February 17, 2020
Sundance 2020

What an Editor Does to Get a Film Into Sundance

Cash and Ruben shushing viewers.
Patrick Lawrence has edited six films that played Sundance since 2016. What’s behind his success?

What do all good indies have in common? For one thing, a talented editor who takes whatever happened on set, and brings that story to life.

A great case study behind that is Patrick Lawrence and his most recent feature, Scare Me directed by Josh Ruben. The film is a "metafictional" horror comedy that goes hysterical with the cabin-in-the-woods trope; it played the Midnight program at 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Lawrence sat down with No Film School after the Sundance premiere of Scare Me to talk about editing the film how he picks projects (not based on the script), how directors should work with editors and vice versa, and how nobody actually knows what they are doing. 

How you know a film is going to get in to Sundance

Patrick Lawrence: I've had six films in Sundance since 2016. It's been two at-a-time every other year. So I don't know what's going on in between years, because I've been working on really great stuff. But answer your question about the picking and choosing. I don't know what the formula is. I took on Scare Me for pretty selfish reasons, I was just looking for a change. And when they sent me the script for it and this little teaser, I was like, “I've never seen a movie like this before. I definitely haven't worked on a movie like this before. I want to be a part of it.” It was an exercise to do something new or to hone my craft a little bit more. When we came out the other side of it and I knew that they were gunning for Sundance, I was like, “This would be a really good midnight feature.” And sure enough, we got into the Midnight Features.

Lawrence also edited a short in the festival, The Starr Sisters directed by Bridey Elliott and Beth Einhorn. Lawrence edited Elliott's previous Sundance feature Clara's Ghost. 

Lawrence: I don't waste my time doing something that I'm not interested in, because ultimately it’s spending a couple of months working on something. I try to pick things that interest me in some form, whether technically or story-wise or because it's going to hone my craft. There's a little bit of politics involved, there's a little bit of luck, and all of that stuff that goes into what actually gets into a festival. But I've been really lucky that even if it's not Sundance, I've had films in Tribeca, SXSW, Cannes series, Rotterdam. There's always a home for something, even though it might not be Sundance.

Josh Ruben appears in Scare Me by Josh Ruben, an official selection of the Midnight program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Brendan Banks

"I try to pick things that interest me in some form, whether technically or story-wise or because it's going to hone my craft. "

Why a script is not a foolproof gauge of whether to come on to a project

Lawrence was able to read the script AND see a sizzle reel of Scare Me in March of 2019. He could visualize how the story would come together, and after he signed on, and when the footage came in, it was all there. That's not always the case.

Lawrence: Early, early, early on when I was young and naive, I would get scripts, read them, and then totally get excited about the movie. Then I would get the footage and the footage was terrible. Great. Then I would have to, I don't want to say polish a turd, but polish a turd.
So there was a good year or so where I wouldn't read a script at all. Somebody would come to me with the job, they'd pitch it to me or give me the synopsis of the film, and then that would be interesting enough. When they gave me the script, I would breeze through it, but I wouldn't invest myself into it because I didn't want to get let down.

And then that backfired on me because I was on a shoot and the director came in and was talking to me about a very specific scene. And I just had to play along with, "Oh yeah, absolutely." But I had no idea, because I hadn't read the script. So I definitely wouldn't recommend doing it that way. What I would recommend is reading the scripts first. But keep in mind that the footage may turn out different.  

How Scare Me presented new challenges, and why it’s best to be upfront about problems

Lawrence: Scare Me was unique because there were so many good options. For instance, the first story in the film is a werewolf tale, and Aya Cash wasn't there so they had to shoot all of  Josh Reuben's coverage for the whole story. And so he just got into it. And every single angle was so passionate and so unique, that you could play the whole thing out in a one-er from any angle. And that became very challenging for me. At heart, I'm a bit of a minimalist. I believe that if you can do something in one cut instead of three cuts, then you're better off.

I didn't want to cut away from it, even though I knew I was going to have to get in there with some reactions from Aya's character Fanny. It put that doubt in my head. So I called Josh and I talked to him about it and told him, "Hey, this isn't usually how I do things, but I just want to let you know that I'm not 100% sure that I'm going to nail it on the first cut. And I think that when we get in the room together, that's when it's really going to start to take shape." And when he came in, he loved the first cut and we just jumped right into it. This is his first feature, but he's a very experienced director in television and commercial and especially comedy. He was not precious about anything. He was able to kill his darlings. It was wonderful.

Aya Cash appears in Scare Me by Josh Ruben, an official selection of the Midnight program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Brendan Banks

"I'm a bit of a minimalist. I believe that if you can do something in one cut instead of three cuts, then you're better off."

Working with feedback from the director

Lawrence: It’s a learning process, especially if you are a young up and coming editor. I get hired for things based on my reputation, and then will get in the room with somebody and they want everything done their way. I'm not a button pusher, so don't hire me if you're expecting me to sit there and just do whatever you scream out at me. I'm not going to do it. You're hiring me because of my experience and my knowledge and what I bring to a film.

