Documentary Roundtable: Finding the Thread

Scene from Ghosts of Attica. Copyright Lumiere Productions
by Andrea Van Hook

The task of the documentary editor is not simply to tell a story, but more often to find that story, embedded in an enormous mass of material that initially seems to have no structure at all. Larry Silk, Bob Eisenhardt, Tom Haneke and Jonathan Oppenheim are among the most highly respected editors of longform documentaries in America. Working out of New York, they’ve spent their lives informing audiences as much as entertaining them, and their award-winning work includes some of the most important cinema verité documentary features of a generation.

Larry Silk is a Lifetime Member of the Editors Guild, with over four decades of experience as an editor. His diverse credits include the breakout hit, Pumping Iron, which introduced a young Arnold Schwarzenegger to the world; the landmark labor film and Oscar winner American Dream (co-edited with Tom Haneke and Cathy Caplan), and last year’s ABC documentary mini-series The Hamptons. Bob Eisenhardt’s latest film, The Blues: Godfathers and Sons, previewed at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; his work also includes American Standoff, a revealing documentary about an agonizing Teamsters strike, and the multi-year project, Concert of Wills: Making the Getty Center. The first film Tom Haneke edited, From Mao to Mozart, won an Academy Award, and since then he hasn’t looked back, co-directing and editing My Generation, a film about the ill-conceived second Woodstock music festival, and the recent duPont-Columbia award winning Ghosts of Attica. Jonathan Oppenheim is known for tackling complex and difficult work such as Paris is Burning, a look at members of a gay and largely transvestite Latino and African-American subculture; Oscar nominee Children Underground about Romanian street children, and Arguing the World, about the lives and political battles of four New York intellectuals over the course of fifty years. In this interview, they talk about their craft, how they approach their work and the impact of new technology.

It seems that what you do is very different from what a narrative editor does.

Tom Haneke: We’re not following a script. That’s the key difference. You’re often writing the show as you cut it, finding what’s interesting.

Johnathan Oppenheim: Take the film I’m working on now. It’s about a battle over a water project in Southwest Colorado that was shot over six years and has 300 hours of material. There are these endless meetings of water boards. But there are some very interesting people and they all hate each other with a passion. So it really is a film about hatred. That’s what we do — we find out what the thing is really about and try to make that the center of gravity, the organizing principle of the story.

Verité editing is writing and editing at the same time. You’re scripting it as you’re going along, doing a dramatic screenwriter’s work as well as the editor’s work. – Bob Eisenhardt

Haneke: There are also a lot of different technical issues — how you cut documentary and how you handle the material. You don’t get any retakes, everything is new, and you have to watch everything. Otherwise you might as well never have shot it. How long did it take you to screen 300 hours?

Oppenheim: I screened about 200. The director thought the rest was useless. When you’re on a very tight schedule and have that much material, and somebody says, “Don’t bother looking at this,” you listen to them.

Haneke: It’s difficult when there is so much material, because you’re only going to be able to see everything once. You have to take very good notes. Then you have to cross-reference them, because as you’re watching, you’re going to discover new issues. The film starts to emerge, and things that were “just footage” become significant.

Oppenheim: You can screen about five hours a day, six if you really push it, before losing all perspective. That’s 25, 30 hours a week. So 300 hours is…

Haneke: Two and a half months.

“That’s what we do — we find out what the thing is really about and try to make that the center of gravity, the organizing principle of the story.” – Johnathan Oppenheim

Bob Eisenhardt: I did a film recently that had 600 hours. It took me six months just to look at everything! This was American Standoff, a film about the Teamsters on strike. The making of selects is a very important process — something you don’t have to do in the same way on narrative films. You have to take all the interesting material and drop the rest. In documentary, you get selects that come down to 50 percent — 25 percent in this case, thank God — of all the material. Then it’s a lot easier to see the really interesting characters and moments and what the different story lines can be. But that’s a process that takes time, and these days it gets short-circuited.

Larry Silk: I used to screen every roll of dailies twice. I would take a whole situation and screen it first and make notes about it before I decided what to select. Now, I often don’t have time to do that.

