One of the most sought after and experienced film editors working in the rarified world of feature film production is BAFTA awarded film editor Mick Audsley. If you go to the cinema you will know his work. He has edited high profile movies such as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (UK/USA, 2005) , Everest (2015) and Twelve Monkeys (U.S 1996) . He has a long established working relationship with British film director Stephen Frears having edited My Beautiful Laundrette (1986), Dangerous Liasons (1988) and The Grifters (1990). The full list of features on which he has worked is a snap shot of some of the best and most successful British and International films that have been made in the past twenty-five years.
Like many people of his post war generation who were interested in the Arts Mick came to film editing through a circuitous route and , after studying at Hornsey College of Art, he was initially thinking of becoming an animator.
This was the pre digital age where films were actually shot and edited on 16mm or 35mm film stock. Soho, London, was a hive of editing rooms and preview theatres. Wardour Street the Grand Canal through which a whole industry floated its wares. It was the world of dimly lit cutting rooms where film tins were piled high and dense rolls of film were being constantly hand wound back wards and forwards on metal wheels. Edges were being rubber numbered, rushes were being synced up, and negs were being cut. The Chinagraph pencil was a symbol of real authority.
It is perhaps worth also noting that the film industry at that time was heavily unionised and operated on a rigid ‘closed shop system.’ If you wanted to work in a particular area of production you had to have an accredited union membership in whatever field you were active in.
I caught up with Mick as he was just completing the first week on a new feature project he is co editing with Jeramiah O’ Driscoll. This is an as yet untitled World War Two thriller directed by Robert Zemekis for Paramount Pictures and starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard and written by Steve Knight. Firstly I wanted to know more about those formative years.
“I did a graduate course in the late sixties as a graphic design photography and film student. At the time the only effective film school was the Royal College of Art the film school at Beaconsfield only opened during my second year as a student. So I had my eye on animation as a possible route through to live action at the RCA because this was the only route that I knew. So I went on to do an M.A there. And I quickly became involved with animation work and I soon discovered that the life of an animator is quite a lonely one. I wanted to branch out a bit more and be part of a larger community. “
Did you find film or did it find you?
“It found me I think. But not really until I had graduated from the RCA because the one thing that I did not really do a lot of at that time was cutting. I did all the other things, I did a lot of sound recording I did a lot of sound editing and that was the route I took. As soon as I had graduated I got work as a sound editor, that led me to the cutting rooms and eventually into picture editing. At the time nobody seemed to want to do those particular jobs. And of course as a student I had also experienced other jobs such as working on crews and shooting film . “
Having established himself as a sound recordist and sound editor Mick was approached by a friend, Peter Harvey, who had been in the RCA in the year above him and who was by now working at the BFI Production Board in Waterloo. This was a state-funded film production fund that had been established to finance and support the work of new upcoming film makers many of whom were making films that could be broadly described as being experimental or art house in tone.
“Peter Harvey invited me to come in an get involved editing and recording sound for various productions that he was working on. This is the era of Peter Greenaway, Peter Kay Smith, Kevin Brownlow, Charles Reece and Bill Douglas in those days they did a lot of test pilot films before you perhaps got the grant to make a full 16mm feature. I fell in with those guys. One project that they were making was a two minute pilot for a theatre company who had applied for a grant to produce a 16mm film version of King Lear. So I got involved in recording the sound and they got the grant and there was nobody to cut the short test film. Peter suggested that I should edit it. And I said ‘well I’ve never done that before.’ But he encouraged me and said ‘you’ll be fine , have a go.’
It was through editing this short film project that Mick realized exactly what he really wanted to do. He went on to edit the whole King Lear project and suddenly he was getting noticed as a film editor. This soon led to him being offered other BFI projects.
“I helped Bill Douglas by working on the end of his autobiographical trilogy My Way Home (1978) which I had also worked on as a sound recordist. And that was a huge step forward. I think that that is why I became involved working with Stephen Frears because he knew that I had worked with Bill and also Chris Petit. So it all stems from that period. “
The Film Board was in effect Mick’s second film school. Interacting and working with the other film makers who were associated with it taught him more and more about the art and craft of film making and editing in particular. There was a real sense of camaraderie amongst the film makers who still regarded themselves as being in many respects outside of the mainstream of what then constituted the British film industry.
“We felt that really we were not in the film industry because we actually couldn’t be or certainly I couldn’t be because I had no union status. We were not legitimate in that sense and it actually took me a long time to become a member of the Union. It was traumatic , it was very difficult to survive .It was stifling. With people like Bill Douglas and Kevin Brownlow and others at the BFI we could be cineastes rather than being embedded in the industry. We hung out together and they were incredibly supportive and it went on from there.”
