This is the third (!!!) edition of Enter the Edit, a series exploring the regrettably underappreciated process and craft of documentary editors. Our guide is 2017 Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow Leigh Johnson. Read the first conversation with Johnson.

Penelope Falk is an award-winning editor with over 15 years of documentary experience. She most recently edited Step, which won a Special Jury Award at Sundance this year and will open in theaters August 4, and Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, which premiered at Cannes and was broadcast on HBO. Other editing credits include Maidentrip (SXSW Audience Award 2013) and Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (Sundance Excellence in Editing Award 2010). This year, she’s a mentor to editor Leigh Johnson through the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship.

Leigh: I thought I could get meta and talk to you about mentorship. You’ve told me about some people who have been mentor type figures in your own career, and I’m curious about how that happened for you.

Penny: I love editors. One of the reasons I became an editor is that I was in a job where a lot of editors came through, and I thought they were smart, engaged and curious. I wanted to be just like them. And I was right, it’s a great world that I love being a part of. We’re oddly not competitive, we all help each other get work, and it’s just something organic that happens. So I found three people who became my mentors – Toby Shimin, Jonathan Oppenheim, and Jay Freund – who helped me, and still help me, figure out how to navigate the doc world.

Jay would say things to me and I would actually run home and write them down. Like, “there’s no such thing as a cutaway.” I went home and wrote that down. Because I didn’t know anything about editing! “Every shot has to resolve the last and set up the next.” And another thing, I fight to this day about this with directors: “A scene can only be about one thing.” That is so important. Not that a scene can’t be complicated, have nuance, have layers of complexity, but it should just be about one thing.

Leigh: So how did those relationships develop?

Penny: Jennifer Fox did a thirteen part series for PBS where she hired inexperienced editors, and we spent a year cutting. Then after PBS came in for feedback, she decided to hire more experienced editors, but still kept me around. She had me sit behind Jonathan Oppenheim for two months, and I would watch him cut. And that’s actually how I learned. It was funny because he would do something that I wouldn’t understand, and I’d literally furrow my brow. Without turning around Jonathan would be like, “What? What’s your problem?”

We became friends, as I did with Toby and Jay who were also working on the series. It wasn’t conscious, I wasn’t pursuing them to be my mentors, it just happened. I remember going out with Jonathan when I didn’t know what to do next, and he gave me great advice which I quote all the time for people who are starting out. “Work in the world you want to be in.” Most editing jobs are in reality television. But if you don’t want to work in reality television, don’t work in reality television. Because that’s how you make your contacts.

Leigh: I was going to ask you to conjure up some pearls of wisdom from Jonathan Oppenheim so I’m glad you started spontaneously doing that.

Penny: My first job doing a feature film, Jonathan was working next door so we shared a wall. It was called Bombay Eunuch, a vérité film. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I ran into Jonathan’s office, and I said, “Jonathan! There are no scenes in this film! What do I do??” He looked at me and said, “A smile can be a scene.”

I was like, “Great!” And I ran back, and I sat back down, and I was like, “What the hell does that mean?”

Leigh: In the time I’ve known you, one of the pearls of wisdom that you’ve taught me is about having one word or concept that nails down what a film is about. Could you talk about that idea and give some examples from the films you’ve edited?

Penny: Right, the post-it thing. Well it’s funny because I was just reading a book about the history of Fiddler on the Roof. The play wasn’t working until they came up with the song “Tradition.” They put it at the top, and then you see the whole thing through the lens of tradition. So the play came together when they put that song in.

What happens is I watch the footage and I try to figure out what I think the thematic principle of the film is. And I literally will write it on a post-it and put it on my computer to remind me that this is my organizing principle as I cut the film. It’s not like every single thing has to be about that, but pretty much every single thing has to be about that. The Joan Rivers post-it was “relevance.” For Step I had “double minority.”

For Maidentrip, my post-it was “home,” because it was about a girl’s search for home. In the opening lines of the film, she says when she was three on a boat with her family she felt like she was home. But when I first got that footage, I didn’t see that. In fact, I wasn’t convinced there was a film there. I called up the director and said that it’s a short. It’s a girl on a boat with nothing going on. And I went out to dinner with my mentor Jonathan and his wife Josie who is a psychoanalyst. And I said, “There’s no film here!” Josie told me, “You’re an asshole. You have a fourteen year old girl who is choosing to be alone in the middle of the ocean. Why?” And she was totally right.

