Post Insights

This weekend DEGNZ is running a two-day workshop with award-winning film editor David Coulson. David has a working relationship with director Niki Caro that has seen him edit her last five films, including her latest The Zookeepers Wife, starring Jessica Chastain and Daniel Brühl.

While looking for background information on David I came across an article from a Script to Screen session that was hosted by DEGNZ member and director Leanne Pooley with David and another DEGNZ member, editor Cushla Dillon.

A few comments that David and Cushla made jumped out at me:

David (on letting the writer into the edit suite):
“The writer and I are fundamentally connected, the two processes are inter-related, but when I am working in the suite, that ends. It would be like inviting a thoroughbred horse into a slaughterhouse because what is going on in there can be mercenary and seemingly destructive.  I take scenes the scriptwriter saw at the end and put them at the beginning. I’ve chopped scenes in half and put them in different places. It’s the last stop before this thing rolls out the door for the rest of its life so you have to be open to some of these seemingly destructive possibilities because new things that might not have been envisaged can come from that.”

Cushla (on rhythm):
“My response is purely to the material,” said Cushla. “The script is just a plan or a draft. I read a lot of scripts and when you read a great one, words just roll off the page and you don’t stop and think about how it will all come together. The writer has written a great script – and here’s a tip for writers! Read good, well written scripts, look at how the writer inserts the details without dictating to me how I will cut a scene. I look at how the images respond to each other, taking time to consider and meditate on all the images and the work of the craftspeople involved in the shooting.”

David (on the responsibility of the director to honour the script):
“We always honour the process,” said David. “Someone has written something, then someone has filmed it and then we need to put it all together. To do that, we have to stand back. The script exists only on paper and it doesn’t have the cadences and rhythms of actors speaking or the extraordinary shots that make up a film. The script is the navigation point and we all attempt to faithfully re-create it.”

Cushla and David (on the boundaries when working with a writer/director):
“The editor’s role is that of negotiator,” said Cushla. “I see myself as the audience’s representative. I’m there to interpret the material I see so that it honours the script and the intent of the director but I’m also there to negotiate with the writer/director. If I think they’re not using the best technique to communicate or are a bit misguided, I’ll tell them. For new writer/directors, there is so much to learn and it is an intimate relationship based upon trust. Leave your ego at the door because we’re all here to honour the film and the story it tells. If things don’t work out it doesn’t mean you are a bad filmmaker but let’s use the skills we have to make the best film we can.”

David responded that it is different when the writer/director is there. “It’s hard to generalise because everyone is different but it can be tricky. Some writer/directors I’ve worked with are obsessively protective of what they’ve written and some are the opposite. We can come to a fork in the road: re-interpret a film and make it a good one, a different one, or do the best we can with an idea that really isn’t the best. Every decision that is made in the room has to be dealt with as dispassionately and yet as emotionally as possible, and that is a weird thing. I use humour in the editing suite, especially if the process is gruelling.”

I felt that these are extremely valuable insights for any team heading into a feature film, particular a debut feature. And they highlight a few of the many reasons why you should get the best editor you can onto your project. Thanks to Script-to-Screen for the permission to reprint these takeouts here.


Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

Last updated on 26 February 2018