Mia Goldman talking with Dede Allen [Interview]

"Dede Allen and I first met in New York when she was cutting Arthur Penn’s segment of 'Visions of Eight' (eight shorts on the 1972 Olympics). Steve Rotter was her assistant and she hired me as an apprentice to sit in front of a Nagra for three weeks, cataloguing footsteps and grunts from pole-vaulters. As dull as it sounds, those three weeks changed my life.
I had never met a woman so passionate, articulate, intelligent and indefatigable. Her enthusiasm for film, her erudition and her joy in the work was contagious. Lunch was often take-out, eaten out of film cans, but our conversation flowed effortlessly from the Vietnam War to Kurt Vonnegut’s latest novel or Truffaut’s effect on filmmaking. Dede’s curiosity was only rivaled by her determination. When I met her, she was just a few years older than I am now, but she had cut 'The Hustler', 'Bonnie and Clyde', 'Rachel, Rachel', 'Alice’s Restaurant', 'Little Big Man' and 'Slaughterhouse Five'. 'Serpico', 'Dog Day Afternoon', 'Reds', 'The Breakfast Club', 'The Milagro Beanfield War', 'Henry and June', and 'The Addams Family' were all yet to come.
For most of the nineties, Dede was an executive at Warner Brothers, first as Vice President, and then as Senior Vice President of Theatrical. Her work there as an executive was to advise, consult and help coordinate between the studio and filmmakers in post-production. But Dede was thrilled when Curtis Hanson asked her to come and cut 'The Wonder Boys' for him, and last year she left the executive world and came home to editing. She trained on the Avid for seven weeks with Stacey Clipp, who later assisted her. After a fifty-year career of editing on film, Dede took to digital editing with the same curiosity and determination that marked my earlier memory of her. She intends to cut her next picture digitally, as well.

Mia Goldman: What are the most striking differences between cutting on film and cutting digitally?
Dede Allen: Well, obviously the form is completely different. But the greatest disadvantage I can think of is that you don’t screen your material as much as you used to. Mostly, I’ve worked on two Moviolas. I’d do a lot of memorizing and somehow the availability of the exact pieces that I had memorized made the process seem, ironically, more immediate. Of course, with the Avid I could do all that and more, but I had to learn to do it in the manner in which the Avid forced you to do it – in a whole different order.

Did it force you to think differently?
Not when I really learned how to do it. I found a way to adapt my earlier work habits to the new form. When Curtis (Hanson) and I viewed the dailies in Pittsburgh, he would give me his notes and those daily notes were transcribed in their exact form into the bins on the left screen. When I got to the process of studying a scene and going through all the material again and trying to memorize it, I would add my own notes. I’d mark Curtis’ notes with a CH and mine with a DA. Then, when he came up with other things as we began cutting and re-cutting, I would continue to add to those notes. Most people use the icons or lists, but I preferred referring to our notes. On film, I used to make dirty dupes so that I could do alternate versions. With the Avid, you could do an alternate in a minute. If I wasn’t totally sure I’d gone in the right direction with my cut, I might do a slightly different version until the next scene came along and I saw what my transition was going to be. In effect, I had what I always had on film.

Did digital editing change the way you worked with your director?
In the beginning I didn’t think it changed much of anything. But in retrospect, I think since you tend to screen your material less and because the editing process is more available to the director, it can make a major difference in terms of how many times you’re going to have to cut and re-cut a scene. That is,
if you have a director who is interested in seeing all of the possibilities.

Do you feel that with all the versions, it’s more difficult to retain the ability to judge objectively than it was on film?
In film, by screening more often, you had a much better overall perspective. Most of the directors I worked with wouldn’t view a scene without a good head and tail run-in. Maybe that happens on an Avid too, but I don’t think it happens as much because the process is faster and it can make us more impatient, less willing to take the time to continually view a scene or a cut in context. Another thing that I find frustrating is that you can’t really put your cut to film until you’re close to your first preview. Until then, you’ve probably seldom screened it in one piece and then usually, it’s with only a few invited people.

In general, we’re not screening the way we should?
That’s right. For instance on 'Reds', when I was ready to show it to Warren (Beatty), I remember he insisted on seeing it by himself twice before he saw it with me alone. He wanted to really study it.

What irrevocable changes do you think the digital revolution has made in our lives as editors?
It’s changed from working in a coal mine where you handle the film and it’s more physical – to feeling a bit atrophied because you sit all the time and your mind and eyes carry all the weight. When you’re on a roll, you don’t want to stop, you don’t want to get up and walk around. And you don’t, unless you’re caught in the old dilemma of ‘how am I going to make this scene work’ and you have to get up to pace and think. But mostly you don’t get up because it’s so fast and easy.

