Editors on Editing, Emmys, and Everything Else
: Art of the Edit
: Kylee Peña
: Editors on Editing, Emmys, and Everything Else
The Brady Bunch House is nearby.
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As I punch the address to Mary DeChambres' Studio City home into my phone, Google Maps helpfully lists some nearby points of interest: Gas station. Cafe. Classic television location. Dispensary. TV Studio. Drug store.
After relocating to Los Angeles earlier this year and slowly getting to know the city's highs and lows, things like this have become every day life. The Brady Bunch
House is near your destination. The shop across from work was used in True Detective
. It's okay, those military helicopters are just in a movie scene.
This – Southern California – is where moving pictures have been made for a hundred years. That's why I came here. And that's why editors Mary DeChambres and Cate Haight came here too. I connected with them both online a few years ago, eventually meeting in person. Now that they've both been nominated for picture editing Emmys, I wanted to talk to them about their careers.
Not just job stuff, but everything: priorities, difficulties, triumphs. How did they navigate the city of LA when they were new and unknown? What's important to success – and what isn't? Mostly, I want this success – in reality editing and scripted editing – to be a sort of touchstone – for me, and for all the people who have reached out to me in the wake of my own move to Hollywood in the spring of 2015.
Mary DeChambres, editor (left) and Catherine Haight, ACE, editor (right)|
Mary DeChambres has been an editor for over 15 years. Originally beginning her career as a public school teacher in Texas, she made a massive career leap to post production and started working her way up in reality television. Serving as editor on shows like The Real World and Jersey Shore, she was nominated for and won her first Primetime Emmy for Project Runway (Season 5 Finale) in 2009. (Now airing on Lifetime, Season 5 was the final to air on Bravo.) In 2015, she was nominated for her second Emmy, for Lifetime's Project Runway All-Stars (Something Wicked This Way Comes).
Catherine (Cate) Haight, ACE has also been in post production for over 15 years, jumping into scripted narrative after film school. She spent nearly a decade working as an assistant editor on shows like Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies, and features including Cabin in the Woods. She's served as the editor on the pilot for HBO's Girls, the film Afternoon Delight, and the hit Amazon series Transparent. Her picture editing Emmy nomination for the Transparent pilot is her first.
So on a late summer evening, my fruit and cheese platter and I head up the 101 Freeway to Mary's picturesque Valley home. Cate, madeline cookies in tow, arrives when I do. We pour sangria and admire Mary's dog and Emmy. It's nearly twilight by the time we settle near Mary's pool to begin our formal, recorded conversation.
GETTING STARTED IN EDITING (GETTING STARTED IN HOLLYWOOD)
Kylee: Everyone have a full glass?
Cate/Mary: [mumbling affirmative sounds mixed with light snacking]
Sangria and snacks pool-side at Mary's home.
Kylee: Okay, let's start with an easy one. Cate, how did you get started in editing?
Cate: I was always a movie buff and knew I wanted to be out here doing something in movies. I went to Occidental College [in Los Angeles] and studied film. Right out of school, I got a job as a production assistant on a show for Animal Planet called The Aquanauts, a world-traveling scuba diving show. I was a PA in the offices in LA and they ended up needing someone to help log all the footage that was coming in, logging in Avid.
So I did that – it was a promotion! Before that I didn't know much about editorial and wasn't necessarily interested in it specifically. But then I started doing that and learned Avid. I was on that show for about a year, and by the end of it I was assistant editing. The assistant on that show really took me under her wing and taught me everything she knew. By the end she was cutting and I was assisting, and we went from there. I was an assistant for about ten years before I started cutting.
Kylee: I've heard that it's easier to move up faster in TV. Has that been your experience?
Cate: It really depends on what shows you end up on. If you end up on a string of shows that get canceled after 13 episodes like I did, it doesn't necessarily go faster. But yes if you're on a show that goes for several seasons, there's absolutely a lot of room to move up. I know at one point on Bones all three of the editors had started as assistants on the show, although I don't know if it's still the case.
When a show goes for a long time, there's a lot of room to move up and become an editor. That's not how it happened for me. Features are harder because yeah, somebody gets hired as the editor on the movie, they do their job and then they're done. If you're hired on as an assistant, there's often nowhere to go because the editor is going to cut the movie. But what happens if you're just in the feature world is you work with the same editors a lot, and then they start recommending you for things. There's no rhyme or reason to how moving up happens.
Mary: Yeah, I think everyone tends to have their own path. My path is a little unique in that I started editing while I was a public school teacher. I was teaching art to high school and junior high students, and I got Avid as part of my classroom package. I consider myself an artist, so for me it was just one more artistic tool.
When I was editing, time would absolutely fly! I was absorbed in every moment of it and loved it, intensely loved it. I kind of felt like as an artist, I found my medium. I was teaching in Texas and knew a little about the industry because my husband was producing music videos and small budget features in Houston. But I still didn't really know the software or KNOW editing. So we decided to come out here to Los Angeles.
I took a class at USC, it was like a six week immersion course where you're there five days a week and for an hour they teach you a different tool in the Avid and you have the rest of the day to play with it and figure it out. We would cut things together and show each other, and for me that's where it clicked. I was like yeah, this is what I want to do.
