Thursday, June 09, 2005

Interview with Editor Mel Rodriguez

What we here at Film Synergy are loving more and more as this community grows is found in this next interview with Mel Rodriguez. Passion, intelligence, and an inside look at the industry from one of it’s rising professionals. You’ll also find a tidbit on Orson Welles, wisdom from Robert Rodriguez and why Mel would love to work with Billy Crudup.

FS: An editor is an intricate part of any production, yet they don’t get the recognition they deserve. How did you get started as an editor? Are there other facets of production you would like to be involved with?

MR: I got started as an editor after the last short film I wrote and directed called Mockingbird. I set out to be a writer/director and I still am, but while editing my short film with my film school undergrad editor, Fritz "Tha Tits" Hoepfner, I really got into the process. After we finished a cut for festivals, we screened it at a few, traveled with it and when I returned I, of course, wanted to change some things. So I did it myself from what I'd learned by working with Fritz. I edit on Final Cut Pro to this day because of that film. It's what we used so it's what I learned. Then I just used my own footage to practice editing and it really helps to go in and arrange and rearrange scenes. You can see yourself improving. Years later, my roommate Jimmy Prescott made a film called Loveholstery and asked me to edit it from what he'd seen me do on my own film. So I did and it also did well on the festival circuit. Not long after that, I met Michael Philip (producer and director of Drop Dead Sexy) who I actually first approached to be a producer on my first feature while he was in Austin prepping to shoot Drop Dead Sexy. We got along well, he saw a few things I edited and ultimately, his film got made before mine and he eventually asked me to be the editor.

FS: What is it that you love most about editing?

MR: I guess, to be specific, what i love most about editing is a particular moment that I've had the pleasure of experiencing over and over and I'm just realizing that this moment is what it's about. I love the moment where a scene crystallizes in your mind. You're watching endless hours of footage, take after take, back to back, lots of little performance tweaks etc, but then a take you saw weeks ago that is still in your mind comes back to you, or you think of a music cue that works perfectly, or you find an outtake that has a cool surprise in it or something and that's that. All of a sudden, you sit up straight in the chair and you're cutting away because you have it in your head the way it's supposed to look and sound. When that happens, about 150 or so times, you've finished your film.

FS: Take us inside the editor's mind. What is the creative process like for you? The process of putting moving images together. How does it begin and how does it end?

MR: Well, before anything I was a writer. I've written short stories, published in journals. I used to write for People Magazine. I have a screenplay currently in development and so the edit, for me, is the final rewrite. You have to take in all the information to be able to lay it back down in its final form. I haven't had one director look at the first assembly and be confident they have a good movie in there somewhere. EVERYBODY freaks out when they see the first assembly, it's funny. No matter how many years they've been doing it, I've found people to just throw their hands in the air and curse the film to an early grave. But it eventually takes shape. It just begins with taking it all in, watch everything, take notes, mark where the good moments are in the footage. Then you start with the first assembly, feel the whole movie in its rawest form. Then you go into the good takes by the indications of the script supervisor's notes. If they don't work, you just keep trying endless combinations. I'll have my assistant even assemble some scenes with his/her own ideas. It's so subjective. You're happy with what you did one day and you come back the next morning and look at it and say "what was I thinking?" The process dictates itself. You start thinking that the possible combinations of takes are endless. But you just find your way through the movie as you go. You can go through 3 or 4 completely different cuts before you finally see the way it should be. Eventually the movie is going to become what it is supposed to become. It sounds strange even saying that but it's true. You think you can just cut and cut forever until you have exactly what you have in your head, but if what you have in your head is not committed to film, it's not going to be in the movie obviously and some directors get angry at themselves because they didn't get the shot quite right. So the movie becomes the best of what you have to work with and that movie is found by making every possible movie you can with all of those combinations of takes and conversations with the director and taking into consideration the input from others and so on.

FS: We all face tough challenges while pursuing whatever matters most to us, what has been the greatest challenge you have faced thus far in your career?

