Megan is a South African-based editor and in a career spanning 20 years, has worked on a wealth of television and film productions. Most recently Megan edited the critically-acclaimed film Eye in the Sky starring Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman. Megan also edited Tsotsi, Rendition, Otelo Burning, X-Men Origins: Wolverine amongst many more.
You dropped out of university to take a job as an apprentice in a cutting room. 10 years later you are editing Hollywood movies. What important things did you learn in those 10 years?
It was a little longer before I was editing Hollywood movies, nearly another 10 years. I edited a lot of South African television and movies before I got my ĎHollywood breakí. But it was my 10 years working as an assistant editor that gave me the solid grounding I needed to become an editor. I was lucky enough to assist when we were still cutting on film. I got to work in relatively large teams where I got to learn from people more experienced than myself, both assistants and editors. I learnt how to organize material in a way that helped the editing go smoothly. I learnt to watch the rushes and then cut them in my head. And then I would see how the editor would cut them and see where I would have gone wrong.
What got you your break as an editor?
My Ďbreakí came in fits and starts. A couple of editors gave me scenes to cut and so I starting learning that way. About five years after I started working, I was offered a very low budget kick-boxing movie to edit. It was still in the days of film. It wasnít very good and I wasnít ready to edit a whole film or for the politics that entailed. I think I was 22 or 23 at the time. I got fired after a couple of weeks. It was a good lesson. I went back to assisting with a little more humility, realizing I still had lots to learn.
Editing then started moving over to non linear and it became easier for me to try things out without cutting into the precious film rushes and I would practice a bit when I had time. An American TV series that was shooting and cutting in SA and I was assisting on gave me a full episode to cut and that became my first editing credit. And I discovered I wasnít too bad. In the five years since my first editing attempt, I had matured, learnt a whole lot more and my confidence had increased.
After that I tried to get editing work and leave assisting. I had to do both for a while. Then I got a cutting job on a South African series that was full time. Again with a big post crew, with other editors more experienced than me. I learnt a lot there, in a safe environment. Because I wasnít as experienced, I was given more time per episode than the other editors. I was nurtured, rather than thrown in the deep end. That really helped grow my confidence.
After 2 years of that I freelanced again. Did all sorts of jobs. Doccie/magazine type stuff, a few TV dramas, a soap, two small features. And then Gavin Hood interviewed me for ĎTsotsií, on the recommendation of a producer I had edited one of the features for. And I got the job. I think I got it because we had a very frank discussion about the script. I had some notes he didnít necessarily agree with, but he appreciated the challenge. I was obviously passionate about the script and he thought we would work well together.
A career journey is not just about learning the technical stuff. What business skills did you have to develop?
I donít know that Iíve developed any business skills along the way. Iíve tried to learn when to keep my mouth shut and when to speak up. And to fight hard to be paid what Iím worth. And to remember to invoice on time.
What do you think has kept your editing skills in demand?
Iím not sure. My experience, that I deliver. That I care about the projects I work on.
Technology means you can live in South Africa and edit films made anywhere. Do you ever become involved on set too?
Although the technology allows for remote editing, I usually work where the shooting is happening, budget allowing. And once the shooting is done, I need to work closely with the director, so I usually go where the director is. For example, Eye in the Sky was shot in Cape Town and then edited in LA so I moved to both places for that. (I live in Johannesburg).
I try to stay away from the day to day of set. I donít know that I have much to offer there. I prefer to make my editing decisions in the quiet of the cutting room. I find if Iím too involved on set, I become too invested in what happened there, rather than the cold hard reality of the rushes. Iíll visit a couple of times during the shoot to say hi but thatís it. I stay in touch with the director while theyíre shooting to say if I think things are working or not but otherwise I stay away. I also try to show them a few cuts along the way to see if weíre on the same page.
How long are you involved in the film-making process to when you deliver your final edit?
It really depends on the budget. I usually have a few meetings before we start shooting. And then start with the shoot. I cut alongside the shoot and then take a week after the shoot to get my first cut together. And then the real work begins, with the director. I work on some very low budget films in SA where the whole thing takes only 12 weeks. Not enough timeÖ Those also donít have money for me to be involved in the rest of post and I think the films suffer as a result. And then on the bigger ones, it can take up to a year. And I get to stay right to the end, overseeing the sound mix, grade, all deliveries etc. I always walk away from a film Iíve had maximum involvement with much more satisfied. Because a film is more than just the edit, it is also all the components which make the whole. And I feel I have something to add to that.
Do you make your own films or shoot photography?
No. Iím too busy. Iím a single mother and so I try to devote my downtime to my son.
