21 September 2008

An evening with a film editor

Tonight I went up to IFS and listened to the collected tales of Jen Dean, a student here ten years ago. She is now a film editor with some real credits to her name, and an interesting style. She showed ads and some other things she had made. The Cold War Kids video was the most interesting to me visually. The director, when he was giving her his footage, had said, "You know the movie Raging Bull?"

"Sure," Jen said.

"JFK?" "Yeah, my boss [Hank Corwin] edited part of it."

"Days of Heaven?"


"Well, think about those three films and cut this," said the director.

And she did. It was so cool to see elements of those three films in there (and I thought I saw Stand By Me, too), and yet the video told its own story. There was a boxing match, which was the most inexplicable element but the most compellingly theatrical, and I liked the way the crowd chanted the line from the song at the fighters; there was the band's performance; and there were some kids outside tattooing the year onto their forearms: 1949. That latter drama that was unfolding outdoors amongst golden-green grasses and picket fences was so clearly influenced by Days of Heaven and the painter Andrew Wyeth, with its pastoral splendor yet something bleak in the foreground. I liked the contrast between the hilly, hazy outdoor scenes; the lush, coolly tinged footage of the band playing inside a 1940s house; and the boxing match shot in high-contrast black-and-white. Dean even described how she duplicated people in the boxing match scene to create the effect of a much bigger crowd than had really been there for the shoot.

I liked hearing Dean's behind-the-scenes stories and anecdotes. We saw a version of an ad she edited that no one else will probably ever see again because a high-profile actor opted out at the last moment (I'll never tell). Jen worked with on an ad starring Robert de Niro and had a fun little story about calling her former prof to get ideas about old films about New York from a taxi on the way to meet the director of the ad, Martin Scorsese. She's done some interesting projects, enough to find out what she likes (music and fashion, possibly feature-film editing down the road) and doesn't like (high-pressure environments involving lots of stakeholders right there angsting about every step -- and who would like that?). I'm sure she was inspiring to the folks in the room, many of whom were required to be there for their Film Studies classes (in Gender and Film and Women and Film). Ears perked up when she said her twin degrees (Film Studies, Film Production) and her familiarity with experimental and films of the silent era helped her stand out and to be able to "talk the talk" with folks like Marty Scorsese.

"I can't tell you enough how much ad people look at YouTube for inspiration," Dean said. She explained that a lot of ads that execs don't think would play well on national/local TV stations get placed on the internet for test runs, and added that "If you have some spec film or ad, you can really get yourself known" by putting them up on YouTube.

One story Jen Dean told was of meeting Thelma Schoonmaker, who works with Scorsese on many of his films, and feeling quite starstruck at meeting such an accomplished woman film editor. Dean and she told Schoonmaker how much she admired her. The editor wrote her back and they had a nice exchange. It opened her eyes that folks are folks, and that it can mean a lot to hear a little praise from someone who appreciates their work. She also said it's good to be yourself, and to have the courage of your convictions. Well, perhaps not so much your political convictions: her student film was about how Wal-Mart destroyed her small Texas town, Dean said, but then she found herself given a paying assignment to work on an ad for Wal-Mart, and she just sucked it up and did it. (She didn't mention whether she'd had any misgivings about doing ads for the tanklike H2 Hummer, but did wonder whether the Merrill Lynch ads she'd worked on would be shelved, given the current economic climate.)

Dean said it was about standing up for your best work, heeding your own instincts. She told of being asked to make some changes to a Payless Shoe ad and how she drew the line at the fourth request, insisting that the kid in the striped shirt was her favorite image and she would not cut that. Later her colleague reviewed her performance with their client, admiring the way she "handled" them. She told this story not in a self-congratulatory way at all, rather, saying she didn't even remember it as an exceptional event. She just stood up for what she believed made it work, and she was right. That's moxie.

p.s. In the interest of full disclosure, I wrote the blurbs for the IFS schedule this semester. And I have just now learned that I passed along an error when I summarized one of the films. I'll have to track this down on the morrow. Now I need sleep.

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