It definitely has had an effect on the physicality of our work.
Yeah, I think it has. Although, I’m known for having worked very hard and long hours on film, so I can hardly blame that on digital.

But what you’re talking about is a kind of psychic exhaustion with the infinite decisions that can be made in a shorter amount of time.
That’s true.

Do you think that digital editing is influencing or changing the form and the rules of film editing as we have known it?
Yeah, it certainly is changing the rules of film editing. But sometimes it’s hard to separate out what the source of the change is. So many things are coming into play simultaneously with the digital revolution. I think there’s been much more corporate takeover because of the way films are financed and marketed.
Because of the stars’ fees, the cost of films has created an enormous amount of pressure for the studios, producers, directors etc. and that pressure flows downstream to everyone.

Big changes started to happen at Warner Brothers during your tenure there. The schedules seemed to get shorter with the advent of digital editing. Was there a relationship between the two?
That’s a very interesting question. Studios are convinced that they can edit three times as fast on the Avid because they suddenly see the form. They never stood over us and found out how fast people might be doing it on the Moviola or a KEM – it was always more mysterious. There’s more of a tendency to feel that they can miraculously finish a film better and faster, but often that’s not the case.

Do you think there’s any hope that the studios would ever understand the idea of thinking time?
Yes, on a one-to-one basis, of course. They’re intelligent people. But what’s pressuring studios today, whether its Time Warner/HBO, Disney/ABC, Viacom/Paramount or any of the other conglomerates – what’s pressuring them today is money. If it’s a small picture that’s problematic and if they’re not really sure how or when it will be released, then you have plenty of time and they don’t hover as much. Sometimes with re-cutting you can work miracles and they can see it. Or, for example, with a director who may be on his or her second picture they’re more willing to take advice. But when there’s a big action film, everyone feels they know all about that genre – until say, the characters aren’t working. I have been asked to come in and look at pictures like that once in a while and that’s a difficult thing to do because the people in power have to be aware that they’re in trouble. In those situations there’s usually a very strong producer or a producer/director who has the power to insist that the film be explored some more. That exploration can be a good educational experience for producers as well as agents, or actors who become producers. Once they go through the process they do learn, but they often forget.

Television is also a victim of sped up schedules. Lately, there seems to be less concern about cleaning up the cuts; the overlaps are sloppy and matching is less important. That may be a result of no time, but I think that in some cases it’s more about breaking the rules.
That’s interesting because I was always known for breaking the rules. All you have to do is look at Bonnie and Clyde. Every time Arthur (Penn) said, ‘Go through it again, take out more, take out more,’ I began saying, ‘I’m going to be known as the mismatch person of the universe.’ But, I have a theory about matching, which is – if the eyes are right and if the attitude of the actor is right, the cut should work.

I would contend that a lot of people wouldn’t be able to see the mismatches that you’re talking about. They wouldn’t notice them on a first-time viewing, whereas some of the mismatching that’s going on now is mismatching for mismatching’s sake.
Well that’s true. That’s like the wobbly camera where you go in and you get dizzy looking at it. It can be very effective. It can also be over-used to the point where it’s ridiculous.

What about MTV?
That’s badly influenced a lot of narrative editing. I used to cut trailers and God knows I’ve been a big one for breaking the rules. But you have to know the rules to break the rules, and a lot of people don’t know the rules.

What do you miss most about the old days? Do you regret any of the changes?
Well, I came out of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ in New York, when people had much more control of their pictures. I miss that process immensely – the freedom to get a picture, to make it a labor of love that everybody’s involved with and excited about. It’s much harder to do today, even if you’re on an independent, I would imagine. I miss the fact that the process has become so interfered with. I miss that intimacy. It’s become –

Filmmaking Interruptus.
Yes. Filmaking is a victim of Corporate America. But that’s the world we live in.

What you’re talking about is a very special thing. The joy of collaboration…
That’s right.

Carol Littleton once put the issue of collaboration beautifully – that the sum of two parts is greater than each part on it’s own.
That’s exactly correct. And conversely, the sum of 10 parts is not as good as the sum of two parts.

The creative process is a mysterious one – it’s quixotic and it’s very hard to pin down what exactly makes it successful. Do you think the work is being hurt in subtle ways that we can’t really define on some pictures?
I hope not. I don’t know. I haven’t been on a film where the director wasn’t strong enough.

