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Heroines of Cinema: Valdis Oskarsdottir, and the ‘Invisible Art’ of Editing

Heroines of Cinema: Valdis Oskarsdottir, and the 'Invisible Art' of Editing

Unlike the frequent depressing statistics on female directors or cinematographers, editing is one creative role in cinema where women have traditionally held their own. From “E.T.” to “Lawrence of Arabia”, numerous big budget, studio films have been cut by women, with legends in the field including Thelma Schoonmaker, seven-time Oscar-nominated editor of Martin Scorsese’s films, and Sally Menke, editor of all Quentin Tarantino’s films and described by him as his “only truly genuine collaborator”.

A recent New York Times article explored some of the possible reasons for the relative success of women as editors. In the early days of Hollywood, editing was a very practical task, a precision craft seen as similar to sewing, and therefore menial labour well-suited to women. But there are some more intriguing and plausible suggestions, including the notion that women’s superior empathy skills make them better at reading emotions and selecting actors’ best takes.

However, there is a risk in suggesting that the role of an editor benefits from supposedly female qualities such as empathy and observation. Before long you stray into dangerous territory, in which the female editor is characterised as supportive, reconciliatory and borderline maternal, in contrast to the male director and his untameable fiery vision. This is not helpful. The fact is that editing (like all major creative roles in cinema) involves taking a practical and creative approach to storytelling, and often requires a big artistic personality to find the most ingenious and original solutions.

Nowhere is this more evident than the Icelandic editor Valdis Oskarsdottir, who has a deeply eclectic body of work from Thomas Vinterberg’s “Festen” and Harmony Korine’s “Julien Donkey Boy” to more mainstream projects like “Les Miserables” and “Finding Forrester”. I was recently lucky enough to watch a rare screening of her first cut of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” – for which she was ultimately awarded a BAFTA – followed by a frank discussion of her work on the film and wider career at the Reykjavik Film Festival. This column has already discussed the work of Ellen Kuras, “Eternal Sunshine”’s cinematographer, and in light of Oskardottir’s comments it seems all the more remarkable that a film more widely known as a miraculous crystallisation of the talents of Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry also involved two such frank and forthright artists as Kuras and Oskarsdottir.

Below is a distillation of Oskardottir’s remarks at the Q & A – full credit to Peter Knegt for the recording (watch video of the panel here) and Indiewire interns Christopher Pomorski and Justin Krajeski for the transcription. As will become very clear, Oskarsdottir is not one for mincing her words.

How did you become an editor?
I got a job as an editing assistant. And came on the next job as assistant, and the next job as assistant. And one day it occurred to me – I will always be assistant. I will never ever be an editor myself. And then I was working with an editor who said “I think you should apply to the Danish film school, because then you can play around for four years and learn”. And I thought “Yeah, that’s great. I can see a single mother with two kids at the film school”. And then I saw this film “Amadeus,” and I saw this great composer and then this guy—what was his name? Salieri. And then I thought to myself, “I am never ever going to be like this Salieri”. And I applied for the Danish film school and I got it.

As editor, how do you relate to the director of a film and his / her vision?
All this stuff about getting into their head – I think that’s bullshit. You can’t do that – you can’t get into anyone’s head. A director might say, ‘What about that shot where he’s sitting and you can see that he’s thinking, and then he stands up and he’s very disturbed’. And you look at the shot and there’s just some guy standing up and walking across a room. All you can do is watch the footage, watch the characters, and after a while, you know these characters better than your family – and you spend more time with them than your family. So you get totally into the story and into the character’s head, and you can say ‘that’s not how the character would behave’ or ‘he would never say anything like that’.

Do directors ever interfere with your process?
When I was working with Søren Kragh-Jacobsen on “Mifune’s Last Song”, he sat in the editing room from 9 in the morning to 6 at night; always sitting there, in the corner, telling me what to do. And by doing that, your editor stops thinking, and begins to just press buttons. If you do that as a director, why are you hiring an editor? It’s much cheaper to get someone who is good at pushing buttons on a computer.

How does a film’s screenplay relate to your work?
Usually when I read scripts, I read them as a story. And if the story is good, as it was with “Eternal Sunshine”, I forget about the script and when I get in the editing room, it’s what I get into the computer that counts. Usually, I don’t read the script again.

How did you respond to the initial footage of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”?
I loved it. I got everything that I needed and more, so I was very happy with the material and that doesn’t happen all the time. Sometimes it was amazing what Michel had done – the effects that he could do with the camera. It was very exciting.

What was it like working with Michel Gondry?
He is French, I am Icelandic; we are both stubborn and so it was full of arguments. When it comes to editing, I am really, really stubborn – and if the directors don’t suggest something brilliant, I don’t listen to them. Michel can be very sweet and nice, funny, creative – and then he can be a pain in the ass. But I think that I can be a pain in the ass too – probably more of a pain in the ass than Michel.

What was your dynamic in the editing room?
He isn’t the most patient man I know. He couldn’t sit still. Sometimes he’d sit on the sofa in the editing room behind my back and talk – I couldn’t hear him because I was working, and he’d get really pissed if I wouldn’t answer him. Sometimes when he was talking I’d stop and turn around and miss what he’d said, and he’d say to the producer ‘I hate it. She doesn’t answer me and then she rolls her eyes.’ And I was like, ‘How can he see that? He’s behind me!’ It took a while to explain to him that when I was working, I couldn’t hear him.

Would you work with him again?
No, I don’t think so. And I don’t think he’d ever want to work with me.

Matthew Hammett Knott is a London-based filmmaker and writer and contributor to Indiewire’s Lost Boys blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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