Oppenheim: That’s a drawback with digital video cameras — so much is shot and you don’t get the payoff until later, when all that material gives you a lot of possibilities. When you’re screening it, you often want to tear your hair out.

Haneke: Normally, at the end of the screening, I organize my notes and I force myself to categorize the contents of the scene. I begin to discover what the film is actually about. It isn’t necessarily about the blow-by-blow facts of the situation. You have to find the bigger issue and communicate it to the viewer. They just got here — they don’t know anything. So you have to know where that stuff is in the dailies and deliver it in a palatable and effective shorthand. You have to pay very close attention. You have to have a very long attention span to do this work.

Silk: I worked on [Barbara Kopple’s] The Hamptons and we ended up with almost 1,000 hours of material [equivalent to 5 million feet of 35mm film]. There were three of us. Each tackled 330 hours. It took four months just to log it into the computers. We didn’t know what the other person was looking at. We didn’t see everything. We had to figure out a way to break it up by characters. And it wasn’t about anything, this film. We had to figure out a way to make it about something that would hold the audience. I finally came up with the idea that it’s about life before 9/11, a sybaritic experience in this most decadent place of all. It’s really a process of discovery most of the time. That’s what keeps us fresh.

Haneke: Haven’t you sometimes refused projects just because you didn’t think you could maintain interest in a particular subject matter for the necessary amount of time?

Silk: Producers are smart enough to know they’re better off not hiring aficionados of the subject. They’d rather have somebody who’s totally innocent, who maybe doesn’t even like it. I was very hostile toward Abstract Expressionism, but then I did a film on de Kooning and got really excited about that whole movement. That happened to me with Pumping Iron, too. They gave me the book, and at first I was embarrassed to be seen reading it. I put it in a brown bag when I took it on the subway! But I became very curious about body building and why these people do it.

Eisenhardt: Another thing about knowing too much is that you’re coming from where the audience is not. After a while, it’s hard to see whether information is coming from the screen or whether you’re filling it in because you know the subject.

“It isn’t necessarily about the blow-by-blow facts of the situation. You have to find the bigger issue and communicate it to the viewer.” – Tam Haneke

Oppenheim: If you’re doing something for a year, one of the most challenging things is that you lose your distance. The distance that you were, in part, hired for. You have to find ways to refresh yourself. It’s a big help to bring people in and see it through their eyes.

Haneke: Even if they don’t say anything. Just sitting in the room, you know right away.

Silk: I remember Peter Davis, a producer/director at CBS [and the director of the landmark Vietnam-era film, Hearts and Minds], looking at a five-hour version of American Dream[Barbara Kopple’s documentary about the ramifications of a 1986 strike at a Hormel meatpacking plant]. He said, “I don’t understand anything. Anything.” We like to work without narration, but finally we persuaded Barbara to write a few lines and use her own voice — which enabled us to simplify a very complex story.

Haneke: You can bend over backwards trying to follow the no-narration rule, but sometimes you’re just beating the viewer up.

So that’s a rule, no narration?

Silk: We are definitely priests of reality and realism, and we often try to stay away from narration because it gets in the way. But it’s got to work. When you try and edit something like that film without narration, you end up cutting it like a pretzel. The audience just cannot deal with it. You’re much better off with some explanation, even a title, if you can figure out something simple and cogent.

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Oppenheim: I worked on Arguing the World, a film about these four intellectuals. It was a hellish project. We worked without narration for a year. After all that hard labor it was like, “Oh my God, we’ve got to have narration and we’ve got to do it fast.” Working without it, though, forced us to establish the story through the interviews. If we’d started with a script, we never would have done that. So it was like fertilizer to work without narration. I find the more complicated and long-term the process is, the more you go down some strange alleys — but they aren’t always dead ends.

Haneke: Narration pops up in films that I do, but it’s often after the fact. Or sometimes, if it’s for television, they want a name narrator just to sell the show.

