3 Keys to Success in Becoming an Editor: The Power of 'Yes' with Andrea Maxwell
In an industry that pigeonholes talent, how can you take the career leap you’ve dreamed of? The answer is simple. Keep saying yes.
It’s a challenge for aspiring editors to rise up the ranks. For many, what frightens them most is directly asking producers and directors to see them as something more than an intern or assistant. It seems every filmmaker needs to be multi-faceted nowadays. Even, most cinematographers need to learn post-production and color-correction to get ahead.
But the critical junctures when saying “yes” to unexpected career opportunities is exactly what you need to advance to the next level. Whether you’re just starting out, or ready to take on the role of a key creative, here are a few tips on saying “yes” to becoming an Editor.
1. Say “Yes” From The Start
Andrea Maxwell went to Cal State Long Beach with an eye toward becoming a picture editor. In this business, of course, once you leave school, you often take whatever work you can get, whether it’s a direct path to your dream career or simply pays the rent.
Maxwell landed in the visual effects departments on several major feature films, including “Spider-Man,” “Seabiscuit,” “Matchstick Men” and “Ghost Rider.”
“I went from these student film sets to huge sets, like the Spider-Man set,” Maxwell says. “The first time being on one of those sets was overwhelming.”
While visual effects editing was not Maxwell’s end goal, she learned valuable information along the way. At first, she was content to sit back and watch the masters at work.
“Spiderman was the first set I got to be on, which was pretty amazing with Sam Rami,” she recalls. “I got to sit in on dailies with Sam and his editors. It was my first time seeing footage of these major actors doing their thing and how the editors were able to carve out their performances.”
Her very first job was as an assistant visual effects editor, meaning she had to gather dailies for the visual effects team. Even though Maxwell was working on backgrounds and explosions, she was able to glean important information about shot selections and edits.
Along the way, Maxwell picked up several routines that would serve her well later in her career.
“You had to be organized,” Maxwell says of dealing with dailies. “You’re collecting dailies until the very end.”
2. Say “Yes” to New Faces
Maxwell enjoyed a career in visual effects for more than a decade, but she continued cling to her dream role of picture editor. She needed to reposition herself as someone’s go-to person for editorial.
“At the time, I don’t know how much of a plan it was, but I definitely made a decision that I wanted to take the leap of becoming a picture editor,” she says. “That was a conscious decision.”
Maxwell quickly realized that she needed to develop plenty of business relationships if she wanted to have steady work as an editor.
“When I was trying to make the transition, I literally said ‘someone out there needs an editor and I’m going to say yes.’ I did PSAs, I did everything at first. In a transition, don’t say no.”
She started taking any short film project that came her way. Her hope was to connect with as many producers and directors as she could so as they moved forward, she hoped to do so, too.
It was seven years ago when Maxwell first met Miranda Bailey, producer behind indie darlings “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” and “Swiss Army Man,” who hired her to work on behind-the-scenes vignettes for James Gunn’s “Super.”
“She had been doing indie producing for a long time and she started directing behind the scenes for some of her movies,” Maxwell recalls. “We ended up doing this fun little featurette and we had a really good time on it. I feel like that was when we creatively connected.”
Bailey invited Maxwell to edit her upcoming feature-length documentary. Bailey was pregnant at the time and was looking into the subject of vaccinations, which interested her as a mother and a filmmaker. She started making a film that asked why vaccinations had become so controversial.
The film, “The Pathological Optimist,” follows Andrew Wakefield, who was discredited and stripped of his medical license for a study suggesting a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The documentary trails Wakefield from 2011 to 2016 as he fights to clear his name as the media-appointed “Father of the Anti-Vaccine Movement.”
3. Say “Yes” — Even When It’s Out of Your Comfort Zone
Pulling from her days as a visual effects editor, Maxwell remained organized throughout the documentary process. Bailey and her crew would shoot footage and Maxwell would catalogue it. She would then cut scenes independently. If Bailey delivered footage of the doctor going to yoga class, Maxwell would cut a scene around that, not knowing where it was going to go or where it would end up.
“We did that for years without really sitting down and laying out a movie,” says Maxwell. “We were kind of gathering.”
Maxwell had eagerly agreed to work with Bailey, not knowing how long the process would take.
“She had already started it when I came on,” Maxwell says. “We didn’t realize it was going to be a seven-year endeavor.”
She eventually created the first rough cut of the film only to come to the realization that “it was awful.”
Fortunately for Maxwell, she was able to seek out others who had gone down this path before her. Around that time, she took a seminar at Film Independent with famed documentary director Lucy Walker and editor Pedro Kos.
Walker spoke at length about her process — namely about how first cuts are inevitably awful.
“Then she said the second time it’s going to be awful. And she kept talking about how that’s the process, especially with documentary. It’s a slog,” says Maxwell. “It was great to hear these people who were so accomplished and they were saying ‘Don’t let that get you down, just keep moving forward. This is the journey. Don’t get too despondent over it.’”
Maxwell feels now that she has laid some important groundwork to pursue picture editing as a career path. In fact, one of the directors of a PSA Maxwell worked on several years ago is currently prepping her first narrative feature. Maxwell is now on board with that project.
Ultimately, Maxwell’s career change turned out to be a transition that mirrored her own experience editing a documentary.
“It was amazing how much a story changes from where we started to where we ended up,” Maxwell reflects. “I think especially editing a documentary, it seems a journey to discover your story.”