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