1 December 2022 The Irish Film & Television Network

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“My job is to manifest the best vision of the director with the material at hand;” Oscar-nominated editor Dody Dorn talks with IFTA
10 Dec 2021 : News Desk
Editor Dody Dorn
On Thursday, IFTA hosted Oscar-nominated editor Dody Dorn ACE (Memento, Kingdom of Heaven Director’s Cut, Zack Snyder’s Justice League) for its Editing - Skills in Focus event, supported by Screen Skills Ireland.

Dorn is best known for her collaborations with world-class directors such as Christopher Nolan on Memento and Insomnia, Zack Snyder on Army of the Dead and Zack Snyder's Justice League, with Ridley Scott on three films including Matchstick Men and Kingdom of Heaven, with James Cameron on Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Directors Cut), and with David Ayer on Sabotage and Fury. Dorn’s work on Memento received an Oscar nomination among several other nominations, and she won the Sierra Award from the Las Vegas Film Critics Society. 

Dorn, who is also a well-known sound editor, shared the skills and techniques that have seen her become one of the world’s leading editors, as well as talking listeners through a career that has led to her working with some of the biggest directors in the world.

The Masterclass was  moderated by award-winning editor, director and author Declan McGrath. McGrath is a Director, Editor, and the author of Editing and Postproduction, as well as other books on the craft of filmmaking published internationally by Butterworth Heinemann and writes for the New York cinematic journal Cineaste.Declan has lectured on film in both Queens University Belfast and University College Dublin. Declan has produced and directed the documentary film Mary McAleese and The Man Who Saved Europe for RTE and BBC as well as the series Seinn Liom (2010) and Cad é an Scéal (2011) for BBC Northern Ireland and the RTÉ-screened film Belfast Building (2000).

“I learned the basics overnight… I gave it my all, got into the union and never looked back.”

McGrath began by asking Dorn how she defines the role of an editor. Dorn wasted no time in cementing her role as a Director’s editor saying “My job is to manifest the best vision of the director with the material at hand.” From there they discussed her somewhat unorthodox route into an editing career which saw her working her way up to a sound editor role before transitioning to picture, all without any formal education in the craft.

My father was a set builder, I worked as a receptionist during high school. I decided I wanted nothing to do with Hollywood, but I came back from a blue-collar perspective, I had no film school training and I landed in the editor room and that's where I really learned to love cinema” said Dorn.  She worked as a PA and other roles before a producer offered her an opportunity that would change her career.

I was the assistant to the producer, and he asked if I would like to work in the editing room and I learned the basics overnight. I had briefly been a projectionist and I gave it my all, got into the union and never looked back.”

For Dorn her journey to editing comprised a series of differing roles, each of which she saw  a learning experience that taught her  something different to take on to her next project. She never saw “moving sideways” or working as an assistant as beneath her.

I was preparing dailies, and I moved sideways in sound as a sound assistant to me. If I am learning something new that is not second class, the editors were not showing or helping me to go further. I then moved up in sound, started my own company”.

I believe my experience as a sound editor has been exponential to my job as an editor.“

Dorn working in sound on projects that included State of Grace, The Abyss and Silverado. During this time, she continued to work on small independent projects to keep her finger on the pulse of the film editing industry including the cult film, SICK: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, which brought Dody’s feature film editing to the attention of Hollywood.

Sound has remained with Dorn however and her experience in it is one of the reasons she has become so sought after as an editor.

Dorn went on to describe how she has refined her approach to sound especially in terms of minimising the number of tracks they have to work with at the start of the edit. She also mentioned that her goal is always to aim for zero ADR. She gave an interesting example of the importance of directors capturing “wild tracks” from her time on James Cameron’s Director’s Cut of Terminator 2: Judgement Day

Jim (Cameron) is super smart about (Sound) and will do wild tracks. We did a scene for the Directors cut of Terminator Two with Edward Furlong in a truck. It was set in wind and rain but the sound and dialogue was a mess because of the machines. But the sound designer came to me saying ‘you know I think James did a wild recording of this without the machines’. And he was right! James had a recording of Edward Furlong doing the dialogue in that scene and what a relief! as it was 5 years later and Furlong sounded totally different. So I always say to directors now “Please, please, please record a wild track of the actors in character. It really helps!