And while I was taking that class I was lucky enough to land an internship – at 30 years old, probably the world's oldest intern – but I didn't care, I just wanted the experience! I got an internship at a music video and commercial post production house in Venice that doesn't exist anymore. They did the Mazda "Zoom Zoom" commercials and a bunch of big budget music videos and it was fascinating. I also saw the politics behind all that.
Then I landed a job at Bunim/Murray, who are known for The Real World. I got a job as a dubber on Love Cruise to get my foot in the door. And as a tape operator, I was making just slightly less than I was as a teacher.
Cate: (laughing) That's so sad.
Mary: (also laughing) Yeah it's really sad. It's so sad.
So from there I'm thinking hey, my career can only go up. Maybe I'll just sit out on teaching for a year and then I'll have all these great experiences I can share with my students. But I never got around to going back to the classroom. Within two years I worked my way up to editor at Bunim/Murray at the time when reality TV was exploding, around 2001. I had some great mentors there, and that helped a lot too. So that's how I made my way up the ranks.
MENTORS AND MOVING UP (AND KEYBOARD SHORTCUTS)
Kylee: Can you tell me more specifically about the biggest mentors that helped you?
Cate: I have three people who were really influential for me and helpful and supportive. One is Alan Baumgarten, who was the editor on [the feature] Charlie Bartlett. I worked with him for the first time on Wonderfalls, the television series. When he got Charlie Bartlett he asked me to go do that film with him. That's actually how I got into features – with him. I haven't worked with him since, but we're still very close. And Jon Poll, who was the director of Charlie Bartlett but is also an editor, that film was his first as a director. It was an incredible cutting room. The two of them had known each other forever. They came up together as assistant editors. It was just an amazing collaborative, supportive environment where I learned so much.
There were a few scenes in the movie that were mine, that I cut. They would give me notes and I'd do them with Jon and Alan overseeing the whole thing, but they really gave me ownership over those three or four scenes. And then I got my first editing job because Alan recommended me for the pilot for "Girls". That was the first job I got hired on as the editor.
Another mentor is Lisa Lassek, who is an editor I first worked with on Wonderfalls actually. We worked on a couple other shows, and then I did Cabin in the Woods with her in Vancouver. She's a close friend and has been such an incredible, supportive person for me. The three of them have been deeply helpful, influential and supportive, and I've learned a lot and continue to learn a lot.
Mary: My mentors are really the editors from Bunim/Murray that I studied under. They really encourage mentorship which is unique for a post production company, and especially for a reality TV company. There's just no time in the schedule, yet somehow they make time.
Mark Raudonis, the head of post production, was invaluable to me. He would sit behind me while I was editing and he would bark out keyboard shortcuts at me like SHIFT APPLE A! SHIFT APPLE S! He instilled in me how important it was to have those keyboard shortcuts down and to have that kind of speed, and be able to pull footage and make changes quickly because you never know who might be sitting behind you in the edit bay.
There was also Oskar Dektyar at Bunim/Murray. He started editing linearly, editing tape to tape and cutting reality footage this way. He really instilled in me to think before I cut, because he would have to think out all these decisions so intensely before he did it. So he was like [affecting a Russian accent] "Mary" – he's Russian – "Mary, you must think! Don't cut! You think, you think, you THINK! Cutting takes this much time, it's the thinking that takes your time." [normal accent] He really taught me to think these things out and plan a scene and what's the best and purest moment for the scene.
Cate: Yeah I've found I've learned more from sitting behind editors and watching them work than anything else. Especially on stuff like Avid shortcuts. Like, wait a minute, what did you just do!
Cate: I'll still be in someone else's bay and see them do something and I'll be like w-w-what wait what was that! Since there are 18 ways to do anything in Avid.
Cate: I'm always interested because everyone works differently. So yeah, sitting behind people...and being an assistant for ten years, that's basically what I was doing a lot. It's tougher now because there are fewer assistants than there used to be.
Cate and Mary discuss the cross-over between scripted and reality editorial.
THE POLITICS OF THE EDITING SUITE
Kylee: Going back to the beginning – Mary, did you find there were a lot of similarities between teaching and editing?
Mary: You would think they are so different but they're really not! When I was teaching I would have to give information and present material to my classroom. I look at editing the same way. A person's attention span is the same whether they're watching a TV program or they're listening to a teacher in a classroom. So my pacing, my comedic timing, I definitely learned from teaching because that helped my students stay focused.
I treat my audience the same way. I want to make sure they stay focused, I want to be sure they are able to understand the material and can absorb everything in the scene and whatever the scene is about – like if someone is upset or crying or whatever the build up is to that – I want to make sure it's really clear THAT'S the path we're going to get there, and it doesn't just come out of nowhere. I try to find all those things to make that moment.
Kylee: It's interesting how much crossover there is between seemingly unrelated things.
Mary: And then the politics too. I think working with a lot of personality types like I did in the classroom definitely helps me in the edit room. Whatever producer comes into my bay, I don't care if they're the crankiest or worst producer on this earth, I've had enough conflict resolution training as a teacher. I can handle whatever!
Cate: We should all have conflict resolution training.
Kylee: That should be part of the Union Safety Pass Class.
