Written by Colette Finkbiner
blogger/writer with Three Horizons Productions.
On a recent lovely spring day in the San Francisco Bay Area, I met with Out Of Focus film editor Laura Weiss. Ms. Weiss grew up in the Bay Area and was kind enough to visit with me while she was visiting her hometown. In addition to Three Horizons Productions’ (THP) Out Of Focus, she has worked on many films, including My Dog Skip, a number of Adam Sandler films and a recently screened documentary on architect Paolo Soleri.
Ms. Weiss struck me as a professional with deep focus and attention to detail: both solid traits for a film editor. Her tenacity has helped her succeed in her area of expertise. We spoke at length about film editing tools, working in Los Angeles, working in independent film in Phoenix, her love of Hitchcock films and working with THP director Remi Vaughn.
How was it working with Remi on Out Of Focus? She says she feels that you were instrumental in editing the storyline.
Remi is very passionate about her work. I think she’s fantastic! I had just moved to Phoenix because my husband’s job took him there. Remi was one of the first people I met. I just instantly liked her. We used Premiere on this film. It was cool because it was a suspenseful film for which she had really high production standards and values, and that shined through. I knew that going into it.
I was on the set a little bit during the summer. That summer was so hot the wind felt like a hair dryer. But everyone was super nice. It was a great experience. And it was fun too. I love Hitchcock. I know Remi does too, so we saw eye-to-eye on the type of suspense needed. I understood her vision. In the end, everything came out as she described it. That to me is amazing direction. To see her vision come to fruition was great for me as the editor. If something wasn’t right, she held out. She made sure it got right.
As the editor, they challenge was having to imagine what the visual effects would look like. We didn’t have it all done when I was editing, and there was a lot of green screen. I had to imagine what was happening. That was interesting—creating a performance with raw material.
How did you approach helping her edit the storyline?
We had the script. We had different versions of it. We didn’t do it chronologically. That’s normal. Often on a feature you’re editing while they’re shooting, and they’re not shooting in scene order.
You helped with the different versions of Out Of Focus?
Yes, but I wasn’t involved in the very end because I’d had my son.
I went to UC Santa Cruz. I received a Bachelors degree with two majors: Theater Arts and Film Production. We learned 16 mm and 8 mm. We hadn’t learned Avid at that point. I found the part I loved best about making films was putting them together. This is the part of the process where, ultimately, the story unfolds. With that in mind, I thought, “I can do this as a career.” So I went for it.
After college I packed up my stuff and went to LA. I had two friends there who were not in the business. They were the only people I knew. I slept on the floor with cockroaches and all! I took a couple of classes at UCLA. I just knocked on doors. I was relentless. I wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. I just went for it. If one door wouldn’t open or someone wasn’t receptive to my resume, I would just go to the next door.
When did you get your first job?
It was actually a post-production internship. I was like a P.A. but not paid other than for my mileage. I drove all over the Valley. I had this Thomas Guide (it was before Google Maps). I would be driving and flipping through the map book. My next job was on My Dog Skip.
Yes! I’ve seen it again and again, and I never get tired of it. I learned how to cut 35 mm on that film. I learned how to splice it together with tape. That was my job for so long – cutting film and reconstituting it back into the reels, as well as actually cutting the film reels together, which was a lot of physical work. We did have a lot of camaraderie though. A handful of people would be in the film room, at their benches, winding film with the radio on. It was high energy. Now, of course, it’s all computerized so you’re in your own little world, sitting all day. It’s much different these days.
So to cut film, it seems you must be very meticulous and detail-oriented. Did you find that film editing suited your strengths?
I think it did because I am a very detail-oriented and visual person. I like things to be as perfect and organized as they can be. So I don’t mind going over things again and again until I get them right. I also have a big imagination, and I think as a creative person working in film that’s a huge plus.
Using something like Avid — is that a little more forgiving of mistakes?
Oh, yeah. Everybody who has worked on film has cut the wrong frame before. Digital is more forgiving; you can just go back. You can click “undo.” I’ll be out and about, and I’ll think, “Oh, I wish I could undo what I just did!” Using Avid or different computer programs is great because they’re so versatile. You get to experiment a lot more. It’s a faster process in some ways. But then it catches up with you later with visual effects and other complex options that have been added on in the newer, nonlinear process. Also these days producers often speed up schedules because the tools are faster. This is challenging, because the creative thought process takes the same time.
