The idea that a film is authored by a single auteur, the director, will always generate debate, especially in documentary circles. And it’s often directors themselves debating auteur theory and deciding whether or not a film is the product of creative collaboration or a singular vision. But what about the editor, whose eye and ideas shape stories right up to last looks? So, who better than award-winning Danish editor Sofie Steenberger to stand as “l’autre auteur” and provide a cutter’s point of view on authorship.
Sofie, I’m calling the article “L’Autre Auteur” (The Other Author) how does that strike you?
I don’t personally take offence to auteur theory, and the idea of the director as the sole author of a film. But maybe that’s because I’m a film editor in Denmark where the hierarchy is flat. For me, the director will always be the one in charge, it’s their film, their vision. All the projects I’ve worked on have been director-driven, and as long as they collaborate and communicate with others, there’s no problem having the director as leader. But if they’re pushing their ideas through without collaboration then there’s a problem.
Do you consider the editor to be an author?
I’ve always seen myself as a collaborator and have never felt like the main author, but I do in some sense (in the editing room, especially) feel like a co-author. The fact that the director has been developing the project since its inception, oftentimes investing their own money and then continuing on after the completion of the film is something worth considering.
How would you describe the role of the editor?
I consider myself an equal collaborator in the editing room, where my opinions have the same value as the director’s, my ideas are valuable on their own, and I bring a fresh perspective. Especially in documentary filmmaking, where the editor and director are sifting through the footage, killing entire characters and arcs, they’re very much co-authors. That being said, I don’t mind the director being in charge and recognised. Anyway, there’s a lot of recognition of editors’ work in the film industry in Denmark and editors are prioritised financially. Maybe the general public doesn’t see the importance or fully understand the contributions of the editor, but I think we’re respected and valued in Denmark, which is why we have so many good ones!
How does the collaboration process between director and editor go right or wrong?
I’m very laid back, but I’m also not a pushover! I think I always try to find a common understanding between myself and the director. Ideally, there’s trust and respect in the editing room. I’m a team player and like collaborative work. Personally, I work more closely with directors than most of the editors I know, we chat more. I don’t want to sit in a room for two months all alone, that’s not interesting to me. I don’t believe I can make a perfect film on my own anyway, collaboration makes films better. I like directors hanging around, typically they’ll be in the room with me, working on something else, not sitting and watching my every move, but there in the background to bounce ideas off of. Sometimes I have to insist on a different version or order and will try it out and then show the director. We’ll watch it together and then might see some solutions in it. Adjusting something and showing it rather than imagining or explaining it goes a long way to convincing someone of something. Getting a vision across by showing the work rather than discussing ideas is my approach. If I show a director something and they still don’t like it, we can discuss why and then drop it and leave it to simmer and then maybe it will come back up or maybe it won’t. I make suggestions and offer ideas that hopefully will seep into the film. I use diplomacy. I don’t want to force the director to do anything they don’t want to, but I get them on board and on my team by showing them, convincing them. Most directors are willing to change their minds and want to see their film in a new light.
What happens when your laid-back diplomacy doesn’t work?
If I truly believe in something being better (a scene or a cut) I fight for it. It’s not a power play, I don’t raise my voice, I just say something once. I can get frustrated sometimes if I feel like I’m not being heard or if someone disrespects me, but that happens a lot less lately. Now that I have more experience, I’m listened to more and maybe go about my process differently. I think with more experience and age I’ve realised that I don’t need my ego polished all the time.
Editing is a process of making and unmaking things, but how do you let go of good ideas?
There are always scenes I love that don’t make it. Or the first time I cut a scene that clicks and I have an immediate response to, but then the director wants changes. I’ll always remember it as being a great scene and maybe try to fit it in somewhere else. If it’s an idea it might show up in another project at a later date. But in the end I can’t force these through. And there’s always other stuff that stays in the film that I love also, so I can’t have everything I love included in the film. You have to kill some of your darlings, as they say, and sometimes a film requires elements that help the narrative work over something more poetic.
What key questions do you need answered before starting work?