Mary: [laughing] It really should be.
[Kylee: laughing because I'm hilarious]
Mary: So that's something I see in the reality TV world: a lot of my editing colleagues having issues with dealing with different personality types. I think that's certainly something that sets me apart because I have that training.
Cate: That's a fascinating connection! And it's exactly the same in scripted. Half the job is being a person that people like to be around.
Mary: Yeah! I want my edit bay to be somewhere they look forward to going into. And not dreading like "oh great, we gotta deal with the editor now".
Cate: Right, and knowing when to keep your mouth shut. And when to speak up.
Cate: But especially knowing when to keep your mouth shut.
Project Runway All Stars, Season 4 Episode 3, "Something Wicked This Way Comes" for which Mary DeChambres received her second Emmy nomination (2015). Photo courtesy Lifetime.
WHERE THE JOBS ARE
Kylee: So you both felt you needed to be in Los Angeles to accomplish your goals.
Cate/Mary: [affirmative sounds while eating cookies]
Kylee: What was the decision to come here like?
Cate: My older brother had already come out here and already worked in the entertainment industry. I wanted to go to a smaller school because my high school was tiny. I visited Occidental and found it was a perfect fit for me. And yes, I knew I wanted to be in the industry. I had an internship at Paramount while I was still in college. So it really made sense.
Kylee: I'm asking because a lot of people try to say you don't need to be in LA to be an editor, but it really comes down to the kind of work you want to do.
Cate: Right. If you want to do scripted TV or movies, anything that airs at a national level, it's here.
Mary: Yeah, it's here.
Cate: You could do it in NY if you wanted to, of course. It's a little bit harder.
Mary: For me, getting to LA...my husband was working on a show called Big Bad Beetleborgs, so he was already living out here and coming back to Texas to see me every month or so. I knew because he couldn't get enough work back in Texas that it would be really hard for me to get any kind of regular work. It was just common sense.
I came out here one summer and just really fell in love with the city. It was like when you go on vacation somewhere, you're like ah I could live here! That's what happened to me. I came here on vacation, took that USC class, I was like well, "if I take the class and go back to Texas and teaching, I've got that much more to share with my students. But if I happen to make a career of it out here? Hey, even better!"
Cate: You have such a unique resume. [laughing] I've never met another editor who was a school teacher!
Kylee: So what was your life like the first year you lived in LA?
Mary: It was rough! I was trying to sell my house in Houston. Plus I was dealing with rent here and working at the lowest level job a company could possibly give me. I mean, I was a tape duplication operator. That was hard, financially. I wasn't used to having to budget like that. I also wasn't used to working such a 9 to 5 type of a job where the responsibilities were so different than what I was doing with teaching. The work felt a little unfulfilling in the beginning because I was having to work as a coordinator and really work my way up.
At the same time, it was super exciting, because even as a clearance coordinator, I'm calling companies like Nike! Like "hey, your logo is going to be on The Real World, can we show it?" That was so different and out of the realm of what I was doing with teaching that it was actually kind of fun.
It was kind of a mixed bag of emotions – super super fun, super hard financially to pull it all together. In a big way it really brought my husband and I closer together because we were sacrificing so much to do this that it made me work that much harder. It was a challenge, but WELL worth it.
Cate: Well, I was a freshman in college so it was easy for me. I think moving to somewhere new for college is the easiest way to move anywhere. They plunk you down and they're like 'this is where you live, this is where you eat, these are your friends, and this is how you spend your time all day'.
Kylee: What about your first year out of college? When you had to decide where to eat on your own?
Cate: [laughing] Yes, no more meal card! First year was great since that's when I went to The Aquanauts. That first year is when I really started getting into editing. It was great! I had a lot of friends and my twin sister was my roommate. I had a lot of support.
Kylee: I think people hesitate to come here either way because it's a big move across the country for college, or a big transition from another career – either way, a big financial burden. It keeps a lot of people away. It's great to hear you made it work.
Cate: If you have roommates and stuff, you really can make it work.
Mary: Having a support system like friends or college really helps.
Jeffery Tambor transitioning on Amazon's Transparent, the pilot for which earned Cate Haight her first Emmy Award nomination (2015). Photo courtesy Gregory Zabilski-Amazon.
THE REALITY OF GOALS (AND WORKING IN REALITY AS A GOAL)
Kylee: What were your goals early on in your career? Did you have any long term goals in mind?
Cate: I used to say to myself "I have to be an editor by the time I'm 30." But I was past 30 by the time I became one. [laughing] That was fine though. It took a little longer than I anticipated. I assisted for a few more years past then. But the goals were just to be able to edit. Obviously everyone hopes to work on good stuff that's fulfilling. I'm grateful I've managed to do that. It's nice to feel like I've achieved so many of my goals already, that I'm doing what I want to do.
Mary: My main goal was just to become an editor, and I was happy with that. Once I became an editor in reality TV, I got a little complacent and thought well, I want to be a show-runner. So then I started grooming myself to take that path, and I really sat back and watched what a show-runner has to deal with. And I was like you know what? NO.
Kylee: I wondered if you had any artificial goals early on like how you said you wanted to be an editor by 30, because I fell into that over-planning trap when I was younger.
