Editing Documentary – Interview with Editor Steve Audette ACE

Editing Documentary – Interview with Editor Steve Audette ACE

editing documentaries, steve audette frontline editor

I had the opportunity to interview FRONTLINE editor Steve Audette ACE one night in a hotel bar in London. This post is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.

Steve covers a lot of ground that I hope will be helpful and informative for editors of all experience levels, looking to learn from a seasoned professional.

Over the  years I’ve written up numerous posts cataloguing the various resources Steve has created and shared online, from documentary masterclasses to diaries of an edit, shared on Twitter. At one point I even got Steve to dissect his edit suite for me. Check all of these posts out under these links.

Tips on Editing Documentaries in Avid | A Documentary Editing Masterclass | How to Edit a Documentary – An Inside View | Inside a Professional Edit Suite | An Exemplary Lecture on Editing Documentaries

If you’re after a shorter and more accessible version of my chat with Steve, check out the first of two articles I have written for the Frame.io blog. In this first post I’ve focused our chat on the topic of keeping an audience engaged, whilst handling controversial subject matter.

While you’re there be sure to check out as many of their superb articles as you can. They’re becoming one of the best post-focused blogs there is.

Here are a few headlines of the topics Steve and I discussed in the next few thousand words!

  • Telling stories with integrity, even when you’re trying to cut down to time.
  • How to structure a narrative documentary and cut the fat
  • How to recut someone else’s film
  • How to create meaningful scenes out of next to nothing
  • Why it’s important to make more than one film
  • Advice for young editors looking to break in to the industry
  • The four things Steve looks for in telling any story

Speedscriber did an excellent job of my turning my badly recorded iPhone audio into meaningful text in a jiffy. It’s the best transcription app I’ve used. I’ve previously written about it in detail here. All typos, spelling errors and grammar misdemeanours are my own.

You’re a journalist who knows what journalistic integrity and the ‘rules’ of good journalism are. How can filmmakers today make sure they’re creating reliable, accurate work?

I think it basically boils down to this:
If I say “A” will the opposition agree with me?
Or will they say “B?”
And if they say “B,” how do I say “A” in a  way that respects and reflects “B.”

Does that make sense? You want both sides of the position reflected in the cut. The fear is that if you do reflect both sides, the importance of the film will be diminished, but this is only true if the story itself is flawed. A good story always has the protagonist and the antagonist in equal measure.

So taking that context. How does that play out in the edit suite when you have to get the show down to time and it’s like “well this nuance changes the colour of this, but not enough that it warrants the two extra minutes I need to pull out.” How do you handle situations like that?

You back up is what you do.

You back up out of the edit suite for a moment, out of the timeline, and go back to what I would call the ‘story boxes’. The figurative index cards of your story, and you make all those story elements work first.

If cutting out a section of your film for time upsets the balance of the story then you must restructure the narrative more concisely. The best way is using the story boxes.

You must make the structure and order of the cards work; understanding the story beats of your narrative, then go back to the edit bay and work out the trims.

Here is the thing, in an hour or in even two hours of documentary. you’re never going to encompass the entire picture of a certain event or subject. We made a film about how the FBI failed to prevent the 9/11 attacks. That’s a huge subject. Everybody in America wants to know that story.

There’s no way you can get that whole story into 90 minutes or even two plus hours. Right? And no one’s going to watch a film longer than that. So you have to figure out a way to tell that story in 90 minutes or less. The big storytelling trick for that is to place the story in what we call “a character driven narrative.”

The idea is to find a character who is going through the sphere of this large idea of how the FBI failed America before 9/11.

The protagonist in a “character driven narrative” is a single path, no matter how complicated and twisted, that goes through that sphere of the larger story. By telling that narrative, your audience, who are in some ways as knowledgeable as you are, will forgive the film for not covering the entire subject, because they’ll have a protagonist to follow. A person who did not know every detail of the larger story, but the larger parts attach to his/her narrative as best as can be fitted into the duration of the film.

So you have a protagonist like, John O’Neill, which is what we did for The Man Who Knew for FRONTLINE (which you can watch online). He didn’t know everything, but he knew something was up with al-Qaeda. He was part of the FBI and you could see the mistakes he made and the mistakes the FBI made around him. That structure helped that story but it didn’t tell everything because you just can’t.