Besides the camaraderie, I always loved working on actual film because I love working with my hands. I am a physical person. I studied ballet and piano for years and I enjoy ceramics. Working with actual celluloid really suited me, and I always felt like if I could cut film my whole life that would be fine with me. It’s fun for me. I also always loved watching film in the projector. I always felt there was more depth in that image with the fades and the dissolves. Something about it makes you want to dive right in. Digital, when it first started coming out, seemed rather flat. Though now it’s getting much better.
You were very persistent, knocking on doors.
I was. I knocked on one hundred doors. Finally I knocked on a particular door. In LA, before 9/11, you could walk onto any lot. I would go to these buildings where different productions were going on. I’d walk in and see what’s going on. After My Dog Skip, I thought that I’d better hustle again. I knocked on all the doors in the building. I was exhausted. I thought, “OK. You’ve done enough today. Well, first knock on that one last door.” I knocked on it and the person who answered said, “You know, my wife needs a post P.A. on this film she’s working on.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I knocked, he was working on The Matrix.
They called. The film was Little Nicky. I interviewed for it. I remember sitting in the parking lot across from Sony Pictures, and all I wanted to do was get onto that lot. It was like a forbidden city. I thought that if I didn’t get that job I was going to move back home and forget this dream. It is ridiculously hard to get in when you don’t know anyone. I was ready to throw in the towel when I got the call.
You made an ultimatum with yourself.
Yes. I said I would knock on one last door and that door opened. I ended up working for Adam Sandler’s company for five years. It was amazing being on the Sony lot and getting to work with so many talented artists, many of them famous. I learned so much about comedy, and there were a lot of laughs. I worked there all the way through The Longest Yard. That was also the last show I ever cut actual film on. There was over a million feet of film on that picture. Then I felt like I needed to spread my wings; I went on to work as a visual effects editor. But there were a lot of things I learned from being there that I take with me to this day.
Tell me a bit about the technicalities of physically cutting film as opposed to using a program.
We worked on benches that had a light box on the table so we could see the film strips. We had a splicer called a “guillotine splicer” because it had a blade that came down. We had to be really careful with our fingers (I still have battle scars!)There were two reels, and we would wind them. We would have an EDL — edit decision list — created on the Avid. This was during the Avid/film combo days before it was all digital. In a nutshell, we would follow the list and cut it accordingly. Once that was done – screened countless times and then finally approved by the studio — it would be sent to the negative cutter who would cut and splice the negative. From there the prints were made for the theaters.
What goes into editing different genres? For instance, you went from editing comedy to drama and documentaries. Is there also a difference in approach to editing a short film as opposed to a feature?
Definitely. I’m editing a documentary right now called Road to Eden. It’s a great little film and intense to work on. With a documentary, you don’t have a script, unless there is pre-written narration. The director has an idea, but it can develop differently. The difference between drama and comedy – for me, comedy lets you laugh a lot during the day. I always try to challenge myself. If I’m laughing, then it’s working. If I’m bored, then it’s probably boring. I just use that as a rule. Thrillers are challenging too—like working on Out Of Focus. You make it as scary or as suspenseful as you can. If I scare myself, then I know it’s working. I’ve worked on horror before. That was similar. How scary can I make this? I don’t usually watch frightening movies in the theater, but if I’m working on it, it’s different because I’m constantly constructing and deconstructing it by taking all the pieces and fitting them together. It’s also fun to work with sound effects and music on suspense – those can sometimes make or break the scenes.
So for a scripted film you have a road map. Whereas with a documentary, you are once again back in your car with a Thomas Guide?
Right! It’s like taking different threads and weaving them together to make a story; it really is a huge puzzle.
Are there other projects you are working on?
I worked on a short film called Kerry and Angie. That was a comedy and really a lot of fun. The producer says I made it funny! I’m currently working on another of that producer’s comedic short films called Deflated. I like doing comedies, since they are a relief from the heavy stuff. There are some other things I’m hoping to work on in the near future in independent film, and Road to Eden will come out at the end of September this year.
What filmmakers or editors inspire you?
I taught an editing aesthetics class and showed some of the films I really loved for their technique. I’ve always thought Bonnie and Clyde was amazingly edited. That was Dede Allen, whom I met once. I really admire her work. I also loved the first Matrix and the Bourne movies. Then there are dramas that are so well edited even though they are not action packed. The best are the ones where you don’t notice the cuts at all.
What is some of the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Don’t take no for an answer. Be incredibly dedicated. Focus on one vocation.
What advice would you give?
Don’t give up. If you really want something, you’ll find a way to do it.
Three Horizons Productions is a team of independent filmmakers who want to develop, acquire, and produce multi-media projects that showcase inspirational themes, compelling stories, and provocative characters to entertain or educate international audiences. Three Horizons Productions, located in Arizona, has a global outreach.