Making the cut - Thomas Holéwa on editing
Written by Emma Gray Munthe
20 June 2007
Thomas Holéwa has edited one of the best films ever in Swedish film history: Kay Pollaks Barnens Ö, and among his other works one finds titles like Äppelkriget, Stockholmsnatt, Älska mej and s/y Glädjen. He has also taught editing at DI for many years – and now he offers dvoted members insights into the world of editing!
Thomas Holéwa has worked through the whole chain of different jobs within the world of filmmaking. He started out as a sound technician, then became an editor, and has both produced and written scripts of his own while helping many people out with film projects that have spun out of control. He has edited one of the best films ever in Swedish film history: Kay Pollaks Barnens Ö, and among his other works one finds titles like Äppelkriget, Stockholmsnatt, Älska mej and s/y Glädjen. He has also taught editing for many years, amongst other places at Dramatiska Institutet in Stockholm – and now he offers dvoted members insights into the world of editing. Here’s his advice on what to do and what not to do when it comes to the editing process.
What’s the first thing you do when you get the film material in your hands?
If they have already shot everything I look through the material from start to finish, without making any judgments at all. Then I sit completely alone and try to keep as neutral as I possibly can. I see if I understand the intentions behind the material, and note my first impressions. That’s your most important tool as an editor, to stick to the feelings you had when you saw the material the first time - and keep that through the whole process. I think that’s the most difficult part of the job. Directors always have thoughts of their own when they come home from the shoot, that this and that didn’t go well, this and that didn’t look as planned etc - and the editor’s job is to erase all that and start on a fresh note.
You know, they might have had an argument with an actor just before a scene, or they didn’t get food when they were supposed to. Little things like that colour their views on the material, and I have to stand outside of that. When I know what my gut reactions to the material are, then I can ask the director what his/her intentions were and what they want from it. But I always pay close attention to my first reaction - even though it’s not my main job to see that it caters only to my feelings and thoughts. My main job is to have the director feel that he or she made it work. But I always start with my gut feeling.
If you work with someone who’s experienced you can be more direct, if you work with someone inexperienced you have to be more gentle. You always have to be very diplomatic. The more safe I get a director to feel, the freer hands I get. How exactly you achieve this is very different in different situations. A film pretty much edits itself if you give it the opportunity to do so.
What can be done during the filming to make things easier for the editing process? I mean, some people seem to have the whole film thought up already during the shooting, and have already planned every cut and angle in detail.
I believe that it’s not always a good thing to have a film planned in every detail beforehand. It’s really seldom, I actually don’t think it has ever happened, that I’ve cut a film in the way it was supposed to be cut to begin with.
It’s really simple: The script is one thing. The material you get to work with when the filming is over is something else. It’s not always they get exactly what they wanted to get. Some things come out better, some worse, others just don’t look anything like they intended them to. What you then have to do is set your mind to zero and start from scratch. What you have is what you have, and it’s up to the editor to make the best out of it. The final result is usually something completely different from what you started out with.
I can honestly say that the things I initially have had most problems with over the years are the things that have turned out best in the end.
In what way?
If something is tricky to begin with, you are more on your toes. In those situations you are so aware of the fact that you have to do your very, very best and try all possible solutions. You wire your brain differently, you start from scratch, try different things, play more and try to figure out how to make the best of it.
As an example, I got a film in my hands once where the director who came to me had totally given up on the story. He thought that they couldn’t make anything out of it. I like that kind of thing, I like that kind of challenge. When I saw the material I understood his point, but didn’t think that there was any reason to give up totally. I’m not that kind of person. I see solutions. I start with what I find the most fun, and in that particular case I had problems finding just that. So, I saw the material once again. And then I realized that this story shouldn’t be told the way they had intended it to be told!
It was written as a linear story, but I came up with the idea that they should do it as a parallel story instead. But, there wasn’t enough material to re-edit it in that way. So, I went up to the producer and said that I had an idea. “I want to loosen up the time perspective.” I told them that we needed just a few more pictures and made them do some additional footage.
Then I cut the last scene first, and had the director come up to me and see it. He was scared shitless of me and my ideas, he was a first-time director and I had cut a lot of films before. He really didn’t even want me there. I understood that, so my main thing was to introduce my idea to him without him feeling run over. I told him that I wasn’t finished at all, that it wasn’t written in stone in any way - even though I thought I had made a very good cut. You have to be diplomatic in situations like that.
Anyway, he saw my cut, was still a little low - but said ok. The next day he wanted to sit with me in the editing room, and I told him he couldn’t. I wanted to work with the material for three more weeks and when I was done he could come and see it. The whole premise of the film changed in the editing room, and when he came back three weeks later to see it he liked it. But then I had to sit with him for an extra couple of weeks and make little changes here and there to make sure everyone had their say in the matter.
Is that the way you prefer to work, to sit without the director first?
In this specific case, it was. He was so low and had given up on his film - and I can’t work under those circumstances. Instead I cut the film with an assistant - I don’t really like working totally alone. I need someone to test different ideas with in the editing room.
How do you keep your eyes “fresh” for the material, do you do anything special not to get stuck or stare yourself blind at what you’re working with?
I think that if an editor wants to go far they need an enormous amount of stubbornness. And maybe more than anything, a capacity for always seeing something new in every situation. I never give up, and I can see a film I’m working on thousands of times and still keep it fresh and see new things. Six frames shorter here, five frames longer there - little things like that. I see it as a challenge.