And I never go into something wanting to make a bad film. When I take on a project, I know that I'm going to be working on it for months to a year. So it's got to be something worth putting my time into. That's something I like people to understand, that when I get upset or I get passionate about something or I bring up an argument or whatever, I'm arguing for something that I really believe in.

A director often directs one thing every four years. In that four years, I work on 10 to 12 projects. That’s four times as many films than they're working on. That’s something a lot of director don't always realize when you say, "Okay, you need to hear me out on this."

But equally when you're in a room with somebody, you have to hear them out as well. You might not be seeing what they're seeing, especially if they're the writer-director. They've got something that they visualize and you might not see it. So you have to hear them out, and at least try. I think that's the successful way of doing it, is that you at least try something and get it out there on the table.

"A director often directs one thing every four years. In that four years, I work on 10 to 12 projects."

What works about a mobile editing setup 

Lawrence: I have a home set up that is pretty mobile. I use a fully maxed-out Mac Book Pro connected to two cinema display monitors. And I've been doing that for a couple of years now. That really allows me to be mobile because if I'm needed on set or I have to go into an office or a sound mix, I just grab it and go. I don't have to worry about being locked into my system. But when I have the opportunity, I do like to go places.

On independent features or films, especially when they don't have the budgets to rent out studio suites, that's when I'll work from home. But for instance, right now I'm working on Bonding season two for Netflix and I'm working out of a studio in Hollywood. I'll be going there every day and then coming home and then working on independent stuff at the same time. That's my workflow.

A still from Scare Me by Josh Ruben, an official selection of the Midnight program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Brendan Banks

"I use a fully maxed-out Mac Book Pro connected to two cinema display monitors."

When the editing job offers come in, and how many of them to take on

Lawrence: For how many jobs I take on, it's a little bit of like how much am I willing to spread myself thin? And a lot of it is, how much does a project interest me? Because usually mid July to late August, I get hit up with about four to five to six shorts. This year, I had six films submit to Sundance, and one of them was Scare Me and the other five were shorts. So usually I start getting those offers around July. Then I start looking at which ones I should take on. Which ones have the most interesting stories and might stand a chance of getting in?" I pick and choose what I want to work on around that time.

With features, it's a little bit about timing. With Scare Me, I was working on another feature at the time. I was coming off a show for Sundance TV called This Close and I was doing a feature on the side. I got the script for Scare Me, and I knew I couldn't pass it up. But I was working on the other feature till the end of May.

Luckily, that feature was already in a really good place. This was around March, so I still had two months left to go. We were already test screening and getting really good notes. I knew that even though I had two months left on the project, it wasn't going to be that intense. The timing worked out perfectly. I find, in this industry, instead of bugging out about timeframes or scheduling conflicts, cross that bridge when you come to it. You'd be surprised how often things get rescheduled. Or just magically line up. Every single time I've freaked out about something not working out, it magically falls into place.

Advice for directors on working with editors

Lawrence: Nobody's out to make a bad movie. When you're in the edit, you have to realize that you are in the third rewrite of your film. What happened on set is going to affect the final product. I have been in edits strangely with directors who thought they were making a different film. My favorite note of all time was "Make it more like Tree of Life." And I'm like, "You didn't shoot Tree of Life."

Another one that I run into a lot is the Edgar Wright style edits. People ask for that, and come in and go, "Do it like that." And they think it's all in the edit. But it's all practically done and it's all thought out. It's all storyboarded and sound designed. It's not just the edit. You have to plan for it, you have to shoot it, and you have to do it in the edit.

When you get in there, be open to critiques, be open to collaboration, and respect who you're working with. If you're working with a first-time editor, you might not get the kind of pushback you will get from me. But the pushback you're going to get from me is coming from the heart.

And it's because I want you to look good. I'm trying to set you up for success.

As the editor, don’t be too rigid to try new things

Lawrence: From the editor's side of it, it's also important to hear out the director. You have to be open to what it is they're trying to achieve. There are times where you might bump heads because you don't see the vision, but you have to force yourself to go down that road. You'd be surprised at what happens when you actually do open yourself up to what they're suggesting. All of a sudden you're like, "Okay, Whoa, this is cool." And then you can work your own stuff into it.

"You don't know until you get into that audience and then you see it for the first time."

Don’t worry, nobody actually knows anything

Lawrence: The biggest piece of advice I can give any filmmaker, period, in any role, nobody really knows the answer. Nobody in filmmaking actually knows what they're doing. It doesn't matter if they're an executive producer or director or an editor or cameraperson. They’re either trying things that have worked from previous experience, or they're trying things out for the first time and it's just happy accidents. You’ve got to go with it and see where the journey takes you. You'll be surprised what you find.

Bringing this back to Scare Me, there were times when I wasn't sure that what we were doing was absolutely right. And then you're in the Q and A of the world premiere screening, and people are raving about this edit that you did and you're like, "I guess it worked." You don't know. You don't know until you get into that audience and then you see it for the first time.


For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

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No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by SmallHD : real-time confidence for creatives and by RØDE Microphones – The Choice of Today’s Creative Generation     

Header image: Aya Cash and Josh Ruben appear in Scare Me by Josh Ruben, an official selection of the Midnight program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

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