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 2017 Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow Leigh Johnson. Catch up on earlier conversations with with Johnson.
Maya Mumma most recently edited O.J.: Made in America, which has won numerous awards including an Emmy for Outstanding Editing, an ACE Eddie Award, and the Academy Award for Best Documentary. Her other editing credits include the Emmy nominated film Which Way Is The Front Line From Here: The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington and the Peabody Award winning Mr. Dynamite, The Rise of James Brown. She is a mentor to editor Leigh Johnson through the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship this year.
The Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship is accepting submissions for its 2018-19 editing fellowship until September 29, 2017. For more information, visit the official website.
Leigh: Your award-winning edit team for O.J.: Made in America was you and two other editors. On a film nearly eight hours long, how did you all work together in the edit? I’m curious about that process.
Maya: When the project started, director Ezra Edelman knew that it needed multiple editors. He hired Bret Granato first, who he’d worked with before, and I came on right afterward. We knew we had a massive story to tell from day one. Ezra’s process is to start with interview selects, so he had put all his selects together in a document that was about 150 pages long. I think it was over 12 hours strung out in a sequence. I spent the first few days watching it through in the edit room.
What Bret and I did first was each take on some sections that we already had a good amount of interview and archival material for. We were looking at both O.J.’s history and the history of race relations in Los Angeles, and seeing how those different stories interacted was important to start to figure out. Bret took the Buffalo Bills section of the film early on and I got the L.A. riots section up and going, in addition to a few other sections.
After about a month or so in to the edit, we realized we needed to take on bigger parts of the storytelling. You can only edit pods for so long, because you can easily end up having a film where you’re just trying to stick a bunch of things together. So we divided the story, and the murder seemed like a very logical place to split it. I took pre-murder and Bret took post. But after a few months, we just weren’t getting to the post-trial part of the story, so a third editor, Ben Sozanski, was hired. There are so many things that happen post-trial, and for Ben to be able to focus and narrow it down while we were in the weeds of our own sections was incredible. Ben was also able to fill in some of the storytelling earlier in the film as we moved toward a rough cut.
We would screen sections together periodically and we were constantly checking in with each other about how things were going and ideas we were having. There were a few scenes that got passed back and forth, like the Buffalo Bills section. Bret had put so much into that, it was important that he took it to the very end even though it ended up being in my section. Ben cut the very opening of the film, the parole hearing. I love that within the first hour of the film you’re seeing all of us represented in some way.
Leigh: Did Ezra have in mind an episodic nature and the extended length from the beginning? How did you come to the result of where episodes begin and end?
Maya: No. ESPN originally commissioned a four to five hour piece on O.J. Simpson, and Ezra had always conceived of it as a continuous story, one big film. So we edited all of the stories that we thought needed to be told, and then we stepped back and it was eight hours long. Luckily we showed ESPN that cut, and they were excited about it and let us continue refining the long film rather than cutting it down to fit in to some sort of programming model. There did come a point where we had to think about dividing it for broadcast. When we stepped back and looked it, it’s funny, the film sorted itself in terms of storytelling and narrative arcs into these roughly 90 minute sections. And within each of those 90 minutes were these kind of 30-minute acts. I feel like this happens on every film, and it’s subconscious, but it’s just how storytelling works. There seemed to be logical places to put breaks. But that came very late in the process after we had a fine cut of the film.
Leigh: You’ve worked with another editor on almost every film you’ve edited. What have some of your other co-editing experiences been like?
Maya: My first time getting a full editor credit was on the documentary Which Way Is The Front Line From Here about photojournalist and filmmaker Tim Hetherington. I had worked with Tim on the film Restrepo, and then he passed away a couple years later. Director Sebastian Junger brought on a seasoned editor, Geeta Gandbhir, while I started working as an associate on it. We had a tight deadline for the film, and I was really knowledgeable about Tim’s work, so she was like, you take the section that you’re the most familiar with, and let’s see what this film becomes. I think editors can be protective of their work, but Geeta is very collaborative. She came up with Sam Pollard, who’s somebody who really fosters people, takes them under his wing, and gives them things to do. Geeta was game for doing that too.
