SPOTLIGHT October 2022: Tatiana S. Riegel, Film Editor

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Editing has been called the “invisible art” because it is meant to go unnoticed. Perhaps that’s why it is a field where women were allowed to flourish from the earliest days of Hollywood.

Back in those early days women worked in all aspects of the film industry. As the industry grew and became more financially lucrative, however, men started pushing women out of directing, writing, producing, and shooting. But as women got pushed out of those jobs, they found themselves welcome in the job of editor. Whatever reasons led women to enter the editing field, the impressive fact remains that women have consistently made up almost a third of Hollywood’s editing pool and they have excelled at the craft.

BECOMING AN EDITOR

It is easy to see what an actor or a cinematographer or a makeup artist contributes to a film, but an editor’s contribution can be harder to assess. Film editing remains one of the most misunderstood and least appreciated of the craft categories. When an editor does their best work, nobody notices. And perhaps nobody should notice because editing at its best seamlessly brings everything together.

“I think a lot of people think that editing is sometimes as simple as cutting out the bad part or just doing what the director wants,” explained Oscar-nominated editor Tatiana S. Riegel.

But Riegel confesses that she didn’t even know what an editor did when she first thought of a career in the film industry.

“I knew I wanted to get into movies,” she recalled. “I just didn’t know what I should do. So I sort of created this list of possible jobs in my head and went through and crossed off all the ones that I didn’t think I would be appropriate for or interested in, and what was left was really post production, which I knew nothing about. And that kind of turned out to be a perfect combination of both sides of my brain — very creative and yet very technical — which suited my personality.”

HONING THE CRAFT

Her first “job” was working for free in exchange for training on the low budget feature film River’s Edge. She learned how to sync dailies, code and log footage, all of the things that an apprentice or assistant editor does. And she fell in love with the job.

“It’s very challenging and it’s really rewarding, and it’s one of the few positions besides directing the movie yourself where you get to have such an impact on the movie,” Riegel said. “On a set there are 100 plus people all grasping at the director for attention and getting answers on this and that. Then in post production you are sitting there in a room with the director, just the two of you, for the next six to nine months together. And it’s a very intimate, collaborative way of working where you get to really be precise and try and experiment and be very vulnerable about the material and try things in a safe space and really create and make a movie. That’s what editing is. It’s a lot like writing. People have often described it as the third rewrite of the script.”

CLAIMING A SEAT AT THE TABLE

And it is. A film must move from the written word to shooting on the set to editing. Every day she watches the dailies, which are everything that has been shot that day and it can be hours of footage. She then uses the script as a roadmap to begin assembling the film. She is also reevaluating if everything that has been shot is needed. Are some scenes redundant? Do other scenes need pick up shots? After three decades of editing, Riegel is still searching for the best way to describe what she does.

“I’ve sometimes described it as if you’re sitting at a dinner table and there are a number of conversations going on,” she said. “Somebody starts talking, and then your eyes move to them. Sometimes you’re looking at the other end of the table and you see two or three people having their conversation. Sometimes you see what’s happening underneath the table. Maybe somebody is playing footsies or whatever, or you watch somebody reach for the salt shaker and do that. And if you imagine those are all different camera angles that are telling the story of your experience at that dinner. And everybody from every different angle has a different experience. And that’s what editing is. It’s where your eyes go to tell that story.”

EDITORIAL IMPACT

Audiences may not realize how an editor can craft an actor’s performance.

With Margo Robbie at Spirit Awards

“We can change it a lot,” she said. “There are some actors that, number one, give you a great variety of performance from take to take. They can be much more subtle and smaller. They can be much broader. We can manipulate that by pacing. We can condense moments, stretch out moments, the subtleties, again, the reaction of line readings. There are many times where I will take the picture of one take, say, somebody saying one line of dialogue and I may choose the audio or part of the audio from a different take because that line reading is slightly different and reflects a slightly different meaning and gives you a slightly different meaning than what the other one does. So there’s a tremendous amount of manipulation that takes place.”

There is also a broader manipulation that goes on. As one French New Wave director once said that every film must have a beginning, a middle and an end but not necessarily in that order. That also applies to every scene.

“Sometimes it’s much more emotionally impactful to come in a third of the way through the scene and leave before the scene is over, and it propels you emotionally and pacing wise into what’s happening next,” Riegel explained.

ACKNOWLEDGING THE GREATS

Riegel also had a lot of women to look up to as she progressed in her career.

“Oh, my goodness there’s so many,” she enthused. “Obviously, Sally Menke, with whom I worked for years. I thought she was just phenomenal. Dede Allen, of course. Martin Scorsese’s editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, they are amazing.”

