Unlike narrative projects, documentaries are created in the edit suite. There, hundreds of hours of verité footage, archival materials, talking heads and even animated sequences need to be sorted through, digested and culled together to form a comprehensive, succinct and, with any luck, interesting and entertaining nonfiction series or specials.
To get there, docu directors rely on the unsung heroes of cinema — the editors. If making a documentary is like building a house, then the director is the architect, while the editor is the engineer. While some could argue that anyone is capable of picking up a camera and pressing the record button, not everyone can take a vast amount of footage and mold it into a compelling story.
“In documentary filmmaking, the editor is your closest collaborator,” says “Free Solo” co-director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. “The documentary editor works much like a writer would on a narrative feature.”
Five months after winning the Oscar for docu feature, “Free Solo” garnered seven Emmy nominations, including one for Bob Eisenhardt who edited the film.
Eisenhardt, who also edited Vasarhelyi’s “Meru” (2015), began working on the National Geographic doc six months before mountain climber Alex Honnold’s climactic rope-free climb up Yosemite’s El Capitan. In all Eisenhardt spent about 18 months editing more than 700 hours of footage into the final product.
“When I started, no one knew if we were making a film about a guy who was going to try to do this [climb] and then decides not to, or if we were making a film about a guy who tries and succeeds, or a film about a guy who tries and fails,” says Eisenhardt. “Those are three very different films. So, we were cutting as if he was going to be successful, but you had to keep everything else in mind.”
Editor Carla Gutierrez, who is nominated for her work on Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s “RBG,” also had to construct a film without a key component — an interview with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“We cut the film as if we were never going to get the interview with her,” Gutierrez says. “I started editing in February, and I believe Julie and Betsy finally sat down with [her] in June or July.”
“Telling Justice Ginsburg’s story in the order it happened would have been boring,” West says. “So, we had to find a way to weave the story together using archival and verité footage.”
Gutierrez sifted through that footage and realized that Ginsburg’s 1993 Senate confirmation hearings could serve as an effective structuring device.“In those scenes, she is laying out her approach to life and her jurisprudence,” Cohen says. “It was footage we came back to throughout the film. So it really served as the film’s spine.”
Of course, the spine of CNN’s “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” was Bourdain himself.
Bourdain’s longtime producing partners Chris Collins and Lydia Tenaglia say before Bourdain’s death in June 2018, he wrote the show’s scripts and worked alongside multiple editors to help construct the series. But when it came to editing “Lower East Side,” the episode for which editor Tom Patterson is nominated this year, it had to be put together without the chef’s input.
“We didn’t have Bourdain’s writing to fall back on and to thread things together,” Tenaglia says. “We had to figure out how to visually thread this piece together using only his on-camera scenes.”
But, the best editors are “malleable,” says Benjamin Gray, who spent 14 months working alongside director Susan Lacy to construct HBO’s “Jane Fonda in Five Acts,” which is nominated in the documentary/nonfiction special category.
“Jane is somebody who has been photographed and in the press since the day she came home from the hospital after she was born. So we had a whole lifetime of archival footage to look through,” he says. “It was a real challenge.”
The first cut of the project, Lacy admits, was “so depressing” because they were attempting to tell the story linearly, and “every terrible thing that happened in Jane’s life happened up front.”
Soon enough, Gray and Lacy determined they needed to break up her childhood’s chronology, accessing it throughout the two-hour docu through catalysts from later in her life. This allowed them to pace the project better, as well as shift the tone.
Tone is something that “Three Identical Strangers” director Tim Wardle says he spent many hours discussing with editor Michael Harte, who received an Emmy nod for his work.
“The film starts off as a fun, upbeat, John Hughes-like comedy and then it shifts to a dark, psychological thriller investigation,” Wardle says. “That’s a massive tonal shift, and Michael’s skill was central to realizing those transitions.”
Similarly, the collaboration between director Dan Reed and editor Jules Cornell for HBO’s “Leaving Neverland” became essential when determining how much emotion to show from their interview subjects: Wade Robson,
James Safechuck and their family members, who were recounting allegations of sexual abuse against the late pop star Michael Jackson.
“It was a question of being fair, and how much of somebody’s pain do you show on camera?” says Cornell. “I wanted to stay on the crying longer than Dan. We ultimately reached a compromise, but fortunately we both had a very similar view, so we didn’t really have too many arguments about what had to stay in and what had to go out.”
Reed says he is grateful for Cornell’s input and calls him a “co-author” of the doc.
Lacy concurs:“There is no formula or cookie-cutter way of approaching the edit of a film and that’s why you have to have an editor who can go on that journey with you,” she says. “They have to learn how to channel your sensibility. They are helping you realize your ideas and protecting you from your worst ones.”