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Editor Screenings of my Documentary
11.08.11

I just got back from the 2nd "editor screening" of my documentary. We're trying to make a few festival deadlines and as part of our efforts to go from rough cut to fine cut (or even from where we were which was just a fair amount of completed scenes but not a full movie to a fine cut) -- we've been doing "editor screenings".

A little backstory. One of the people that's been very involved with my film has been Penny Falk. Penny was the editor of the Joan Rivers doc, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work", which came out last year and was picked up by Showtime. She also won the editing prize at Sundance for it. I saw the film at Sundance, loved it, and was chatting with one of the producers of the film, Seth Keal, after one of the screenings who later became involved with my film. Seth was of great help -- especially technically, he basically guided me in terms of all the equipment they used for their film and I simply replicated it for my film -- I saw their film, it looked great on screen, so I figured I would use whatever they used. As someone who knew nothing about cameras, sound, etc. -- this was huge -- and of great comfort. Seth then introduced me to Penny and she's been invaluable in the process -- looking at early pieces of footage, giving guidance in terms of potential storylines, etc. In any event, when I started to look around for an editor, Penny recommended my editor, Erik Dugger -- she and Erik had co-edited a film together and she thought he would be perfect for the film. Besides loving magic, she thought he and I had a number of similar qualities in terms of our personalities and would work well together, and she was exactly right.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago -- Erik finished a rough cut of the film (basically a film you can watch from start to finish but is "rough" in the sense that there might still be a bit of work involved before it gets finished.) He brought in several of his editor friends to do a screening (including Penny, of course.) This is not your typical screening where it's shown for friends and family and there's a Q&A afterwards. This is all work. We sit, watch, takes tons of notes, and then go through everyone's thoughts afterwards. We're not interested in platitudes -- just all the nuts and bolts. What didn't you understand? How did you like this character? Did that storyline work for you? etc. etc.

When I was younger, one of the things that I never really did very well was to take in feedback. I was young, ambitious -- and who can take in feedback when what you're looking for is to show everyone you can do it and you should get more responsibility? I think one of the great things that has happened in the past several years, after I left Google, is that it freed me to be a student -- a true student. Not a student that only cares about getting a good grade -- but a student that's just intellectually curious and passionate about learning. For example, I have 30 minute Skype calls with Sunny, my Mandarin tutor in Beijing, 3x/week. I don't get any grades -- there's nothing at stake for me except that I want to get better at speaking Mandarin. I get to learn for learning's sake -- and it's wonderful. I've done this in a wide variety of disciplines in the past few years (including obviously filmmaking and acting) and it's been incredibly freeing and satisfying. But one of the things that I've learned -- is to take in feedback -- not to be thin skinned about it, have some distance between you and your work, and to take advantage of the years of wisdom and experience that others bring to the table.

That Sunday night, I felt extremely fortunate just sitting in a room with a bunch of very seasoned editors. (Collectively, films they've worked on have been on HBO, Showtime, PBS, National Geographic, etc.) They clearly had such a strong grip on storytelling and, very importantly, had strong opinions about what was and was not working. They weren't arrogant about it in the slightest -- it was just work to them and problems to be solved and areas where the film could get stronger. It's a process that they all do for each other and serves as a wonderful little ecosystem that outputs high quality work. Interestingly -- there seems to be a relatively large contingent of documentary film editors who all live near each other in Fort Greene in Brooklyn. Penny, I thought, had a great quote that night. She said to use what we liked, discard what we didn't like -- if one person said something, maybe it's something to note. But if two out of three or three out of three said something -- that's something we had to fix. Their solutions might not be the right solutions -- but they, in all likelihood, identified a problem.

We took all the feedback -- did a bunch of work, and had a 2nd editors screening tonight. It was a very similar experience only much sharper -- and frankly, much much shorter, which was unexpected but also fantastic. Whereas last time I had a voluminous amount of notes, this time it was maybe half a page from the editors there. There's stuff to be done for sure -- but in the words of one of the editors who hadn't seen the film before, "I hadn't expected to see such a finished product. I think you can screen this now." Now, I'm not trying to pat ourselves on the back in the slightest. There's a whole bunch of stuff we want to do -- and also, it was a little disconcerting for me just seeing the two different versions. Erik created a very slimmed down version of the film so obviously we lost a lot of stuff that we liked enough to put in in the first place. In almost all cases, I agreed with the changes -- but in some, I'm still debating it in my head. But regardless, it's a situation where we'll be hashing it out tomorrow to figure out exactly what -- not necessarily a final cut -- but a fine cut of this film will look like as we'll start submitting to festivals in the next few days.

One of the things that I regret about my time at Google is that I didn't take as much advantage of the collective intelligence / expertise to inform my work as I would've liked. I think one of the things that are bad about corporations is there are lots of places where feedback is forced upon you. Obviously anyone within your chain of command will feel the right to give feedback in terms of your product (or work.) Then there are senior people across the company who also want their voices heard. Some have great insights and thoughts, others are just politicking. This often devolves into design by committee -- which is horrible.

However, what I think gets lost in that system is a spirit of desiring feedback. You're so focused on just dealing with the feedback that you have to get and not focused enough on the feedback that you want to get. All these editors came because we want their feedback and they came because they wanted to help -- no compensation (though I later bought them amazon.com gift cards to thank them for their time.) That's what I would've loved to have done for the products / projects I worked on. Go to the other product managers or managers across the company that I respected and said -- hey, take a look at X. Give me any and all thoughts that you might have. And do that over and over. I remember when I worked on the Report Center for AdWords -- I got a chance to work with two fantastic product managers, JP and Richard. JP was one of the most creative product managers I've ever worked with and has always served as a good reminder to myself in terms of how I can push myself to be more creative when I conceptualize and think about product. Richard was one of the most organized product managers I ever worked with and also one of the most freeing -- he specifically told me, "It looks like you know what you're doing. Let me know if you need any help, otherwise reach out when you're ready to launch and we'll help get you out the door." I've tried to emulate that quality that Richard brought to my own work -- which is when I meet someone that I think is good at what they do, I want to let them do their thing, make sure I can be helpful where I can be, but otherwise not try and gum up the works.

Getting feedback is so important, but just as important is getting feedback from a source you trust. Whether it's good or bad feedback, if you're not receptive to it, it doesn't matter. That's something that I continually work on -- building a strong network, in many diverse areas, of people that I can rely on to give great feedback and help continually improve the quality of my work.

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