Back to your original question, that’s why I would say you don’t cut for time in the edit bay. Back out and say ‘OK let’s build the boxes. Let’s do it on paper so we know it goes from here to here to here to here.’

‘This is the part we’re taking out. How do we get from here to there? How does that cut effect the balance in telling the narrative of our protagonist?’ If the scene you’re considering cutting, does not change the straight line of our protagonist, then it can be cut.

editing documentary

To help me keep my eye straight on the narrative I have a plumb line in my edit suite. It creates a straight line down into the centre of the earth, and hangs between myself and the director. It is a visual metaphor of the straight line of the narrative. Often in a documentary there’s a very good story, an extremely interesting story but it’s off the plumb line of our protagonist tale. So cut it out. Keep with the “character driven narrative.”

So, for example, if you’re making a film like we did it called Trump’s Road to the White House (also online), there were amazing stories about Hillary Clinton’s team on Election night. We had the interviews. We had footage of the night of the election, footage of young people and the celebrities celebrating. All the elements to tell a great story of the emotion upheaval as the night went on.

But that has nothing to do with Trump’s Road to the White House. That’s the Hillary Clinton story. So as much as I wanted to cut that scene, it was never going to be. How Trump won is not the story of how Clinton lost. As good a story as that might be.

It’s one of those opportunities where you have to murder your darlings. That was one I wanted to nurture and build and it just never happened. Maybe some other time.

It’s really interesting to hear some of the practical decision making principles you use in your editing.

One of the directors I work with likes to train up young editors, who often start knowing nothing. He uses a system he calls ‘spine-ing and nine-ing’, where he gets them to create three acts with three beats each (nine in total) to create the ‘spine’ or structure of the film.

Yeah so for an hour-long show there are 15 ‘beats’ we call it, or 15 things. We also call them scenes, story- points, ideas. It is not something concrete. As Scorsese says: “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end.” It is organic but essential.

So do you have one story card per beat or?

No, the story cards are really about the telling of the story, in terms of the structure of the narrative. For example:

Card One: Two editors meet on Twitter, and find they are both interested in discussing the process of cutting.

Card Two: By chance they meet in London.

Card three: The first subject they discuss is story boxes.

Card Four: That discussion leads too… etc.

In each box there is a part of story, but the box is not the story.

The scenes of those boxes are much more detailed, and more narrative. For example, Once upon a time there were two guys who met on Twitter.

After a series of back and forth discussions on cutting, they find themselves sitting in a hotel bar talking about documentary film structure.

You try to describe the light, the ambience, the temperature, the smell whatever. You try to create that world. That’s really how the story boxes translate into scenes.

What are the pieces of the universe, you’re telling is the story boxes? The description and editing of the scenes make up the boxes.

The 15 beats or the 15 Ideas or whatever they are, are really about the macro storytelling. So in this example, we’re going to try to tell a story about how two guys sat at a bar and in one conversation they ended up starting a seed that created this incredible interview. Right?

And there are 15 beats to that incredible interview. Sometimes more, sometimes less. I don’t like to restrict myself to a specific number because I think life is a little more chaotic than that. Is it possible to make a haiku that’s not 5,7,5? I don’t know. Maybe it’s possible but that’s kind of the idea.

The story boxes in documentary are also not based on the creative mind. They are based on solid journalism. There’s a long period of research, reading, talking and making draft story boxes, where we try to figure out the story and therefore the beats before we go into the edit room, because you’ve read everything, done your journalistic homework to such an extent that you know almost what people are going to say, generally. They may say even cooler stuff in the interview, but you know basically what their position is.

That’s how you can make three or four films a year because when you do solid research and journalism you already know what the story is. Having said that, sometimes the story turns out differently.

We made the Kip Kinkel film, The Killer at Thurston High, which you can also watch on FRONTLINE’s website. It was a documentary about the only surviving high school mass shooter in America. And his story of how that came to be. The team went out there with, not a preconceived idea, but an idea based on all this stuff that they had read and studied. They thought that it was a story with some complexity to it. Honestly, I can’t even remember what the nuances of structure was, but it turns out it the truth was different.

