By Morgan Roberts
We all know parts of filmmaking such as the acting, directing, or writing. But a piece of filmmaking that culminates the entire vision is the editing. I was able to ask editor Katie Bryer a million questions and she unveiled just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to film editing.
Bryer edited the documentary film, “Maiden” (2019), about Tracy Edwards and her all-female crew who entered the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1989. “Maiden” made my top 5 films of 2019 and it is in an elite, rare group of films that made me cry. Bryer edited a truly harrowing story about female empowerment and perseverance, and helped craft a remarkable film. In the interview, Bryer talks about “Maiden,” the process of film editing, what we can be doing to get more women in the editing room, as well as answer some Women’s History Month questions.
Morgan: How did you get started in film editing?
Katie: I was pretty disengaged at school but was always drawn to losing myself in stories – occasionally in books but more often in films and tv. My parents were academics and I had no role models in film and TV. Wanting to be a film director was my secret desire and I wouldn’t have dared share that with anyone. It seemed too fantastical a dream. I did manage to get on to a film degree but was incredibly shy as a film student. I managed to go a full three years without ever speaking up in a class.
I now look back and wish I’d had the courage but I was the only girl in my class of incredibly confident boys who seemed to have watched every film ever made. It would be a common theme in my film career! I was understandably drawn to the edit suite. It was a good move. I realised that I had this powerful storytelling tool at my disposal and I never looked back. It was then an incredibly slow journey to where I am now, from tv soaps to children’s animation to comedy and finally to documentary films, but I’ve had so much fun and have worked with so many wonderful people along the way.
When you started film editing, what did you think you would be doing? And have your expectations changed?
As an assistant editor I was quietly ambitious, pretending that I didn’t mind as I watched my, invariably male, contemporaries get editing jobs. My break from assisting to editing came when a friend working in children’s animation got their break in to drama. He had to leave in a rush and recommended me. It was a good place to start and I loved the world of stop motion animation. Slowly my ambitions grew and grew as I became more and more confident as a storyteller.
How long is the film editing process? Who joins you in the editing room?
In my experience producers often schedule a film based on the final length of the film, but the length of an edit depends on the amount of footage that needs to be cut. In documentary, I roughly calculate a week’s edit for every 6 hours of footage. I have no idea how I calculated this but it seems to be pretty spot on despite all the variables! When cutting documentaries I spend a lot of time on my own. The ideal way of working for me is to have the director work in the same building so that we can have ongoing discussions, but not have them watching over my shoulder whilst I’m assembling.
Often I am working with hundreds of hours of footage and you can’t discuss every single edit decision or you’d never finish the film. There are an infinite number of ways a documentary can go if there is that much footage. For me, the most effective way of working is for regular discussions between director and editor so that you’re both working towards the same outcome.
Then the editor goes to battle with the footage in order to tame it into a manageable beast… in other words, into a recognisable narrative. That outcome shifts as the narrative is emerging but, with good communication, you’re both fully aware of where it’s going.
On a scale from 1 to 10, how patient do you have to be to edit a film? I feel like it is a lot of meticulous work and not for the faint of heart.
I suppose that I am quite patient but only because I become fully engaged with the material. Discovering a new story is thrilling for me and I usually can’t stop talking about whatever film I’m on! But my daily work pattern involves periods of extreme concentration followed by a few minutes chatting in the office with someone about some Netflix series we’re both watching for example. I need those moments as the early days on a documentary, trying to make sense of the footage, are really hard work. Hard work but incredibly rewarding. So on a scale of 1 to 10… maybe a 7?!?
You have edited feature films, short films, and episodes of television shows. Does your approach change in any way when working in those various mediums?
I approach films and short films in the same way. I impose a pretty standard narrative structure on it early on, which may change, and it builds from there. I’m currently working on a three part series for the BBC with another editor cutting the middle episode. That has been a learning experience in the early stages as I have had to think about structure very differently. Also we are sharing rushes across the three episodes so I am building the backbone of the narrative across it all and then handing over what rushes I think the other editor will need.
Luckily the other editor is very happy to collaborate. I’m forever learning. Every new film poses new structural challenges, particularly in documentary as I don’t have a script to follow! Also every new film comes with a new director who has a new creative vision. I have worked with so many amazing directors including Orlando von Einsiedel and each relationship is different.
You were the sole editor for the film, “Maiden,” which was one of my favorite films last year. What drew you to that project?
I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in sailing! But I love a great sports doc, with an underdog overcoming all obstacles to come out on top. Of course the particular sport is never what a good sports doc is about. I couldn’t believe the obstacles Tracy Edwards and her crew had to face within my lifetime, and it was incredible to all of us that nobody had made a film about it. Then when director Alex Holmes showed me some of the on-board footage, I just had to accept the challenge. I had no idea if it would be possible to build a story from that footage but I desperately wanted to try.
What was it like piecing together the narrative for “Maiden?” And how do you determine the balance between archival footage and subject interviews?
It was really, really hard work but I loved it. It was like an enormous jigsaw puzzle but I didn’t have the picture on the box to follow! Sam Brayshaw (Associate Producer) spent years sourcing footage from around the world so that we could build a full story of the race. It took a great deal of detective work. Alex had shot these wonderfully candid and emotional interviews with Tracy and all the crew. I started by building the narrative from their interviews on to a timeline which grew and grew and grew.
That stage feels the most like writing a script. I was imposing a narrative structure on it but at least we had a race at its heart so you have some framework to begin with. I then started matching the archival footage to their story, finding the key plot points but also looking for any moments that would illustrate themes such as the misogyny of the time. Where possible it was a case of ‘show don’t tell’ so I’d err on the side of the archive. At other times a contributor would describe something from memory far better than I could build from the archive, so it was making those calls across the timeline.
