In her 30 years as a film editor, Tatiana S. Riegel has cut five films for director Craig Gillespie, starting with 2007’s Lars and the Real Girl. Her work on Gillespie’s latest feature, I, Tonya, has earned her an Oscar nomination for best achievement in film editing. Reigel talked to me by phone from Berlin, where she’s working on the early footage of director Fede Alvarez’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web—starring Claire Foy, Vicky Krieps, Claes Bang, and Lakeith Stanfield—as it’s being filmed. In a conversation studded with references to intuition and instinct, Reigel talked about how editing a film is like attending a dinner party, what she learned from her years as an assistant to Quentin Tarantino’s longtime editor, Sally Menke, and why it’s not easy for women to find a place at the editing console.
Is your work entirely about figuring out how best to realize the director’s vision, or are you also discovering or creating the film yourself to some degree as you edit it?
It’s both. Obviously, I’ve read the script, and I’ve had some conversations with the director. If it’s a director I’ve worked with a lot, like Craig, that makes it very easy. If it’s someone I haven’t worked with very much, or at all, it takes a little bit more time to suss that out. But it’s a 50-50 combo, trying to figure out what they want and also bringing your own input in terms of story and performance and pacing and stuff like that.
What makes you and Craig such good partners?
We have a lot of similarities, and differences in the right places. You have to be able to sit in a room with a director for eight, 10, 12 hours a day and still get along at the end of the day, but you also have to have enough differences so there’s that real yin-yang and sounding board happening, which enables you to build on each other’s work and make it better. We have a similar sense of humor, and we have very similar tastes in films and emotion and the sort of story that moves us and that we find interesting. Our differences are just the innate differences that you have in two people from different places, different times, who are of different sexes—those sorts of different experiences that you bring to it as an individual.
How have you seen film editing change over the years? Obviously, there’s been the switch from film to digital, but I’m also thinking of things like people’s attention spans getting shorter and the boom in special effects.
Obviously the biggest difference I’ve experienced in my career is that change from film to digital. That makes a huge, huge difference in the workflow and the pace and the sort of day-to-day job. It used to be a very physical job. Now it’s rather sedentary. Also, the way people watch media is different. People’s patience has probably gotten a bit shorter. And people get very used to seeing things in a certain way: quicker cuts, lots of music. I’m not sure that’s all for the better, but on certain things, it’s definitely appropriate.
In the early days of film almost all of the editors were women, but they’re only about a quarter of the members of the Editors Guild now. When and why do you think film editing became male-dominated?
The short answer to that question would probably be that people realized how important it was. [laughs] The other answer is that pretty much all of the directors, for a really long time—it’s getting a little bit better now—were men. It’s a very close work situation and ultimately, a lot of times, guys want to hang out with other guys. Buddies, you know. I think it’s more comfortable [for them]. But I don’t think it’s good for the film, necessarily. I like to have a mix in my crew, my assistants—a mix of male and female whenever possible, different backgrounds, different points of view. Because you’re trying to put the film out there to as many people as possible, so it’s very important to get reactions early on from a great variety of people. That’s why my situation with Craig works very well, because sometimes I’ll look at a scene and be like, well, no, a woman wouldn’t do that, or would do that. And he’s approaching it from a different point of view, and we can debate that.
You like to say that the editor is the only person involved in a film’s making who comes in as essentially an audience member. Can you explain what that philosophy means to you and how you find it helpful when you’re working?
Yes, I find it extremely helpful. For example, when a scene is shot, I’m the only person [in the cast and crew] who watches it for the very first time exclusively on film—or on the monitor, or however it’s being shown. So I get that initial reaction to the performance and to the geography of the situation and to the costumes and what people look like and everything else that everybody else on the set doesn’t have. They know the geography of the set because they’re physically walking on the set. I’m reacting the way an audience member would. Does something look believable? Does the performance feel believable? I haven’t been to all the development meetings, been part of the casting and rewrite process, or done any location scouting. I haven’t heard about all of the innumerable compromises that have taken place through the pre-production and production process. That helps me have a really instinctive, intuitive reaction to what I see initially.
Even though women are in the minority now, there are a lot of famous and sought-after female editors in Hollywood, probably more so than in other important behind-the-camera positions like directing or cinematography. I’m thinking of people like Dede Allen and Thelma Schoonmaker and Sally Menke, who you worked with early in your career. Do you think editing is still one of the easier ways for women to get into film?
I’m not sure there’s really any easy way. I think it’s wonderful that all categories and job positions are finally starting to open up to women. It’s really important. But I really don’t know what’s the easier way to get in. Only 23% of the Editors Guild is female. It’s easier than cinematography, yes, but it’s still a pretty competitive, difficult way to get into the business.
Do you think there are more female editors as you go down the status scale, like in lower-budget films?
Unfortunately, yes. There are probably more women in TV and reality or other places where the investment isn’t as big or a studio is more willing to take a little bit of a risk. In the larger features, they’re less willing to take that risk. They’re not used to picturing a female editor cutting a big action movie. So it’s probably a little more common in these other areas. I don’t know if it’s easier.
Was I, Tonya particularly challenging to work on?
It was very challenging. It’s got a very interesting and unique tone, and it was challenging, yet extremely gratifying and fun, to find that. There was a big mixture of emotional and tragic stories alongside some ridiculously humorous moments, and that’s a tough line to walk.
Can you give me an example of something you contributed to the film that illustrates what good editing brings to a movie?
The biggest example is how the interviews and voiceover and breaking the fourth wall are woven throughout the story. We jump around in time a bit. There’s a lot of movement in the film, and finding that balance is always the big challenge and what required the most editing. The skating scenes were beautifully shot and wonderfully choreographed, but they all had to be built to have their own personality and to be appropriate for the given point in the film and what was happening character-wise, in terms of the amount of energy and pacing. The simpler dialogue scenes often were the most difficult, in an odd way. You have to get the pacing exactly right, whether it’s the argument scene with the mom where she throws the knife at Tonya or the bar scene with Jeff Gillooly and Shawn Eckardt where it’s the tension that the F.B.I. is recording them and Jeff Gillooly knows it, building that tension and keeping the audience leaning into the show and wondering what’s going to happen.
Is that done with cuts? Sound? With how long you draw out the scene?
All of the above. It’s a slow build, going back and forth, back and forth. Sometimes it’s more important to see the reaction to a line than who’s saying the line. It’s following your eyes. It’s like at a dinner table: If you want to understand what editing is, just try to sit at a dinner table with a bunch of people and really pay attention to where your eyes go. You don’t know who’s going to start talking next. Somebody starts talking and your eyes move to them, and then you want to see the reaction to what they said, so your eyes are on this other person while somebody’s saying something. Or you look over at somebody picking up the salt shaker, or you look at somebody playing footsie under the table. All of these things are telling you the story of that dinner, and that’s exactly what editing is: It’s following the eyes and figuring out where you need to be at a particular place to convey that story the best.