I do remember that it wasn’t till we had most, if not all the footage in the can, and up in the edit bay that we saw this story wasn’t what we were lead to believe by the research.

So we stepped out of the edit bay and went back to the boxes and modified the narrative to more accurately tell the story of this mass shooting. This is a big point of mine; Trust that the real story is in the footage, or that the narrative is in the footage. The research and journalism are the foundation of the story, but the story, the “telling of it” is in the footage.

With what you’re doing here in London, what’s the process of being able to watch, analyze, deconstruct and fix a documentary. Or any narrative? What are the things you’re looking for?

I don’t really like the word ‘fix’ because what I’m here to do is to bring the documentary to the finish line. I like to think of myself more as a closer. I don’t know if they have that in British sports but in baseball there’s always a guy who’s the final pitcher they bring in at the end of the game, just to throw three strikes to close the game right there as fast as possible. I think that’s really what I am.

I’m just coming in to bring my experience to a film that’s pretty good already. It’s just that it doesn’t tick some boxes that the executives back home want to see. They’re not here and they know that they can communicate those to me and then I can go in there and get them, most often with the help of a senior producer. It’s usually a team effort.

And so in this case I’m here in London working on a great film. It is going air on Channel 4. I saw the Channel 4 version and I thought it was great, but it wasn’t a FRONTLINE. It’s just a different audience in America.

There’s definitely a big difference between the tone of American and British TV.

Exactly, so how do you take this great story that we have and use the filmic language that Americans are accustomed to and expecting, because it’s an important story and we want Americans to know about this.

The film is about what happens in Iraq when ISIS fades because the Iraqi army and militias are kicking them out of certain areas. But the Iraqi militias are mostly Shia. And ISIS, although they’re not really Sunni – they have their own version of violent Sunni-ism – what happens to the Sunni people in towns, after ISIS is pushed out and the Shia militias come in? Well, it is not always good news.

Very, very interesting documentary called Iraq Uncovered. (watch online) Fantastic reporter on the ground, Ramita Navai. Fearless. And she is just amazing and she gets great access just by being persistent. Gentle, but persistent. But the thing is the doc currently relies too heavily on the experience of the reporter and the team in Iraq.

What FRONTLINE’s tend to be about are two opposing forces. That’s why the Sunni/Shia thing is a good subject for Frontline because there’s no good side or bad side. There’s just two forces that are in conflict.
So my job is to turn it into a public affairs documentary, where she is going through a journey, but a journey where she witnesses these forces in action, Right?

It’s turning that slight language around and yet still keeping it a character driven narrative. Here is an example: Frequently Ramita Navai will say things like ‘off camera, these people told me this.’ Well that get’s tricky for a FRONTLINE because if it was said off camera and they told you something important, well how do we judge the veracity of that? Who are those people who spoke to you? How reliable are they?

I’m not saying they weren’t telling the truth but I want to know, do they have a dog in the fight? Do you see the problem? If the doc is only about her journey then a sound bite like that is fine, but if your doc is about her reporting the larger Sunni, Shia conflict then pinning down the facts is critical to the narrative.

Also, because it was – and is – so dangerous there, you can’t send her back to Iraq to do another stand up. Or as you Brit’s say, another PTC (Piece To Camera). So what ends up happening is adding more narration, or comm. Commentary.

This in turn creates another challenge for the editor. The more narration there is, the more pictures you need to cover it. And this is where it really gets tricky as an editor. You want to make sure those pictures build in a sequence, they aren’t just a wallpaper series of pictures. It’s got to be a series of shots that tell visually a little story in themselves. That story has to somehow metaphysically relate to the narrative, or the commentary that’s going underneath it. So it’s not that easy.

So that’s where, I guess, my specialty is. If you have to extend the commentary, you need to build a scene. The trick is to figure out how to make that a scene and not a sequence of B-roll. Right? And that’s what I do. I try to find the right motion in the shots and I try to create a visual puzzle that is based on the beats of the commentary, so that certain parts of the visuals become an abstract representation of that part of the conflict.

It’s not as easy as it sounds, unless you’ve done it a bunch of times and you are facile with the idea of how pictures can tell stories.