It’s a little bit like a relationship, first you have to fall in love with the material, then you have to, if not fall in love with him or her, at least understand the director. And you have to enjoy editing. The day you don’t, you have to put it aside. It has happened to me sometimes, maybe not that I got tired of it, but that I just went blank and didn’t see the differences any more. Then you have to leave it and take a vacation or a couple of days off. I have never experienced that I don’t feel that wow! feeling again when I get back.
What kind of mistakes do you see when it comes to other people’s films?
That you show too much. That you don’t involve the audience. I think that the things you don’t show are just as important as the things you show. The audience is everything to a film, without bringing them in you have nothing.
Sometimes you see a door before someone walks into a room, and I ask the person behind the film why that picture is in there, and they say “Because someone is about to walk in through the door.” And I answer, “Yes, but we, the audience, don’t know that that is going to happen.”. Empty frames are annoying, every frame should be there for a reason.
I’ll give you another example: Sometimes the time perspective in the film is shown in detail. That means that the audience might not recognize the feelings of a scene or doesn’t identify with what’s happening on screen. Take a scene where you see two people walking into a room, they have an argument and one of them storms out. The scene is two minutes long, and you think that that is the time perspective people need to identify with to understand what’s going on - but it just isn’t. If you start the scene in the middle of the fight instead and end it where someone storms out, you’re not telling exactly how long the actual fight has been, and everyone can decide for themselves what they think. That is better.
Cut away when it’s at its best, and let people imagine what happens. Many times people have commented on things that actually never happened in films I’ve cut - I have only suggested them through the editing. If someone thinks a film is very bloody for instance, the sound has perhaps suggested that that is the case, or the camera movements have been fast and blurry. In reality there hasn’t even been a drop of blood within the frame. Then I have succeeded as an editor, I have made people imagine what goes on outside of the frame.
On the other hand it is also a common mistake to be afraid of telling too much. I always advise people to film too much on set, and to be very clear about everything. Perhaps even overly so. Then when you’ve made a rough cut you can start taking things away without making the film difficult to understand. Sometimes in the editing room you see that important information was never filmed. So, when you’re filming, and in the first rough cut, be overly clear.
Another thing people need to think about is that in real life sound comes first 99% of the time, before sight. I edit that way too. First you hear someone talk, then you see them. Sound first, sight later is a rule. But then again, all rules are made to be broken.
Are there any good editing exercises you recommend?
Cut, cut, cut and cut. Try to change the emotions with editing, and re-cut again and again. Try to put the last scene first, see how you can play with the material and what happens if you change the scenes around. Take the best scenes out, what happens to the rest then?
Off tape you mentioned that a common - and annoying - thing for people to do nowadays is to fade to black between cuts, instead of simply cutting between them. Why is that such a bad thing, and what should you try to do instead?
When I started out editing dipping down to black was an easy way out, but of course things like that change over the years. When I taught editing in schools I wouldn’t let my students use that, for me it was just a way of avoiding having to cut in a proper way. I think that there perhaps was a greater awareness when you had to edit in my days on an editing table, than there is now when so many people are editing directly on their computers. Dipping into black is for me still something you do to show that time has passed, that something is missing.
If you know that there’s going to be music in a scene, but the music isn’t finished yet - do you use temporary music in the editing room?
If I’m cutting a montage of some sort I need music to edit to, so I try to find temp music that works. When it comes to film music in general, it has to be secondary to the film itself - and it’s hard to find composers who understand that their music is subordinate to the film.
I like to use contrasts when it comes to music. If people are at a disco, use Mozart. Film has an endless number of variations and possibilities, film is the only art form that offers the possibility to include and use all of the other art forms. You should take advantage of that.
When do you know that a film is ready to let go of?
You feel it in your stomach. It has nothing to do with your head. Take your thoughts away when you’re in the editing room. If your arm hair stands up you’re on the right way.
Is there any general advice on which pictures to stay longer on, and what pictures you should cut away from?
Well... It’s not about a few frames here and there, it’s all about what feelings you’re conveying with the film. But it’s always about what happens in the picture before. There’s no way of knowing how long the picture or scene you’re actually looking at should be, without knowing what happens before. To change the feeling of one scene or picture, you might as well change what happens right before it. That could totally change the feeling of the coming scene, or how long it feels. If someone says that a scene feels too long, I sometimes go back and change the scene that precedes it without telling them - and they often like it but don’t understand what it is I’ve actually done to change things. They feel the difference and that’s the most important thing.
What are you most proud of in your career?
Barnens ö and the films I worked on with director Kay Pollak. He is one of the biggest talents in this country.
Finally, define the words “a well-edited film”.
A well-edited film is a film where someone tells the story he or she wants to tell. I’m not that interested in the actual cuts here and there. In many schools I see that the students are really anxious to cut movements in perfect sync and things like that - but that is unimportant. If you have a story to tell I gladly watch a film with strange editing. There are actually quite a few examples of that in Barnens ö. The scene when he’s in his wardrobe is completely done with jump cuts. Kaj asked me what the hell I was doing when he saw it, so I put on some music and showed him the scene again. You couldn’t even tell it was cut with jumpcuts anymore. It’s all about the feeling.