Talking Head: Jennifer Sheridan on 'cutting' it as a Director
Film director and editor, Jennifer Sheridan, talks to us about combining and separating both roles on her short films, where sitting down for too long each day will get you and never trusting a performing dog to find their character quickly.
For as long as I can remember I’ve been telling stories.
There was the time in school that I convinced some fellow pupils I’d finally got my witching license and then the sad attempt at my novel ‘Sister Swapping’ aged fourteen. I thought I’d been distracted by puberty until I recently re-read my diaries from those years, only to find most of it was nonsensical, made-up, fiction.
The good news is I eventually got my act together and carved out a career as an editor of television. Then a few years later when I signed to a reputable agent, I sighed with relief- this was it, I’d made it! A fantastical career fuelled by free tea and biscuits lay ahead of me.
Yet the enticing and magical world of film called to me. It was like an impenetrable fortress where a lowly televisual editor such as myself simply had no business getting involved. What was the key to this mystical kingdom? I wondered. On a quest for answers I contacted successful film editors I admired and begged them for advice and two Mark’s were kind enough to oblige.
The first Mark was editor Mark Day (numerous Harry Potters’, Ex Machina, About Time), a lovely man, he told me I could either assist for big editors and play the long game or build a strong working relationship with a director who, upon receiving their big break into film, would take me with them. The second was Mark Eckersley (Filth, Dredd, The Disappearance of Alice Creed) another lovely man and when he told me something similar I knew what had to be done.
Seek out the next big Hollywood director.
Impress them with my editing prowess.
Give them all the best free biscuits.
Help them achieve greatness.
Hope they fought to keep me by their side when they inevitably got offered more experienced editors to work with.
So I gave up my weekends and evenings to edit short films, low- budget features, whatever I could get my hands on. All I did was edit, edit for my day job and edit for people I hoped would take me with them on their rise to glory. My life was essentially a montage of me editing. Unsurprisingly perhaps I didn’t find the director I was looking for and really in the end it does just come down to pure dumb luck whether you do or you don’t. I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t place all my hopes and dreams on the fortunes of others. My father used to say ‘No one ever sat their way to success’ and I was literally sitting down for 12 hours a day hoping for a change that might never come.
It hadn't been a waste though, I’d learnt and absorbed a great deal. In the unedited footage I’d witnessed the mistakes, the triumphs and the happy accidents. My television editing career was really taking off and some of the shows I’d cut began to win awards and BAFTA nominations.
I was still no closer to my dream of editing films, but I was feeling much more confident in my storytelling abilities and so I took a deep breath and made my first short film 'Rocket'. Okay, so I shot most of it myself on a 5D, at home, with my dog, but hey we’ve all got to start somewhere right?! Having caught the bug I made another short film 'Catch' not long after that, with my now husband Matthew Markham. This time we at least had a great cameraman in tow, but it was still very much a do it yourself operation.
A few weeks after filming Catch, Rocket won the Virgin Media Shorts Grand Prize of a 30k film fund and happily I already had a script I was desperate to make. 'Acoustic Kitty' (named after the real CIA mission it’s based on) was set in 1960’s America. I’d all but written it off as being unaffordable to make… until now.
It’s worth pointing out that making films at home with your dog or in the middle of nowhere with your fella is a world away from making something with proper actors, a whole crew, gaffers, the lot. I was finally going to meet a Best Boy! Shooting that film was the greatest four sequential days of my life.
The question was, would it be wise to also edit it? I’d already pieced it together in my head and cut all of my own stuff up to this point but this time it felt different. I wanted an objective opinion, someone to point out my mistakes and argue with me about the nuances of irrelevant cut aways.
So I called on good editor friend Joe Wilby, who also recommended a chap called Andy Schofield and although there wasn’t time to all get together and do it, we’d each do a cut separately in our own time. I ended up with three versions of the film, Joe’s vision, Andy’s and mine. It was great to be able to see and analyse when we followed the same path and where we’d differed and why. I essentially plucked the best bits from each of the cuts to make the final film.
My latest short 'Set Adrift' ended up taking a more traditional route to completion. I’d written it, directed it and definitely knew it would be a bad move to edit it myself. Luckily another editor friend of mine Phil Lepherd offered to cut it for me and this time I would actually get to sit in an edit with another editor.
It was weird. He’s in my chair, I kept thinking, unsure how to handle the giant role reversal. Seven years of editing had taught me to offer opinions and suggestions but ultimately the final decision lay with the director/producer or exec in the room. I’d forgotten how much power I’d had in cutting my own footage. I could hide the mistakes I’d made from the world and no one need ever know about them. This time I was fully-exposed and would have to justify my failures to another human-being; but even more incredible than that was that for the first time in an edit - I had the final say!
Okay, so I’ll confess I may have cut a version of the film alone at home just to get it out of my system, but Phil’s cut was better. I’d tried to force scenes to work in the way I had initially envisioned them, whereas Phil just cut to the beating heart of the story. He had total objectivity and wasn’t influenced by the fact that I’d kneeled in the freezing sea, holding a piece of chicken out to a dog who refused to get into character for forty-five frickin minutes, all to get a certain shot. If it didn’t work for the story it was out and that’s what a great editor can and should do for you.
The editor/director relationship is strongest when there’s trust and mutual respect and I’m proud to be on either side of it. The edit suite should be a safe haven where these bonds of trust are formed, a place where we are allowed and encouraged to experiment, where it’s okay to fail in order to succeed; and did I mention the free tea and biscuits?!
Looking back, I’ve had a pretty varied experience when it comes to working as/with an editor. So far I’ve cut for numerous directors, edited my own films, edited alongside other editors - and given a film of mine over to another editor.
While the experiences have all been different, the overlapping truths seem to point in one direction; in the edit you need someone passionate, objective and brutal. Someone who feels that the film is as much theirs as anybody else's, that however many other stories are told along the way, the raw footage they have in their hands is a blueprint, a blank canvas, or a point of departure to explore and carve out something that allows the possibility to be surprised and discover the unknown.
"Good editing makes a director look good. Great editing makes a film look like it wasn't directed at all.”
You can follow Jennifer on Twitter: @filmineer
Keep up to date with all Jennifer's projects at her production company website.