Alfred Hitchcock would watch his films with the sound turned off, because he was originally a silent filmmaker. He felt that if the pictures didn’t tell the story, then you’re in trouble. I do the same. I will also do the other thing, which is more frequently done in Hollywood now, which is you turn off the picture and just play the audio and make sure that makes sense too. But that’s more about rhythms and volume, and emphasis as opposed to narrative storytelling.

Anyway, that’s why I’m the closer. I come in at the end and say OK we can do this, but we know we are going to have to change your film. And If we’re going to have more commentary, I need to go back to the footage and see what scenes we have.

One of the great things that seems common with British editors, which I don’t do myself actually, is they make these string outs of B-Roll. They build huge timelines of GV’s. So when I’m looking for B-Roll I just load the sequence in the play monitor and scroll up and down. I never do that. I’m always looking in the bins up and down vertically with little icons. Different approach but I’m liking this idea.

Yeah I like to have everything on one timeline and use a ‘pancake timeline’ technique to move between them.

One thing I wanted to pick up on is, when you’re watching a film, how to do tell what’s really on ‘the plumb line’ and what’s bending the film out of shape?

When I’m watching the film I’ll frequently say to the director or the producer you know, this part is a little ‘dipsy-doodle’ – it’s a little off the line. I think that either we can straighten it out here or we lose it.

Now generally speaking if you say we’re going to ‘lose this’ to a director, you’ve basically become the Darth Vader of the edit room! I understand how hard it is to make a documentary and how intimate the director is with every aspect of the story. There is always a give and take. I only push so far. In the end, FRONTLINE and the director will work it out.

Ultimately I’m trying to make them look good, because if they look good, I look good. They walk around saying ‘Steve was amazing’. That’s good for me, so I try to be diplomatic and friendly about it.

Specifically, one of my techniques is to use the story boxes, filling them out and then realising we have 25 of them – so too many. The story is too complicated, we are trying to cover too much and the audience will not be satisfied. I never discard any box but I will move the boxes that I think are off the mark to the side on the pin board and then the team can see if the story still holds with those removed. It is a collaborative process. Often cards I know should be out go back in. That’s fine, it’s like shooting darts, you don’t always hit the mark on the first throw, you bracket it in. This process is all about building a visual metaphor for the documentary so we can more clearly see the through-line of the narrative, and it’s a more diplomatic way of navigating the process.

You know it goes back to the idea that, as the editor, you’re still trying to make their film.

Speaking of which, a director makes a film and it’s their film to make until they show it to the executive producers. Once they show that film to the executive producers it’s no longer the director’s film. It’s now the executive producer’s film. And so you have to respect their wishes and try to make that film for them. Respectful to the director, but the film will ultimately belong to the series and the series.

Some directors, few, but generally speaking it’s the younger ones, have a hard time doing that switch. And I would recommend this to young directors, that if they can understand the importance of that switch and get good at making that switch, their career options will go much further. Because it is your film until a certain point in the process. Then it’s the commissioning series film. Your goal then is to try to make the next film. Right. Just get this one done, as close as you can. And then move on to the next film. That’s how you build a career. As filmmakers we make FILMS not a FILM. The more you make the better you will get and the better each film will be. I just finished a documentary with my most seasoned director Michael Kirk. In the screening with the executive team, they only had two notes. That is the first time that has ever happened in my 25 years cutting docs. That is something to try and achieve for all filmmakers.

One of my favourite quotes of yours, which I saw in your original documentary masterclass is, “The mind cannot absorb, what the butt cannot endure.”

How do you make sure the film is working in that fashion? That it’s working well for the audience?

The idea behind the quote, which I stole by the way, from a Boston editor, is really about the editor’s mission to represent and to be the advocate for the audience.

In other words, many people who are making films, especially in documentary are so passionate about the content or cause and illustrating the complexity of the forces involved or the journey that the person went on, that they lose perspective with the idea that the audience has conflicting interests.

They’re coming to your documentary because they have an interest in your subject matter and they’re a knowledgeable already and they want to see how you are going to portray the topic.