“it’s hard to see whether information is coming from the screen or whether you’re filling it in because you know the subject.” – Bob Eisenhardt

Eisenhardt: We’re talking about cinema verité documentary. I’ve certainly done other kinds. Some start with a scripted outline, from the producer, writer or director — and they get organized differently. Sometimes they’re fairly accurate; sometimes they’re way off and have to get thrown out. I did a film about Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick [Hitchcock, Selznick and the End of Hollywood], which was part of the American Masters series. Most of those are narration-driven or interview-driven. We put the interviews together first to tell the story, then fill in what’s missing with narration to get you from point to point. There’s a back and forth that begins to build into a narrative that feels, in the end, like it made perfect sense from the get go. Verité film comes from a different point of view. Often, you’re covering a current event. You don’t know how the event is going to end. One reason American Standoff shot 600 hours is because what was supposed to end in three weeks was still going on three years later. So they just kept filming. I was cutting without even knowing what the end was going to be, which is a situation you sometimes find yourself in with verité film. Something like Hitchcock, Selznick — those are about dead people. So the story is told differently. Interviews and film clips and narration are necessary.

Oppenheim: There’s a tendency for more films about dead people to be on PBS, while the verité approach is seen more in features.

Silk: Feature documentaries can be a great opportunity because they are much more editing-intensive. If you have verité footage that’s well done, there is space. It’s not being carried entirely by what people say, but by the moods that you can find in it. I like to keep sucking the audience into a mood, a kind of a dream-like mood, as movies will do.

“Producers are smart enough to know they’re better off not hiring aficionados of the subject. They’d rather have somebody who’s totally innocent, who maybe doesn’t even like it.” – Larry Silk

Haneke: You have to have rhythm and pacing, density and sparsity. Often, after a particularly significant content moment, you need one of those big spaces so it will ring for the viewer.

Silk: Sometimes you find yourself working for a producer who is totally academic in his sensibility. He’s very excited about the show, but he can only think about issues and subject. He wants to set every sequence up. In narrative features you never do that. You may set it up emotionally and dramatically but usually each scene throws you right into another situation. The viewer is a little bit lost.

Eisenhardt: But let them be lost.

Silk: And let them be intrigued. Keep the audience’s heart beating and their brain going. That’s what I love about movies.

Eisenhardt: Verité editing is writing and editing at the same time. You’re scripting it as you’re going along, doing a dramatic screenwriter’s work as well as the editor’s work.

Can you describe your process?

Silk: The most fun I ever had outside of Pumping Iron was the Woody Allen film, Wild Man Blues. It was so beautifully shot, single-camera almost entirely. You had a natural story, a great character that people were curious about and sometimes inflamed against. My first cut was 12 hours long. I’ve never done that before.

Haneke: That’s a difference that we have in style. I can’t imagine ever making 12 hours.

“I like to keep sucking the audience into a mood, a kind of a dream-like mood, as movies will do.” – Larry Silk

Silk: It was a question of realizing what it was. Once I got it together I could evaluate. It was a boiling-down process like I had never been through before. But it’s true; I think you’re more conceptually organized earlier in the process than I am.

Haneke: I don’t think it’s necessarily a better approach. I ask, what am I going to try and make out of this 45 minutes of dailies? What value am I going to try to extract from this that’s useful?

Eisenhardt: I have to know how a piece is going to fit into the overall story. At least for the first time, I’ll cut it for that part of the story. But it may get reconceived as something else later on.

Haneke: There are always jewels, right? The first time you screen them, you know they’ll be in the movie. Then it’s a question of setting them in the overall design. A lot of times building up the setting is more complicated than placing the jewel.

Eisenhardt: Most people can tell the really good stuff and the really bad stuff. It’s the stuff in the middle and what you can make out of that to help the good stuff, that’s really the key.

All of you started out editing on film. What’s it like working digitally?

Haneke: The biggest problem is storage space. Ideally, I want everything online. That’s the only thing I miss about film — random access, non-linear and you had everything on the wall.

Eisenhardt: One of the reasons long-form documentaries were probably the last to get into using the Avid is because we just didn’t have the storage capacity to fit all this material. Most of these films couldn’t afford it.

