That Syncing Feeling

Cut away from every great director and you'll find a copacetic editor.

By Published on .

About 10 years ago, Spike Jonze walked into the home of friend and director Tamra Davis and met a cool-looking character who was sporting the very same shoes that Jonze himself was wearing. This was no ordinary fashion coincidence, however. "He had the same pair of old, low-top single-stripe Vans, a pretty rare pair," Jonze recalls. "I thought that was odd." That day they didn't exchange a word, but they would have plenty to discuss in ensuing years -- in the edit bay. Those similarly sneakered feet happened to belong to Eric Zumbrunnen, now Jonze's longtime editor who's cut everything from the Grand Prix-winning "Lamp" for Ikea, to Being John Malkovich and Adaptation.

The Vans moment, as superficial as it may seem, represents one of the key aspects of the most successful director-editor relationships, or any creative partnership, for that matter -- shared sensibilities. In the edit suite, it's this parallel P.O.V., as well as the thoughtful interplay of opinions and ideas, that help mold the director's vision into its final form. Wearing Vans or not, the editor stands by as valiant guard or resilient sounding board, shepherding the film to full realization. In the bay, fights erupt or laughter ensues, but what emerges from the dynamic between successful longstanding partnerships like Jonze and Zumbrunnen's is some of the best filmmaking in the business.

Ikea via Jonze and Zumbrunnen

In the case of Jonze and Zumbrunnen, the duo had a lot more in common than just footwear. "I noticed we had the same taste in music, and he was shooting videos for all these bands I liked," adds Zumbrunnen, based at L.A.'s Spotwelders. More important, their approach to the material jibed as well. Jonze notes, "Eric seemed to have a similar sensibility in what he thought was funny and what he thought was trying too hard to be funny. And he understood that it wasn't just about being funny; there were other tones to capture."

Like-mindedness doesn't always hinge on taste, however. If that were the case, director Douglas Avery would have never set foot in the same suite as Chrome's Nick Lofting. Avery first met him in the U.K. at Sam Sneade, cutting the infamously funny EB Pils sendup of Guinness' "Surfer," and today he continues to be impressed by Lofting's work. "He cuts amazingly, and he cut the most amazing video I've ever done," he notes, referring to a clip for Cornershop, featuring a raucous amalgam of '70s-style footage. However, "It's a good thing that we got to know each other after working together, because if I'd met him at a bar there's no fucking way I'd ever work with this guy," Avery insists. "Nick has the worst taste in movies. He has this fixation on Top Gun and The A-Team. And he has really bad taste in music. When he got to L.A., the first thing he did was call and say, 'I'm driving around Beverly Hills listening to the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack.' " Fortunately, Lofting's undiscriminating ways reflect a sensibility that pays off on film. "Some people do those things affectedly, but he does it because it's a laugh," Avery explains. "But that's what's great about him. He doesn't give a shit about the way things are supposed to be done, and it kind of comes across in the work as well."

Avery and Lofting for Lexmark.

While friendship emerged easily for the aforementioned pairs, for others, developing a bond takes hard work. Fifteen years ago, Adam Liebowitz was holed up in what he called the "Dungeon," a windowless, cinderblock room next to the garage of Joe Pytka's production company, where he started as an editorial assistant. "There was a little table, really uncomfortable chairs, kind of industrial, lights out and Joe's sitting next to you saying, 'Show me what you got!' I think a lot of people would be intimidated to dive into that relationship. To say it was like boot camp and film school is no understatement." But he stuck it out for six years, learning a ton of lessons along the way. Now a highly-decorated editor, he runs the succesful shop Go Robot, while remaining Pytka's right-hand man, having cut everything from Amex to IBM.

Crew Cuts' Sherri Margulies, another longtime Pytka collaborator, recalls, "In the beginning, I was not sleeping at night, throwing up and scared to death, just based on stories I'd heard. Now, I've come to realize that Joe is one of the people I've learned the most from in the entire business." Margulies has been involved in several post-intensive jobs with Pytka -- Shaq for Pepsi, HBO's "Chimps" and the Beatles' "Free as a Bird" video, trials over which she believes they honed their relationship. "His desire to do great work challenged the time and challenged me. We definitely got to see what the other was made of. He's definitely seen me at my best and at my worst."

Shared sensibilities, chemistry, and triumphs all gel over time to yield that uncanny mind meld between editor and director, that shorthand that can't be underestimated in terms of what it brings to the work. "You avoid a lot of the process of having to get to know each other," says Mad River's Dick Gordon of his relationship with Traktor, for whom he cut early campaigns for Miller Lite and MTV's groundbreaking Jukka Brothers, to more recent work for Amstel. "It allows you to be that much more productive, in that you're not wasting time trying to figure out what the other really means, even though they do have a tendency to speak a lot in Swedish."

Pytka and Liebowitz for Sony.
Liebowitz's familiarity is so highly developed, he doesn't even need language to get inside Joe Pytka's head. "I watch Joe's dailies and I can intuit what he's going for. On a recent spot, I was reviewing the footage and in one scene the actor did a completely different kind of take. But I could just tell that it was the one. It was a little different, had a weird beat. I put it in the cut, and one creative didn't like it. Then the agency producer came in and said, 'No, that's the one Joe loves.' I don't know why, I could just tell." Pytka notes, "I don't mean to be negative, but a lot of editors seem to conspire against the footage. Some editors are frustrated directors and want to manipulate the footage and don't understand the story you're trying to tell. I've never had that problem with either Adam or Sherri. With both, I can even shoot film differently, more abstractly, and they can find their way into that."

