. We showed it to some people, but it wasn’t really a test. And I think that was the right decision. It is not the kind of film where you could gather a response from the test. People always come out of that film looking like they’ve been hit on the back of the head with a 2 x 4. And I think that’s one of the most gratifying things about it. Because the whole film is a wake up. It wakes you up.

And there are some people who are really irritated by it. And I liken that irritation to something I said to Chris in our first meeting. It reminded me of the book called If On A Winter’s Day A Traveler.

In that book, at I think close to the end of the first chapter, some of the text is repeated. And then the author addresses the reader straight out of the page, saying “Oh, and now you’ve noticed that some of the text is repeated.” And I thought, hey I don’t want to hear this, I just want to read a story. But I wasn’t the editor of that book. Reading the script of Memento and thinking that I might have the opportunity to be the editor of that, that was very exciting.

But as a viewer, I can understand how some people might be irritated by it. It’s a matter of taste, if you want to be played with like that. Many many people just go into the theater and they want to be carried down that stream, they don’t want to be woken up.

Have you had any experience with any of the films you’ve worked on being tested with audiences?

DODY: Yes I have.

How do you like that process?

DODY: I don’t like it.  Things need to be tested to be sure that audiences are following and that they understand. It depends on what kind of the film it is. So if you want people to understand, you might have to test.

I think I don’t like it, because I don’t like all the politics involved. It’s a stressful process.

Any final advice? For someone wanting to get into the business?

DODY: The clearest advice I would give is do your best to find projects that you can believe in and work on those. And the rest may or may not follow. It’s a very tricky business. And it’s a tricky life. On some level, all you have is now. So you better make sure that what you’re doing now is something you enjoy.

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