By Junsui Films | February 2012
Film Editor, Zachary Stuart-Pontier talks exclusively to Junsui Films about his work on breakout feature, Catfish and tells us all about his latest film, Martha Marcy May Marlene…
Junsui Films: Let’s start with your beginnings in filmmaking and your path into film editing.
Zachary Stuart-Pontier: I was at film school at New York University and the way the program works is that you are constantly trying different positions. Most everyone comes to film school to become a director and at that point I did as well.
A friend of mine was editing a short film called Flutterkick. He asked me to help him and we ended up cutting it together; in the end he gave me an editor credit. The film turned out really well and later that year I won an editing craft award at the First Run Film Festival at NYU.
Soon after that someone else asked me to edit their film and I accepted. That film turned out well and then I made the decision not to direct my own thesis film but instead edit as many as I could get my hands on.
I went on to win two more editing craft awards and I left school with a lot of editing experience and very good reel. After graduating I was lucky enough to be hired full time on a feature documentary called Beautiful Darling - that was the beginning.
JF: You’ve held many jobs in the industry, from production assistant to first assistant director. What is it that attracts you to film editing and how do you feel your experiences in various departments have helped shape you as an editor?
I enjoy editing because it’s a lot like putting together a puzzle. All of the pieces have to fit together and you are the person who has to figure out how they should go. I also love the magic of editing; the way you find things, the way things change over time, as your knowledge of what you need gets more and more refined. A clip that you toss out in the beginning can turn out to be the most important clip that there is. You never know how the film is going to turn out. I find that very exciting.
My experiences as a production assistant were totally invaluable to me as a filmmaker and editor. When I was a junior at NYU I decided to take a semester off and work full-time on a film called Prime. It starred Uma Thurman and Meryl Streep and was directed by Ben Younger. It was an amazing experience in how a big movie gets made and a very interesting alternative to the student films that I had been working on in film school. The two experiences were both very important to my idea about how films are made.
I’m not sure it taught me much about the editing process itself because I was almost exclusively on set, and editors are rarely on set. I think it was mainly a confidence booster for my work as an AD which I was doing a lot of at the time. It was like, “Oh good, even big movies have these sorts of problems.”
And working as an AD taught me tons. You get to see every piece of the process in terms of production. Back in the beginning we rarely had a script supervisor so I would keep track of the shots we wanted and had shot. In that case I think my editing skills probably helped me as an AD. I would say, “We don’t need this – you’ll never use it – you’ll be on the close up.”
In every job from the bottom to the top you learn a lot about the business itself. All of your peers will always be your peers. These are the people you are going to come up with. The people who are assistants right now won’t always be – so show up on time and be nice to everyone. I think that’s the secret to any job.
JF: Tell us about your process, starting from when you first come aboard a project, through to your time in the editing suite.
My process is still pretty loose. I always read the script – though I don’t like to read it too close to when I start editing. I like feeling my way through a little bit. See if I can intuitively put the first cut together.
I try to watch everything that there is to watch before doing much of anything, just to get an idea of what the piece is. I usually cut together selects. Then I try to cut them down. I try to move quickly at first and not spend that much time thinking about what to do. I try to finish each thought before moving on to the next idea. If you never finish a sequence, you never really know if any of the things you tried worked or not.
I think a lot of people get bogged down with the amount of footage you have. At times it feels like you are nowhere but in the end you learn just about as much from something not working as something working. The hardest thing about editing is sitting there the whole time. If you are able to sit there long enough – you will figure it out. It’s a puzzle.
You’re after an edit that accentuates the piece as a whole. A certain shot might be great on it’s own but if it doesn’t work with everything else – it doesn’t belong in the pieces.
JF: As well as film, you’ve also edited shorts, TV and documentaries. What are the main differences between editing the mediums?
I guess the medium changes the editing style to a certain extent, but the overall goals are really the same. It’s when and in what order am I going to reveal this information to the audience, when am I going to hold certain things back. What pieces can I skip?
The real difference is how much time it takes to edit the thing. There are two distinctions in terms of mediums that really effect the editing. The first is length as the amount of time you have drastically changes the way you tell a story. Think about telling a story in five minutes or in an hour and a half. Big difference.