These women editors are also ones who formed long term collaborations with male directors: Scorsese and Schoonmaker have been working together since 1967; Arthur Penn and Dede Allen made five films; and Quentin Tarantino and Sally Menke made seven. Riegel has done the same editing five films for Craig Gillespie, including the Oscar-nominated I, Tonya and Lars and the Real Girl.

“So working with Craig was just an absolute thrill. It always is. We understand each other very well. We have the same sensibility, the same sense of humor, and yet we come to it from very different places and can really build and add to the movie,” Riegel said.

THE IMPORTANCE OF COLLABORATION

The relationship between a director and an editor is one of close collaboration after the hectic and sometimes chaotic process of actually shooting the film.

“There are hundreds of people on the set, and there are all these actors and lighting and sound. But then what happens when you get into post production? It’s a director and an editor sitting in the room together alone for days, weeks, months, really working on the most minute, subtle detail that could affect everything in the story,” she said. “I mean, you make a change in a performance or a line reading at the beginning of the movie. It could end up having a very large impact further down. So it’s a fabulous collaboration. And the thing that’s really lovely about it is that you build on each other. It’s greater than the sum of its parts. It’s like they have an idea, then I have an idea, and then they have a better idea and it just kind of keeps getting better and better. The whole process is such a sculpture or a molding of what the film is going to be, but it changes all the time and what you think.”

Riegel has formed a beautiful collaboration with Gillespie. But learning to work with a director is something an editor has to learn for every film. Because as much as an editor can impact a film, ultimately the film belongs to the director.

“It’s their movie, and they have to make sure that they’re getting what they want, and they have to stay true to their vision and be very clear about their vision and fight for it,” Riegel said. “Having said that, you don’t just want to be a yes man, you want to be a sounding board. You want to try and always do what’s best for the picture.”

Although she loves working with Gillepsie and is always happy to collaborate, she is also always seeking out projects that will bring her new challenges.

“I really enjoy working on different types of films. It keeps my job very interesting,” she said. “Editors, like actors or writers or directors, can very quickly become typecast as a particular type. That’s the horror person, that’s the action person, whatever. You can get stuck having only those opportunities to work on and not being able to break out of that. As much as anyone can control one’s own career, I’ve tried to shake that up as much as I can and work on different kinds of films. A small little indie is a very different experience than a big studio movie [like Cruella]. Neither is better or worse. They’re just very different. In a big studio movie, there are many more people involved and you sort of have to please a big team of people because they’re going for a specific thing, which is different from an indie film like The Way Way Back and certainly I, Tonya.”

PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE

When asked for advice about becoming an editor, she said just edit.

“It’s a lot like painting or dancing or playing a musical instrument. It takes practice,” she said. “You have to come up against those challenges and those problems and work your way out of the maze and solve them in some way. So cut everything that you can, work on anything and everything, and practice whatever the 10,000 hours you need to become an expert. You really need that. And it is just practice, practice, practice. Find the films that you like, study them and try to understand why. And listen to other editors describe how and why they do things. And if you are fortunate enough to actually get into the business and start working in the business, talk to editors about how they did it and why. Sit in the room with them when they’re editing a scene and have them explain why they’re making those choices. That was what I got to do. I got to sit in those rooms and listen as a fly on the wall to an editor and a director going through their creative process. And it was invaluable.”

And if you can tolerate it, watch bad movies because you can also learn a lot from them. You can start thinking about the decisions you might have made to change a scene or pacing or a performance.

Since starting her career in 1986, Riegel has seen a lot of changes in her profession as ediing moved from the physical editing of workprints to everything being digital.

“I started on film. I started with the cutting and splicing. I have scars to prove it, and I love it,” she said. “There’s something about it that I quite miss. The physical aspect of it, literally grabbing the reels off the shelf and rewinding and threading them up on the Movieola or whatever we were using at the time. There’s something very nice and physical. And obviously working digitally has become quite sedentary and still, not as healthy. But working digitally is much faster. In the digital world, it’s wonderful to be able to just try stuff.”

And Riegel’s career has been about just trying stuff. Whether it is the intimacy of The Way Way Back or the frenetic style of revisiting the tabloid headlines of I, Tonya with new insights or finding the horror beats of Fright Night, Riegel is game for whatever challenge the next film will bring.

WHY WE CHOSE HER

Tatiana S. Riegel is a success story. She set her sights on a career in the film industry started at the very bottom and navigated her way to the top through hard work and by choosing challenging and diverse projects. She has won accolades from her peers (winning the American Cinema Editors’ Eddie Award), the industry (an Oscar nomination for I, Tonya), and critics. She appreciates the women who trailblazed before her and offers advice to anyone entering the field. — Beth Accomando

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Beth Accomando

Beth Accomando is host of KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast and author of the blog Cinema Junkie. She also programs film series and events as part of Film Geeks SD at venues such as Museum of Photographic Arts and Digital Gym Cinema. She loves horror, zombies, kaiju and film noir.