Do I find the project interesting? Is it something I believe in? Can I can work with the director? The collaboration is everything to me, so if something is off in my relationship with the director I might not want to commit my time and passion to the project. I trust my gut feeling, so before I commit I want to see some footage for a sense of the quality of the material. I want to talk to the director about their vision, find out what films they like, their references and inspirations, which could be anything from music to photography, whatever. The projects that were the toughest for me were ones where I didn’t connect with the director in terms of taste or style of communication. I value very direct and honest, but not harsh, communication.
Do you have any professional deal-breakers?
A director who is full of themselves, doesn’t collaborate or listen would be a deal-breaker. How a director responds to notes and feedback gives me an indication of whether we can work together. I always want to see if I can connect on an artistic level and meet somewhere in between. But just as important is the footage. I need to see the footage! I’m happy to hear what the film is about, but then I get straight into the material to see if it’s what the director has in mind. For documentaries especially, filmmakers are shooting a lot, and they may think they’ve made a film about A but then discover it’s really about B. I’m always wary of buying into the director’s idea of the film too much in the beginning. Where in the material is the clearest stuff? It’s always about careful selection, there’s always too much material, so it becomes a matter of finding the strongest material.
How do you spot the strongest material?
I use my own reactions as proof of the quality of the material. The first time I see the footage, I see it as a viewer would. It’s just so important. I need to be aware of what my initial reaction is and remember it, especially after seeing the same material over and over again. I need to remember that first time. I need to be open to my own emotions and really use my emotions and feelings to find the story. That’s one of the strongest tools I have as an editor, that emotional ability. I’m always aiming to move the audience, whether it’s sad or happy, with grandeur, rhythm, music. I want to make films that touch me and touch viewers on an emotional and psychological level. I don’t feel like my emotions have ever betrayed me in my editing work, I always trust them and I’m not afraid to put myself into a film. I make myself vulnerable in order to show others that being vulnerable, egoless, open, and saying this is the way it should be and what feels right works. I think everyone cuts differently, the material often dictates it, but just as important is the individual editor’s sensibilities and emotional state.
Do you prefer to work with the same people?
I’ve been fortunate over the past two years to have worked with some directors and producers that I’ve worked with before. It’s really nice to have a common understanding right away, where you’re not starting from scratch. I get a better result with familiarity, it’s just an easier, less stressful process, and I’m all about the process. I actually think the process is key to making a good film. Not that it has to be pleasant or all smooth sailing, but I take a lot of responsibility for the process, the ups and downs, what works and doesn’t work. The process itself is a big part of the job and the film-making.
You’ve worked on several hybrid films, any thoughts on the genre?
I think people are used to docs being about a topic, an informative thing, and most viewers aren’t used to seeing the art of documentary. People assume that a documentary is objective and truthful, but it’s so much more. As long as the audience doesn’t feel cheated, I think questioning sources, images and making people more critical about what they’re seeing is a good thing. I love docs, and fictional elements are making them so interesting and playful, like the recent films The Good Life (dir. Eva Mulvad) and Dreaming Murakami (dir. Nitesh Anjaan).
When you watch films what do you see?
If a film is really good, I don’t think about editing or structure. I don’t notice good editing. If it’s not very good, then I might start to see things that annoy me or that I would change. Being an editor hasn’t ruined my ability to be swept away when watching films, thank goodness! Otherwise watching films would be horrible and all I’d be doing would be analyzing. Maybe I’m more critical than the average viewer, but if a film works it works, and that’s the beauty of film. I love seeing good films, and definitely gravitate towards the human aspects. I’m always trying to understand people, the human condition, and the poetic aspects of our existence.
When you watch your own films what do you see?
I’m critical of my own work. It’s hard to see my own stuff. I end up seeing my films so many times that it’s ruined for me and I can’t see it as a film anymore. I can’t see or recognise its merit or beauty, like hearing a song too much, you destroy your enjoyment of it with too much repetition. Specific scenes bring up certain memories, and I just see the details and the flaws. I definitely can’t see my films the way an audience sees them, so I rely on them to tell me if it’s good, and their reactions gauge its merits. It’s through their eyes and energy that I can see my films in a new way.
