Zen and the Art of Motion Picture Editing

When Oscar-winning editor Hughes Winborne spoke with great humor at the Santa Fe Film Festival’s special presentation of “The Final Rewrite,” his idea of a Hollywood movie editor’s Help Wanted ad might have sounded something like this:

HELP WANTED: creative, driven, film editor, must have developed sense of humor and willing to work with slightly manic movie director. Temporary position, 6-9 months, must like to work in dim light with varying degrees of supervision. Flexible 12- to 18-hour daily work schedule.

Winborne painted a portrait of a creative profession in which one spends considerable time staring at a 50-inch screen and getting to know a film’s director. “My job is different on every film. It depends on the director,” Winborne said to a well-attended gallery of filmmakers. “Some directors are controlling of the process, some want to collaborate and have fun.”

When producer/writer Kirk Ellis asked how Winborne connects to a director’s personality and style, Winborne quipped: “I start dressing like them.”

Winborne is intuitive and enchances a film’s themes with his own insight. “An editor waits for that moment he can contribute,” he said.  After he strips away everything unnecessary on the first cut, then, he claims, “you know what you need to put back.”

Occasionally, his insights are out of tune with the film. In an early cut of the “Pursuit of Happyness,” there’s a midpoint scene where Will Smith’s real-life son tells him a joke about God sending a drowning man a life boat. Thinking the vignette had nothing to do with the rest of the movie, Winborne deleted it. When director Gabriele Muccino saw the scene was missing he said to Winborne: “You crazy mother fucker…put it back in.” That one little seemingly innocent story made the point of the film.

In addition to an insightful approach, a film editor has to develop a sense of story rhythm. Anybody can edit the strong, well known actors and character types. It’s the unique characters and actors that bring out the best in an editor: the rhythm. Citing the recent critical and commercial hit, “The Help,”  Winborne said, “You find the rhythm of the story as you edit it…some of it comes from inside you…it’s not hard to put together a scene, but it is hard to put it together right.”

Winborne was asked about how much power an editor has. On “The Help” he was more involved than any other film he’s worked on, a gatekeeper for all department heads: sound, focus and visual effects; he was on location in Mississippi the entire time. During shooting, he was building the music and editing dailies. Winborne’s first cut of the film was three hours and five minutes, the finished film or “final rewrite” was two hours and 25 minutes.

Ellis asked Winborne about the similarities between an editor and a screenwriter. Winborne replied: “(The) people responsible for story quality are the screenwriter and the editor.” An editor who understands how to write makes a better editor. After he became an editor, Winborne believes he became a better writer.

One of the most difficult things about any movie, if you are trying to make an intelligent film, Winbourne feels, is to “put in only what the audience needs so it can participate.” Don’t over inform them. Ellis commented: “Anticipation plus uncertainty—this is storytelling.”

When asked, Winborne comments that he is not good at predicting hit scripts. However, with  both “Sling Blade” and “Crash,” each had a scene he thought would make them exceptional films. In “Sling Blade,” it was the opening scene when the sinister sound of a chair being dragged across the floor and forebodingly placed in front of Billy Bob Thorton that gave Winborne the feeling that the film was going to be good.

In “Crash” (for which Winborne won his editing Oscar), when he heard Don Cheadle’s opening monologue he had the feeling it was going to be a great film. He believed then and now that Cheadle’s performance pulled everything together. “Cheadle is a genius,” Winborne said.

From an editorial perspective, in “Crash,” some scenes were re-ordered and compressed because: “we knew if we stayed too long on one story you’d lose interest in the other stories…so it was a matter of keeping the ball bouncing from story to story.”

One of the most emotional scenes in “Crash” is one of Winborne’s favorites: the scene with the little girl jumping in between her father and a bullet. In editorial genius, the audience anticipates: does she or does she not get shot?  “I still can’t watch that scene without my heart pounding and closing my eyes,” said Winborne.

Winborne began editing when he had to physically splice two pieces of film together. Ellis asked him if he thought non-linear technology such as an Avid could make an editor lazy. Winborne replied: “It doesn’t make you lazy, but it can.” For instance, cutting to music frees him “to not be so linear.” However, he added, “I found I was relying on music too much.”

The Oscar-winning editor has advice for up-and-coming editors about not falling into the trap of making the “quick cut versus the dramatic cut.” Watch the emotional, dramatic ending to “Pursuit of Happyness.” Can you imagine cutting away after Will Smith shakes hands when he finally gets a paid job after six months of homelessness? Further yet, not showing Will overhelmed with joy?

In conclusion, Ellis asked Winborne how after more than 25 films, he keeps his sense of wonder. Winborne said, “Film gives me something that nothing else has…I loved ‘Midnight Cowboy’ and the ‘Graduate.’ (Those) two films changed my life.”