People who read science fiction like science fiction. Everyone who reads science fiction knows what a space opera is. And when you pick up an Iain M Banks novel, your interest is to see how he is going to write his version of a space opera versus Asimov. Right? So the same is true in documentary.

You go to the program because you already have an interested in it. Politics, health, climate change, whatever. But your job as an editor is to be the person who sits there and says to the producer/director/money person whoever that is, “OK that’s fine, I understand your point and I respect it and I’m going to be an extension of your will to make the film as great as possible”.

But you also have to be the advocate for the viewers. So when the doc is going down too far into the weeds on something, you know as the editor, that the viewer is going start hearing the refrigerator talking to them and is going to get up off the chair or is going switch over and watch something else.

This is especially true for long films. As the editor I hear the audience say: “Wow three hours on climate change? I’m not sure I have three hours for that. I’ll wait for the DVD.” And then they don’t watch the DVD. There are just too many distractions in modern life.

Also all films can be cut down. I once was fortunate enough to cut down a Ken Burns series on the Roosevelts from 16 to 8 hours for the foreign market. Wow was that tough! Burns is one hell of a filmmaker. Toughest cut down I ever did, but it could be done and it turned out very well.

So part of the editor’s job is to say: “Let’s also figure out a way to make it entertaining and informative. And not so quite long!”

You don’t want documentaries to be medicine but you also don’t want to be frivolous. You want to try to find a way that you can take the elements of entertainment and work them into the narrative of your documentary, but in a way where the journalism in your documentary is as rock solid as anything that comes from The Wall Street Journal or New York Times.

And as I said before you have to have both sides. There’s a huge opportunity in documentary right now, because people want to know, people really want to know what is going on in this confusing world we live in and they’re looking for somebody to come along and say

“Here! Here it is laid out in a simple way, in an hour and a half max – I would say 55 minutes max but you can go longer – and say “here’s the story I’m going to tell you and you’re going to know everything you need to know to go to the watercooler tomorrow and be the smartest person in the room.” Right? And you’re going to feel so smart because you know both sides of the story.

If you can do that about any subject, then you’re going to be a hero. People are going to flock to it. It’s like that saying, ‘if you build it, they will come’.

Great answers. So, what keeps you in the editing chair after all these years?

I actually love it.

I was cutting a scene today, where in the original film they had a medium shot of the reporter Ramita Navai looking at her phone. And then they cut to full screen video of what she was supposed to be looking at on the phone. And then they let that play out with a lot of narration before they cut to the next scene.

And as an editor, I thought, what a wasted opportunity here! I can make this beautiful. It’s just sitting there. We can actually make this scene into a story. With a beginning, a middle and an end.

So I went to a wider shot of her standing on the balcony alone, distant Iraq in the background, she’s looking at her phone. Although you’re not sure what she’s looking at. This is my whole thing about ‘ambiguity vs clarity’.

The ambiguity of the scene is, what’s she looking at? It’s obviously her phone when the light comes on, and then we cut to a close up of her and she’s looking at the phone.

The commentary is about what’s on the screen. So I cut to what’s on the screen and then I immediately cropped the sides, so it looks like an iPhone because she was holding her phone vertically. So I’m keeping it in the universe of this scene. A reporter reviewing footage on a phone.

The footage is Iraqi propaganda from the Hezbollah militia. And so to keep Ramita Navai as a character in the documentary, in the middle of a the militia footage I went back to the shot of her face, with the phone light flashing on her face, because she’s watching this film. She is our protagonist. We are seeing it through her eyes as part of a story. It is not just information being put to us with long comm.

And then I cut to the final shot, from an outtake where she turned off her phone looked down, because she was about to do a stand up or piece to camera, so she took a moment to ponder what to say with her head down.

And I just used that new shot as the end of the scene, like ‘How tragic is this’.

So that’s what keeps me in the game because, that’s a little piece of art. It’s like a piece of magic. The Channel 4 version didn’t have that scene, but we will get in America. I’m making that for 3 million Americans. I mean that’s what I do.

For me I think editing has the benefit of being, especially in documentary, the centre of the universe for storytelling.

But it takes a good while to get good at it. One of my Hollywood friends who has been cutting for three decades said ‘getting good is about cutting long enough so you know the difference between looking at footage and seeing footage’ – or as I say ‘seeing the story in the footage’. It just takes time and it takes cuts and it takes a lot of cutting.