Cate: Yeah, I think that was something I randomly told myself when I was 25 or 26 and 30 seemed so far away.
Cate: I didn't beat myself up about it though. I knew I would get there.
Kylee: I learned that the hard way.
Mary: You know, with editing, I meet so many young people that are like 'yeah I wanna edit'! But I think with reality TV – and you've probably experienced this with scripted as well, Cate-- the more of a life you've lived, the better editor you are. You recognize the emotions in people. You know how to bring it out of the take.
You know how to find that little glance, that little sideways glance that could mean nothing but could mean everything all at the same time. I think having those life experiences makes you that much of a better editor. And I know it's so hard to hear as a younger person because they're like "argh, I just wanna get out there and do it". But I think sitting back, living a bit more of life, having an emotional bank to draw from, makes you a better editor.
Cate: It also makes you a better politician in the cutting room. Like what we said before – half the job is the politics of the cutting room. When you're too young, you're not capable of that – I've seen it and I've felt it myself. Like when I've done something stupid –
Mary: [laughing] Oh yes.
Cate: You put your foot in your mouth or whatever and you suddenly feel like a kid and realize you're not there yet. Growing up is a huge part of being able to do the job.
EMMY NOMINATIONS (AND WORKING ON A SHOW YOU LOVE)
Kylee: And now you're Emmy nominated. Twice for you, Mary.
Mary: Yes, I won the first time.
Cate: Yeah, I saw it inside the house!
Mary and husband Q. DeChambres after winning her first Emmy, in 2009
Kylee: To outsiders from the industry, or just anyone that isn't so involved in the work we do, the Emmys and Oscars are kind of the big thing. It's really the only time the public sees the editor recognized for their work, and people think of these awards in a certain way. How does it actually feel to be nominated for one?
Cate: It feels incredible! It's thrilling. I mean we all know maybe it's all a little bit of nonsense, but it's also amazing to be recognized when you've been working so hard. I'm tremendously proud of Transparent. It's a job that I would do until the day I die if I could. So especially being nominated for this is so wonderful. [laughing] It really is! I'm thrilled. I'm really excited for the party too.
Mary: [laughing] The party is the BEST.
Cate: I keep hearing it's so great!
Mary: Ah, open bar.
Cate: Is it true you have 90 seconds from the minute they call your name to the end of your speech?
Mary: There's a little leeway, but once you hit the stage there's a 30 second counter that goes up.
Kylee: If you run, you get more time?
Cate: We're all wearing shoes we don't walk in every day. It's not like I'm running up there.
Mary: For me, being the second nomination, the only way I can describe the way it feels is to say it's like I'm wearing an invisible tiara. As crazy as it is that's how it feels.
Mary: I got lucky in that I ended up on a show that I absolutely loved. I loved Project Runway from the first season it was on. It was just so creative, and I loved that you could see artists doing what artists do. So when I got the call to even work on the show, I was thrilled. I couldn't believe it. Every day was a joy. And then to win the Emmy the first time, it's insane.
Kylee: The day you found out you were nominated, what was that like?
Mary: I found out on Facebook!
Cate: Seriously, somebody tagged you?
Mary: I got a congratulatory message on Facebook and I was like ohmygod is it real? So I was like I've got to find out! Going on the Academy website, trying to find the list and –
Mary/Cate/Kylee: [unsettling unison] You cannot find it!
Mary: It takes forever for them to publish it. Here's the thing: Project Runway All-Stars is a little spin-off of a show. Project Runway is the brand, it's what we're known for. We're not known for this little spin-off. To get any kind of recognition for it was thrilling and beyond my expectations.
Cate: I found out at Stage 16 at Paramount. We have three stages there for Transparent, and Stage 16 is the giant one with the Pfefferman house. Jill [Soloway, Transparent's creator/showrunner] had said we're going to have a TV on Stage 16 and we're getting together at 8:30 to watch the nominations. The televised ones are just the actors and big categories and we got two there –
Mary: That's huge.
Cate: Right, Jeffrey Tambor got nominated, and we got best comedy. We were thrilled and over the moon, and then all of us – there's like 50 of us sitting around – we're refreshing our phones trying to find the full list. [laughing] And we can't get a signal and nobody can find anything. Jill finally says" alright let me call my agent." She does, puts him on speaker phone and he tells us we got 11 nominations. We were like "wait a minute, we only just got TWO on TV, we've got NINE more?"
Mary: Oh my gosh, so you guys are all just waiting there!
Cate: That's an insane number! He's naming them off – production design, costumes – and I look at my phone and a text pops up from my sister that just says YES in all capital letters with three exclamation points and I call her and ask her – Did I? And she says YES I'm looking at it! Everyone is listening to Jill's agent and I'm jumping up and down in the back on the phone.
Mary: I had a full day of work ahead of me! I just got back from a run when all this started to come up.
Cate: We had a table read that day. Jill walks in the room, turns on music and says "guys, we're just gonna dance for a while." It was the best day.
Cate Haight and the cast and crew from Transparent take a few minutes to celebrate their 11 Emmy nominations. Video by Aaron Miller.
Mary: The thing is, we don't do what we do for those moments – but when those moments happen, they're so special that you really do have to celebrate them.
