This week, we’d like to welcome film editor, Eric Ekman. Eric was the primary editor on the new film Dead Dead and has also edited numerous other documentaries and music videos in his career. In addition to his role in the editing room, Eric was also present on set, helping to get the necessary shots and assist with gathering production audio.
In our interview with Eric, we were able to dive even deeper into the editing techniques employed, as he shared his experience working on the film and some of the wisdom gathered over his career.
Let’s get started.
Q: Throughout Dead Dead, you managed to keep the pace moving pretty quickly in-between scenes and throughout other parts of film. Nothing dragged or overstayed its welcome. Can you talk a little about how the cut evolved as you worked on it and what you had to do in order to keep it tight?
Ken works as an editor himself, so it was refreshing to work with someone who wasn’t caught up with those minute details during the early stages of editing. We were able spend most of the time on character arcs and the “big picture”. It wasn’t until closer to locking picture that we honed in on pacing and frame f*king. The goal was always to keep the film around 80 minutes.
Q: A lot of editors can get hung up when beginning a cut, feeling a bit overwhelmed and unsure of exactly where to start. What is your typical process like when sit down to edit a scene? Are there circumstances that can change this process?
It’s always easier to motivate yourself to start editing when the material speaks to you and you have talented actors that offer a lot to work with. Dead Dad had all of that for me. It’s important to manage your time realistically and approach it one scene at a time.
I will say though, one of the most challenging sequences to dive into, on a technical level, was the party scene where the film’s climax happens. We shot the entire sequence in one day with 3 cameras and at times 3 external audio recorders… there was a lot to sync. Fortunately Ken took that beast by the horns and synced it all up for me, which I’m extremely grateful for.
Q: At several points in the film, you employed a cross-cutting technique that played with time in a really interesting way. One place you used it was in the scene at Russell’s apartment when the siblings were drinking and talking about whether their father committed suicide. You cut it in a bit of a montage style, using music underneath as you showed them talking at the table — but what made it unique was how you intercut their conversation seated at the table with shots of them doing other things around the apartment at different times than the conversation was actually taking place. You used this technique again in the nighttime car drive to the motel, showing them arriving at the hotel while repeatedly cutting back to them still in the car. Can you tell us a bit about how you came up with this technique and the function that it serves in those scenes?
When I came onto the project as the possible editor, I first edited a short scene introducing Jane, one of the siblings, for the Kickstarter campaign. This sequence was very montage/film trailer based, juxtaposing images with dialogue from different scenes to implant an idea about the situation. It was from editing this that I got a sense of what Ken wanted for the style of the film. Ken also referenced Terrence Malick who uses that device of editing extremely well. I hope we lived up to his standards.
Q: All the scene transitions in Dead Dad felt very motivated and flowed well. Ken Adachi, director of Dead Dad, mentioned that you were a big part of planning for that, even on the set. What are some of your favorite editorial devices for crafting a motivated transition into a new scene?
In addition to editing, I was also on set doing production sound. Part of the idea behind this was to have me on set so we could have discussions while scenes and coverage were evolving. It’s hard to ask a professional sound guy to work for credit alone. It was definitely useful because we could brainstorm what we needed to make scenes transition from one to the other and not feel like we missed something for the editing room. To my credit, the only ADR in the film wasn’t because of poor audio quality but instead to inject missing story elements… just sayin.
There’s a scene in particular where the siblings are having breakfast after an explosive disagreement the night before. The scene is there to show the brothers “making up” and the tone changes from awkward silence to their reconciliation and the mood lightens. There’s an improvisational moment where Lucas Peterson, who plays Alex, stabs himself in the eye (a creamer packet) with a fork, breaking the tension. I knew when we were on set that this would become the transitional moment into the next scene.
