“My Past as a Dancer Has a Big Influence on How I Work”: Editor Charlotte Munch Bengtsen on The Last Race
Charlotte Munch Bengtsen began her career as an editor in the mid-2000s on a number of documentaries and shorts. Her break came in 2012 when Joshua Oppenheimer hired her as an editor on his seismic work The Act of Killing. Munch Bengtsen’s newest project is The Last Race, the feature doc debut from visual artist Michael Dweck. Below, she shares her thoughts on the importance of test screenings, rushes and how her experience as a dancer influences her work as an editor.
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the editor of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
Munch Bengtsen: Michael [Dweck] was looking for a European editor and happened to cross paths with my husband during a visit in Denmark. I got introduced to Michael’s rushes, we started a dialogue and Michael was brave enough to come back and do the edit in Copenhagen.
Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were goals as an editor? What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?
Munch Bengtsen: I think we realized by our first assembly of close to 90 min, that we had a first 20 minutes that worked. Those 20 minutes showed us the language of the film – a landscape of tableaus and scenes with no linear storytelling, but a juxtaposition, that began to create a fine string. Now we knew our challenge and how to proceed for the remaining of the film. It also became clear what we were looking for in the big pile of rushes. The film is carried by the inherited energies of scenes and moments that have been captured, and by the peculiar meetings with people around the racetrack having this fascination and love for cars and racing. This fascination of race cars was also Michael’s entrance point to start shooting at Riverhead Raceway. You see it in how he chooses to shoot the cars, almost like an anthropological study. Those rushes were also how I fell in love with the material and understood that I had to preserve that original feeling I was having from looking at the raw footage in the way that I would assemble them.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Munch Bengtsen: Each camera angle of the cars possessed an emotion. They could be monstrous, they could be nostalgic, and they could be wild or just beautiful. To make those emotions come out clear, I chose to simplify the races. Basically each race scene has one camera angle, and you jump cut. Arriving at the film’s final form, was an art of choosing your in and out points, more than cutting and constructing things – that approach together with shuffling around with scenes a number of times was an ongoing job. And each time we had a new constellation, we had new challenges to steer the film into balance – slowly we were shaping the dramatic curve of the film. Feedback screenings at different stages were also part of our process. Watching the film intimately with one or two people in the editing room really enhances the “wrong” stomach feeling of places you have in the film. This observation together with a genuine constructive feedback is gold. I learn so much from these sessions, and make better films. I really am so grateful being able to have such fine people coming in to share their wisdom and experience of the film with you.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Munch Bengtsen: I was a contemporary dancer and artistic leader of a dance company when I stumbled upon editing. It was love by first sight and I just knew I had to study the craft. It was a longer transition period, but finally one day I got the chance to have an internship with the French editor Francois Gedigier. My past as a dancer has a big influence on how I work, understand and approach material. I work very intuitively and I like to stand up when editing, it gets my whole body involved. In fact I think I would have loved to work on a Steenbeck – a more hands on approach. Another huge influence in my work today is my friend and colleague Joshua Oppenheimer. I was so lucky to get on the editing team for The Act of Killing soon after I came out of NFTS. Working with Joshua on TAOF was a major learning curve on many levels, and the ongoing mentorship I’m so lucky to have from him today is tremendously inspirational. His feedback screenings are an epiphany in how to shape and understand film language, challenging you to making it better. I keep on learning and growing by his generosity.
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Munch Bengtsen: I use AVID Media Composer because it’s what I know and feel comfortable with
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Munch Bengtsen: The most difficult scene I edited was a race scene that never ended up in the film. The approach was to create a scene that captured a race in a more perhaps traditional way with a build up drama. I basically failed in trying to achieve that goal. I was trying to construct something which simply couldn’t be constructed without losing the authenticity of the material. We then buried that idea for good.
Filmmaker: Finally, now that the process is over, what new meanings has the film taken on for you? What did you discover in the footage that you might not have seen initially, and how does your final understanding of the film differ from the understanding that you began with?
Munch Bengtsen: The film we arrived at taught us to look for the magic in the material, and to trust it, instead of trying to construct the magic.