QUALITY OF LIFE (AND QUALITY OF WORK)
Kylee: What is your working environment like on these shows? Does it contribute to your quality of work, and eventually being recognized for that quality?
Mary: My working environment on Project Runway All-Stars is I'm in an edit bay by myself all day. I don't screen in my bay, which I love. Cuts go out for screenings. My hours are I go in whenever I want to and I leave whenever I want to. They give us a lot of flexibility. I'm able to do what I want to do at the beginning of my day and go in around 10:30 – I found out over the years that I'm at my most creative from about three in the afternoon until about seven or eight in the evening.
Because they're so generous with our flex time, it enables me to be my most creative. That's rare, because there are a lot of other shows that don't do that. They can be clock watchers that want to know the editor is sitting in her bay at 9AM and don't want her leaving until 8 at night. That's ridiculous to me. I'd rather be judged on the quality of my work rather than the quantity of me sitting in the chair.
Cate: You need a standing desk.
Mary: I do have one now!
Cate: I too am allowed to set my own hours when I'm not working with producers or the director. Generally speaking, I'm in by 9:30 because I actually get a lot done before lunch. I like going in and digging into something right away. I just get in, do my work and leave. I hate the notion of having to put up appearances and be there.
That being said, my work takes all day, so I'm usually there from about 9:30 until 6:30 to 7:30. Sometimes there's a late night if you're working with a director or producer, or there's a deadline. The environment itself, I always try to work with people I like. It's always helpful when you have a post team – the co-producer, associate producer, the people that are facilitating things for you – when they're great and help make your job easier.
And obviously assistant editors who we rely on for everything. And I'm a big believer in stopping for lunch and trying to get everyone to sit at a table for at least 20 or 30 minutes so you can just hang out and get out of your bay for a minute. When we have time I like to go outside for lunch.
Kylee: As your career progresses, have you found your priorities have shifted?
Cate: I don't know that mine have. I've always felt that having a life outside of work was important.
Cate: And I've always made an effort to do it and I think I'm a very social person. I'm close with my sister. I have close friends and I really make an effort to see them all a lot. I've always done that. It's very important to me. I don't have a family or a husband yet, so my friends are very important to me.
I think it makes my work better because I step away from it and do different things. It's so easy to pour your whole essence into your work, and there are times when you do that because it's the only way. But it's always been important to me to have a social life outside work.
Kylee: That's great to hear.
Mary: For me, because I transitioned from teaching, I thought when you were on a show it was a 24/7 experience. It took me a while to find that balance, and that's becoming more important to me now, later in my career. I just want to have my weekends. I want to know I have my Saturday and my Sunday. I am yours Monday through Friday, so just let me have my weekends. I can be a better editor when I come back on Monday.
Whereas, early in my career I'd be like you need me Saturday? Sure! Sunday? Yeah, I'm there! Part of it was I was just hustling to make sure I was in demand. I was making sure I achieved a certain level in my career. Once I won the Emmy, I was like okay, I can sit back and relax a little. I can take some time off. I used to not do that. I used to always book my shows back to back. I'm finally learning to give myself some breathing room.
Cate: And to stop worrying the next job won't come.
Mary: Yes, and to stop worrying about the next job, because it always comes.
Cate: It does.
Mary: So I'm learning to sit back and I've taken on other responsibilities like doing things with the [Motion Picture Editors Guild Board of Directors] and being more active with mentoring. My work with the guild is incredibly fulfilling. More so than any of my editing work, because I know the impact that is going to happen later down the line.
Mary running a Motion Pictures Editing Guild panel on workflow in the summer of 2015
Kylee: I talk to a lot of established editors who have won awards or work on high level features and TV, and a shocking number of them tell me about their work-life balance being nonexistent. They're on features for eight months and don't see their kids, they push them over onto their spouse – usually wife – and they say well, I love editing so I do it seven days a week, 12 hours a day and that's just the job.
I ask them, don't you want to change this? And they just say no, it's the way the industry is and you have to evolve to match it.
As editors now, are you able to influence how your staff prioritizes work-life balance? Like what you said about bringing people to a table to eat lunch, do you bring that into your cutting rooms?
Cate: I try to. When I was an assistant, I couldn't stand editors who made me stay only because they were there, even when there was nothing for me to do. It doesn't make any sense to me. So as an editor, I try to tell the assistants to go home. And sometimes they have more to do than I do on this show, but when they don't and I'm just cutting, I'll say "Go, leave, get out of here!"
I was always the assistant that would be like hey I'm taking off unless you need anything. You have to learn how to do that. This job can be done, it SHOULD be able to be done in the time allotted for you. Of course there are always exceptions to that and there will be some late nights, but it should not be par for the course. I've managed to make it so it almost never is. For me at least, on the shows I've done. I don't have kids. Do you?
Cate: So I know that's a whole other thing. I don't have children, but I know that if and when I do it'll be a really really tricky thing. I don't know how you do that. But I know lots of editors, women who are editors, they have children. I assisted an editor who was incredibly talented and went into her interview and said "I have a three year old, I know sometimes it'll be impossible but I would normally like to leave around 6 or 6:30." The director wanted to hire her so he said we'll make it work. And they made it work. You just have to hope you're working with sane people who recognize that there are things that matter beyond the movie or TV show.