Q: One thing I noticed while watching the film is how you made great use of insert shots. You used them often when introducing a new scene, holding back your wide establishing shots until after we’ve seen some of the details of a new environment. An example of this would be when we first see inside Dad’s house and get a sense of the clutter and disarray from the insert shots of trash and bottles. Can you tell us some of functions of insert shots that you find particularly useful and why they’re an important editorial tool?
Inserts are a great way to get a sense of your location quickly while also helping to transition between scenes. They are often the last thing you shoot and a lot of times they are forgotten about in the midst of a hectic production schedule, but when you have them they can help an indie movie look like it had a much larger production design budget. I always take advantage of this method for introducing a new environment, it’s been ingrained into my psyche by the hundreds of movies I’ve watched in my life.
Q: When cutting a montage with music, sometimes it’s difficult to convey the information you need to get across in the time the musical rhythm dictates. Do you have any tips on music editing to shorten or lengthen a song to fit a moment? Or do you prefer to make the moment fit the song?
Montages can easily become a crutch to move one scene to another and sometimes I think there’s too much emphasis on dictating your cuts to the tempo of the track you like. It’s important to make sure you’re conveying the right idea first and edit the sequence without music, then throw in your music. A lot of times it will naturally fit the pacing of the song and you don’t have to get hung up on making every cut line up with the beat.
When it comes to editing a source track to fit your montage I generally decide on the section I want to start with. Then I look at how the track ends and figure out how to cut on the down beat so the song resolves as the sequence does. Or you can just fade it out.
Q: The following question is one I also asked of Ken, who felt that you would be able to provide a bit more insight. Were there any occasions where you thought a scene would play one way (funny, sad, light-hearted) but when you saw it in the editing room, it didn’t feel as intended? If so, how were you able to use the film editing process to help steer the scene back on course?
The first act of the movie was written pretty long, in particular the night after their dad’s funeral where they get drunk at Russ’ apartment. It was the first weekend of filming and there were a lot of scenes in this apartment where the actors were able to deviate from the script and explore some improvised interplay. These scenes were a lot of fun, and because I was on set during it all I was expecting this whole section of the movie to be a lot more slap-stick funny. On my first pass of the cut I edited all these scenes, but the intention was never to let them play out as individual scenes and instead were put in place so the actors could become comfortable with one another as siblings would. We ended up cross cutting a lot of the dialog and images from these different scenes. It works much better this way and we get a sense of the siblings reacquainting themselves with one another. Though somewhere there could probably be a stand-alone short film entitled, “Sloshed Sawtelle Siblings”.
Q: Are there any other thoughts or words of advice you’d like to share with other editors who might be struggling with a project?
As an editor you are locked away with material where you have to make hard decisions and you spend a lot of time justifying your decisions, so inevitably your ego is out in the open, subject to criticism. The biggest thing I’ve learned is to subdue the initial reaction to contest criticisms, and instead have the ability to put yourself in the position of the person giving you notes. It’s very important to be able to accept notes and be constructive about the work you’ve done. More often than not, there’s valid input to come from a second set of eyes. The key is to have the objectivity to make arguments for those battles worth fighting. As the editor, you are an extension of the director and writers. It’s important to accommodate their vision. That being said, don’t be a push over. Fortunate enough for me, Dead Dad was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had as an editor. Ken and Kyle (co-writer) forfeited a lot of trust in me and the experience will live with me for the rest of my life.
Additionally, I recently locked a documentary that I have been working on for two years. Before we locked, a seasoned editor watched the film and said something that I thought was worth sharing. Any filmmaker should embrace this when finishing a film.
I’m paraphrasing but it went something like:
“The film is solid, you can’t make it any better — only change it.”
We’d like to extend a huge thanks to Eric for taking the time to speak with us and congratulate him on a job well done.
Also, great quote! I think it’s an important thought to keep in mind when we feel the urge to mess with something that’s already working!
Do you have any favorite quotes about film-making or editing? Any pieces of advice that have served you well?
Please leave them in the comments below — we’d love to hear them!