Can you be an editor and not be a filmmaker?
Probably not. You definitely need to know how to tell stories and that is partly being a filmmaker.
Apart from the technical aspects of editing, what qualities do editors need?
They need to be honest, but gentle. You need to be able to tell a director when their vision just isnít working and they need to find a new way to tell their story. But you need to do it from a place of kindness, not malice. No one sets out to make a bad film or shoot an unworkable scene, so be kind.
You need to learn to listen and at least attempt to realize the directorís vision. You need to be flexible. You might think your cut is better, but you have to try other ideas. If yours is better, youíll probably come back to that in the end. But usually thereís a place somewhere in the middle which is the best for the film. And empathy is vital. You have to be able to walk in the shoes of the characters whose stories you are helping to tell. Without it, all the technical skills in the world are worth nothing.
Do you have any filmmaking ambitions?
Only as an editor. I couldnít direct my way out of a paper bag. I have too much respect for what directors do and I know I donít have even half the skills required to be a good one. I love being one of the parts that helps bring a film to life. I wouldnít want to be the one who is responsible for it all.
Before you begin an edit, what things do you try to identify that you must achieve in the final delivered edit?
I try not to have too many preconceptions of how the film will turn out before we start shooting because I will nearly always have an opinion that is not quite like the directorís. I try to read the script and never think about how I would make it because that is the directorís job, not mine. I think I know what the story is, but how it should be told is the directorís responsibility. My job is to fulfill their vision, not impose my version of the story on them. Once the film is cut, before we go into post, once the director and I have crafted the film she or he wants to make, then I have very formed opinions. Then I know we expect a bang here, a note there. And then I want the rest of the post team to deliver that. And then often they deliver something different, better, worse than I had envisioned. And that is the joy/surprise of my job and it is also what I hope I add to the process. I hope to surprise the director with something more than they had imagined, to find the gems inside their work they didnít even know were there.
A few times, on films Iíve been working on, Iíve felt something shift in my consciousness as I watched rushesÖ Iíve felt like Iíve watched something profound happen and it is those moments I cling to as I cut the films I work on - to try to find those moments and bring them into the whole, to do justice to all the people who helped make those moments happen. The writer, the actor, the director, the DOP, the art department and the rest. It is my job to find coherence for the beauty of the work others have created. And to give it a voice. But to know how weíll get there early on, I have no idea. At the beginning, itís just plugging away, making choices and hoping I donít f*ck it up.
Are you a freelance editor or do you work for someone else? Do you have an agent?
Iím freelance. I have an agent in LA for my Ďinternationalí work but in SA, I get my work by word of mouth.
Do you have any career goals?
Yes and no. I am very lucky to be where I am today. I have got to work on some big Hollywood films and I get to also work on some great smaller South African films. I love editing, I just want to keep doing it for as long as I can. And wherever that leads.
I imagine the editing community must be quite small. How do outsiders break in to get work?
Film school helps to get your foot in the door. If you get work experience placements during your studies, then use them wisely. Learn as much as you can, show youíre interested, show some enthusiasm. People remember that and will call you when they need someone. And then be humble. You will still have lots to learn before youíll be any good.
Are there trends and styles that editors have to keep up with?
Yes and no. Obviously, see lots of films and see what other people are doing. But donít be too Ďtrendyí. Gimmicks get tired very quickly.
What do you love about being an editor?
When everything comes together. When Iíve spent hours on a scene and suddenly it all fits into place. No better feeling in the world. And the crafting, I love that. I hate doing the first cut. All my insecurities come flowing out. ĎI donít know what IĎm doingí, ĎI donít get what the directorís trying to sayí, etc. So I plug away, trying to fill the blank canvas. Until finally I have a first cut. Then I can breathe. Then I can see what we have, what is good and what doesnít work and what can be done. And then the fun begins. And the collaboration. Then itís not just me and the film. The director comes in and the edit room is not such lonely place anymore and we can start to craft the film to best place we can find.
Is there anything that you dislike?
Other than the first cutÖ The politics. Sometimes it gets ugly. But not very often.
What do you think about the prospect of virtual reality movies?
I havenít really thought about it. Like 3D, I think it might become a useful tool sometimes, but when only used as a gimmick, it wonít really change that we need to tell good stories well.
What was the best career advice you were ever given?
Gosh, I donít know.
What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career as an editor?
Only do it if you love it. Because it asks a lot of you - time, heart, resilience and a very thick skin. And a sense of humour helps immensely.
Megan on IMDB: www.imdb.com/name/nm0318701/
Megan on Twitter: twitter.com/alteditdelete
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