Mary: I was on a show once that has come back for multiple seasons with pretty much the same editing staff, and they tried to tighten the schedule on us, shortening it by almost a week. Which is pretty significant when it's a ten week schedule.
We all pushed back and said no, and refused to come back. By having that kind of unity with post staff, they had to accommodate us. We'd done the show so many times at that point, we know what it takes and we can barely meet the deadlines as it is without overtime. I think it helps being on union shows because they're penalized and do have to pay overtime. When it becomes cost prohibitive to the company, they start to realize it's better if they have everyone work a ten hour day and let them go.
IN ORDER TO FORM A MORE PERFECT GUILD (A MORE PERFECT UNION)
Kylee: Since we're on the topic of unions, can you tell me more about your role on the MPEG board?
Mary: I represent picture editors on the Motion Picture Editors Guild, and it's my first year so I'm still kind of learning. I've been able to get pretty active on the diversity committee, and there will be some things we're going to be rolling out soon. I'm also pretty active with the member outreach committee. I'll be moderating a panel about competition reality TV shows where we focus on the workflow between the post producer, editor and assistant editor. I'm very excited about that. I've been able to help make sure decisions for our members, and it's been really enlightening to see some of the behind the curtain of how this all happens.
Kylee: Workers' rights are so important. And right now as we speak, there's even a strike happening on a show not far from here.
Mary: Right yeah. Especially in reality TV, it's really important that we support any one of these strikes. I'm not saying every reality television show should be union. It can be a low budget production, and the network is taking a risk by even having it on the air sometimes. But when you get into a second, third or fourth season of a show that's doing well, that's getting good ratings, if that crew wants to be a union crew, they certainly should be. I think they've earned it. It's the only way for our colleagues to get health insurance they can take from job to job.
Cate: That's exactly it. We're freelance!
Mary: It is the only way you can have any consistency there. And it's rare in the reality TV world, which is part of why I'm so active in the guild.
STORMING THE GATES (CRYING AT WORK)
Kylee: Cate, I know that you're also active in the industry, especially with trying to build up women. You have a bimonthly mixer –
Cate: Yes, I started it because a few months ago I got together with four or five editors, coincidentally all women, and we had such a great time going out for drinks and talking about work. It was so nice to commiserate and bond. So I thought you know, I'll send an email to all the women I know – which after 15 years in the industry is quite a few – and say hey let's go get something to eat and get drinks on this date, bring your female friends. A women in editorial meet up.
The first one, there were over 30 people there. It was wonderful and so great. A wonderful mix of feature and television, scripted and unscripted, a lot of documentary people. Really great combination of people with no structure. Now I do it every two months.
It takes very little effort on my part. It's been tremendously successful getting friends of friends. The statistics are abysmal. The union membership is 75% male.
Mary: 80%, actually.
Cate: Oh it's gotten worse, great! [laughter] It's nuts, especially when people say "oh, editorial, there's a ton of women." There are a few women editors who are famous. Like other than Walter Murch, the famous editors are Thelma Schoonmaker and Anne V. Coates – as famous as an editor can be, right? I think that's part of the reason why people think there are more. But the numbers are not great. So I think it's important for people to support each other.
Cate with Jill Soloway at the 2015 Directors Guild Awards
I was really inspired by Jill. She's always saying "yeah we've gotta pull each other up, who's gonna if we don't." She's always trying to help get women and queer people and trans people jobs. All the "other" people, get them in here and working.
Kylee: I know Jill recently made a great speech to female AFI graduates, and I loved what she said about crying while you work. Like, cry if you want to, feel emotions. People are told not to do that, not to show their emotion. Why do you think it's hard to cultivate basic humanity in our industry?
[extra long pause]
Cate: Well, women didn't make the rules. But now I'm working on this show where I'm crying at work all the time. Scenes and footage make me cry. I feel like 98% of an editor's job is being tapped into the emotional content of what they're doing. If you actually can't cry, if you can't go there and tap into your emotions and feel everything really deeply, then you're going to be missing something in your work, I think. As editors, what we're trying to do is make people feel something, right? If you yourself can't feel it, how are you going to do that well?
Mary: I want to read that speech.
[Editor's Note: Here ya go. "Jill Soloway To Female Filmmakers: 'Let's Storm The Gates'" Warning: NSFW language.]
Jill Soloway at the American Film Institute's Directing Workshop For Women. Photo courtesy AFI.
Cate: Jill is amazing. I'm so blessed to work alongside her.
Kylee: I love the idea of building each other up, because the statistics are so bad.
Cate: I've never had an experience that I know of where I've felt discriminated against, but I am often the only woman in the cutting room. So I'm aware of the statistics, and I'm sure there's been many a desk my resume has landed on where I wasn't interviewed because I'm a woman. But I don't see that, I don't know that happened. I'm sure it does, I've just not felt it outright.
Project Runway All-Stars editors Jouvens Exantus, Carlos David Rivera and Mary at the 2015 Emmy Nominee Reception in Beverly Hills
Mary: I haven't either. I know it happens and I'm sure my resume has been passed over while a man's was given a second look. But I don't dwell on that so much because there's so much work and I want to be somewhere I'm wanted. The editing team I was nominated with [in 2015] for Project Runway All-stars, we have a Cuban American man, an African American man who was our additional editor, and then you have me. We're the most diverse team, and it was refreshing to see all these different points of view!