Haneke: I could only hold 25 hours at a time for My Generation [a film about the second Woodstock festival, twenty-five years after the original] out of about 500 hours of raw material. So I had to work piecemeal. Okay, now I’m going to do a thing about security for the concert and then load all of that from 150 different reels and sections. And then work it, get to a place, save the cut and move on. But it’s getting a lot better. On The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow [a PBS series exploring segregation from the end of the Civil War to the dawn of the civil rights movement] we had everything at high resolution.

“The great thing is when you have enough time to actually throw out ideas, get rid of them, and then bring them back. Then you end up with something that’s very good, with some depth.” – Jonathan Oppenheim

Eisenhardt: I’ve never experienced that.

Haneke: Well, that was interview, B-roll, still photos — a lot less material. I bought an Avid in 1995 and paid $3,200 each for nine-gigabyte hard drives. Now with Final Cut I can pay $250 and buy 120 gigabytes. So if I take three 120-gigabyte hard drives and use low resolution, that’s 200 hours of material, which will cover just about any job. Sometimes you need to find a preposition or a proper name because you’re trying to make somebody say something more articulately, and it’s nice if it’s already in there. Much better than having to search through the transcripts and get the tape, run it down to that time code and digitize.

Eisenhardt: If you have an assistant, that’s one of the things that they can actually do.

Haneke: But they often come in at night. With film, you would wait two hours but they’d bring it to you. Now you don’t get it until tomorrow, and by then you’ve already gone who knows where. When you need something, you want it right now.

Have things really changed for assistants?

Haneke: We never see the assistants anymore. They’re digitizers and outputters. It’s really a vanishing task. It was nice to have an assistant. When you had a cut you could bring them in, talk about it and understand it. You had a sounding board.

Eisenhardt: We used to have that wonderful camaraderie. Sometimes there was an assistant and two apprentices in the room, so there was discussion about the subject.

Oppenheim: In film, you were lost — you could not work without an assistant. You’d spend your whole day looking for trims. With the Avid, everything is there. Ultimately, you need someone to do certain tasks that can be done when you’re not there. Ironically, I think that pushes the assistants into becoming editors faster. But they’re not getting the osmosis training that you got if you were spending the whole day, for several years, watching the process. They learn, but they learn differently. And it is lonely. I was a painter and I stopped painting because I was too isolated. When I went into editing, there’d be one or two people in the room and it was like a party. Now I’m back by myself again.

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Silk: Because I’m probably less computer-proficient, I try to schedule assistants with some time overlap, maybe two hours or so. We have a chance to interact, and the assistant can ask questions. I’ll show him what I’m doing and suggest sequences he can cut on his own time, and we talk about them the next day. That has worked out very well. Sometimes they’ve made a serious contribution to the way the sequence was cut because they saw something I didn’t see.

“As far as I’m concerned, I am making real movies, and they have the same range of emotions that are in story films.” – Tom Haneke

Eisenhardt: I had a couple of projects where the assistant became the associate editor. He not only was able to do his assistant work, but he would come in and cut in the evening. It was like magic, stuff would be cut overnight.

Haneke: That’s happened to me, not with an assistant, but with a director who was also an editor. It gives you the illusion, at least, that you’re making much faster progress. It’s great for tight schedules. In cable, they sometimes ask you do an hour in six weeks. I don’t know how you do that. I don’t know how you think up an hour in six weeks.

Eisenhardt: That’s the digital revolution.

Haneke: The illusion of speed.

Eisenhardt: In film, you couldn’t possibly do it that fast. Now because you have the Avid, people think you can.

Haneke: Once you get the idea, you can get there pretty fast. You couldn’t in film, where you had to pull all the stuff and organize the selects, etc. But getting the idea does not come faster.

Silk: And you get deeper ideas the more time you have. Up to a point, anyway.

Haneke: Yes, your first idea is your best idea on a six-week schedule.

Oppenheim: The great thing is when you have enough time to actually throw out ideas, get rid of them, and then bring them back. Then you end up with something that’s very good, with some depth. If you don’t have that time, it’s another animal. I try and avoid working on projects where I’m going to be stuck with my first idea. It’s great to be able to develop things and to resuscitate things that you thought were dead. Because we are engaged in a writing function, the whole process of doing something complicated is very time-consuming. There isn’t a lot of money for these projects. Sometimes they get done piecemeal over years.

