Professional editor Charles Carter has worked on a number of award-winning and acclaimed films, including ‘Single,’ ‘The History of Monsters,’ ‘Count,’ and ‘My War,’ bringing a highly personal touch to the editing bay.
Previously trained as an actor, Carter has a special talent for shaping performances and making sure the story shines through it all.
But during our interview with Carter, we turned the focus to the collaborative aspects of his filmmaking experience. Specifically, we wanted to talk all about what it’s like to work with directors.
Every director is different and that often means that they prefer to work in different ways or might even have different preferences when it comes to specific editing decisions.
That said, how can skilled editors make strong decisions during the editing process while still serving the director’s vision for the film?
How can editors bring their extensive prior experience to the table without injecting the project with too much of their personal style?
We hope that our interview with Carter will shed some light on these topics and help other working editors understand how best to collaborate and communicate, especially in a time when in-person collaborative filmmaking is difficult or even impossible.
Going into each project, do you like to be familiar with the director’s previous work?
Carter: Absolutely. I want to know the stories that interest them and how they went about telling those stories. I get most excited when I see a director’s work and there is a lot of variety there.
I know there are some directors who re-make the same film over and over and that can be really rewarding, but I want to know what I can bring to their new project that’s different. Watching a director’s work is essential in discovering their approach to storytelling.
When I started at the AFI, we had a day where we screened our previous work for our peers. I showed a film, ‘We Don’t Know Either,’ which I edited back in the U.K. It helped my future collaborators to see what I could do, and equally, I was able to gravitate towards those directors whose films I really admired.
During your conversation with a director, what specific things are you trying to learn about them and about the project?
Carter: It’s vital that you connect with the director as a person. I want to know what makes them tick and I’m sure they want to find out the same about me. I want to hear the director’s vision for the movie so that I feel that it chimes with mine.
Cutting a movie is an exploration and I need to know how open they are to that process. I also like to, in a gentle way, raise any major concerns I might have with the script.
I’m not out to critique it, that’s not my job, but early on I want to flag potential issues I see coming down the track.
It’s always better to fix it at this stage than to leave it to the edit, but if it is not, then of course, it’s my job to sort it out later. No director-editor partnership is the same, but we are going to be spending a lot of time together so it’s critical we are on the same wavelength.
We don’t have to be best buddies, but we do need to be storytelling collaborators.
You worked remotely with director Ashley Eakin. Would you feel comfortable working with directors this way again in the future?
Carter: So Ashley was in Italy and Latvia, and I was in my dark edit bay in LA. Initially, there was apprehension on how best to approach the edit process as neither of us had ever worked this way before, and with the drastic time differences, it seemed like a real challenge.
However, after the first week, Ashley and I had figured out how to best review and discuss the cuts and it actually turned into a really stimulating way to work. It allowed us to streamline our approach via email and phone conversations.
We did have some time together over a few weekends when Ashley flew back and we managed to try and retry variations of the film. Consequently, the in-person edit days were really great ways to converse more freely about why certain decisions had to be made and to try more out-of-the-box thinking when approaching a difficult segment.
Due to COVID, this remote workflow has become the norm, so it gave me a headstart in understanding how to navigate the process, and because of my experience on ‘Single’ and how successfully Ashley and I made it work, it became less daunting working this way on other projects.
Do you feel you’re naturally skilled at communicating with directors and other production team members? Was it something you had to learn over time?
Carter: That depends on the director and the team. I think the relationship between the different department heads is often set by the director. They are the glue that binds everyone together, they give everyone else the vision and then the common commitment to work together, and when it works, it’s fantastic.
I have, on the whole, been very lucky to have worked with people who I really admire, not just as artists, but also as people and that makes it easy to collaborate and it never crosses your mind about communication because there’s a flow that seems natural, even in the more creatively turbulent moments.
You respect who you are working with even if you sometimes have different opinions. However, on those projects where that mutual trust doesn’t exist then it can be very difficult.
I had one experience where the director was too passive and that created a vacuum where the different departments vied for dominance beyond their roles which created a lot of friction.
In those moments I didn’t feel like a naturally skilled communicator, but I learned over time that you have to be really clear to those around you about what your intentions are and how you intend to fulfill them. There can be no room for misinterpretation. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen often.
Do you have any advice for editors who might have a hard time communicating effectively with directors?
Carter: The edit room has to be a place where we can be honest with each other and say without fear or favor why something isn’t working. It should always be about creating the best story and nothing else. That’s the goal and if sometimes things get a little tense, remind yourself of this fact.
I remember an editor who was absolutely brilliant, but he struggled to communicate and so never had the career he should have had.
I would say if you have a hard time expressing your thoughts, trust your gut and edit the scene or sequence how you believe it should be without trying to second-guess the director. I did this on the film ‘Luce’ where I couldn’t articulate exactly what I wanted to do with a critical montage in the film. I could see it clearly in my head and wanted to try it without explaining it as my words wouldn’t do justice to what I imagined.
In this way, I showed my director a version of the cut sequence I could never have expressed accurately. As it happened, he loved it as I had created something that was never intended. The director gave me the time to trust my instincts and it was a classic example of “show don’t tell.”
Could you picture yourself working consistently with the same director for a number of years?
Carter: 100%, I love the idea of working with the same person. When a collaboration works it’s a magical thing because the truth is sometimes your collaborators don’t really want to hear your voice but just want you to be their hands on the keyboard. So when you find someone who is willing to trust you as a storyteller, where there’s mutual respect.
You need to hold onto those relationships because those are special and, to be honest, rare. If you admire someone’s voice through the stories they tell and you share the same sensibilities, then you will follow them anywhere because you trust them and they trust you. You’re willing to constantly go into the trenches of the edit room with them as you fight to make the best film.
How do you know when you’ve done the best job possible with an edit?
Carter: That’s a really good question and one that I constantly review as I near the end of an editing schedule as decisions made will now become permanent. In truth, I could continue editing until the cows come home, but that’s not possible.
There are some sequences which you cut once and it’s near perfect, and then there are others that you wrestle with that never live up to what’s in your mind’s eye. But at some point, you have to let go even though there is always something you wish to explore and change.
A film isn’t ever finished, it is just taken away from you and you have to have faith that you have done justice to the story and the footage as best as you possibly can.