In the latest installment of POV's Enter the Edit series, editor Geoffrey Richman tells editor and 2017 Schmeer Fellow Leigh Johnson that "...getting lost is part of the process. It’s a roller coaster of euphoria and frustration, coming up with solutions and then seeing why they don’t work." Geoff (Murderball, Sicko, The Cove) is equally adept at working in fiction as he is in documentary. In this column, he talks about joys and challenges of working in both.
Leigh: As both a documentary and narrative editor, you’ve mentioned that narrative films tend to try to be more like documentaries and vice versa. Can you talk about that?
Geoff: The first cut of each is when they’re most like what you think of as fiction or documentary. The scripted films feel very scripted, and the documentaries feel very unstructured and informational. And over the course of the edit, I find that you’re pushing them in the opposite direction. So the narrative films get to feel less scripted and staged, documentaries get to feel more and more structured and narrative. The first cut on a documentary doesn’t necessarily even feel like a movie. It can take a few rounds of editing before it even gets to the point where it feels like a bad rough cut of a movie.
Leigh: The most obvious difference between narrative and documentary editing is that narrative films start with a written screenplay whereas documentaries are “written” through extensive experimentation in the edit. But I imagine there’s an immense amount of experimentation and rewriting in a narrative edit as well.
Geoff: Definitely. There are obviously more constraints on a narrative film. But the most fun I’ve had on narratives is when the edit felt similarly open to experimentation as on a documentary.
On Peter and Vandy, which was a love story told out of order, the scenes could go in pretty much any order. So there was a lot of trial and error to find the right way through the story. And we could use snippets of scenes from later in the film, or from deleted scenes, at any point to help with the edit.
On Sleepwalk With Me, it seemed like a straightforward edit at the start, but we ended up doing lots of fun experimenting. The screenplay was based on Mike Birbiglia’s story that had been previously performed on stage, written, and edited many times, with a lot of the same funny jokes. But when we presented rough cuts of the film version to people, they weren’t laughing. It took a little while to figure this out, but the story is kind of tragic, his sleepwalking problem, his relationship problem. The difference when Mike would tell the story on stage or on the radio is that you understood inherently that he’s telling you a story that happened in the past and he’s okay now, so it’s okay to laugh about it. You know how comedy is tragedy plus time? The film lost the time element. It was really interesting and totally surprising. So we experimented with different ways for Mike to talk to camera, from the future, and him driving in his car talking to camera ended up becoming the throughline of the film, placing the rest of the story in the past. The early cuts were also missing a lot of his performance material, so Mike shot a bunch of actual performances at different comedy clubs, plus b-roll of him on the road, writing notes, that kind of thing. With all these new ingredients in play, which could be used anywhere in the film like on a documentary, it gave us a lot more freedom to experiment with scenes and structure.