Documentary filmmakers often find their story in the editing room. This year, the Sundance Film Festival will honor those mostly unsung storytellers with a new competition prize: the documentary editing award.
“As documentaries have become so different and have evolved, the components need recognition and should be celebrated as much as the films,” Ken Brecher, exec director of the Sundance Institute, explains.
By drawing attention to the talent required in the editing process, the award also illuminates the creative partnership between director and editor. Sometimes those roles might be filled by one and the same person, but often a helmer will prefer to draw on another creative mind.
“There may be a treatment or outline as blueprint, but the imagination, skill and artistry of the editor is critical to the process,” says docu vet Freida Lee Mock, whose “Wrestling With Angels” shows in Spectrum this year. Mock’s film follows playwright and activist Tony Kushner over three years, and it took another year to edit. In their third collaboration, Mock worked with editor Anne Stein, whom she lauds for her literate sensibility.
As “Thin’s” first-time helmer Lauren Greenfield discovered, the editing room is where she made most of her creative choices. “So much was constructed in the editing,” explains Greenfield, who shot a staggering 200-plus hours of material. Her film, set in a residential treatment center, captures the lives of women struggling with eating disorders.
Greenfield collaborated with vet editor and recent IDA award winner Kate Amend. “She was always thinking compassionately, not just about the most drama, but how to be fair to the girls in the story,” Greenfield says.
Amend also worked with first-time co-directors Linda Goldstein Knowlton and Linda Hawkins Costigan on Sundance competition docu “The World According to Sesame Street.” Pic follows the initial production of “Sesame Street” in three countries, and delves into the political nature of education.
Not only was there verite footage to assemble but some 35 years of archives. “We had every angle covered,” Knowlton says. “We had one idea going into the editing room, and Kate found another perspective.”
Adds Costigan, “Our story emerged thanks to her.”
Several notable Sundance contenders were in production for unusually lengthy stints. Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s “The Trials of Darryl Hunt” took 12 years and follows the subject’s almost 20-year fight for justice after being wrongfully accused of murder.
Multiple storylines that evolve over five years pack Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan’s “So Much So Fast.” Pic is about young adult Stephen Heywood, who endures the paralyzing neural disorder ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).
The filmmakers, who are past Sundance prizewinners for docu “Troublesome Creek,” commenced editing with ideas and themes in mind, but no script. A vet TV editor, Jordan condensed more than 200 hours of footage, noting that trimming out the last 15 minutes was the hardest.
“We try to have our films be multilayered,” Ascher says. “It’s the weaving of those layers and finding a right balance that really takes a long time. Jeanne has an incredibly deft hand at balancing multiple storylines.” Says Jordan: “I’m ruthless. You really have to lose things that you love.”
It took almost 20 years for ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland to tackle editing his own Super 8 footage of the band. The result, “Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out,” is all about the structure he was able to create from his “found” material, says Copeland.
“I didn’t conceive of a movie and go out and shoot it; I discovered this material and had to figure out how to turn it into a movie,” he explains. “The chal-lenge was to come up with a way of stringing the footage together so there’s an act one, two and three, with turning and jumping-off points.”
Copeland’s pic is one of a number of marketable docs available for acquisition. Will acquisition execs be scouring the doc categories more closely?
“The last few years have proved that there’s more room for docs in the marketplace,” notes Jason Constantine, Lionsgate’s senior VP, acquisitions.
“The bottom line,” he says, “is that, year in, year out, Sundance has had such a consistently strong documentary section, from an acquisition standpoint, we are always covering docs that are available.”