That show was probably the most diverse show I've worked on. Most shows I'm one woman of ten men, but that show in particular tends to be 50/50.
Cate: We're 100% female on the editorial staff of Transparent right now.
Mary: That's so rare.
Cate: Yes, there's three women editing, and two women assisting.
Kylee: That's like 10% of the employed women in scripted.
Transparent's editorial team: editor Sunny Hodge, assistant editor Julie Cohen, editor Cate Haight, editor Hilda Rasula, and assistant editor Julia Franklin Creal.
PROUDEST SEQUENCE (MOST CHALLENGING SEQUENCE)
Kylee: Getting back to your work, can you describe a scene or specific cut on a show you've worked on that you're especially proud of?
Cate: There's a sequence in Afternoon Delight, Jill's movie that I cut, that we called "women & wine and poker." It's this sequence where all the women are together and men are together and it's this cross cut sequence over the course of an evening. The women are getting are getting more and more drunk, and the guys are getting more and more drunk, and it all builds to a big explosion at the end. It's about 15 minutes of the movie, and I'm incredibly proud of that sequence.
The first cut was like 35 minutes long. They took a full day to shoot the women's side. There's cross cuts, music woven through the whole thing that's playing in the room with the guys and becomes kind of the "scource" they call it, when the source music becomes score. I feel like that sequence for Jill as a director, I think she would point to that as what put her on the path she is on now. That's the sequence where she really found her voice, and we both learned to do this together. I started with her doing shorts on the weekend for free.
Kylee: Did you have to work for it, or did it come together out of the material?
Cate: It really came together out of the material. I really felt like I was able to sculpt it down from the first insanely long cut to the 15 minutes it became, working collaboratively. We didn't have to force it into something. I still watch it and it's a crazy emotional nightmare dream thing. It's really the peak of the film. It just works. Dirty, funny, sad – that's Jill's thing.
Mary: I always enjoy editing the runway part of Project Runway because we have complete creative control over that. You can do whatever you want. You can do panels, flash, add [Genarts] Sapphire effects, whatever you want to do.
Cate: Open the Effects Palette!
Mary: Yeah, how often do we get to play? So I always enjoy editing that part because it feels a lot like a music video. I think a pivotal moment for me in the edit room was when I was editing a show called Newlyweds for MTV. It was about Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson, following their first year of marriage. And they gave me some raw footage and said "They go out to eat, we don't know what's there, just make something". I'm like oookay.
I'm watching all the raw footage and anytime they do anything interesting I'm putting it into a sequence, like I don't know what I've got here but let's see what I can make of this. After every third bite, Jessica would make this loud mmm sound. When I had this sequence assembled of her just saying mmm over and over, it became really comedic. That showed me how much control I could have in the edit bay. That I could take this three hour boring meal and condense it into 30 seconds that were hilarity.
Then I was like okay, now I see the power and control i have here. That, to me, was an eye opening moment. I'm always given the task of make it interesting and hit these story points. You have to make non-actors interesting, entertaining and engaging, and really get your audience sucked into these moments.
The Season 5 finale of Project Runway, for which Mary won an Emmy in 2009. Photo courtesy Bravo.
Kylee: It's such a struggle to find that sometimes, but when you do, it's really fun.
Mary: It's interesting because sometimes I'll work with producers who have a mindset of what they want the footage to be going into it. And there are some that are like I dunno, see what you can make of it. I tend to work with the producers that are willing to bring out the best of the material as opposed to forcing the material into something it's not.
Cate: It's the same with scripted. There's the scene you write, the scene you shoot, and the scene you cut. Those are three different things. You have to forget what you wrote and forget what you meant to shoot, maybe, and really work with what you got and make the best version of that scene. They say editing is the final rewrite.
Kylee: What's been your biggest career challenge so far?
Mary: Every new show is a new challenge! I change shows every three months. Every time I go to a new show it's a challenge because I feel I have to prove myself all over again. Even though I've been doing this for 15 years now. Every new show is its own challenge.
Cate: For me, transitioning from assisting to editing was difficult. There was a period where I was bouncing back and forth between the two, and that was getting frustrating because I was definitely ready to be cutting full time. That was a bit of a challenge. I want to keep working on good stuff. Not everything can be Citizen Kane.
Mary: Especially not in the reality world.
Cate: You try to take good projects but still pay your bills. But every show is different, and day to day there are different challenges.
MOVING TO SCRIPTED (AND MOVING AUDIENCES)
Kylee: You mentioned assistants and I've heard that a lot of AEs are worried they can't get from reality to scripted. They're not even worried about getting to editor. That's what they want to do, but it's not their immediate concern.
Cate: I get asked that all the time. I also get asked that a lot by editors in reality, and the first thing I ask is "are you willing to assist?" No one is going to hire you as an editor in the scripted world if all you've cut is reality. There are exceptions, but it's rare. You have to be in the union, so do your hundred days in reality. And you have to work connections in the scripted world like anything else.
