01/02/2011

Mary Sweeney talks about "Mulholland Drive" [Interview]

"Is a movie made in the writing, in the shooting, or in the editing room? While films such as Wild at Heart, Lost Highway and Twin Peaks could only be constructed from the mind of David Lynch, you'd be hard pressed to find an editor more capable of bringing the complexities of his vision to the screen than Mary Sweeney. Born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin, it was while living in Paris that Sweeney first became interested in film criticism. As a graduate stIssueudent at NYU, Sweeney's work in Cinema Studies steered her toward a career in editing.
Beginning her career as an apprentice sound editor on Reds, Sweeney moved on to work as an assistant editor on Lynch's Blue Velvet. Since then, she's worked on each of Lynch's films, and has ventured down the road of producer as well. In 1999, Sweeney even found herself in the role of screenwriter, when she penned the script for the remarkably poignant The Straight Story.
Lynch and Sweeney's latest collaboration, Mulholland Drive, is engrossing moviegoers across the country as it tangles (and untangles-then tangles once again) a psychosexual web of deceit and greed within the Hollywood film community. Like most of Lynch's work, the story is hard to synopsize, and even Sweeney wouldn't try. Here, she talks with MM about her longtime collaboration with one of the world's most original directors, as well as balancing the roles of editor and producer and the struggles of being a woman in what many still see as a man's industry.

Jennifer Wood (MM): One of your first jobs was as an apprentice sound editor on Reds. How is the editing of sound different from the editing of images? Film is obviously a visual medium, but how important is the auditory aspect?
Mary Sweeney (MS): The sound is very important. Picture and sound editing are ideally done together, and what is difficult about sound editing is the alienation from the work that comes with that division of labor. When one edits, you can make the sound and picture play off of one another, complement and enrich each other-but as a sound editor you don't get that pleasure. To be sure, there are many brilliant sound editors who can bring a great deal to a picture that is locked-they just unfortunately can't play with the picture.

MM: You began working with David Lynch on Blue Velvet and have only cut with him as director. How has your working relationship changed from Blue Velvet to Mulholland Drive?
MS: I was an assistant editor on both Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart. Consequently, I didn't cut anything on those pictures. My relationship with David changed when I began cutting on the Twin Peaks TV series. His editor Duwayne Dunham left to pursue a career in directing and I began to edit David's TV, then feature film projects. I have now been editing everything he has done for the past 10 years. We have developed a shorthand of sorts. Suffice it to say that I understand very well what he wants from a scene and how to get the feeling he wants.

MM: The first feature used an AVID on was The Straight Story. What did you cut Mulholland Drive on? What are some of the benefits you found?
MS: I had been cutting commercials on AVID for a number of years before The Straight Story, though that was the first feature I cut on AVID. I was familiar with the system and really liked using it on the feature. I cut Mulholland Drive on AVID as well. The benefits are especially great during the first assembly. The accessibility of the dailies makes a huge difference in the amount of time it takes to assemble. You don't feel so much like you're drowning.

MM: One way to describe David's films is 'non-linear.' As an editor, how does this structure affect you? How close does the finished product remain to the shooting script, and how helpful is that script to you in the editing room?
MS: David follows his scripts very closely. I rely heavily on the scripts because I don't always know what the hell is going on in the beginning, to tell you the truth. But the beautiful part about working in post with David is that one has the time to discover all the layers and go deep into his world. I never know where the point is when I've entered into the world of the film and know where I'm going and what he's doing. It is usually an unremarkable passage, but all of a sudden I just understand.

MM: With The Straight Story, you not only produced and edited the film, but took on the role of screenwriter for the first time. Did you approach the writing of the film with the editing in mind?
MS: It is certainly the case that my screenwriting is heavily influenced by my editorial experience. I didn't think of cutting the film as I wrote it, but my instincts as an editor informed the writing-where things felt slow, how to make transitions, camera angles, etc.

MM: Did your role as screenwriter make the editing process more difficult? Deciding what to cut out of the film?
MS: Oddly, when I got down to the cutting of the picture, my old editor's hat was firmly in place. I was interested in making the picture work and had no qualms about losing things that I had written if those losses made the picture better. I didn't feel any personal investment at that point. The two faces of Eve.

MM: Mulholland Drive was originally set to run as a television series. Do you think the editing process would have been different if it were a series instead of a film? You've also edited several commercials for David; what is the difference in editing for film versus television?
MS: Editing with David is always the same; we edit to make the piece work. The difference from TV to commercials to features is in the content, not necessarily in the editing or shooting style.

MM: Of all David's films, Mulholland Drive just might be his most complex-there are so many stories going on at once...
MS: The film is very close to the script. The numerous story lines make it a lot of fun, but one has to adopt a flexible sense of logic. There is a logic in all of David's films-it's just not a traditional one, and for me it makes my work much more interesting. I feel like a juggler walking across a tightrope and I am pretty focused on making sure that I absolutely stay on that tightrope while the balls are revolving in the air.

MM: What is the one word you think David Lynch would say describes you best?
MS: Gristle.

MM: How does this help you in your success?
MS: I'm tenacious, which leads me to follow through on things… it's a trait that is in somewhat short supply in our business."

by Jennifer M. Wood on February 3, 2007

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