Dede on Digital: An interview with Dede Allen by Mia Goldman Part 1

Dede Allen.

by Mia Goldman

Go to Part 2.

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.

“Studios are convinced that they can edit three times as fast on the Avid. But often that’s not the case.” – Dede Allen

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.

Dede Allen conducting a session at Arthur Baron’s film class at Columbia University in 1973.

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.

“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.” – Dede Allen

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.

“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.” – Dede Allen

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.

“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.” – Dede Allen

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.

“[Editing] has 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.” – Dede Allen

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.

 In Part 2, Dede talks about schedules, hierarchy in the cutting room, sound, assisting and moving up to editor.

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