What was it like, learning how to edit digitally?

Haneke: I love these machines. People sometimes wax nostalgic about holding the shot in their hand. I have none of that.

 “You know, the strange thing about the Avid is it was supposed to save you time. I find that I’m in the cutting room much longer. Now it goes on until we finish.” -Bob Eisenhardt 

Eisenhardt: I would never want to go back.

Silk: The Avid is getting better. The first time I used one was on the Tyson Fallen Champ project. I started off doing linear video editing and absolutely detested it, and then, to save myself, I imported the whole rough cut into an Avid and cut it there. But you couldn’t edit on the timeline then. Lightworks let you do that and they forced Avid into adding it. But even then, with all its clunkiness, it was so wonderful, so superior. But you have to keep learning the new stuff.

Eisenhardt: It’s definitely a second language. My nephew has this digital thing running through his blood now. He can’t even explain it to me, it’s so instinctual.

Oppenheim: I hated going to Avid. I couldn’t learn. I was blocked. I took two separate classes. I finally learned on the job, in one day, because I had to. Even then I wanted to go back. But I had the opportunity a few years ago to cut something on film, and it was such torture. Doing what you do, you destroy the film, you cut into it, you make trims, and you can’t find them. The assistants were untrained, because there were no film assistants. That’s when I became a convert, even though I’d been working digitally for five years before that.

Eisenhardt: Things were more rigorous when you did it on film. You could cut something and revise it, but you couldn’t keep going or you’d be putting missing frames together — it would be just chop suey and you’d have to start ordering reprints. So it forced you to look at everything and figure out what the story was and how it could be best told and then and only then, to cut.

Haneke: In film, I don’t ever remember going backwards. You got to a point in a cut and then you decided to change it, but you never went back to your first cut because that would involve an assistant writing down code numbers or making a slop copy of it. You went forward to the end. Now, having that discipline from film, we can save sequence after sequence. If something goes wrong you can re-examine the work, but you’re not a victim of the digital-only style of editing where they just keep making version after version with no forward motion.

Eisenhardt: I remember when they first showed me the Avid and they said, “Look, you can save this version and you can make other versions.” I said “Why do you need that?” You cut it right the first time and maybe the second or third time, but that’s it. Now I have a lot of versions, because even for me, it’s easier to start cutting with the Avid without having to think the whole thing through. It encourages you to be undisciplined.

“When I was working on Pumping Iron, the producers banished the word [‘documentary’]. Even in the editing room, you weren’t supposed to use it.” – Larry Silk

Are you seeing younger people, the next generation, who have never edited on film?

Haneke: I teach at NYU, and half the class comes in knowing Final Cut Pro or iMovie. We live in a digital world.

Silk: They romanticize film editing. They think it’d be wonderful to have had that experience.

Oppenheim: Even if people don’t develop that discipline and are working in a different way, ultimately they will face the same issues of storytelling. As long as interesting long-form documentaries are being made, these same problems will emerge, and one way or another, they’ll have to confront them.

Haneke: I agree. I came in at a time when everybody had just started using flatbeds. I learned using eight-plates, so I had absolutely no technique on the upright Moviola. Older editors were swearing, “Ah, these flatbeds,” and saying, “I’m much better on the Moviola.” You learn with the tool you have. There’s the same issue about cinematography now.

Silk: I think because of digital cameras, there is a lot less discipline in the shooting. Therefore we have to apply ourselves even more intensively in the editing.

Haneke: The best one-liner about this was from Peter Davis. He said, “The most important thing a documentary director does is to say, ‘Stop shooting.'”

Silk: It’s apparent to me on a lot of projects that they haven’t really thought out what they’re going to get out of a scene. With film, they really had to pick their situations much more precisely because they were shooting ten-minute rolls and they’d have to reload.

Haneke: Now we see more of a carpet-bombing approach.