The balance between archive & interview then came quite naturally. Archive was coming in all the time and I’d spend hours trawling through VHSs for example. It got to a stage where I knew what I was looking for but the early days were often a needle & haystack situation. Slowly it took shape. Luckily the producer, Victoria Gregory, understood that an archive project of this scale needed time. There was a lot of trust and there was never any pressure to have ‘reassurance’ viewings before time!
It is quite common, particularly in TV, that you find yourself fine cutting a scene for an exec to watch to reassure them that things are happening, before you’ve even decided if that scene will be in the film. It takes up valuable edit time and it is so good having a producer who really understands the documentary editing process. I always hold off fine cutting until I’m pretty confident the overall structure is working. The final structure will dictate how you fine cut scenes. An experienced director & producer understand that.
Filmmakers such as Barry Jenkins and Martin Scorsese work with female editors (Joi McMillon and Thelma Schoonmaker respectively). What does having a female perspective bring to the editing process?
This is a tricky question. I could reel out some platitude about women being more empathetic and sensitive, which I think is an assumption made by many, but the fact is that I know plenty of male editors who are very empathetic and sensitive. I have had producers say to me that they’ve hired me because I can bring out the emotion in something. It’s true – that’s part of my job – but it also ignores the fact that I am good with narrative structure and other parts of my job, so I find it frustrating.
What I do think is true is that when editors are first starting out there is a great emphasis on the technical side of the job, what software to use and so on. I had a very untechnical education, perhaps because I was female and perhaps because I felt as if that was very much a boys world that I could never be a part of. In my 20s I was very insecure about my technical knowledge and felt as if my male contemporaries had a secret language that I could never learn.
Producers were often impressed by technical confidence & I saw a lot of men move ahead, leaving me behind. It took me years to realise that I did know what I was talking about but also that it was as important as a tool. I think I am pretty tech-y now but only in service to my story telling. Sadly I know very few female editors and I wonder if a lot fall by the wayside in the early stages when technical know-how is valued above good storytelling.
How do we push to have more women in the editing room?
Producers (male and female) need to be taught how to recognise their unconscious bias when hiring editors. It goes for hiring people of colour too. Diversity is very, very good for the industry and I have noticed change just in the last couple of years but obviously there’s a long way to go. Production companies need to actively work towards more diverse crews by questioning why they haven’t had diverse crews in the past.
Who is a woman in your industry that you currently admire?
There are so many women whom I admire in the industry but there’s one particular woman who is currently having a direct impact on my career. I’m ashamed to say that I have never, until now, worked with a female director. I have been working in the industry for over 20 years so it is crazy. I have just started working with a director called Marta Shaw and it is such a pleasure! I am very glad that she has broken that appalling track record and she is fantastic!
In 2019, what was your favorite female directed movie?
Fiction films directed by women were, as usual, under-represented at the Academy Awards but that wasn’t the case in documentaries. Four out of five of the Oscar nominated documentaries were directed or co-directed by women. One of those was ‘For Sama’, an incredible film that will never leave me. I was lucky enough to work with Waad Al-Kateab and she is awe inspiring.
What is that one movie that can make you cry every time you watch it?
E.T. I love it.
What show can you not stop talking about right now?
I’ve just watched a comedy series on UK tv called “Stath Let’s Flats” that had me laughing and crying from one scene to the next. For me it had the perfect comedy balance of gags and heart. I’m very keen on comedy. My dream would be to work on a hard hitting documentary feature, that could change the world for the better, and then go on to a great comedy feature. Great comedy also has the power to change society.
Who is an actress, writer, director, or female filmmaker that would be a dream to work with?
Too many to choose from but, given my previous answer, I would love to work with Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Obviously.
If you could work on a film or series about a historical woman, who would it be and why?
In the early days of Hollywood editors were often women. I would love to know more about them. Hollywood is dominated by men now… but imagine working as a woman in 1930s Hollywood. I like to think there was a lot of solidarity amongst the female editors.
And since March is Women’s History Month. Who is a woman we should know more about?
There are obviously so many admirable women who have made it into the history books but so many more who didn’t because being part of documented history was so much harder for women. So I’m going to say my mother Elizabeth Bryer. She wanted to study advanced maths as a teenager but her girls school didn’t offer it so she arranged to take it at the nearest boys school which was an hours’s cycle ride away.
She managed to get to Oxford University to read Maths. She then married my father, an academic, and his career took centre stage. She became a high school maths teacher but was frustrated. I often wonder what she would have done with her brains given the same opportunities as the men around her. I’d suggest people look into their own family history to see what women in the past achieved, given the restrictions and lack of opportunity in their lives.
What is your favorite part about being a filmmaker?
The collaborations! I’ve worked with wonderful directors who have become lifelong friends such as Orlando von Einsiedel and Joost Vanderbrug. My favourite times have been when someone has approached me saying that they have discovered an incredible story but that they need help telling that story.
On a couple of occasions they had been filming for years without really knowing where it was going narratively because the situation was changing all the time. These times have been the most creative collaborations I have had. I love discovering what they have been sitting on alone for years & witnessing the relief they feel when we start mapping it out together. It’s also so much fun! The creative process can be so much fun & I strive to bring a playfulness to the edit suite! Although deadlines are in the back of my mind, I try hard to not focus on delivery. I don’t want to constantly feel as if there’s no time to experiment.