The Journey of a Film Editor

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The Journey of a Film Editor

Pete Tubbs

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     Larry Jordan has been in the business of film editing for nearly forty years. “I grew up in a film family to tell you the truth,” Larry said. “My grandfather cranked nickelodeons as far back as when he was a kid, then he became a sound engineer. Then my father became a film editor, you know that was just the way you did it in those days. I was kind of lucky in that respect that I did want to pursue the motion picture business.”

     After a few years of Larry trying to go his own way, he asked his father if he could have a position at his film trailer editing business, and that’s when he first got his hands on film. When it comes to actual editing, much has changed in recent decades.

     “Nobody edits with film anymore. You know, there are people like Chris Nolan and Steven Spielberg that still have that luxury. The economics of the business don’t really enable your average production to work on film anymore, and most people don’t want to. It’s much more time efficient. In this day and age we don’t have the luxury of those long schedules.”

     Jordan was actually at the forefront of the digital revolution. He was one of the first people to work with Avid Video Composer when it came out in 1992. The first legitimate studio production to be cut digitally was HBO’s “Teamster Boss: The Jackie Presser Story” which was cut by one Lawrence Jordan.

     “It was an exciting time. You know, when I first saw digital editing, I knew this was gonna be a big change. I embraced it very quickly,” he said. “We were lucky because the engineers at Avid were very excited that we were doing a long format show on their system,” Jordan said. “Up to that point, it had only been television commercials because storage was at such a premium back then.”

     They were, in fact, working on two gigabyte hard-drives at the time. “We really got an inside look at how digital technology worked, as such we became kind of like the go to guys, me and a guy named Steve Cohen. He worked on the first studio feature film edited digitally called ‘Lost in Yonkers.’

     Although he’s worked with HBO and has credits such as NYPD: Blue, he’s had his fair share of film experience as well. He’s worked on films such as “Terms of Endearment” and “Back to the Future.”

     “It doesn’t get much better than that, right?” Jordan said. He worked under editing legend Richard Marx, on “Terms,” whose credits include “The Godfather: Part II,” and “Apocalypse Now.”

     “Boy, what a ride. It was a whole lot of fun. You know James L. Brooks’ first feature film starring Jack Nicholson and Shirley McClaine and Debra Winger and Jeff Daniels. I was like a kid in a candy store, you know, watching it all happen.

     During these days, the crew would film during working hours and gather afterwards to watch the dailies. “The whole crew would get there, and they brought in drinks and we had dinner. We’d all just laugh at all the crazy stuff that Nicholson and McClaine were doing. Those were the good old days. Unfortunately they don’t do that anymore because they just shoot so much darn film on digital.”

     When Jordan worked on “Back to the Future” in 1983, he was the assistant sound editor to Charles L. Campbell who had won the Academy Award for film editing along with being Steven Spielberg’s regular sound supervisor. Jordan shares the same sentiment for the film that the rest of the world does.

     “When you’re working on a great film, there’s nothing like it,” he said. “From the first time we saw that movie, even without any of the special effects, we knew we had a great movie. Chuck went on to win the Academy Award for that, for sound editing.”

     There is a saying that goes “a film is edited three times. Once during pre- production, once during production, and once during post production.” This means that a script is written, it’s brought to life and molded during filming, and then it’s put together during editing.

     “That’s absolutely, unquestionably [true]. You have the blueprint with the script, all kinds of things change during production, and then in the editing room you have the final authoring of the film. You really kind of can manipulate the story if needed, embellish upon it, and then polish it and put the fine touches on it,” Jordan said.

     Of course, some of the elements are just as important, if not more-so, than others. “I have to give credit to the writers. If you don’t have a great story, or a really good story, to start out with, you might just get an okay movie… you’re not gonna get a great one. All directors and editors and other people in the crafts of the industry really owe it to the writers.”

     Editors have always been crucial to the completion of film, and that is perhaps none more apparent than it is now. In recent years, they have been given more prominence than they’ve had in the past.

     “The process has been demystified to a great extent with the advent of digital technology,” Jordan said. “Let’s face it, it’s accessible to everyone. Everyone has a better idea of what an editor does. The appreciation factor has gone way up. But it’s important to editors that we make sure that everyone understands that we work at the service of the director, and we’re there to help them see their vision come true.”

