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Top Directors Reveal How Female Film Editors Shaped Their Movies

Film Editors - P 2013
“Very early on, a certain kind of trust developed between us, which really is the basis of our relationship,” says Schoonmaker, here with Scorsese in 1970.

A look back at the invaluable contributions to motion pictures of female film editors, past and present, which have been largely cut out of the history books.

An abbreviated version of this story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue.

None of them are household names, but they literally helped to shape many of the most significant movies ever made, including The Birth of a Nation (1915), Stagecoach (1939), The Wizard of Oz (1939), All About Eve (1950), An American in Paris (1951), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The Ten Commandments (1956), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), Apocalypse Now (1979), Raging Bull (1980), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Pulp Fiction (1994) and Juno (2007)—plus this year’s Blue Jasmine, Labor Day, Star Trek Into Darkness and The Wolf of Wall Street. They are female film editors, and if you shine a spotlight into dark cutting rooms the world over, you’ll find a lot of them.

For much of Hollywood history, there were virtually no filmmaking opportunities available to women other than screenwriting and acting—with one major exception. Women have always been welcomed—and in many quarters preferred by male directors—as film editors, or “cutters,” as they were originally known. In the early days, the job was regarded as menial labor, and it largely was. Cutters worked by hand, running film on reels with hand cranks and manually cutting and gluing together strips of it. (Moreover, they almost never received screen credit.) After the advent of the Moviola editing machine in 1924, the process became faster and easier, but was still tedious and low paying, which is why most cutters remained young, working-class women.

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It was around this time that the job of cutting films became less about just maintaining proper continuity and more about being creative. The Russian films of Sergei Eisenstein introduced the concept of montage—how “colliding” separate pieces of film together could advance a storyline and manipulate viewers’ emotions—and this approach became widely discussed and imitated the world over, not least of all by some of the more enterprising female cutters in America, some of whom, like Margaret Booth, began to experiment with leftover footage on the cutting room floor and proved to be quite inventive.

Booth was given a job by D.W. Griffith in 1915, right out of high school after her brother, who had acted in some of his early films, was killed in a car crash. She started as a “patcher” and “joiner,” inspecting and then adjoining reels of film for $10 a week, and then graduated to negative cutter, working alongside numerous other women the director employed. When Griffith moved his studio to New York, she stayed behind and found work at Louis B. Mayer’s studio, which soon merged with Metro-Goldwyn in 1924 to form MGM. There, her budding expertise was so valued that the studio’s young head of production Irving Thalberg had her sit beside him at screenings of dailies so they could exchange ideas, and it was out of respect for her talents that he coined the term “film editor,” which carried more gravitas than cutter. (Booth eventually became the studio’s editor-in-chief, shaping its films through 1968, and received an honorary Oscar in 1978.)

Other early standouts who were around for Hollywood’s transition from silents to “talkies”—no small task for film editors, who now had to match audio as well as visuals—included Anne Bauchens, a stenographer for Cecil B. DeMille’s brother who came to Hollywood when the director needed help, learned the craft and edited every one of the films he made from 1918 through his last, The Ten Commandments (1956), becoming the first female film editor to win an Oscar in 1941; Dorothy Spencer, who cut Elia Kazan’s directorial debut and multiple films for John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock during a career that spanned from 1926 through 1979; and Barbara McLean, who learned to edit as a kid at her father’s small studio, was hired by Darryl F. Zanuck in 1933 to work at his new studio 20th Century Pictures—which merged with the Fox Film Corporation in 1935 to form 20th Century-Fox—and became one of his closest confidantes, remaining at the studio until 1969.

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By the late sixties and early seventies, following a last gasp of greatness in the form of Lawrence of Arabia—which was edited by Anne V. Coates, who came up with its iconic “match cut” from flame to desert sun and continued to work into the 21st century—the studio system began to crumble, and the likes of the aforementioned female film editors were replaced by a new generation who, having been influenced by European cinema, wanted to experiment beyond the classic Hollywood film editing style.

They included Dede Allen, Verna Fields and Thelma Schoonmaker. Allen, who worked closely with Arthur Penn and Sidney Lumet, will always be associated with the bloody shootout at the end of Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967)—for which she was fired by Jack Warner, who felt it was too hard to follow, but was kept on the job by producer/star Warren Beatty, who admired her unconventional approach, out of his own pocket. (For her efforts, she became the first film editor to receive a solo mention in the opening credits of a film.) Verna Fields, a former USC professor who returned to the editing room and was nicknamed “Mother Cutter” because of her maternal style, cut the breakout films of her former student George Lucas (American Graffiti, with Marcia Griffin, a film editor to whom she had introduced him and who became his wife and an Oscar winner for Star Wars prior to their divorce in 1983); Peter Bogdanovich (Paper Moon); and Steven Spielberg (Jaws). After Jaws’ blockbuster success, for which she received considerable credit and an Oscar, she became one of the first high-ranking female studio execs, VP of feature production at Universal.