"A huge creative process takes place in the edit room," explains Jonze. "As opposed to production, which is all about time and stress, this is all about getting in the zone. The film can go together in infinite ways, so you need an editor who really sees it, especially when something's complicated, and you're trying to explain a small idea in the context of a bigger idea that fits into an even bigger idea, especially on the movies we've done, like Adaptation, which took over a year to edit. There's an unwritten set of rules that go with every project, the logic outside of the story, which is always important to hold on to, even if you're not saying it overtly. Eric understands all that, almost inherently. You don't want to have to explain things every time. You want to be with someone who gets it, and not only gets it but adds to it."

Murro and Oron in sync for milk.
As crucial as it is for editors to be sentinels of the director's vision, they can also guide it to a better place. "Working with Avi, I've learned that I'm not always right," says Noam Murro of editorial counterpart Avi Oron of Bikini Edit, whom he's worked with since Murro was an art director at Goldsmith/Jeffrey. "I think there are editors who simply execute the director's wishes, and there are editors who argue with the director's wishes, which makes the end product even greater. I value that honesty of trying to push it." The result has been stunners like Saturn's "Sheet Metal" and "Got Milk?"'s "Birthday," neither of which came easy. "I can tell you, there hasn't been a job yet where we didn't argue," says Murro. "Which is a good thing," Oron adds. "I call it the curse. We don't give up and we keep going and going until we're happy, which I'm not sure if we ever are at the end of the day. We keep questioning ourselves and trying to find a better way to do things. By doing that, it brings up the creative level of the edit as well."

Lofting notes that with Avery, "We fight full out and I dislike him at the end of every day. But we always keep coming back, putting ourselves through it. We're both a little masochistic, and it's great. He's got a psychology degree, and he just keeps on fucking with me, pushing me to get it better. It's not that I dislike it. It does actually work. Half my reel is him."

It's almost as if they thrive on the pain. Gavin Cutler, who has formed relationships with a number of comedy directors, including Traktor and Rocky Morton, says, "A lot of the directors I work with love to have fun, take the piss out of each other, but they're also very intense, in certain ways workaholics." Traktor's Grand Prix-winning Fox Sports Net campaign, one of Cutler's hardest jobs, "was insane, controlled chaos," he says. "The details they put into it on the production end were unbelievable, so getting the film was really inspiring. Editing was difficult, because on the one hand we had to be imaginative, but on the other, we were following certain sportscasting formats. It was kind of a mindfuck -- it was exhausting, but it was definitely exhilarating."

It's the surprises that often keep these relationships at a full creative boil. Mad River's Gordon observes, "Sometimes you might work with people and you can sort of anticipate how they're going to solve a problem before you even see anything. One of the things I really appreciate about Traktor is I know whatever footage I get from them will be surprising. It's almost like a Christmas present when I get it. They're always catching you off guard, looking at things in an original way, which helps with the learning process but also continues to make it an exciting relationship."

Similarly, fascination is always high when Mad River's Mike Elliot views the dailies of six-year collaborator Andrew Douglas, for whom he's cut spots for Nissan and Microsoft, as well as the documentary Searching for the Wrong Eyed Jesus. "When I look through Andrew's camera, I can see his search, his eye looking over here, over there, and every once in a while he lands. For me, that search keeps a tremendous amount of interest no matter what he's shooting." Ultimately, the edit is a shared journey. "Every time we do a new job, it's another opportunity to experiment with different ideas," Elliot says. "I always go into the edit with one film in mind, which I may or may not share with Michael," Douglas adds. "Then I leave Michael alone for a couple days with barely a road map, so that he begins to find a film from the actual material, rather than my imagined material. Then we collaborate, and the edit becomes a process of finding a 'secret' film, often unintentionally hiding inside the material. There's a considerable satisfaction for me, and a raison d'etre for the editor in that discovery."

As Elliot and Douglas show, the breathing room allows for any given project to reach its creative potential. "When I first started, I was an editor," Pytka says. "I was cutting a documentary and the director was standing over my shoulder telling me where to make cuts. But there's a tactile feeling that an editor has for the material. It's not, 'Cut this here, cut that there.' Things come out of going back and forth, the marriage of a couple of scenes, a great moment, the way images relate to each other -- things only editors can find. If the director's there, it can be a distraction." Jonze explains, "The edit is a process of discovering, so I'll let Eric work on it until it's ready to be judged. Even if it's an out-there idea, there might be part of it that really works and I don't want to shut it down. Ideas are delicate, so if you don't handle them with care you'll steamroll right over them."

"One of the things that makes working with Spike so enjoyable is he allows you to be a true collaborator," Zumbrunnen says. "He's still the director, but he gives people the freedom to do what they do. He's open to different opinions about what will make things better, and has no ego about that. It makes me feel I can try whatever idea I want. There's no judgment, and that's probably good for the project, because I'm not really putting restrictions on myself." To put things in perspective, Go Robot's Liebowitz points to a recent episode of Project Greenlight. "There was a dweeby editor putting blankets on the directors," he notes. "I don't think that's why anybody goes into editing. You go to be involved in the craft. It's not like that with Joe, it's not about massaging his feet. Filmmaking is a group effort. The director is the head of the body, but you're definitely part of the process." Murro seconds that notion wholeheartedly. "The people you surround yourself with make you as good as you are. It's true for the editor, the cinematographer, the producer. They bring your vision to life, make it even better. It's a continuum of a friendship and an exchange of ideas. Every director should have that."

(This article appears in the October issue of Creativity.)

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