Having established his credentials as a film editor Mick was now asked by Chris Petit to edit his feature film “ An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.” Mick by this time had found a sponsor to get that all important Union ticket and soon found himself located in a very busy cutting room environment where, as Mick recalls “it was very hands on we did everything. Most of the people in the cutting room had more experience than me and I learned a tremendous amount from them. “ None the less as the hierarchy dictated he was The Editor and Mick soon discovered that there was no rancor from the old guard “They were very gracious and put a wing around me and it eased me into the industry proper, gently. “
From this position Mick went on to establish himself as a film editor of distinction. Amongst many notable projects he established a strong and enduring working relationship with both Stephen Frears cutting the breakthrough film “My Beautiful Laundrette. “ and also “Dance with a Stranger. “ (1985)for Mike Newell . His career has spanned the time frame when film production at every level has shifted from analogue to digital. Much has changed dramatically from the days of film stock in tins and splicing blocks but other key principals endure.
Is, I wondered, film editing actually the true essence of all film making?
“ I do believe that. It is the last stage in the process and I think until it is all articulated editorially –it has potential but it is unrealized- in the way that say a flat shot of someone’s face expressing nothing can take on incredible meaning due to montage but it is on its own just a shot of someone’s face. It is the editorial juxtaposition, the narrative climate, that it is placed in which impregnates it with all sorts of different meanings and therefore the editorial context realizes it for the most effective use of the narrative so the ‘film in a can’ is a brick but the wall has not been built yet.”
The film editor Anne Coates (Lawrence of Arabia, Out of Sight) has said that keeping the whole thing in perspective inside her head is often the hardest thing to maintain when cutting a feature.
“I could not agree more. I call it film blindness. It is the nature of what we do . There is a huge amount of repetitive viewing ; viewing things in progressive forms and with different pictorial additions. You are constantly trying to wipe the hard drive in your head and put yourself in the shoes of the audience who know nothing and you have seen it perhaps a thousand times –it is very hard to keep that objectivity A strange thing does happen though which is beneficial , if not sometimes alarming, is that the minute you put it in front of a small audience it starts to speak again to you because sometimes you get a strange chemistry coming from the people in the room with you. You feel that they are not going with it and that is a very strange vibe. And as unpleasant as that can be it is also very helpful.”
To what extent could you say that editing is in effect directing the picture for the second time ?
“I think it is more a rebirth if it is anything. It is a rebirth of the writing . It is for me to rediscover the intentions of the writing and of course it is a shared responsibility with the director or it may be entirely the director’s responsibility to the editing in the end because we are subservient to them .
Hopefully that germ that was in the writing is now manifest in what we produce . I hope it is not a different direction .”
The film editor Tom Rolfe (Taxi Driver, Heat )used to say that he regarded the film making process as having four distinct stages –as conceived, as written, as shot, as edited. Would you agree with that?
“Yes. I mean you do have some shocks along the way because of what appears to be a harmony between those processes . By the time you are deciding to put things together and choosing pieces to present to your superiors you think I am rewriting or writing this in pictures and sound and the words on the page were the original blue print. Now we are actually building the building and it is a question of what that relationship is in the intent of the drawing or blue print in relation to the reality of the building .
It can change radically on the way – moving a scene around for example may be very different from the way it originally appeared on the page but in effect it is just “rewording” it and making it more pertinent .
Walter Mursh talks of the ability to tell and deliver a joke-if you get the rhythm wrong the gag doesn’t work and the same principle exits in editing.
“ It is so true. We used to call it ‘the guy who has got his arm on the bar telling you a shaggy dog story’ . It is the way you supply information and also the way you hold it back and let the audience anticipate it that makes it satisfying when you deliver the punch line and I absolutely agree with Walter. It is the ability to lead the audience ,if you like, by the scruff of the neck through the right journey which makes it ultimately satisfying. The orchestration of images and sound is what that is.”
Other editors often employ a musical analogy when talking about what they do. I am thinking here of Saar Klein who cut the ‘ Bourne Identity” , who has likened editing to improvising a solo in Jazz.
“These words come up again and again when talking about editing picture and sound -the musicality ,the rhythm, the beats these are all musical analogies and there is something about the fact that it moves along and there is a visual rhythm. There is something in editing which has a very close connection to musical ideas . It makes sense to me and I have to say that like with music if somebody plays something in a particular way then it is their voice i.e if they edit it one way and if you do a crit or appraisal of that work if that person does not have an innate musicality or in this case an editorial musicality it is very hard to teach them how to do it. It is something people either have or haven’t got and it is the same with editorial rhythms.”
Do you think that the pace that films are cut and presented is different from the way they were thirty or forty years ago?
“ Well I am sure that they are But I think that in the end the material and the narrative that you want should dictate your choices Obviously physically things have changed beyond belief. I stopped cutting films on film about twenty years ago so from my start in around 1978 until 1995 that is what you did , winding film and running it between your hands; the preparation work we used to do was copious notes , the physical aspect of moving these lumps of film about and banging them together was all very time consuming and physical. Literally overnight that stopped and one realized that you could now think very quickly and work very quickly but for me the disciplines that I learned from the film era I cannot leave behind which is to look very carefully at the material ,in effect plan it in my head .