That’s why I tell young editors cut anything. Cut anything. Cut wedding videos if you have to, you know but cut everything you can, because it’s cutting the shots together time and time again that makes you better. It’s developing that ability to juxtapose shots that create a narrative. That’s the whole Kuleshov Effect. Which is so important to storytelling in film.

The modern art of the 21st century is filmmaking. But cutting is the first classical art created in modern times and we are its practitioners. As editors we are the ones that are crafting this brand new classical art form. All other art forms have a history as old as time. Cutting motion pictures is less than 100 years old. I find that very exciting. So for me it’s like, I can’t not do it. I have to be in there with my chisel and my sandpaper and whatever, to try to make the film, scene by scene as good as I possibly can.

So that’s why I do it.

You obviously do love it.

What would your advice be to young editors looking to improve their craft? Because at the beginning you don’t know what you don’t know. You don’t know kind of how bad you are.

I would say it’s kind of a three-step process.

First: I would associate myself with the genre that I’m interested in. So for me it was documentary. I put myself in a documentary environment so that I could be around that world, so that when my chops were good enough I was already versed in that sphere.

It can change after you do one genre but at the start just give it your best guess. Go based on passions. Follow your heart, follow your bliss.

Second: Cut as much as you possibly can because it’s only through cutting scenes, shot-by-shot, not dissolves, not effects, not titles, not music. Try to cut scenes as much as possible.

Third: Don’t cut your own stuff.

If I’m cutting for you then I have to meet your expectations. If I’m cutting for myself I’m never going to be as hard on myself, as you are. It is human nature. But it also stunts potential growth as an editor.

There’s nothing like a director saying “that’s very nice, but I don’t like it” to really hone your editing skills and your ability to listen to your director and try to understand what they’re looking for and translate that into a series of cuts.

The other thing I would say to any young editor is that opportunities will come. They. Will. Come. I want to emphasize that.

The key to capitalizing on those opportunities is this thing called ‘preparation meets opportunity’. You know, I’m always about these opposing forces. Earlier I was talking about ambiguity vs clarity, this is what I call preparation versus opportunity.

And Opportunity is going to come.

You’re going to be standing on the right street corner at the right time when someone’s going to pick you up and make you an editor. That is going to happen.

The success of that moment is everything to do preparation. Nothing to do with opportunity. You have to be as good an editor as you can be, up to that point. So that goes back to this idea of cut everything you can, cut for other people and be in an environment where you’re in the world of the area you’d like to cut in.

For me being prepared means not only knowing how to cut, it means knowing how to do sound, it means knowing how to cut music and these days how to use After Effects.

Looking forward it means, I would probably say, depending on what happens with VR, you’re going to have to do a little bit of that. You’re going to have to understand these emerging tools.

I’ll never forget what one of the great editors, Thelma Schoonmaker said, about how in the early days of the Avid she couldn’t understand that digital screen. So she cut out a piece of paper and taped it to the bottom of her Composer window on the record side. And what she cut out was the little heads of people in the movie theater, so she could contextualise her compositions and her framing to them.

I don’t think she does that any more but until she understood that new perspective, she was preparing. She said I am not prepared to edit for Scorcese if I don’t know what this square box on the screen means. So even someone as experienced and as fantastic as her, did that. Does that kind of thing to stay prepared.

You will always be preparing for that next edit. I’m still preparing. I love cutting other people’s films so I can see how they set their timeline up, to see how they do things.

But you’ve got to expand and keep growing and preparing for that next opportunity, at any stage of your career, but it starts right at the beginning.

Great answer. How do you handle the diplomatic side of being an editor? Managing a room full of opinions as you’re refining a cut?

All filmmaking is a collaborative process. And one of the things I think that makes me a pretty good editor is my ability to take the temperature of the room. This is a skill that young editors should learn how to do too.

Part of an editor’s job is to quickly get the zeitgeist of the room. And that changes whether it’s just you and the director and the producer or whether it’s all of you and the executives in the room.