You recently had an impressive double win at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto, where you edited both the Best International Short (Haunted, dir. Christian Einshøj) and Best International Feature (We Could Be Heroes, dir. Hind Bensari) winners, congratulations!
I was really surprised that they won, because both films in my mind were underdogs. Christian had no money for Haunted and was basically a one man army, so it was a surprising and moving win. Same thing with We Could Be Heroes: we were pressed on time, running out of funds, and rushed to finish the film in order to get it to festivals. Both of the films were under the radar, so the awards mean so much to everyone involved and give so much exposure to the films.
Haunted is a creative memoir and family portrait that largely uses home movies as its source material…
Yes, so it was hard since my approach is to find the story in the material, but in this case it was the reverse, the story came from what the director wanted to tell, not the footage. Voice-overs were written during a dip in the process and started to refocus and shift the project. It took a long time to simmer and form as Christian put a lot more of himself into it. It’s such a personal story and I couldn’t tell it for him. It was hard working together, we’re a couple and know each other so well, and everything is mixed in there, his mother, his emotions. It was very difficult to work on since it was so personal, and especially when I didn’t understand something. If it hadn’t been Christian, I might have said no, since the project was so unclear in terms of concept and everything that had to get done. It was more Christian working on it and me on the sidelines commenting. I started out as a collaborative partner and was more of a consultant by the end of it. We talked about it all the time for two years, we would go on walks and talk, and there was just this constant collaboration. It’s super weird to finish a project, the presence an idea has, and then its absence. Making films is intense, it takes up so much energy, so much of yourself. I invest a lot of myself in the work, my emotions. So it’s always so weird to say goodbye to a story, the characters, the director, the emotions I’ve been working through, the emotional state I’m in. It’s so hard to finish but then it’s also nice to stop, especially if the result is something I’m happy with.
How about We Could Be Heroes? I love the friendship between Paralympic shot putters Azzedine and Youssef that’s at the heart of this doc about the discrimination of elite athletes with disabilities in Morocco.
Hind, the director, knew she had something interesting in the friendship between Azzedine and Youssef, the macho man and his sensitive sidekick, and I responded to that more than the protest footage. It was appealing to go into their friendship, and I think getting to know them as people is more beneficial to their cause than the activism. If this film is going to change minds, it needs to go straight for the heart, audiences need to get to know them, see them as real people just as able as everyone else, and the film needs to relate to the viewer on a personal, emotional level, not as a political agenda. The personal cracks open a space for the political. It wasn’t a calculated plan, I just wanted to emphasise this aspect and play to it, and the poetic voiceover goes a long way to making that happen, I think. That influence came partly from Skjold & Isabel, another documentary I worked on with director Emil Næsby Hansen.
Tell me more about that film, a tender time capsule of first love that reminded me so much of Vesterbro (dir. Michael Noer).
Skjold & Isabel is all about capturing a real emotional state, summertime, first love, confusing teenage feelings. It’s so much more about emotional things than being a direct narrative. The process was a specific state of mind, and to step out of that bubble directly into the bubble of We Could Be Heroes afterwards was so weird… There was crossover from Skjold & Isabel that added so much to We Could Be Heroes, specifically the use of voice-over that offered a way into Azzedine’s head… maybe I was tuned into voice-over, poetic voice-over, at the time. For Skjold & Isabel, I was on board from the very beginning. I edited a short that screened at the Odense Film Festival, and from there it gained traction and we made a rough cut, shot more footage, strategized how we could frame an ending, and discussed where the story was going as it was happening. We shot and edited simultaneously. It was a collaborative process to get to the ending, an ongoing discussion of what scenes were needed to suggest structure and get a narrative going. It was ideal for me as an editor, in that it was a project where I was on board start to finish.
What are you working on next?
I’m going back to fiction. I’m working on a feature film, directed by Anna Sofie Hartmann, about the inevitable changes that the construction of the Fehmarn tunnel to Germany has on rural Denmark. It’s about the past and the future, change and stagnation.
I can’t wait!