Make as many connections as you can, work every angle you have, and be persistent. Patience is the most important thing. I try to tell them I assisted for a decade before I was an editor. It's going to take a long time. You have to keep working at it. If you're smart and good, continue to do that you'll get a shot. There is no one way to do it, but you have to be a self-starter. No one will give it to you.
Mary: I think there's a certain amount of tenacity you have to have to get anywhere in our business. I'm finding that our assistant editors in reality television are getting such stellar reputations that they're being sought after in the scripted world. They're used to working with a very high volume of footage and several different formats and codecs. So if anyone is thinking of making the jump to scripted, I think its much easier to do at the assistant editor level than the editor level.
Cate: I also tell people not to get stuck. If reality is not where you want to be, don't take the job to cut when they offer it to you. You'll get used to that paycheck and you'll never leave.
Mary: It goes the other way too – we've had some scripted editors try to make the jump into reality and they're overwhelmed. They can't handle the volume of footage reality television has to deal with. It's a lot to take in and there's a learning curve. It's just different skill sets, although a lot of overlap. Telling a story is telling a story.
Cate: Right, and making someone feel something is making someone feel something.
Kylee: Did you ever feel discouraged when you were ready to move up?
Cate: I knew that it would happen and it would take persistence. I was working with Pam Martin, an editor who cut "The Fighter" – she has a career someday I'd like to have. I admire her tremendously. I was struggling. I had bounced between editing and assisting and I asked her if she had any advice. And she said "just cut. Cut everything you can get your hands on, you have to keep cutting."
At that point I made a conscious decision to say yes to all the freebie short films on the weekends – or at least the ones that made sense to do. I started doing more shorts, working nights and weekends on them. I didn't want to, you don't necessarily want to when you have a full time job, but if you want to cut in the scripted world sometimes you have to do these things. And one of those films I cut was Jill Soloway's.
Yeah it was discouraging in some ways, but being an assistant is also a very rewarding job. You have great relationships with the editors you're working with, you're making a reasonable living. There are plenty of people who are assistants for life, that's what they do. I was just ready to move up, and I knew it would happen.
Mary: It was worth the wait though.
Above, Cate Haight at the 2015 Emmy Nominee Reception. Below, Mary and Q. DeChambres at a 2015 Emmys party.
Mary: I only assisted for two years so I had a little bit of a different circumstance. I was ready and opportunities were happening all at the same time. I was 32 by the time I was at Bunim/Murray, assisting. I already had this whole other career behind me, but I would still cut everything when I had the opportunity. I would stay late all the time while my colleagues were worried about parties and Hollywood. I was like no, I've sacrificed a lot to be here and I'm going to make the most out of every opportunity I'm given.
You want me to edit a package of every time we see Dr. Pepper on The Real World? Guess what, I'm happy to do that for you because Dr. Pepper is happy to see that, they're paying for it. If I can make it fun and put it to music, then great.
Cate: I also think it's important to say it's not unusual to assist for ten years. That's how long it takes.
Kylee: Yeah, many people don't realize that.
Cate: I actually hate the "these kids these days" nonsense, I can't stand that...BUT, there are a lot of people now that come into the industry already knowing the software so they think they're editors.
It used to be that it was all film and you were an apprentice who learned how to rewind film or the basics of the job and had to be taught. Now people already have the software and know how it works, that does not an editor make of course. I think a lot of people are just impatient in a different way. People have always been impatient – I won't go down that "these kids these days" rabbit hole – I've met plenty of people who were just starting out.
I once had an interview with a PA who was just graduating from USC who said "I like to think if everybody died, I could finish the film on my own."
Mary: Well that's some ambition.
BEING YOURSELF (TEXT AND SUBTEXT)
Kylee: I think both Transparent and Project Runway All-Stars are shows with a really interesting subtext about being yourself. What do you hope audiences take away from your work on these shows?
Mary: When editing reality television, I want to showcase our contestants as authentically as I can within the time constraints of a 40 minute episode. That's what I want my audience to notice, our contestants; hard work and their phenomenal designs. Well, that and dogs...I sneak dogs into the b-roll whenever I can.
Cate: Is it subtext? I tend to think that it's overt-text in Transparent! It's all about being yourself – entirely – even when it's not easy. The 5 main characters on the show are really just searching for authenticity, for truth, for honesty, even if they go about it in complex ways. And I hope that everyone feels that when they watch it, and it makes people want to be authentic, truthful, and honest. And allow others to be their authentic selves – even when it's difficult.
From here the conversation derailed into off-the-record matters of post production, parties, and melon water, all the most shareable bits already accounted for over our two hours together. For Cate and Mary, who spend their lives on studio stages or seeing all the in-betweens of a hit reality show, 70s sitcom sets being just around the corner are a fact of every day life. But talking to them, you find that they retain a sense of wonder for all the city has to offer. We're all lucky in ways, but they've earned everything without accumulating cynicism.
Coming to the epicenter of film and television in Hollywood, I always thought I would have to become fully absorbed in my work as an editor to succeed. As I meet more people like Cate and Mary, I find that just the opposite is true. Hollywood gets a bad reputation for being brutally cut-throat, but when you find people who do good work, give back, and share openly – you get the sense that you just might make it here too.
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