But many pictures don’t have strong directors.
The studio wants immediate success. They want a preview that rates high. And if it doesn’t rate high they get into the act. There’s no question about that. Even with as strong a director as Curtis, the pressure is immeasurably strong.

How do you think digital editing has changed working with the studio? The things you’re talking about are things that could happen on film, too.
Yes, exactly. You’re absolutely right. I’m talking about studio pressure generally. In the years when I was at Warner Brothers, I began seeing what can happen. Often the studio would get involved with a cut and executives would go down to the Avid and want to see it. I think digital editing has created an environment where everybody thinks they’re going to get an immediate reaction and everybody thinks they know how to be a filmmaker, even if they don’t have any idea how to do it. I was in a situation once where a very big person at the studio said, ‘All I have to do is see the cut – I know it’ll work.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but what happens before and after?’ He didn’t care; he just wanted the cut changed. There’s very little understanding of the dialectics of film. They don’t understand the subtleties. And with young, inexperienced directors, they don’t have the power to say ‘no.’ A lot of them don’t even know the Director’s Guild rules. They don’t know about the 10 weeks. On the other hand, you can have a director with immense strength – someone like Sidney Pollack or any number of strong directors with good track records – the studio wants to do business with them. Those directors have the power to say ‘no’; they can get more time. James Cameron came up with a very good statement at the ACE awards when he said, and I’m paraphrasing now – making a movie is like having a baby. If it takes nine months to have a baby, you can’t shorten the gestation time by adding parents. Sometimes you can’t rush a movie because it changes as it goes. It’s an evolution.

Are there any benefits you celebrate, benefits that mitigate what we may have lost?
I think there are a lot of benefits. There’s an excitement in seeing the work come together so fast, and if you know how to really work the machine you can perfect, experiment, and change cuts rapidly. I also think that young directors who don’t come from a theatrical background can greatly benefit if they have an editor who can help navigate the differences between MTV say, and the three-act form. They can search for a balance between flashy editing and making characters work.

A well-respected editor I know once said to me, ‘I used to feel so bored. I had hit a creative wall in my work. Now I can do everything faster, I can see things faster. It’s freed me up.’
Oh, I think that’s a big benefit. Your friend is definitely right about that. And it’s fun to have one’s ideas expressed instantaneously. But life in general has sped up and the editing process is a victim of speed as well. We are living in a different kind of world now and it’s something that we have to adapt to in the best possible way that we can.

Years ago, when I was an assistant, I remember you likening the challenge of editing to sculpting. You quoted Michelangelo, who said, ‘To make the David, I cut away everything that wasn’t the David.’
Editing is like writing with shots. And writers are people who change their ideas all the time. Ideas evolve. They’re not bound by a formula.

With these tightened schedules, do you see any new changes that have hindered that process, because of budgets and marketing pressures?
The market is changing rapidly and, as a result, younger editors are beginning to cut earlier – they come out of commercials or MTV. What’s happening now is that the studios will let a director hire someone like that, but then they often bring in a well known editor to polish the picture because they feel that they haven’t quite gotten the best out of the material. In addition, the studio gets to save money because they don’t have to pay the better known editor for the duration of the picture. I think it’s hard on the young editors but it’s also difficult for the better-known editors who don’t really want to do this. This didn’t happen on 'Wonder Boys' because we had a strong director, but I’ve seen it happen over and over again when you don’t have a strong director and the studio steps in. As an editor, you want to have a picture you can live with. A picture is something that is born, it’s like a child – it grows with you. You watch it grow to a certain point where it blossoms because of the collaboration and trust between the editor and the director. It’s a very exciting process. Studio interference is more and more common now, although it happened before the digital revolution, too.

This interference isn’t just hurting directors, it’s also hurting editors.
Yes, especially editors who come from MTV or commercials and are new to the theatrical, three act format.
So there’s a conflict created between experienced editors and less experienced editors?
Yes. Often the director is opposed to the new person coming in. He or she wants another pass with their editor, but the studio won’t give it to them. Bringing in a new and perhaps more experienced editor puts the younger editor in a position of having to defend their work with the director, but they don’t have the clout and it becomes antagonistic and painful all around.

There’s also the situation where the first editor is very experienced but another editor is brought in by the studio, anyway.
I think that was true even before we got to digital but that situation is also more common now. I remember an awful situation where a very prestigious editor was fired off a picture. They were screening the film and another extremely well known editor was brought in. The lights went up and the first editor turned around – and sitting in the back of the theater, he saw the new editor there and realized that they were about to let him go without a word. It’s devastating when that kind of thing happens. And you don’t know why but very often it’s an inexperienced producer who is fearful or anxious and won’t let the process of finding the film take it’s course.