I think that the big change is that the tempo that people can absorb pictorial information -sound and picture has increased and yet sometimes films can be quite slow so there is some knack in storytelling which has not necessarily shifted at the same tempo. Which is interesting.”
Because of the digital revolution are you now getting far more rushes passing through the cutting room than you did previously when people were shooting on film stock?
“The film coverage that we get has increased astronomically. It is a shame because some of the disciplines in that conceptual area (shooting on set) has gone as well where people are sometimes shooting everything rather than starting the editorial process because you have to be economical in what you choose to shoot So the volume has increased which has had a huge impact on us as editors. Now where as once you might have got one hour a day on a feature we now get five or six hours , and than can be a conservative figure , and simply the time it takes to work with all that is very time consuming indeed. We kind of make films slower than we used to because of that.
I would never go back to film now but the old school thinking , the disciplines that I learned, I certainly think for me are still very useful and I still apply them.”
The one thing that the shift from analogue to digital has certainly changed is the access that aspirant film makers have to the tools of the trade. Digital cameras are easy and cheap to buy, sound can be recorded equally easily and of course digital editing software like Final Cut and Adobe which has been taken up by Hollywood film makers such as the Coen brothers, has ensured that many more people now understand what it takes to make a film. I asked Mick what he thought about this technical accessibility. Has it made the role of the editor in the whole process specifically more understandable ? Mick’s response to this was something of a double edged sword.
“I think it works both ways . I think people understand more about the practical processes involved in editing because software is available and you don’t have to have a Moviola or a viewing theater at home to cut your own material. You can now do that on a lap top and you can buy software like Adobie or Avid and so on. That general knowledge is much more widespread.
Conversely ,what I would call the academic understanding of movie construction and montage is not understood because that is a much harder thing to get your head around and I think that that is not as prevalent . I think there is a lack of understanding about these things by people who think that they do understand it. If you have the ability to do surface then that’s it But you and I know that it is thinking underneath that is much more elusive. So it works on both levels. There are large numbers of people who go ‘I know what to do – you get the software and bang stuff together ‘ well yes that is true but the thinking about how movies work and how construction works and the editorial relationships and the process of making a movie are not as readily understood – the technique has slightly given people the feeling that they can do something and yet there is a whole other side to it. It is a bit like saying well I can see a building but I do not know how to lay the foundation so you can just put bricks up . But to hold then there you really need to know what goes on in the foundation before you can start building. “
Because of the great changes that Mick and his colleagues have seen in the film industry over the past twenty years Mick was instrumental along with Joke van Wijk ,who has a background in editing and film education, in establishing the networking organization “Sprocket Rocket Soho .” Conceived as an informal ‘meeting place ‘ and also as a ‘film makers community’ for film editors and other film makers who have found themselves increasingly operating in a degree of isolation from one another in what was previously a more gregarious industry.
“ It really was going back to some of the things we were talking about at the start and the digital change in the industry. For me the apprenticeship system collapsed when the digital age came in because it was in the nature of analogue film editing that and assistant editor would be in a room learning about construction, now people became more cut off ,you were not seeing other people in quite the same way- we were working more in isolation and we were not meeting other editors. So the idea of Sprocket Rocket Soho was to create an environment where we could all get together and start meeting and talking in person. Mick recalls that in the days of film the cutting rooms were often adjacent to each other. Editors would show each other clips or sequences and share their thoughts. In the viewing theatres the daily ‘rushes’ were always screened in the evening straight up from the labs and again editors would mingle with the director and the director of cinematography the set designers the costume designer and so on.
Now as Mick laments “We are not meeting in rooms. Because of issues to do with piracy and the ways rushes are not viewed in preview rooms they are viewed in private , that shared fluidity has gone.”
Sprocket Rocket Soho is therefore an attempt to redress the balance and to give editors and film makers a forum to actually meet up and discuss their work and the various issues that confront them. It is also an opportunity to swop notes and to put real faces to e mail addresses and twitter accounts.
“We can meet share problems and discuss the issues and also to help the educational aspect of film editing where younger filmmakers can meet more experienced film makers and exchange experiences and views about their work.
I want it to be open to all film makers .
As Mick reflects on his own development as an editor and those who helped him when he was starting out “I was entirely dependent on those film makers who I met. More experienced film makers. Sharing information with younger people can help them flower and be free. We get something from them and they get something from us. That is at the heart of Sprocket Rocket Soho.”
It is also perhaps indicative of the true passion and generosity of spirit that Mick Audsley applies to his professional work. A true “Sprocket Man.”
If you would like to know more about Sprocket Rocket Soho.
Interview originally published Hungry Eye. Issue 2. Vol. 4