Why the Relationship Between Director and Editor Is Essential for Emmy-Nominated Docus

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.”

Nominated for four Emmys, CNN’s “RBG” is a biographical film intentionally not told in chronological order.

“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.”

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • George RR Martin

    George R.R. Martin Says HBO's 'Game of Thrones' Ending Won't Influence Future Novels

    Geroge R.R. Martin is sticking to his original plan when it comes to the future of “Game of Thrones.” In an interview with The Observer, Martin claimed that HBO’s controversial ending for the series would have no affect on the endings of the last two novels. “No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t change anything at all,” [...]

  • Listen: 'Pennyworth' Producer Talks Delving into

    Listen: 'Pennyworth' Executive Producer Talks Delving into Alfred's Backstory

    Bruno Heller may have served as an executive producer on the Batman-inspired series “Gotham” for the past five years, but it’s actually real-life people (not superheroes) that intrigue the producer the most. It’s for that exact reason that Heller’s newest series finds him exploring the origin stories of Batman’s butler Alfred in the Epix drama [...]

  • "Trust Issues" - Dylan and Lizzie

    'Instinct' Canceled After Two Seasons

    CBS has canceled “Instinct” after two seasons. Series creator Michael Rauch announced the cancellation Friday on Twitter, writing, “I’m very sad to relay the news that @instinctcbs won’t be renewed for a 3rd season. We will double up this Sunday and our season/series finale will be Aug 25.” Rauch also thanked series stars Alan Cumming [...]

  • Maisel Day

    My Mostly OK Maisel Day (Column)

    When Amazon announced its first-ever Maisel Day, I was intrigued. For one day, Aug. 15, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” fans and Angelenos (fangelenos?) could hit up various restaurants, theaters and retailers throughout Los Angeles for special deals, all at 1959 prices. Among the gems: $2.50 makeovers, $0.99 pastrami sandwiches and $0.30 for a gallon of [...]

  • Nordisk Film & TV Fond Announces

    Nordisk Film & TV Fond Backs Joachim Trier, Ole Bornedal, Yellow Bird

    Nordisk Film & TV Fond has announced three features, two series and a documentary set to receive $1.4m in financing, as well as distribution, dubbing and cultural initiative support recipients. Doing so, it highlights some of the key titles moving forward in the Nordic region. Already backed by the Danish Film Institute’s largest ever grant [...]

  • TV News Roundup: 'Silicon Valley' Final

    TV News Roundup: 'Silicon Valley's' Final Season Sets October Premiere Date

    In today’s roundup, “Silicon Valley” returns to HBO on Oct. 27 and Quibi greenlights a new cooking competition show “Dismantled.” DATES The fifth season of Netflix‘s “Peaky Blinders” will premiere on the streamer Oct. 4. The newest season will continue to follow one gangster family in the lawless streets of Birmingham, UK during the midst [...]

  • Peter Fonda Dead: 'Easy Rider' Star

    Peter Fonda, Star of 'Easy Rider,' Dies at 79

    Two-time Oscar nominee Peter Fonda, who became a counterculture icon when he co-wrote, produced and starred in seminal 1969 road movie “Easy Rider,” then showed Hollywood he could act about three decades later in “Ulee’s Gold,” died on Friday from lung cancer at his home in Los Angeles. He was 79. His sister Jane Fonda [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content