Melissa Kent is a film and television editor who has worked with both Francis Ford Coppola and on Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides. She was nominated for an American Cinema Editors (ACE) Award for best editing of a made-for-TV movie for The Reagans.
Although Melissa has edited numerous dramas, including American Pastoral, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, and crazy/beautiful, it was always important to her to work on a wide variety of genres, including comedy (Four Christmases; Just Wright), romance (The Age of Adaline; The Vow), true crime (Captive), and even a 3D dance movie (Make Your Move).
She took time out of her busy schedule to give us advice on how to become a great assistant editor, how to make the big leap to editor, and some best practices for working with directors.
Lunacy: Did you always want to work in film specifically and if so, why?
Melissa Kent: When I first graduated from college I remember asking myself, “Do I want to work in feature films, television, or commercials? Where am I going to feel most at-home and most inspired?” I had met various kinds of editors and was told something that I think is still true: that it’s quite common for someone to go from the feature film world into television, but more rare to go from television to feature films. Hollywood likes to compartmentalize people. I thought starting out in features would probably give me more options.
LU: Often one starts as an assistant to break into the business. What does it take to be a good assistant editor and to make sure you’re not an assistant for too long before making the leap to editor?
MK: An assistant editor is a good job and it can be very lucrative. If that’s where you find your joy, you can have a whole career as an assistant. You can raise a family; own a home. For assistant editors who have those obligations it can become harder to make the leap to editor because you can’t afford to work on non-union films and potentially lose your health insurance. But the good news is that the Editors Guild has changed the rules so that very low-budget films are now union and people retain their health benefits.
When I decided I wanted to be an editor my strategy was first to become the best assistant editor I could. I would observe the editors as much as time would allow, hang out and learn their process, then edit small projects on the side in order to learn the craft.
Do your job as carefully as you can, and be polite to everyone. Make sure to meet the people in the rooms across the hall and on the other movies. Eventually they will recommend you for other films.
LU: When you’re ready to make the leap, how do you actually “sell yourself” to go from an assistant to an editor?
MK: I would remind myself that nearly everyone who is an editor started as an assistant editor, so if they were able to make the transition, so could I. These days, it seems that people move up more easily in television, where assistant editors are eventually getting the opportunity to edit an episode. As long as you are improving your craft working on small projects, meeting people in the independent film community, and staying in touch with your classmates, the opportunity to edit will eventually present itself.
LU: How common is it to have multiple roles on a film? Is there anybody working as an editor and a sound designer or do those fields stay pretty separate?
MK: On the English Patient Walter Murch won the Oscar for both film editing and sound mixing so it is possible. The editor can be quite involved with the sound, building tracks in the Avid during the picture edit to make the movie sound full and try out certain concepts, but it just doesn’t compare to the expertise, vast library and newly recorded sounds that a professional sound editor will contribute.
LU: Talk a little bit about the cooperation between the director and the editor, and how the director’s vision is communicated before they cut a whole scene.
MK: Before shooting begins the director and editor will have discussed the overall tone, and watched films and read books that the director is inspired by.
During the shoot, I receive footage everyday, called “dailies,” along with notes from the script supervisor about the director’s favorite takes. I watch everything and take notes of anything that looks good, or is funny, or just unusual, even little moments. Then I edit those scenes that day. About once a week the director will watch the edited scenes and give feedback, so that as the weeks go by I continue to cut new scenes and incorporate the director’s first round of notes. Within a week of production wrap, I finish the first assembly, which is in script order with all the lines. I’ll screen it for the director with sound effects and music, so it flows as a movie.
Then the director has ten weeks before we show it to producers and the studio, incorporate their notes, and show it to a preview audience. This is a time to experiment and to try anything; and it is a lot of fun. The process continues until all concerned are ready to “lock picture,” which is the version that will go to theaters.
LU: You mentioned the rarity of people going from TV to film. Is that just because the industry boxes them off or is there a particular difference between the two?
MK: I think in part it’s that people like to hire people that they know and have experience with. I’ve seen it too many times where a TV director gets a shot to direct a movie, but he’s not allowed to bring his editor, because the studio wants an editor who’s made 15 movies. They want someone who has been through the process before. Then again, TV is really amazing these days, so this may be changing.
Also, I don’t want to say you can never go from TV to film, because you can always make your own future. If you’re working in TV as a day job and you really want to make a movie, you can go meet indie filmmakers through an organization like Film Independent. I made a really concerted effort to work on a variety of movies. Sometimes I would take a smaller movie in order to work in a new genre, trying to prevent hearing, “we have this great horror movie or this psychologically intense movie or this comedy, but you’ve never done anything like it, so you can’t do it.” I always want to be able say “Look, I can do it. Watch this one movie. I might not do it all the time, but I can do it.”
Much of a person’s career is not in his or her own control. We do the jobs we get. You just try to make your path as well as you can.