Good editors can become casualties because the studio will attack the director through the editor.
That’s right.

Sometimes it’s not the cutting per se that’s the problem, it’s the thinking.
Yes, the thinking. Often, there are cases where the studio is absolutely right in wanting to go in a different direction. For example, you would hope that in the case where a newer director and their first editor hadn’t quite found the bestfilm – that it needed a polish or the characterizations weren’t quite right – you’d hope that the director would be able to welcome the help of another editor. The studio isn’t always wrong, but unfortunately, a system has evolved where editors are expendable. You can always get another person to come in to doctor a film for two or three weeks, but I think doctoring can be a very unpleasant thing to have to do.

On the other hand, it can be very exciting when a director is open to seeing things differently.
It’s hard on directors because they’ve got to try to stay open to another point of view from the start. And most good directors do. But you have to get their trust. I remember how anxious I was when I first worked with George RoyHill – he had had the same editor for a long time, but his editor was ill. I was lucky in that George became very excited when he saw an early scene I cut – I think it was the walking through the mud scene in 'Slaughterhouse-Five'. I remember he was enthusiastic because it was a totally different approach from what he had thought it would be. He was always open to fresh ideas from then on. But there aren’t many directors with his kind of confidence around right now.

The first film I cut was 'Choose Me' – Alan Rudolph was the director. When we finished the movie he said, ‘You know, I really like it and I see every single argument we had on the film and they all made it better.’
That’s wonderful. It’s great to disagree, but conversely, when somebody gets consumed that only their way is right or that the schedule is the priority and they don’t allow you to help them find their vision, it can be difficult.

Do you think the digital revolution has changed the hierarchy or environment in the cutting room?
Well, I’ve only done one picture, so I can only judge what happened on that picture. There are two distinct jobs for assistants now: one is film and the other is digital. Either one could be the first assistant. However, if the overall job of running the editing room falls to the digital assistant, it seems to me that the job can become overwhelming. Obviously, most top-notch assistants are able to do both, but that would be extremely difficult. The division of labor is a challenge because there’s so much tangential work that is created by the Avid and then there’s a lot of crossover work such as opticals and music, etc. Sometimes what can happen is that the director will develop an independent relationship with an assistant who is handling the music or the opticals, which very often hurts the other assistant. It’s complicated. Obviously, a well-tuned cutting room, where the people are used to working together – particularly if the first assistant has chosen the second – makes everyone’s work run smoother. Crewing a cutting room is like casting a film. You want to make sure that everyone works well together because you don’t want to burden the director with psychological problems or an unhappy work environment. On big movies it can get especially complicated with three or four digital machines going at once with second editors and three or four assistants, so there needs to be a clarity of position and a respect for each other’s jobs.

I’ve heard about situations where the director feels the need to move very quickly – and they begin to rely on an assistant or a second editor who is proficient and speedy at just implementing an idea, with no discussion…
They’re a pair of hands. For the director, it feels easier because there’s no conflict and no discussion, but that situation can adversely affect the film. In the old days we used to call it paper bagging when a director or a producer would have an editor in another room cutting another version of something. There were directors who did this – sometimes without the knowledge of the main editor. In some cases it could be construed as practical because there’s too much material and not enough time to investigate, but then it should be done openly.

What do you think about the apprenticeships of film editors and how that’s
been affected by technology?
That’s interesting. In the old days, if the assistant was busy with something you’d get the apprentice in to hold your trims while you were working and they could kind of watch what you were doing. That’s kind of gone.

The editor is more isolated and your assistants don’t get the opportunity to learn your tricks. Today, for example, would you be able to mentor a Richie Marks, a Jerry Greenberg, a Steve Rotter or a Claire Simpson the way you once did?
I would hope so.

Time is more important than ever. The editor is just trying to produce and there can be very little interaction with the assistant.
I think that is probably true. However, I usually hire assistants that have good taste and I appreciate their involvement. When I had two or three versions I would always call my first and second in – to come and look so they’d be up-to-date on the work. I think that’s terribly important because I trust their opinions and no matter how rushed I was, I always appreciated their feedback.

