In Kurt Engfehr’s opinion, selecting an editorial team for a documentary is similar to the process of casting actors for a narrative film. In both cases, filmmakers must find people who can help make their vision obvious to filmgoers.
Engfehr, one of three editors on Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” along with Christopher Seward and Todd Woody Richman, made the analogy while discussing the role editing played in helping the doc on its way to headline-grabbing status.
“Correct casting is crucial,” says Engfehr. “There are no actors in a documentary, obviously, but selecting the right editorial team is central in expressing the filmmaker’s desires. I don’t necessarily mean editors who agree with the filmmaker at every step, but rather, I mean having compatible agendas, even as you battle about some of the steps getting there.”
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Engfehr edited and co-produced Moore’s Oscar-winning “Bowling for Columbine” (he has a co-producer credit on “Fahrenheit 9/11”), a project on which Richman served as an associate editor. When it became apparent that the sheer scope (2,000 hours plus of footage) and time frame (nine months leading into Cannes) of the “Fahrenheit” project would require multiple editors, Engfehr brought Richman and Seward into the fold.
“This job was different from ‘Columbine,’ because that movie took about 18 months to edit,” Engfehr explains. “In this case, it was more defined. The film was about George Bush and all the stuff that happened after Sept. 11 and it had to be done by Cannes, well in advance of the election. With Michael Moore out on speaking engagements, especially at the beginning of the editing process, and the difficulties inherent in trying to edit a movie about an ongoing war, we really needed three creative minds to split the workload.”
The editors agree that they helped Moore create a bigscreen op-ed piece representative of Moore’s view of historical events — a view all three vigorously support. But, the fundamental nature of the job was no different than on any documentary.
“If you bring a camera into this room, ultimately, who you point it at represents a point of view,” argues Richman. “The notion that a documentary should not be about a point of view is foolish. This is Michael’s point of view. We maintain the facts in the film are correct, and we present our interpretation of them.”
“Even though it’s a documentary, you try to put a narrative template over it and give it arc,” Seward elaborates. “For a long time, we sought a narrative drama line. The early version, for instance, was going to be crafted as a sci-fi, horror documentary type of thing, like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers.’ There were lots of ideas like that. We often had to call upon our own instincts, trying different things and then running them past Michael. He would push for what he wanted, but had no problem when we also pushed for what we wanted.”
The film’s Iraq sequence illustrates this point. Seward became the editor for that part of the film by default — he was the first one available to work on the sequence. Ironically, he is the only person on the editorial team who is a military veteran, having served in the Navy 1987-89. The experience gave him a different take on how to present the war section. The final version contains extremely graphic footage, and a sequence dubbed Heavy Metal Soldiers shows American servicemen listening to rock music while firing on the enemy. These scenes illustrate what Seward was pushing Moore to include — combat’s jolting violence.
“There was no debate about including some gore, but there was discussion over how much to include,” says Seward. “The Heavy Metal Soldiers sequence probably went in and out of the movie a half-dozen times. Just before we locked the picture, the media was finally starting to show more of this violence on the news, and that influenced Michael’s decision to leave it in.”
The three editors add that several other sequences changed as the cut went along, depending on length and rights issues, but also on the interaction between the three editors and Moore. In fact, the movie was recut after it won the Palm d’Or at Cannes.
“There were some things that just weren’t ready by the Cannes deadline, and other things that developed after Cannes,” says Engfehr. “We took out about three minutes of the version that was seen at Cannes and added seven minutes of new material.”
At the end of the day, the trio are proud of their ability to communicate Moore’s vision without sacrificing their individual approaches to editing.
“After all, there are 10 ways to edit any given thing,” says Seward. “If we can take credit for anything, it’s in helping the genesis of the story along.”