July 26, 2013

Cutting a Woody Allen Movie: Editor Alisa Lepselter Discusses Their Process

Alisa LepselterWoody Allen's films are known for many things, but editing isn't necessarily one of them. Which isn't to say that the cutting in a Woody Allen film isn't excellent, it's just not something that calls attention to itself, except for rare occasions like the beautiful black and white shots that open Manhattan. And it's his unobtrusive cutting style that has helped subtly define his films, with simple switches from a single to an over the shoulder changing the emotional tone of a dialogue scene without the audience even noticing. Invisible editing is everywhere, of course, but Woody's working methods are famously unique, and now Alisa Lepster, his editor for 15 years, talks about the process of this legendary writer/director and how to cut a Woody Allen movie.

Directors might change most of their crew with every film, but many famous helmers have worked with the same editor for years. Martin Scorsese has worked with Thelma Schoonmaker for decades, and Quentin Tarantino'slong-time editor Sally Menke died tragically just three years ago.

This relationship is partly because editing is unlike any other part of filmmaking: writing is mostly a solitary venture, and shooting's a barely organized chaos/war campaign, but editing is a contemplative process of watching every frame, meditating and positioning until the result is something bigger than the sum of its parts. It's frequently the longest part of a film's production.

And since you're going to be stuck in a room with one person for several months, you might as well get along, and if their taste is similar to yours, so much the better. It's also interesting to note that so many top film editors are women (Allen's previous editor, Susan E. Morse, worked as an Associate Editor with Schoonmaker on Raging Bull), who are usually underrepresented behind the camera.

Is there a feminine sensibility that women bring to editing? Or is that they're able to deal with the fragile ego of a director? Or is editing, removed from the traditionally macho world of the set, one of the places where women were able to quietly make inroads?

Alisa Lepster has been working with Woody Allen for over a decade, and in an interview at Indiewire she discusses working on his films. Since Allen almost never discusses technique (or anything) publicly, this is a rare glimpse at the working methods of the legendary filmmaker.

On His Process

Woody Allen

He doesn’t -- edit the film until he’s shot the whole thing -- Most directors have the editor doing a rough cut as they’re shooting, because they don’t have the time to omit that step. Woody has a lot more freedom to work at his own pace -- He comes in and we review all the material, and start cutting from the beginning, from scene one, sequentially, which is also very helpful, because you understand what the tone is as you’re going along. But it’s a luxury that most people don’t have.

It's partly a testament to Allen's power to make the movies he wants, and also to his low-key style of filmmaking, that he can afford to work this way. Most of the time, marketing schedules dictate much of how a Hollywood movie is put through post, and on a blockbuster you can find teams of editors working around the clock.

And in the indie world, budgetary concerns mean that editing has to be done as quickly as possible (unless you can just sit at home on Final Cut, cutting to your heart's content.)

The editing is not always consistent, because it depends on the film. Some films are put together very easily and others are more problematic, and we’ll just take as much time as we need.  And most people don’t have that [opportunity] either. It’s not as though there’s a studio giving him a deadline. Yes we have some deadlines, we have a mix time set up, etc -- so it’s not like we have no schedule at all, but there’s never a difficulty in getting our actual cut together.

On Format

Most people, including me, picture Woody Allen hunched over a Steenbeck or Movieola, grease pencil in his mouth as he searches for the right frame. But apparently he's quite modern:

Woody Allen Camera

I was told Woody cuts on film and don’t even think about asking to do it any other way. And I asked to do it another way and he said OK! Sometimes people underestimate how flexible Woody is. He’s very open-minded. I just had to explain to him why I thought he’d really benefit from working on the AVID [digital editing system], and he said ok, we’ll give it a try. And so we’ve been working on AVID ever since. He’s been very happy with it.

He still shoots on film, though:

Nobody’s ever convinced him that he’d be better off shooting digitally, because the kinds of films that he makes really wouldn’t warrant that switch just yet. The cinematographers he’s worked with lately really do still enjoy working with film given the chance.

A decade ago, it was pretty much film or nothing, even in the indie world (ah, Super 16, how I love you,) but today's D.P.s in training will think of film as something complicated and antiquated, scratching their heads in wonder that people used to actually shoot on film, the same way writers can't picture using a typewriter and most editors would shudder at the thought of cutting a feature on a flatbed.

This is a great interview, and it's always fascinating to hear from editors, and learn how they work. What do you think of Woody Allen, and his unique style? Do you think his luxury of being able to cut in order affects his work? Do you think it would help your process, or are you the type who loves to jump around, using all the freedom NLE systems afford? Let us know!

Link: Woody Allen's Editor of 15 Years Alisa Lepselter Discusses Their Process and Their Latest Effort, 'Blue Jasmine' -- Indiewire

Your Comment

9 Comments

Woody does have a good, perhaps even perfect, taste in cinematographers - Szigmond, Willis, Zhao, Carlo di Palma, et al.

July 27, 2013

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DLD

Don't forget two with Khondji!

August 20, 2013

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Daniel Mimura

There is a 3hr documentary about Woody up on BBC iPlayer at the moment. Not sure if people outside the UK will be able to access it easily. I watched it yesterday. There is some wonderful footage of him working with his actors and talking about all aspects of his filmmaking process. Super insightful. It's only available until the 6th Aug so don't wait too long to check it out.
Part 1 : http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b037lt4t/imagine..._Summer_2013_Woo...
Part 2: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b037ltgw/imagine..._Summer_2013_Woo...

July 27, 2013

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Mak

Is there any site that you know of or way we can watch this?
Extremely interested!

July 30, 2013

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kyle

I'm pretty sure it's on Netflix (the Woody Allen Documentary).

July 31, 2013

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Chris

July 31, 2013

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Chris

I'm in the process of editing my first feature right now. We shot on Red and are working on our editor's AVID setup. She was getting dailies throughout the shooting process and putting together the rough assembly while we were shooting. This was very valuable because she was able to weigh in on which scenes were working and not working and show me why. We picked up a few things (admittedly, a lot of it was b-roll type stuff) to help certain scenes along that weren't cutting quite as I'd envisioned. It also meant that the rough assembly was ready that much quicker after we finished shooting. I can appreciate why Allen prefers to work in the way he does, but I like getting a chance to see the whole film, even in a very rough state, before beginning to edit in earnest. It also means that we have a better chance at reaching our goals from a scheduling point of view.

July 27, 2013

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I've got to say that as a "film"maker who has learned in the digital DSLR-era, I feel like there is an extremely large gap existing in my education due to lack of experience with real film. There's something romantic about the old processes. I went into a typewriter store (go figure, a store that only sells typewriters) a couple years ago and the owner said that two types of people buy the typewriters -- writers and artists. Personally, I would be extremely wary of any DP who didn't express some sort of excitement over the opportunity to shoot film.

July 27, 2013

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Woody Allen may not have a choice soon as to whether or not he's shooting on film or digital? Not sure if there's going to be film to be shot on eventually.

But one should not omit, in any discussion on Woody Allen and editing, the autobiography entitled, "When the Shooting Stops... The Cutting Begins" by Ralph Rosenblum, who edited 6 of Woody Allen's films, on actual film. I highly recommend it.

August 1, 2013

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Matt Headley