Schoonmaker met Martin Scorsese during an NYU summer course in 1963, salvaged one of his student films and has edited almost every major film he has made since en route to winning a record-tying three Oscars. “Very early on, a certain kind of trust developed between us which really is the basis of our relationship,” she says. “I think he knows that I will do everything I can to carry out his vision on every film I work on with him and I will work ’til I drop to do it.” As for why so many male directors have chosen to work with female film editors, she says, “Filmmaking is a collaboration. People have to learn how to deal with their own egos and work as partners. And I think women are probably better at that [than men].”

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Today’s female film editors—who account for roughly 20% of all members of the Motion Picture Editors Guild—regard Schoonmaker as the profession’s reigning god. But, to her delight, there is a new generation coming up behind her. Among its members: Alisa Lepselter, who once worked as Schoonmaker’s assistant, and has edited all of Woody Allen’s films since 1999; Mary Jo Markey and Maryann Brandon, who, separately or together, have edited most of J.J. Abrams’ TV series since 2001 and all of his features since 2006, and will reteam for the next Star Wars film; and Dana Glauberman, a former assistant to Ivan Reitman’s film editor, who has edited all five features Jason Reitman has directed, two of which—Juno and Up in the Air—received best picture Oscar nominations. (Sally Menke, another member of this generation, edited all of Quentin Tarantino's features prior to her sudden death in 2010.)

Reitman describes Glauberman as “one of the key reasons why I have a career today.” He explains: “As a director, you spend many months with hundreds of people, balancing everyone’s ideas and dealing with constant input, and then literally overnight you’re in small box—a jail cell—with one person, and the two of you have to carry the film across the finish line. And it often does feel like a marriage. ‘Who do I want to spend all that time with?’” He continues, “You spend more months editing than you do shooting and you do it in a tiny room sitting a few feet from each other. There are very few people on earth that you want to share that sort of proximity and time with, so you better have good chemistry.” He adds, “You know, I’ll probably end up spending more time with Dana, all added up, than any other human being I’ll ever meet. So she’s my life partner and the movies we make are our children.”

“I couldn’t agree with Jason more,” Glauberman says. “All of the aspects of a marriage—trust, respect and everything that comes along with it—are in our relationship. And we call each other ‘Work Husband’ and ‘Work Wife.’” She continues, “Occasionally we don’t agree with each other’s viewpoints, but we make it work and it’s a true collaboration. We complement each other.”

Great male director/female film editor partnerships (and select highlights):

D.W. Griffith/Rose Smith (with husband James Smith and others)
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Intolerance (1916, uncredited)
Way Down East (1920, uncredited)

D.W. Griffith/Margaret Booth (1915-1921)
Orphans of the Storm (1921)
[others without credit]

Cecil B. DeMille/Anne Bauchens (1915-1956; 41 films)
Cleopatra (1934)
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
The Ten Commandments (1956)

John Ford/Dorothy Spencer (1939-1952; 3 films)
Stagecoach (1939)
My Darling Clementine (1946)
What Price Glory (1952)

Martin Scorsese/Thelma Schoonmaker (1967-present; 23 films)
Raging Bull (1980)
GoodFellas (1990)
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Peter Bogdanovich/Verna Fields (1968-1974; 4 films)
Targets (1968)
What's Up, Doc? (1972)
Paper Moon (1973)

Steven Spielberg/Verna Fields (1974-1975; 2 films)
The Sugarland Express (1974)
Jaws (1975)

Arthur Penn/Dede Allen (1967-1976; 5 films)
Bonnie & Clyde (1967)
Little Big Man (1970)
The Missouri Breaks (1976)

Sidney Lumet/Dede Allen (1973-1978; 3 films)
Serpico (1973)
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
The Wiz (1978)

Alan J. Pakula/Marion Rothman (1978-1979; 2 films)
Comes a Horseman (1978)
Starting Over (1979)

Francis Ford Coppola/Lisa Fruchtman (1979-1990; 2 films)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
The Godfather, Part III (1990)

Woody Allen/Susan E. Morse (1979-1998; 22 films)
Manhattan (1979)
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

Francis Ford Coppola/Anne Goursaud (1982-1992; 3 films)
One from the Heart (1982)
The Outsiders (1983)
Dracula (1992)

George Lucas/Marcia Lucas (1973-1983; 3 films)
American Graffiti (1973)
Star Wars (1977)
Return of the Jedi (1983)

David Lynch/Mary Sweeney (1992-2001; 4 films)
Lost Highway (1997)
The Straight Story (1999)
Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Quentin Tarantino/Sally Menke (1992-2009, 7 films)
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Woody Allen/Alisa Lepselter (1999-present, 15 films)
Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
Midnight in Paris (2013)
Blue Jasmine (2013)

J.J. Abrams/Mary Jo Markey (2006-present; 4 films)
Mission: Impossible III (2006)
Star Trek (2009)
Super 8 (2011)

Jason Reitman/Dana Glauberman (2005-present, 5 films)
Juno (2007)
Up in the Air (2009)
Labor Day (2013)

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg