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Interview: Tatiana S. Riegel on Editing I, Tonya

Reigel discusses working with Sally Menke, how editing a film is like attending a dinner party, and more.

Interview: Tatiana S. Riegel on Editing I, Tonya
Photo: Neon

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.

The skating scenes are so well done. To what extent was it digital effects and to what extent was it editing that made them feel so seamless?

It was three things: the way it was shot, the digital effects, and the editing. We didn’t do the visual effects until the very end, so we screened the film many times through the process without them. We were cutting back and forth between two people and one of them had a little orange ball on her head for tracking purposes, and it was amazing how in an audience people didn’t really pay attention to that. Because they were so involved in the emotion of the scene and the speed and the pace, and they were really watching her body doing these amazing physical feats. Which, to me, let me know that the scene was ready and done—ready to turn over to visual effects.

I read that one of the cinematographers was a good skater, so he shot a lot of the skating scenes on skates?

That’s exactly right. They were having big discussions about how they were going to shoot the skating, with Steadicams and dollies and cranes and drones, and however else they were trying to do it, and then one of the operators quietly said, “Hey, by the way, I skate.” They did some tests with him holding a camera and countering the moves and it just added a tremendous amount of energy and made it a much, much more dynamic and fun scene. It was brilliant. Happy accident!

Tonya Harding seems like a prototypical example of the kind of Trump voter we keep hearing about since the election: working-class, white, frustrated, and angered by the highhanded treatment she gets from the cultural elite. And, in fact, according to a recent interview she did, she said she’s a Trump supporter. Did you and Craig talk about that while making the film?

We didn’t talk about Trump literally, but one of the themes in the movie is classism, definitely, and not getting support from people around you and the struggle of this woman who was a phenomenal athlete and was never judged strictly on being an athlete. She was judged for all of these other things. Unfortunately, because of that, we all lost out on being able to experience one of the greatest athletes around.

It’s classism, and it’s also sexism: all those rules about what a female skater is supposed to look like and dress like.

Exactly. I don’t know about the writer or Craig or Margot, I can’t speak for them. But I can say we were all very much aware of and spoke about those scenes that ran through the film, I think very strongly, about classism, sexism, being allowed to be an individual, and what the media does in terms of simplifying and describing people in a very black-and-white way. That was something that was very important to me from the first time I read the script. And how quickly people judged her. It made me think that I need to make sure I’m not making judgments, in stories that I hear on the news or in my life, without all the information I need to know what’s really going on. I think that’s a good moral lesson for everybody.

You’ve edited work by a lot of excellent actors over the years, and you must have their performances practically memorized after looking at their scenes over and over again. Has that taught you anything you can articulate about what makes for great acting?

I would say the main thing is truth—really embracing and understanding who your character is and what their motivation is. The other aspect is to be disciplined and to understand, particularly for film acting, that there are certain technical requirements in terms of matching and consistency that are really important. Somebody can do the absolute best take in the world, the very best performance that I, in watching dailies, believe from one end to the other and think is just absolutely perfection, and if I can’t cut that particular take into the rest of the scene I can’t use it.

Because they’re holding a cup of coffee when they weren’t supposed to be, or something like that?

Yeah. And then I wind up having to use the second or third best take, and it’s really heartbreaking to have to do that. Because it’s a big puzzle and you have to make a lot of pieces fit. You’re cutting back and forth between all of these different takes for each line, and each moment has to be telling the story and hitting those points. And if for some reason you can’t use something because of something physical, like continuity, it’s very frustrating. But obviously, that’s not as important at all as just story and emotion. That’s always what you cut for: emotion first, story second, and then the continuity. But if the continuity is glaringly wrong, it’ll yank you out of the emotion. The best actors have this amazing ability to give you variation but consistency. Those two things seem counterintuitive to each other, but they really are very related.

You’ve said that you had to cut some wonderful scenes from I, Tonya to keep it from going too long. Can you tell me about one of them?

Yeah, there were a few. There were a couple of other scenes with Jeff Gillooly and Shawn Eckardt that were really, really funny and quite enjoyable. And then there was a little section of film, a kind of montage sequence, that was based on some of the interview of Tonya Harding where she’s talking about Jeff and how a lot of people around Jeff ended up dead. That was also quite good, but it didn’t push the story forward in the proper way. That’s always the hard part. You always are making that call about what’s necessary. What’s enjoyable and what’s necessary for the story. Sometimes scenes that are just wonderful scenes do not fit and just don’t move the story forward.

When you do talk to a director ahead of time, do you sometimes influence the way the film gets shot? I read that you told Craig, after reading this script, that there were an awful lot of talking heads in it, and after that he decided to shoot the interviews as direct addresses to the camera, which made them more dynamic. That might be something he would have done anyhow, but do your suggestions sometimes wind up changing what’s shot?

He definitely would have done that anyway. When I mentioned that to him, he was already thinking about it. But, yes, there are times when I read a script and I might say, “I think we need an additional scene here,” or, “We don’t need that scene.” Or there’s something about a character that I’m not liking. But there are so many other people involved in the pre-production process. I really try to keep myself separate from it as long as possible, so that I can keep my perspective. During the shoot, as dailies come in, if I’m liking everything and I know everything’s okay, we don’t have any conversation. But if there’s anything where I feel like it’s off a little bit or that maybe I don’t understand, then I’ll call the director and we’ll either discuss it until he sets me straight or he’ll say, “Hmm, that’s a good idea. Let me try that.”

How much influence do you have on the music used in films you’re editing?

A lot, especially with Craig. I try not to put music in for quite a long time. This film was different because of using songs versus a score. And obviously the skating sequences were cut to certain songs, because she really did skate to ZZ Top and things like that. But the other songs—the needle-drop score, as we call it—we did that together. He had some ideas, and then when we had an assembly of the movie, we just started throwing songs against it to see what worked, trying different things for energy and feeling and pace.

But normally, on a regular film that doesn’t have so many needle-drops, I like to wait a while before putting music in until I get to know the movie and know its personality. Sometimes I work with directors who have a very clear idea of the kind of music they would like. They may even know the composer. And occasionally a composer may even write stuff before they shoot. But I like to stay away from that as much as possible, because if I can make the scene work without music, then I know it’s good. If you leave the music off, it forces you to be very efficient and disciplined. It also allows you to not get attached to things. Sometimes transitions between scenes work very well because music is hiding the fact that you really just have to move that scene. Whereas if the music isn’t there, you become much more free to move a scene around. You’ll discover it the other way too, but it takes longer.

Are there other editors you particularly admire and have learned from?

Sally. I was a sponge around her. I had a unique position at a unique time, when Quentin was just making his second, third, fourth movie. To participate in that, and to see that amazing relationship they had—I always thought that would be my dream, to find somebody like that. I feel that way with Craig.

In addition to the relationship, there must have been things about how she did her work that you admired.

Oh, definitely. She was just phenomenal. She had an intuitiveness that I’ve never seen in anybody else that I’ve worked with. I still can watch her scenes over and over and study them, and they’re so good. It’s hard to explain what it really was. It was just an innate thing in her, her ability to go for the story and for the emotion. That’s what it always comes down to. And she would always find these amazing moments and build them to their greatest potential.

Elise Nakhnikian

Elise Nakhnikian has written for Brooklyn Magazine and runs the blog Girls Can Play. She resides in Manhattan with her husband.

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