30 March 2017
Being an Editor can be Terribly Lonely
On a Wednesday morning in November, The European Film College received a visit from two of Denmark’s finest editors. Unlike many of their colleagues, they don’t sit alone in soundproof caves pushing buttons all day while directors, producers and cinematographers come and go as if they were in a western saloon with swinging doors. No, these two work as a pair and as such they have been extremely successful. This was cemented when they recently won the prize for “Best Editor” at The European Film Awards for their work on Thomas Vinterberg’s ‘The Commune’. I, an editing rookie who had just started the basic editing course at The European Film College, had gotten the chance to interview the duo; Janus Billeskov Jensen and Anne Østerud.
By Maria-Louise Westring Madsen
It was with slightly sweaty palms that I went to pick up Janus and Anne in the school’s Dining Hall. I couldn’t help but ponder how my interviewing subjects helped shape Danish film history with films such as ‘Zappa’, ‘Little Big Girl’, The ‘Pusher’-trilogy and recently ‘The Hunt’. Especially ‘Little Big Girl’ and ‘Zappa’ had been important to my budding love of film as an adolescent. I pressed record on my phone and assured Anne, who was worried about the sound level of the recording, that everything was just fine – I wanted to seem a bit professional. We started our session and I was invited into the world of professional editing.
Working as an editor can be very lonely. How do you find working together as an editing couple?
Anne: Basically, is really interesting for us, because directors are not necessarily coming by all the time. It’s nice to have someone to discuss your work with.
Janus: We don’t really like sitting by ourselves. It’s true; it can be terribly lonely.
How is your setup? Do you work at the same computer?
Anne: We have a room and a machine each, but it’s important to say that we use a lot of our time just talking. Sometimes we don’t even do any editing – we can easily use up a whole day just talking through stuff. Often one of us are sitting by a computer, trying something out, and then the other one is taking on the role as director giving feedback.
Janus: Often, Anne and I do a scene each and then we watch each other’s work before passing it on to the director. Sometimes, though, we don’t look at each other’s work at all, and then by the third or fourth screening of all the clips, we can’t help but get excited to see how it turned out. It’s a great gift to be able to discover something new within your own film.
Anne: We can also disagree about each other’s work. But nothing is unspoken any more. I understand that some people want to do everything themselves though. When I graduated from Film School I worked by myself and back then I couldn’t understand how anyone could let someone else into their process. And I was afraid to let go of the material. But it’s such a great gift to open op and let people in. The films that Janus and I work on together get so much better from us both working on them, much better than if we worked alone.
When did you start working together?
Anne: The first time was on a film called ‘Little Big Girl’. I needed help. We know each other from before, and quite quickly we found out that we share the same background. Both are fathers were literature professors and the fact that we both came from an academic background made us think and analyse alike.
Janus: I also think that we were trained the same way in the sense that we can both give critique. I learned that from my teacher when I started out, and you, Anne, were trained the same way at Film School. To learn how to give and take critique, that’s a great gift.
Anne: Maybe it’s also a Danish thing, because most editors are trained that way here in Denmark. But it’s very special to meet someone who’s completely on the same wave length as yourself. I fully trust Janus.
Janus, you’ve been in the game long before Anne. How does it work? Are you a mentor of sorts or how does it impact your relationship?
Janus: I see what you mean; I’m older and more experienced so it would be obvious for me to be the leader. It was a relief to make the decision that for me it’s not what it’s about. It’s about something bigger. Maybe I was a mentor the first couple of years, but not anymore.
Anne: It doesn’t really mean anything anymore. I thought it was great that Janus just came in and said “It’s your film – I will help where I can, but you’re the boss”. It was a big thing that you actually let me be in charge. What’s unique right now is that we have worked out a way for us both to be boss. I have never seen a collaboration like ours where both editors can be in charge. But it’s really uncomplicated.
I’ve heard rumours that you are now able to pick and choose the film projects that you want to work on. How does that feel? I would have a hard time declining a Hollywood film e.g.?
Anne: But would you dare to say yes? We get a lot offers and we have to choose between them. For me, it’s mostly about not wanting to be abroad for too long – I would rather spend the time with my children. But to a high a degree it has also to do with the fact that we are privileged and are able to choose freely. It’s not only about being successful though – it’s also about choosing what you think is fun, because you really use a lot of time editing. I have to say that I have been extremely lucky, because my first film was ‘Pusher’ and it went so well that I could almost pick and choose film projects from the beginning on.
Janus: I was very fortunate from the beginning as well. I thought I was going to be a director, but coincidentally I wound up in an editing cellar with some of the great editors of that time. We started out making a film called ‘Angående Lone’ and after that a whole world opened up to me. Back then there was a lot work for editors, but I worked really hard as well, so it wasn’t because it came easy. I started working with Bille August and together we made among others ‘Zappa’ and ‘Pelle The Conqueror’. But it really takes discipline even though you’re lucky.
When do you know if a film is good?
Anne: At times you can be working with some material where you get the feeling that this is never going to become a film. And then it of course does, but it never becomes great
Janus: From time to time I have the feeling of accepting a film project because it sounds exciting and then you get the material and you think; “what the hell is this? Can I still get out of this? That it’s the wrong film you’re cutting. But it usually takes three weeks before you really surrender to the film and get to the other side. A lot of this has to do with the way the material is delivered as one big mess that you have to bring order to. But then all of the sudden there’s a scene that makes you think “wow, this is good”. The best part is when the director comes in and you’re pushed out in a corner where you haven’t been before. That’s why I love working with young directors.
How is it to be anonymous and only known within the film business? Often it’s the director who gets all the attention.
Janus: You can’t be a film editor if you don’t accept that this is how it is. You work closely with the director and you almost create a child together. You have to be in sync with the director. You have to know that when you’re done the director will take your baby out into the world.
Anne: I thought it was really difficult in the beginning. But it’s very dependent on the director, because some are very generous and that’s important. But there’s also a lot of respect for film editors in Denmark - we get a lot of thanks and honours. Everyday people on the streets don’t know what we do, but that’s not so important, because we get so much positive attention in the film business.
How do you see the relationship between the director and the editor?
Anne: It’s very close. You have to be careful though, because the director isn’t there with you very much. At Film School I edited a graduation film – a documentary – and in the end the teachers had to tell him to leave. It’s not good to have somebody at your side all the time. You have to let the editor do his or job.
Janus: At this school you’re learning a language so you can understand and talk to each other. It’s about mutual respect, because sometimes you’re paired with an opposing personality. But generally it’s a good idea to let your directors know that they have to treat you the same way as they treat their actors.
Anne: It doesn't work if the director play out the scenes for the actors, and he shouldn't do that in the editing room either - he has to allow for the editors to understand for themselves. Also he has to make room for the editor to do something unexpected, because maybe there’s something amazing in the way the editor sees the story.
I ran out of time and questions and ended the interview. Afterwards I felt like I was flying, because I had talked to some of the most talented people in the film business – my future colleagues. I was happy that their success hadn’t gone to their heads, and I couldn’t help but get even more excited about the prospect of one day making a living of what I love the most; film.