Directors often ask, if you’re working on different sections of the same film, how is it going to match? But editors are flexible. We’re constantly looking at each other’s things, getting ideas from each other, and revising the film together. I’ve found it just melds together in the end.
Leigh: You mentioned to me that you were given the option of having a second editor on your current project, and you took that option. So now, rather than being the more junior editor learning from a more senior editor, this time you’re the more senior editor. How is that?
Maya: It’s great. I used to be more precious with stuff. Now I feel a lot less precious about the particulars of scenes and understand that it’s about the storytelling as a whole. There are five different ways to tell every single scene, but regardless, they have to add up to something. I think that’s something that Geeta understood, and I think I learned that even more on O.J.: Made in America. That has freed me up to collaborate more, and grow in to more of a senior editor role. I actually got my first job as an assistant because I was able to talk through ideas of the film rather than just knowing how to troubleshoot a hard drive that went down. That appealed to me about the current editor I’m working with. I felt like he would be a good collaborative presence in the edit room. By putting our heads together, we can often come up with something even better.
Leigh: Can you talk about a situation where you learned something important from your collaboration with another editor?
Maya: On the Netflix series Daughters of Destiny, which is about a group of girls growing up at a boarding school in India, editor Karen Sim came on later in the edit. At that point we had a long assembly with long scenes, and each scene would resolve itself before we moved on to the next. Karen was all about intercutting, about getting things moving and leaving things hanging and picking them back up later. She brought that from her own sensibility and from experiences on other films. When we started intercutting scenes and storylines more, the series started cooking. It really helped to tie themes and compare and contrast the storylines more clearly.
I had a scene where an administrator of the school sits down with some of the teenage boy students and they have an intense conversation about what it means to be a woman in India. It’s an interesting scene, but it’s the boys, not our main subjects, the girls. There was also this footage that the director had always loved of one of our main girls who is about to turn thirteen. The director had filmed all of this great footage of her and her friends on the last day of school, and they’re hanging out, talking about life, playing outside, and then they have a sleepover. You see them teetering on the edge of childhood and adolescence, but I didn’t know what to do with it or where it should go. It was after Karen came on that it dawned on me to combine these scenes, to intercut between the boys’ discussion and the girls hanging out. All of a sudden what the boys were saying gave insight into challenges that one of our main characters may have when she is not at the boarding school. Without Karen coming in, I don’t know if it would have occurred to me to do that.
We have things in our tool kits as editors; we have different solutions that we’ve come up with on different projects that we bring with us to the next. Often they are like war stories that we share with each other, how we made scenes work that seemed impossible. When you’re working with another editor, they’ve most likely had similar challenges and you can work on solutions together from your toolkits. That’s collaboration at its best.
Rapid Fire with Maya
Favorite documentary of all time? Chronicle of a Summer and Salesman
Favorite documentary of the past year? The Prison in Twelve Landscapes
Funniest documentary you’ve ever seen? Vernon Florida, there’s an incredible interplay between reality and absurdity in that film.
Editor(s) you admire? My mentors – Michael Levine, Lewis Erskine and Geeta Gandbhir. And I’m not biased because of the fellowship, but Karen Schmeer. Our paths crossed briefly when I was an assistant. I really admired her work and had hoped to work for her one day.
Avid, Premiere, or Final Cut? Avid now. I’m surprised I’m saying that. I started in Final Cut and Avid seemed like a foreign language back then, but I love it now, especially on big projects with multiple editors.
Software tip or trick that changed your life? Mapping the keyboard so you can expand and contract the timeline with one keystroke. A lot of them take a key combo. It’s something I do all the time.
Any morning rituals or things you do to focus? On the way to work I don’t listen to anything, I like to clear my head before I get in to the edit room.
Favorite book about storytelling or filmmaking? Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Favorite snack in the edit room? Dark chocolate covered almonds
Longest feature doc edit you’ve done? 13 months
Shortest feature doc edit you’ve done? 7 or 8 months
The most footage you’ve ever worked with for a film? O.J.: Made in America, hands down. We had over 70 interviews, over 800 hours of archival footage, and too many photos to count.