21 January 2021 The Irish Film & Television Network
Five Mins with Film Editor Sean Mackenzie
16 Oct 2013 : By Kevin Cronin
Artist Francis Bacon forms the subject of documentary 'Bacon's Arena', edited by Sean Mackenzie and screening at Clones Film Festival.
Bafta-winning Film Editor Sean Mackenzie – whose credits include ‘Amish: A Secret Life’ and ‘Japan's Tsunami: Caught on Camera ‘- is set to give an editing Masterclass at the Clones Film Festival this 26th October, alongside a screening of the Emmy-nominated film ‘Bacon’s Arena’ which he edited.

Ahead of his appearance in Monaghan, IFTN caught up with Mr Mackenzie to talk about some of his career highlights to date - including his early influences, his love of painter Francis Bacon; and the process of cutting some of his most recent and powerful work.

Mr Mackenzie, at the Clones Film Festival you will be discussing the documentary ‘Bacon’s Arena’, about artist Francis Bacon’s work - which is a topic close to your heart. Can you tell us a bit about your connection to the material?
One of the reasons I’m doing the Masterclass at Clones is because of my friend and fellow film editor Fergal McGrath, who will be moderating the interview. When I was part of the judging panel for the IFTAs in February, I took Fergal to the Hugh Lane gallery to see the Francis Bacon studio in Dublin. Because I’d cut ‘Bacon’s Arena’, seeing the studio was a big deal! It was wonderful to see the room where all that creativity had taken place. I spent six months working on ‘Bacon’s Arena’ and recognised everything within that studio space, and loved knowing where all those wonderful paintings had emerged from. So I’m thrilled that Clones is showing ‘Bacon’s Arena’ on the big screen. We will be talking about the edit and the process involved, in an informal and inclusive manner. Anyone can come along and listen to what goes on in the cutting room, and I love the fact that Geraldine has organised some studio space for us to do that. Bacon was born in Dublin and lived there for the first 12 years of his life. My family’s from West Cork and my parents, sister and brother all live in Clonakilty.

To focus on your recent Bafta win for ‘Amish: A Secret Life’; is it true the Amish family risked censure by their Elders for speaking to the filmmakers and how did this affect your editing decisions?
The director, Lynn Alleway, was incredibly sensitive about telling the Amish family’s stories and she took a lot of care in making sure they were happy revealing what they wanted to reveal. I think the reason people liked that film so much is because that family were so open and honest. Their warmth and charm is there for all to see. It’s already got half a million hits on YouTube! We don’t often get to see a portrait of a family which in documentary terms feels so different. We stick with that family all the way through and start that intimate journey right from the beginning. The only time we leave their house and their world is when we’re going out with them. We set that tone right from the beginning.

The documentary ‘Japan's Tsunami: Caught on Camera’, which earned you a Bafta nomination last year, combined first-hand accounts of the disaster with footage of it unfolding in real-time. Can you talk us through some of the challenges this posed?
What was amazing about the film was that director Peter Nicholson went over to Japan with his researchers and found the people and footage - much of which was recorded on mobile phones. We also had footage from a man who had a camera in his car, because he was involved in some insurance claim, and every time he got in the car, the camera turned itself on. That camera recorded the water levels as they rose behind him when his car was carried away, all in real-time. In terms of editing - because the footage was all on different sources - the director and I had to re-tell what happened in the Tsunami, assembling all the accounts to fit the images. As the footage came in, we literally saw what people were describing - having already cut many of their words. We were completely on top of every detail they described. There are no split screens and no trickery. We sync the footage with their interviews describing what happened - telling the story with all its awful, powerful strength.

What were some of your early cinematic influences growing up?
I saw Ken Russell’s ‘Tommy’ in the cinema in 1975. You had to be 14 to get in and I was 11. When I saw that film, I thought it was such an incredible piece of work! It made me realize how exciting music, visuals and story could be. Ken Russell became a touchstone for me. You could be daring with editing. You could be daring with music. You could be bold basically! He was a massive influence and an inspiration.

Did you receive any formal film training or how did you get your break in the industry?
I started as a runner 30 years ago at a post-production company in Soho. For the first six months I was running around making tea and getting people sandwiches. They had David Bowie, Duran Duran and all these famous people in the building in the midst of all those pop promos! Seeing films cut, and meeting people was very exciting. One minute a David Bowie video and next it would be a medical programme or documentary about the Third World. And in the edit suite you’d absorb this incredible range of work. That kind of range is something I’ve been trying to follow in my career ever since. I’m working on a film about dangerous dogs at the moment and recently edited an episode of ‘The Story of the Jews’. I love bouncing from one project to the next.

Can you describe what a typical working day is like for you?
Firstly, you have to remember where you are in an edit schedule and where you should be. You have to make lots of decisions and judgment calls on the material. And you get to a point in the film where you either have to make that bit better or move on. You’ve got to grind stuff out and keep focusing and concentrating all the time, which is what I enjoy.

Would you have any advice for young people thinking of going into film editing?
Yes! It’s not about pressing buttons - it’s about understanding story and the story behind the story and finding what’s interesting in what you’ve been given. My advice would be to read books and newspapers and think about the world, and bring all of that to editing a film so you have a narrative sense of storytelling.

Thanks very much for your time, Mr Mackenzie.

The Masterclass with Sean Mackenzie takes place at 2pm on Sat 26th October in Clones Library, with further information on booking tickets available on the Clones Film Festival website here.

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