“That’s how editors get work, by having films to show, which they’ve cut. So when presented with the opportunity to do it — for whatever the money — young people will go for it, and cable exploits that.” – Tom Haneke

Silk: Yeah, we’re bound to hit something eventually!

Haneke: Some directors are disciplined enough to conceptualize the material as it unfolds, but many others play it safe, shoot everything and let us figure it out. In the end, you always make it out of what’s in the room. So whether or not they were thinking in the field is not really the point, because this is what they brought back, and this is what we have to make the film.

Oppenheim: One advantage of shooting like crazy is that there are intentions or things in the material that the director didn’t know about. There’s a certain compensation in having the possibility to create or to find strands that were not even intended.

Eisenhardt: There’s a huge advantage in that. In the past, you just couldn’t afford to keep shooting. Now you can keep following the story because sending a person out with a DV camera isn’t that expensive.

It seems that compared to 10, 15 years ago, there’s much more documentary product on television. Is that true?

Haneke: We have to talk about so-called “reality TV,” which they discovered is a really cheap way to fill up a primetime half-hour. It costs nothing to produce and it draws a big audience, at least for awhile.

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Eisenhardt: But what they call “reality television” has nothing to do with reality. Those are game shows.

Haneke: Totally bogus. With made-up situations. But I don’t think we’ll ever convince American audiences that documentaries are “real” movies. I still get, “Have you ever considered working on real movies?” As far as I’m concerned, I am making real movies, and they have the same range of emotions that are in story films. But, with a few exceptions, like Bowling For Columbine, people seem unwilling to spend money to see a documentary in the theater.

“It’s very hard to judge the contribution that the editor has made unless you know the story behind the film.” – Bob Eisenhardt

Oppenheim: I think over the last ten years, documentary has been coming into its own. It’s not huge, but there are indications of more popular exposure. There are usually several playing in New York at one time or another. The Sundance Festival seems to push the documentary.

Did something like Ken Burns’ Civil War series make an impact?

Haneke: It certainly had an impact on the style that PBS now likes, because they had a big winner. Keep in mind that Civil War had a quarter of a million dollars in advertising to the general public, which is something that, if applied professionally and aggressively to feature-length documentaries, would have an enormous effect. But these films tend to come out to a good review in The New York Times, then go downtown for a week, and nobody goes because they don’t know about it.

Silk: I don’t think the word documentary is as deadly as it used to be. When I was working on Pumping Iron, the producers banished the word. Even in the editing room, you weren’t supposed to use it.

Oppenheim: I remember the ads for Roger and Me — huge ads that never indicated in any way that this was a documentary.

Eisenhardt: Now it’s “nonfiction film.” It’s strange, nonfiction books sell, but documentaries somehow don’t get accepted. Every year, the critics go to Sundance and say, “The nonfiction films were the most interesting part of the festival.” If we can get people into the audience, they’ll have an emotional experience that’s as strong if not stronger than with a fiction film.

Has cable helped or hurt documentaries?

Silk: HBO respects documentaries and editing like no other organization. They pay editors better, and they hire very strong editors, and they’ll tackle subjects that television will not. So I think they’ve made a contribution. But the Motion Picture Academy — they still do not recognize documentaries properly. The documentary people are trying to help each other get into the Academy to bolster our strength.

“You have to have rhythm and pacing, density and sparsity. Often, after a particularly significant content moment, you need one of those big spaces so it will ring for the viewer.” – Tom Haneke

Oppenheim: There should be documentary editing and documentary cinematography Oscars.

Silk: There’s not even an award for documentary directors unless they’re producer/directors. It’s unbelievable.

Haneke: For the basketball film Hoop Dreams, the editors were nominated. They didn’t win. We are eligible, but we are the step children.

Silk: Tom and I actually know a producer who collected Academy Awards by coming in at the last minute with post-post money and getting a producer credit, so he could stand up there at the podium. He didn’t have anything to do with the film; in fact he hated it, and he even said so in his own weird way when he was accepting the award.

Haneke: Awards do help you professionally. Some people think they’re kind of silly contests, but once you’re in them, you want to win. Who really can know why one film seems better than another or why you, as an individual, like it?