Sometimes the director’s yearning for immediate gratification can cause problems.
On film, directors knew it took a little time to smooth something out or to perfect a cut, but now because digital makes the act of cutting faster, their expectations have grown. When you’ve got six versions of a scene and the soundtracks are still incomplete – they lack fluidity – and the director says, ‘don’t bother fixing the sound, do it later’ – you could be up all night trying to perfect those scenes. That can be very frustrating.

When you’re making changes and you have say six or seven tracks, it can get pretty hard to keep everything in sync.
I got quite fast at making those changes, but when you’re completely re-cutting something and you have a lot of tracks, it does take time.

How has the digital revolution affected the editor’s relationship to the finishing of a film, primarily in sound?
Well, we had a fantastic sound crew. So as far as I’m concerned, it didn’t really change the relationship – I worked as closely as I could, but because the director was so busy constantly making changes, I was not able to attend the temp dubs or the ADR sessions. I was there for all of the dialogue pre-dubs, but I wasn’t for all the effects pre-dubs. But if you have a crew like I had, you don’t have to worry about how the effects are going to come out.

Sound editors and mixers are also suffering from the pressure that comes from the illusion that everything can be done instantaneously. The directors don’t really understand that it can take more than a punch of the button to fix subtle problems.

Well, actually, my experience with Curtis was that he does understand sound. He’s very good on that.

There’s artistry to a lot of this work and that takes time.
Oh my God, are you kidding? It’s tremendously artistic – how you meld ADR with original sound, how you create seemingly infinite but disparate layers to sound – all that takes artistry, and most important, time. Sound is such an enormous part of the
process. But then I have always enjoyed working with mix-ers – the mix has always been one of my favorite processes. I call it ‘the final exam.’

Is there any advice that you have in this new age on how to become a good editor?
Well, I would give the same advice I gave in the old days which is learn where the scene is. See plays as much as you can, good plays, because that’s where you’ll really find out about the three act form and learn about performance – even though it’s very different on film. Anybody can learn the tools. Look, if I can learn the Avid, anybody can learn the tools. I didn’t even type, you know.

You’re talking about storytelling.
Storytelling, performance and good taste are the key to being a good editor. If you don’t have the opportunity, if you’re part of a culture where you can’t get to the theater easily, make sure you try to.

These suggestions are pertinent even though filmmaking is changing.
Absolutely. Drama is drama. And comedy is comedy. Whether it’s 'The Blair Witch Project', 'Being John Malkovich' or 'American Beauty', the three-act form is still the center of story telling and performance is its soul. I also have one other piece of advice. Never feel above something. In other words, when you think you’re ready for something, but you can’t get the job because there are other people who have already gotten the job, don’t feel like you’re never going to get a chance. There is a tremendous amount of disappointment in the present generation. A journalist who interviewed me for something said he had been talking to some assistants in New York and he was kind of shocked by their manner. Both assistants complained of everything being so unfair. They felt that they had studied in college etc., but nobody had taken them on, no one had given them a break. They were very unhappy and feeling sorry for themselves. I’m sure they’re very good assistants and New York is a hard place to work now. But they shouldn’t feel automatically entitled to being mentored. What’s important is to keep working. A career evolves out of a variety of experiences.

That’s good advice. Keep working.
Yes, keep working. And stay positive. You can over-estimate where you should be, but if you can’t be there yet – don’t become bitter and don’t become negative because that can kill you personality-wise. It can not only hurt your work; it can hurt your relationships with people who can help you.

I remember a wise man once said to me, ‘Don’t under-estimate the power of luck.’
That’s right. Luck has a lot to do with it. If I hadn’t gotten a chance to work with Bob Wise because Carl [Lerner] was doing 'Middle of the Night', my whole life might have been different. I remember that at the time my friends didn’t take me seriously because Bob Wise was known as a great editor, so of course they thought I didn’t edit the film. It took two or three pictures before they began realizing that maybe I was contributing something. I was also much older when I started. I was 34 before I got my first big picture.

I understand that Napoleon would choose his generals by lining them up before battle and asking each one if he felt lucky. The ones who did were the ones he put in command.
That’s because they had confidence.

That’s it. It’s a state of mind.
That’s right. That’s true. I have been very lucky. And I was always surprised by it, I always felt, ‘Gee how did I get such a break?’ And I still feel that way. I’ve had a very lucky career because I’ve been able to work with so many great people. Obviously I learned a lot from them. But I was just under 19 when I started and it took me a very long time before I got a chance to work on features.

I guess what you’re saying is that you should always work towards your goal.
That’s right. But don’t be dissuaded because luck can come your way at any time".
 By Mia Goldman on 2000.

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