She went on to explain her disdain for Temp Music saying: “I don’t usually cut around temp music to avoid “temp love” which is a real problem. Chris Nolan never does that and instead he asks for rough cuts from the composer to work around. It’s much better… Generally, I find music to be a crutch until you are further down the road and it makes it harder to make changes.”

“Make sure you get along with your director. There’s no alternative”

Dorn really launched herself to the forefront of the editing world with her bravura work on Christopher Nolan’s Memento for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. Though a fan of editing as “the invisible art” and something that ideally goes unnoticed Dorn admitted that sometimes it’s fun to have some editing that is showy and calls attention to itself, as long as it serves the narrative.

She found Memento interesting, not just for its novel structure whereby the narrative unfolds in reverse, mirroring the fractured memory of the protagonist who is suffering from anterograde amnesia, but also for the moral questions it asked of the audience, who root for a protagonist who is revealed to be a serial-killer by proxy.

On such a complicated project her relationship with Nolan was key. She understood his vision for the moral grey areas and was able to cut to that. Similarly on his follow up “Insomnia” there was another moral issue in that the protagonist, a cop played by Al Pacino, planted evidence to capture Robin Williams’ character who had committed a murder. The studio insisted that Williams’ character had to have killed more than one person to be a genuine bad guy and for the “hero” to resort to fraud to track them.

Nolan refused questioning why one murder was less worthy of investigation than several, but also that it put both leads in distinctly nuanced places narratively. Dorn share this view and was able to once again do the job as she saw it and “deliver the directors vision as best she could with the material at hand.”

This lead Dorn to share what she thinks is the number one piece of advice she has a for editors: “Make sure you get along with your director. There’s no alternative.” She maintained that there can be difficulties here as it is necessary for a director and editor to have differing attitudes and fight their own corners. “ It’s tricky because you have to have different opinions at time but it has to be fun. If you are not fun in the editing room then it’s misery for everyone. I never say “That’ll never work” you should say “ let’s give it a try.” You don’t know what will work or won’t work until you put it together.”

Dorn mentioned that first meetings with directors are very important and that if she can have a one-to-one with the director, she prefers that to meeting a team of producers alongside the director. She gave advice on how to maximise these meetings

“Normally i meet with the director in person and it’s a relaxed environment, that you’re going to be able to communicate efficiently. first thing to do is read the script and have a lot of questions. and then ask those questions and hope those questions spark dialogue between you.”

She spoke of how she hit it off immediately with Army of the Dead director Zack Snyder from the first meeting “With Zack I met him in person, and while there were two execs there, they just let us talk. The day before I had an interview with 2 directors beforehand and it was mostly the producers talking. I knew it wasn’t going to work. After Zack the next day I was in the car driving away and I got a call saying Zack wants to hire you. The other directors came back a week later but I was already booked with Zack which was great as I love working with him. I really do.”

“Your finished film is never as good as your dailies and never as bad as you first cut.”

Dorn went on to discuss her day-to-day editing work and how she likes to minimize the amount of footage she has to work with before committing to the edit. The smaller the bin the more time an editor has to craft the story instead of organising or troubleshooting.

She gave the example of David Ayer’s Fury saying “The first day of shooting on fury there was 10 hours with the 3 cameras and it took me 3 days just to organise those shots… I’m really into getting the material cut as fast as possible at the beginning. I get a sick feeling when I see scenes building up in the folder. I like to ask my assistants if this scene is ok? Can I move on? Then I move on to scenes that are done and try to improve them

She went on to discuss the iterative process of editing and how easy it is to get dispirited and depressed in assembly cuts as opposed to watching dailies, to which she invokes the words of Martin Scorsese.

There’s this Scorsese Quote I love which is “ your finished film is never as good as your dailies and never as bad as you first cut.” I love that because during dailies you would have the crew around watching the fruits of their labour and what they captured and it was a part atmosphere and a celebration of the craft, but then in assembly it’s warts and all and not yet fully crafts and missing music and sound. You are seeing this bald thing and it can be depressing. But I seldom feel bad if I know it’s in there. I know I can do what the director needs or will ask for.”

As a final piece of advice Dorn expressed the need for film professionals to look after themselves as much as their work.

Don’t compromise you health for work. You have to get your sleep. And it’s hard to work well when exhausted and I’ve made that mistake. You have to look after yourself. I got comfortable showing things that are not necessarily polished and that’s ok because you have to eat and sleep and exercise too.”

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