Leigh: Can you think of a particularly difficult problem you were having in a film where feedback from a colleague or mentor helped things click into place?

Penny: Jennifer Fox introduced me to the idea of “setting the clock” when I edit a film. It means that at the top of the film, you somehow let your audience know when the film will be over. It’s similar to setting up a question or conflict that will be answered or resolved by the end. It’s a way to create narrative momentum as well as provide a framework that allows the audience to settle in and enjoy the ride. Of course, not all documentaries do this (think Wiseman, Maysles) but it’s a tool I’ve found quite effective through the years.

We were having rough cut screenings for Joan Rivers and although people were enjoying the movie, I could sense it wasn’t quite gelling for them. Close but not 100%. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. When Toby Shimin watched, she suggested we put a title card at the top of the film letting the audience know that this was a year in the life of Joan Rivers. Although she didn’t use the term “setting the clock,” she (correctly) thought this would let the audience understand the parameters of the film. We put in a card after the title that says “a year in the life of a semi-legend,” and such a seemingly small fix made quite the difference. It was like the bow on the box that made the package complete.

I show all my mentors my work and listen to them. But sometimes I don’t agree with them, by the way.

Leigh: Well, I think specifically in editors there’s this interesting grouping of qualities that you need, which is the ability to be super flexible and take tons of feedback from multiple points of view, but then you also need to be strong in your own opinions. And it seems like those could be contradictory, but they both need to exist.

Penny: Yes. I have a pearl of wisdom to spit at you! Are you ready? “Listen to people’s problems, never their solutions.”

I love feedback sessions, to me it’s a tool of our trade. But when people watch films, they tend to give solutions, like “here’s what you need to do.” But they don’t know what you’re dealing with. So listen to people’s problems, never their solutions. Find out what’s not working for them. I think since I go into feedback sessions like that, it’s not a problem for me. It’s about what’s working for the film, what’s not working for the film. I think it feels a lot more personal for directors, like an attack on them and their vision.

I trust my gut, but I also know I’m wrong all the time. You can’t be a good editor if you’re not willing to be wrong. I’m wrong constantly! In the film I’m working on now, I haven’t had screenings yet, and there’s one character I’m in love with. There’s something about him that just touches my heart. But I’ve seen hundreds of hours of him, and I’m not sure if a distilled version of him will make people feel the way I do about him. So I sent my mentor Toby Shimin a bunch of scenes from my current film and told her, “I really like this, am I crazy?”

Leigh: I want to see some of your scenes! You should send them to me!

Penny: You should come visit me.

Leigh: I’ll come sit behind you and furrow my brow.

Penny: That would be great.


Rapid Fire with Penny

Favorite documentary of all time? Marwencol, Exit Through the Gift Shop and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.
Favorite documentary of the past year? Cameraperson.
Funniest documentary you’ve ever seen? The Aristocrats.
Editor(s) you admire? My mentors, and also Jean Tsien, Mona Davis, Geoff Richman, Mike Levine and David Zieff
Avid, Premiere, or Final Cut? Final Cut 7 or Avid, I won’t cut on Premiere. The font’s too small I can’t see!
Software tip or trick that changed your life? The “TTTT” in Final Cut that moves everything to the right in the timeline, there’s a way to do that in Avid and once I found that out it changed my life.
Favorite film festival? Full Frame, I go every year with 25 editors from New York for the past ten years, it’s heaven.
Common misconception about editors or editing? That we’re lousy lovers?
Favorite snack in the edit room? Coffee and Chobani yogurt.
Longest feature doc edit you’ve done? 15 months.
Shortest feature doc edit you’ve done? 7 months.
The most footage you’ve ever worked with for a film? 700 hours for The New Public.
Ideal length for a documentary? 84 minutes. And Step is 83 minutes 59 seconds.

Awarded annually, the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship was created in 2010 to honor the memory of gifted editor Karen Schmeer. This year’s application deadline will be in the fall.

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Leigh Johnson
Leigh Johnson is a New York-based documentary film editor. She was editor and associate producer on the HBO documentary 'Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus,' which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, won awards at festivals internationally, and won an Emmy for Outstanding Arts and Culture Programming. Her other editing credits include: 'The Exquisite Corpse Project,' a documentary-narrative hybrid film featured on Splitsider; 'In Balanchine's Classroom,' a forthcoming documentary about the legendary ballet choreographer; and various web shorts for Adult Swim and 'The Onion.' She is currently working with director Madeleine Sackler on a feature documentary that will be released in late 2017.