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Editor Tariq Anwar on the Art of Postproduction

Thursday night EditShare sponsored a seminar with Oscar-nominated film editor Tariq Anwar at the Florence Gould Hall on East 59th Street in Manhattan. Despite rain the evening was well attended by writers, directors, and especially editors, and Anwar’s presentation — basically a low-key Q&A session moderated by Manhattan Edit Workshop’s Josh Apter — was fun and informative. Here are a few thoughts he shared.

Anwar got into filmmaking somewhat accidentally, starting by driving a truck then getting work as an assistant director. After doing a great deal of yelling at crews, he decided “the cutting room was the most civilized place working on a film” and began moving up the postproduction ranks at the BBC. He praised the education he got there and advised one young attendee that editors should consider skipping film school in favor of more practical work. Even film school grads, he said, unfortunately have to start at the bottom of the ladder anyway, so why not save the money and get straight to work?

There were a lot of questions about his specific process and how he makes individual cuts, but he declined to articulate too much about his process. Editing is largely intuitive, he said, and it’s tiresome to have to explain the reason behind every cut to a director. In fact, Anwar said — only semi-jokingly — he’s happiest with directors who don’t micromanage but instead trust him to make the edit himself, especially early in the process. Theater directors can be better in this regard than highly technical commercial directors; they tend to be confident in their technical crew and allow the DP, editor, and others to do their job unfettered.

On the other hand, there comes a point when a director needs to make a decision. Anwar showed a scene from American Beauty, for which he and director Sam Mendes created nearly 50 permutations — and any one of them, he said, would have worked fine. Likewise with his most recent film, The King’s Speech. That film had a 70:1 shooting ratio — a number which caused an audible gasp in the audience — and such a huge volume of footage can simply open up too many choices, implying that a director doesn’t really know what he wants.

Anwar had nothing but praise for Mendes and King’s Speech director Tom Hooper, though: he was quite pleased with both collaborations (he worked with Mendes again on Revolutionary Road), and noted that the working relationships in any creative process are going to go through some bumps. That’s the nature of creating. But his anecdotes about directors were some of the most insightful points of the evening. Robert De Niro, for instance, was incredibly open as a director on The Good Shepherd, accepting criticism on his performance and even allowing the actors to watch any footage they wanted — even dailies he hadn’t screened himself yet.

That isn’t always the way to go, of course, but others who were more rigid produced less memorable films. One unnamed first-time director fired Anwar early in the production for offering advice on her coverage. The film went through seven or eight other editors: “I don’t think it was an editor problem,” he said.

Some final points of advice?

* Don’t cut arbitrarily; don’t cut just to cut.

* There are no rules for editing. “You just deal with the material you’ve got.”

* It’s impossible to assemble a montage without a temp music track. In The King’s Speech his temp music of Mozart and Beethoven even made it into the final film.

* Directors just need to get good coverage. That may sound cliché but it cannot be overemphasized.

* Editors should do whatever they can to get into a cutting room. You can’t learn by watching someone else edit. You have to edit yourself.

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