No matter who is in the room all of a sudden you’re seeing the film through their eyes. And you have to understand, by their body language and actions and pauses and breathing and everything else, how they are reacting to the film. So that, when they say things you understand how to interpolate those things into the next cut.

Because sometimes they’ll say something like ‘the film really falls apart here.’ But where they said ‘the film falls apart ’ may not actually be the point in time in the cut that they mention it. Sometimes what they’re really saying is, whatever mistake you made, earlier in the film, manifests itself here. So you have to fix that problem, not the one they’re pointing at. Symptoms aren’t always indicative of the cure. That gets tricky and only experience can tell you that is what they mean.

And I don’t know how to teach that to young editors. I really don’t. But there are things you can pick up in the edit room.

A lot of the films younger editors get to cut at first are short films. You’ve made a few of your own, how did you decide to go with the Nike Chariot Earring film?

I’m sure you have people pitching stories to you all the time. How do you find the right stories to tell?

I like the short form, because I can do it kind of on the side. I like to prepare for the future. Preparation meets opportunity, right. At some point someone’s going to ask me to make a film. I need to be able to say I can.

So when I’m deciding on whether to do a project the four things I’m looking for are:

A good story. A good catch. Can I get access? And is there footage?

The first short film we made which was called Nico’s Challenge which is on vimeo. It’s a story about a boy who climbed a mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro, and it’s kind of a coming of age story.

Nico decided to get sponsorship for every foot he went up the mountain so that he could make a charitable donation to a disabled people’s charity in Tanzania. That was his idea. So that’s the story. That’s kind of cool. But what’s the catch?

So as the filmmaker (with my wife) and as the editor, I’m thinking what’s the thing that in the first five seconds is going to grab someone’s attention?

This film is only 15 minutes long so in the first couple of minutes you got to grab them somehow. How do you do that?

The kid was born with one leg, so he did it on crutches. OK so now that’s an unbelievable story!

I heard about the story when I happened to read about in a local newspaper in my home town. The next part is can we get access? And a subset of that is, is there any footage?

So I wrote to him and his parents and I said who I was and asked if they would be interested in working on a short film, and did they have any footage?

The father just happened to buy this digital camera that shoots HD footage. And stills, he was a naturally great stills photographer. So I said to myself I got everything I need to tell the story. I’ve got the narrative. I’ve got a catch. I’ve got access. I’ve got footage. So I can tell the story.

Same thing with the second film.

My wife knew about the Nike Chariot earring story, which is about a priceless object stolen from the Museum of Fine Arts in 1960. It was, at the time, actually the most priceless artefact ever stolen from an American museum. That’s my catch. That’s quite a cool idea.

And it’s the story of the woman who found it and returned to the museum. That’s all good. Next questions, can I get access and can I get footage? Well, in this case we called her up and she was now 90 years old.

So we did an interview with her. And I’m sitting in the interview and I’m really worried because there’s no footage. There are some stills and a couple of newspaper articles but it’s really thin.

And she’s drifting, you know. She’s tired and losing her thread. We had done a two and a bit hour interview already but I knew I didn’t have an ending. There is no final soundbite.

So I sat in the chair and I berated this 90 year old women, I feel absolutely horrible about this, but I had to do it for the film. I said “Florence you found the most precious artefact stolen from the Museum of Fine Arts. You’ve told me this changed your life forever, talk to me about it. Reach deep inside yourself right now and tell me…”

And then she said just the most amazing thing. She said “Anything that special deserves to be displayed for everyone to see, and that thing was special. You agree with me don’t you?”

I said Boom! I got it. She just threw it back to the audience. And that’s when I knew I had an ending to athe story.

So the first thing I’m looking for, in any film, is a good story, a good catch, can I get access and is there footage?

And most importantly does it have a beginning, a middle, and an END!

Huge thanks to Steve for chatting with me in the hotel bar for so long and sharing so much of his wisdom!

editing documentaries

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevecutsdocs and subscribe to his Vimeo channel here.

Here is a quick list of the film’s Steve mentions in his interview and where you can watch them.

The Man Who Knew

Trump’s Road to the White House

The Killer at Thurston High

Iraq Uncovered

Ken Burns, The Roosevelts

Nico’s Challenge

Nike Chariot Earring

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