 Editing for television and film may seem similar, but that’s not the case. There are restraints to the small screen that affect editors in big ways.

     “With a tv show, without sounding like a pejorative, it’s much more like factory work,” Jordan said. “You’ll do some sound work and music work and some basic visual effects work in all but the rarest instances. In feature film when you’re an editor, you really get involved with a deeper sort of experience with creating the soundtrack and with designing and having more input on the visual effects. You’re not doing the same sort of refinements [in television], you just don’t have the time that you have with feature films.”

     Having worked on films such as Netflix’s “Naked” with Marlon Wayans, Jordan is also on the forefront of web based storytelling. Subscription service, when compared to classical filmmaking, differs greatly in terms of creative freedom.

     “From my experience, it was [different]. The traditional film studios have been around a hundred years and they have, uh, let’s just say, a traditional way of working. Of course, they’re evolving with the times, but Netflix is like a newborn baby with all of this time, money, and flexibility. I found my experience working with Netflix as very, sort of, freeing. They don’t get involved so much in terms of the micro, day to day, workflow in film. They gave us a lot of freedom. It wasn’t as sort of monumental and sort of bureaucracy laden as working with traditional studio. Then again, ‘Naked’ wasn’t a huge budget film, so that could have been part of the equation. I think we’re gonna see more of it as these tech companies keep investing billions and billions of dollars into production… the whole landscape is changing.”

     Film editing isn’t often an easy task. Sure, hanging out with Nicholson and Zemeckis are definite plusses, but there is hard work to be done when editing a feature film.

     “The most difficult things that editors have to deal with are negotiating the personality minefield between producers and directors and studios and trying to keep the peace,” he said. “You’re dealing with a lot of different stakeholders and sometimes everyone wants their voice heard. To me, that’s the most difficult. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that it’s better to just stay out of that whole mix.”

     It can be fulfilling, however, to see your work on screen. “Making the movie’s the fun part. I love solving problems, like continuity, creating visual effects, coming up with a great sound effect. Those are all the fun things. That’s when you put something in and you go, ‘Wow, that really punches things up.’”

     Sometimes, however, it’s not just the visuals and the sound that a film editor has to work with. There are actors with talent, and actors without it. There are times when a film editor has to piece together a good performance where one doesn’t necessarily exist.

     “That’s one of the challenges,” he said, “when your trying to pull different words out of take three, or another one that may be in take seven. You’re cutting literal syllables sometimes because an actor can’t get out a line correctly. That’s the micro-surgery that we do. Some actors, on occasion, take as long as they want, and sometimes the scene just has to take place in shorter time. But if you love editing, it’s all part of the, sort of, giant video game that our job is becoming.”

     It has become easier, in recent years, to break into film editing. That’s not to say that it’s not a challenge however.

     “It’s a difficult business to break into. It’s well paying, it’s creatively satisfying,” Jordan said. “A lot of people want to do it. With the digital tools like Final Cut Pro, like Adobe Premiere, you’re able to access the tools that editors use much earlier than ever in the history of film. It really boils down to how much a person wants it. We all know that person who’s not the loudest person or the biggest extrovert, but they are out there making films. They are in the trenches and they are writing scripts and they are figuring out how to shoot it on their own on a shoestring budget. Those people are gonna be filmmakers. They’re gonna have the best chance of breaking in.”

     Although the work may be creatively satisfying, sometimes work is work. Film editors often have to take jobs that may not be high art.

     “You gotta eat,” he said. “You gotta keep working. I’ve taken pictures that were good financial opportunities as opposed to great career choices. Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes those things can come back to bite you on the a**. You gotta manage your finances in a smart way so you can make good choices when it comes to the scripts you choose. You gotta stay hungry and you’ve gotta pursue those projects that satisfy you on an artistic and creative level.”

     Larry Jordan has worked for some of the greatest actors of our time, including John Goodman, Denzel Washington, and many others.   

     “When you get performances from people like that, it’s a plethora of riches,” he said. “With people like Denzel, he doesn’t have to do it more than a few times and you’ve got it. You get such a rich amount of material to choose from.”

     Larry is a co-creator of a course called Master the Workflow. “We’re trying to bring in a new generation and teach them the specific skills and processes to get into a film cutting room,” Larry said. 

     If interested, one can head over to mastertheworkflow.com for open enrollment today.