Eisenhardt: It’s very hard to judge the contribution that the editor has made unless you know the story behind the film. Some of my best work has been on the not-very-good films, where we had to struggle. Some films are great going in, and you don’t have to do as much.

The Editors Guild has made it a priority to organize documentary editors. Is it working?

Haneke: Ever since the merger, the union has been very friendly. Basically they’re realizing that documentary work is largely unorganized. The flexibility to do one-project agreements is good, because producers don’t want to be committed for every project they ever do. I would like the union to go after cable, because they don’t pay very much, and the schedules are too short. I would love it if my work was organized because I’d be getting pension and welfare right now.

Silk: One of the problems in organizing is that very often the shop is only one person. If you have an assistant, he or she is working at several different places. He comes in twice a week for you and three times a week for somebody else. You can’t open a shop with one person’s vote.

Eisenhardt: The union’s all but disappeared in my experience. In the last ten years I’ve had two union jobs.

“I worked as an associate editor on a film called Streetwise. Nancy Baker was the editor…  To see someone take what looked like 100 hours of fragments and make a narrative, that was a very deep thing.” – Jonathan Oppenheim

Silk: I’ve just started a union job — my first in a decade.

Haneke: I make people sign agreements. I’m a diabetic and really can’t get health insurance anywhere else, so I’ve always counted on the union plan. When I’m about to expire on the self- pay period, I’ll just say, “You have got to sign an agreement because I need the coverage.”

Eisenhardt: Union scale used to give you a starting point to negotiate a salary. Since the union is not around so much, that benchmark is no longer there. So there’s a real downward pressure on the salaries, and I don’t see it getting any better.

Haneke: Now people work 14 hours a day for $1,500 a week, and they’ll do it in order to have a film. That’s how editors get work, by having films to show, which they’ve cut. So when presented with the opportunity to do it — for whatever the money — young people will go for it, and cable exploits that. But I’ve always been strict about 40-hour weeks — whenever the day starts it ends eight hours later. After that, a new day starts in terms of what you owe me.

Eisenhardt: You know, the strange thing about the Avid is it was supposed to save you time. I find that I’m in the cutting room much longer. Now it goes on until we finish.

What’s the one project you really, really loved?

Haneke: That’s like asking, “Who’s your favorite daughter?”

Silk: It is really hard. Sometimes you think, which one did I have the most fun on?

Eisenhardt: Sometimes it doesn’t have to do with the project itself, but the experience. It’s the emotional attachment you have to the material and the people, more than the finished product.

 “Feature documentaries can be a great opportunity because they are much more editing-intensive. If you have verité footage that’s well done, there is space. It’s not being carried entirely by what people say, but by the moods that you can find in it.” – Larry Silk

Haneke: The first big one I ever did, where I jumped levels — I had been doing industrials and educational films and sales promotion for about five or six years. I got a chance to do this film about Isaac Stern going to China [From Mao to Mozart] and it won the Academy Award for best documentary feature. After that, I went to documentary heaven, and suddenly I wasn’t doing films about American Express office procedures anymore. I’ve happily spent the rest of my professional life doing very interesting projects of that quality — some more, some less — and it’s great. I really do like them all.

Oppenheim: I was an assistant on both features and documentaries for a long time, and there was a point where I was trying to figure out which way to go. I worked as an associate editor on a film called Streetwise. Nancy Baker was the editor. Watching her put the film together was such an incredible experience. To see someone take what looked like 100 hours of fragments and make a narrative, that was a very deep thing. It totally turned me around. I’ve done narrative editing and I enjoy it, but it’s not the same thing as taking something from the ground up and making a story. For me, fiction doesn’t give me the thrill. I get a thrill from structuring a narrative from bits and pieces.

Silk: We do have a much bigger piece of the creative pie. What’s exciting is how different every film is, with new things to learn and challenges to overcome. Everybody has to work within certain parameters, such as the money and time available, the quality of the materials, and the extent and limitation of your own talent. Even Michelangelo had to do that. Working within the parameters, that’s what art is.

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