The second distinction is reality versus fiction. A documentary is much different to edit than something that’s been scripted. In a documentary your role is much more of a writer, which is what I like about it. In a narrative the writer has given you a script. This is the way I intended it to be told. Most things have been shot for a reason, they are always flexible and you have a road map. In a documentary you are in the middle of the woods with a flashlight and nothing else.
JF: You served as editor and co-producer on the critically acclaimed documentary, Catfish. Tell us a little bit about how the project came together and how you approached editing the film.
I was working with Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (directors) as their editor in their office for a year or so while the story of Catfish was going on. We were making commercials and short documentaries and Nev (Ariel’s brother Yaniv Schulman) was getting these packages and talking about some girl that he was getting close to over the Internet. It was just this thing that was sort of going on in the background.
I was working on another documentary at the time and I got this call from Henry. They were on their way to Michigan to finally discover what was going on. If they didn’t make it back he told me that I had to finish the film. I agreed and thankfully a few days later he called me back and said, “We’re fine… you are never going to believe what happened”
He told me an hour and a half version of the film and I started on the film the week after. In terms of putting the film together, our big idea was that we wanted it to feel like you were along for the ride while you were watching the film. We never wanted the audience to know anything that the main characters didn’t know.
We went back and forth about whether or not to tease the scam in the beginning of the film. And we eventually decided that it was much better if you had no idea what was about to happen.
The only stuff we re-created was the stuff on the screen and we always used the real e-mails and chats. We knew that the screen and the Internet itself had to be a bit of a character, because a lot of the characters didn’t actually exist in real life.
JF: Let’s talk Martha Marcy May Marlene. How did you come to be a part of the project?
I have known Josh (Mond, producer), Sean (Durkin, writer/director) and Antonio (Campos, co-producer) since sophomore year at NYU and we’ve been working together ever since. For a long time I was their AD and editor. Gradually I’ve stopped working as an AD but we’ve done a dozen shorts, music videos and commercials together.
When Sean first showed me a draft of the script, I got very excited. I loved the structure and the character. I thought it was going to be a totally unique film and it was never really a question of whether or not I would be involved.
JF: Martha Marcy May Marlene’s narrative not only boasts an electric mix of genres, it is also told over two timelines and at times is deliberately ambiguous. How challenging was it cutting a film with such a unique structure?
Structurally, the film was very challenging. That’s one of the things that got me so excited about doing the film. It was always scripted as this journey back and forth through these two worlds.
The thing we really started to find was the right length to be in each location. As it was scripted it was a lot faster cut back and forth between these two worlds. We discovered that the audience got more out of being in each place for longer. We gradually scooted scenes around.
A lot of it was a guess and check sort of process, a balancing act. We didn’t want to be too disorientating but we did want the audience to be a little disoriented. We just kept trying things, moving things and then trying them again. Every time we learned something about the various combinations of scenes.
Many of the transitions are exactly where they were intended to go. She steps up from the farm into a scene at the lake. Some of them we found in the edit room. It really felt like it was this big equation – if this goes here than this needs to go here and then this here. It was like building a house, every time we made a change it changed the whole thing.
JF: You pulled double duty again on Martha Marcy May Marlene, this time working as a second unit director as well as editing the film. What was your experience of balancing such dual roles?
It was actually very easy because I had spent so much time with the footage. We shot the farm first and the crew had moved to the lake house. I felt like it would be very useful to have a few shots of the farm that could play like establishers. The idea was that at times we would be clear about where we were so that other times we could be more ambiguous on purpose. Like the deliberate way a magician shows you a ball before the act. “See. We are in the farm…”
Sean, Jody Lee Lipes (DP), Joe Anderson (Second Unit DP) and I made up a shot list and then Joe and I went and shot. It was a very smooth process. In the end there are probably four or five shots that made the final film.
JF: Is there a particular sequence you’ve edited throughout your career that you’d consider a personal favourite?
That’s a tough question. I’m going to throw out a couple: favourite sequence in Catfish is Vince’s Catfish story at the end. Favourite sequence in Martha Marcy May Marlene is the sequence of Martha waking up in bed in the farm and the Lake House at the same time. I also love the Opus Jazz New York City montage. It’s sort of a real life dance sequences shot over a few weeks in NYC.
JF: What next for Zachary Stuart-Pontier?
I’m currently in the middle of Andrew Jarecki’s (Capturing the Friedmans) new documentary. It’s coming together slowly but it’s been very exciting.