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“The Problem Is Getting More and More Urgent”: Editor David Cohen on The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales

Still from The American Dream and Other Fairy TalesStill from The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales

Abigail E. Disney, the granddaughter of Walt Disney Company co-founder Roy O. Disney, has spoken out against the treatment of Disney employees and the compensation of Disney executives in the past; with The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales, she and co-director Kathleen Hughes investigate the poor working conditions and hand-to-mouth living of Disneyland workers and the riches of Disney CEO Bob Iger. Editor David Cohen explains how he shaped the footage into a narrative and the constant evolution of Abigail Disney’s role in front of the camera.

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?

Cohen: Fork Films reached out to me as I was finishing a film and the timing was synchronistic—I had just read a piece that Abby did on income inequality, which really resonated with me. I loved that she was so outspoken, very funny and razor sharp.

I met with Abby and Kathy, the film’s directors, and we hit it off. I watched a sizzle they had put together, which featured a discussion with a group of people working full time at Disneyland. I connected to the strength and compassion within that group and what they were going through. It spoke volumes about what was happening for workers in companies across America. I wanted to be of service to them and their stories and to the broader aims of the film.

Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were your goals as an editor?

Cohen: The material itself covered a lot of ground, not uncommon in documentary. We had the testimony of people working at Disneyland. We had expert interviews—some focused on Anaheim/Disney, others on wider American economic history. And we had Abby’s story, including some personal archive. We also had some historical archive: Disneyland through the years and footage from various decades covering the U.S. economy.

I was brought onto the film midway through the shooting process, but as it turned out, my first day was the first day of the COVID lockdown in New York. I did an assembly of what had been shot, and then we took a bunch of time off. We continued working in fits and starts until there could be another period of filming. All this to say the film evolved slowly over time, in conversations between the directing team and me, and within the constraints of the pandemic.

The pandemic brought a number of challenges to the edit, including working from what was intended to be early shoots. As an editor and story producer, I was focused on crafting a narrative from what had been shot and finding creative ways to stretch what we had.

I really wanted the film to have feeling, to connect with audiences. The filmmaking approach was journalistic and principled yet very conversational and meaningful at the same time. I wanted to build the film in an emotional way, to find its cinematic heart. I felt like a “feeling detector,” bringing whatever had real energy to the fore. I wanted it to be a felt experience, as much as possible.

This was the space from which I began building moments and sequences and strove to make connections from there. At a certain point this resulted in the idea that what our various strands all shared was a theme about storytelling—the stories we tell ourselves, collective mythmaking—which we ultimately explored in a number of ways as the film evolved.

Another question from day one was how to calibrate Abby’s role in the film so that she could take us through the film without becoming its main focus. Of course, Abby was always going to be a presence in the film—the bulk of the material was shot two-camera with Abby on screen, driving the narrative. That said, Abby also had a wonderful and refreshing reticence to being in the film too much. She didn’t want it to be the Abby show, which I really appreciated. It was super useful to have two directors as we worked through her presence in the film, as Kathy had great instincts for putting Abby on camera and could approach the shooting with objectivity.

Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?

Cohen: I worked from instinct and trusted my responses to the material. The initial screening and organizing process was really important. I organized the footage with color-coded and starred markers as a log of what I responded to, noting moments that moved me, moments that made me laugh, etc. so that as we organized the material further, I’d have all my responses at the ready. It was really critical for me to work this way because the material came in over a long period of time and the interviews covered a range of ideas. As the film developed, what we wanted to say also evolved. I’d return to the interviews to pull in different moments and I could continue to create from that same place of response and feeling.

At the start of my editing process, I tried working with as little narration as I could to make sure we were maximizing what was possible without it. I then worked from sound bytes of Abby’s within the footage from interviews Abby had done so that by the time it came to writing the narration we were already rooted in Abby’s authentic voice.

I also worked with the amazing Ira Blanchard, an additional editor/assistant editor on the film. Ira was a wonderful collaborator from both technical and creative standpoints. In the final, time-crunched stretch, we also brought on Josh Melrod as an additional editor, and he was a terrific collaborator. We’d trade sequences back and forth and talk through our reactions very candidly, which was really useful. I am so grateful to have collaborated with both Josh and Ira on our edit team and am proud of the work they brought to the film.

Our first real feedback screening was actually a couple weeks before submitting to Sundance. We were still working through the historical sequences, the ending of the film and Abby’s narration. This screening was invaluable. People really wanted more of Abby in the film and had a lot of helpful reactions to the historical sequences and the structure, so this screening gave us a plan of attack that encouraged us to continue evolving the film and to further calibrate Abby’s presence.

Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?

Cohen: I studied dramatic writing and film in college. I was writing plays and screenplays and directing short films and came to editing as it was a way of writing. I wish there were more of a dialogue between narrative writing and doc editing because they are so similar and there’s so much to glean from the specifics of the two disciplines. For me, editing was a way to collaborate within the filmmaking process as an artist.

I started as an assistant editor on narrative features but quickly moved into documentary because I had the opportunity to start actually editing. And I loved the medium. I loved how unpredictable and open documentary filmmaking was. You could construct a scene from almost anything, and structure was something to be discovered and defined by the material. I really loved that.

The profession can be isolating, the work sometimes invisible, and it often requires extremely long hours, so along the way, I’ve been grateful to fellow editors, family and friends who have kept my enthusiasm alive. I was lucky enough to attend the Sundance Edit & Story Labs a few years back, which really reinvigorated me and encouraged me to keep editing and which I remain so grateful for.

Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?

Cohen: Avid. The Script Sync feature was incredibly useful for such an interview heavy film and I relied on it a lot. No system is perfect and Avid does its Avid-y things, but it was, overall, reliable for us.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?

Cohen: The most challenging sequences were two historical sections of the film. Finding a way to move through what we wanted to talk about while keeping it tethered to Disney and weaving it into a present day story was like editing gymnastics. But I just kept approaching the beam and working it, working it. We ultimately gave ourselves permission to lean into the narration a bit more, which helped.

The animation in the film is also a really brilliant component that made this come together. Abby wanted animation from day one. And Sean Donnelly, along with the whole team at AWESOME + Modest, collaborated very astutely and creatively to bring life to the ideas. That helped these sections a great deal as well.

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?

Cohen: Something that was a discovery for me while making this film was how exactly the inequality economy we have today was planned and paid for by certain groups of people. I don’t want to spoil anything that we talk about in the film, but the specifics of how this was done, and what contributed to it, reverberate in the present, especially as someone who wasn’t around to see a time in our country when greed was kept more in check.

The film takes on greater meaning for me as time goes on, simply because the problem of income inequality in this country is getting more and more urgent to address. You really don’t want the numbers to continue to illustrate your point even more starkly, as the years go on. The press just announced how much Bob Chapek and Bob Iger made in 2021, including an end-of-contract stock grant for Iger, reportedly worth nine figures. I’m sure many CEOs receive packages even higher than this—this kind of compensation is far from being unique to Disney, as we continuously point out in the film. But to be honest, I really am just shocked, over and over, at how much wider the gap can get, and that the film takes on greater relevance because of it.

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