MR: The greatest challenge for me has been mostly an internal one. As an editor, I never feel that the film is the best it could have always could have been a little better, I think. Also, in my writing and directing ventures, I fight constantly to get past that feeling that what I'm putting down on paper is total shit. It might very well be, but after you've done what you consider your best, you have to take it out for a spin. See what's what. And I'm constantly tweaking. But as far as a more external or tangible challenge, I'd have to say it's that perennial battle of getting your projects financed and made. Robert Rodriguez told me once how easy it was to make movies so just go make one. He's a machine. The work comes easy to him because he has endless energy and he's been able to do it at any budget level. and his career proves it. I’ve been close to getting that modest budget for my first movie, you know, around the 1 million dollar range, but that's still a lot of money. Most movies, we all know, cost a lot more than that but even that 1 million dollars...that belongs to someone. And it's hard to get. So I'm constantly reminded by Robert's words to just go and make it with what you have to work with. But I'm stubborn and more recently, an actual budget is within reach for me. So I opt instead to go after the million. It just takes so much time dealing with these money people who have these crazy lives that they forget that they have a business plan on their desk for this little 1 million dollar movie. And on the other hand, I'm pretty busy with editing jobs that provide for me with my income. I take those jobs instead of going off for a month and making my own movie with no money because I've done that before and it almost totally broke me.

FS: Not too long ago you edited a film starring Ron Livingston (Swingers and Office Space) entitled "McCartney's Genes" and have a recently completed the previously mentioned project "Drop Dead Sexy" starring Jason Lee (Mallrats, Almost Famous, Vanilla Sky) and Crispin Glover (Back to the Future, Williard). What can you tell us about your experience of working on this film?

MR: It was great. I mean it was my first real job in the business so of course it was great for me. it was my post-graduate degree in filmmaking. I felt like my time in Austin, Texas, working on my own films and others was my film school. Drop Dead Sexy was fucking grad school. When I met Michael Philip, the director, it was early in the process. I mean, really early -- like the money wasn't even in place yet. so we became good friends right away. so I was privy to a lot of information about the process of how to go about the initial offering, business plan, the fundraising, putting a crew together, casting meetings, the in-fighting and back-biting, unions, the egos...all the shit you don't get in film school. It was great. From when I met Michael to the premiere of Drop Dead Sexy at the 2005 SXSW film festival was exactly 2 years. It was peaks and valleys, especially because I was a first time editor. But on the other hand, there was a lot of relative newbies on this movie. Mike was a first time director, a few producers had only 1 or 2 films that they'd done and the execs were a bunch of forty-fifty-sixty somethings making a movie that was geared to the twenty somethings. So mike told me he liked some of my ideas and some of the work I'd done and it made for a nice fit. Michael's father and grandfather were both Academy Award winning editors. So obviously, I learned a lot from Michael who also edited films in the past. We worked very well together but it was also a nightmare at times -- long hours, asinine notes by the executive producers, ego-driven politics involved -- lots of bullshit. But that's what I mean, it was all great for me to see and learn all of this. Plus it was a treat to be able to cut together scenes with such talented actors. Jason and Crispin were so good. but so were the other guys like Pruitt Taylor Vince who is one of my favorite character actors. Everything he did was much to choose from. and Brad Dourif (Lord of the Rings, Deadwood) and Lin Shaye (There's Something About Mary, Kingpin) was great to build scenes with all these guys. It was rough beginning for me, but eventually mike and I got into a good rhythm and I had a lot of input on this movie. All the way down to the music choices as well as the placement. I was the music editor on the movie as well.
(Here’s a Review of Drop Dead Sexy from Ain’t It Cool News)

FS: Who would you most like to work with in Hollywood?

MR: As a writer/director, i would love to work with Billy Crudup. I have followed his career as an actor since Sleepers and I think everything he does as an actor comes from somewhere very interesting. He did 2 scenes in a small movie called Monument Ave. that were the most electrifying scenes of the whole movie. He was a coke addict, and on top of that he was scared for his life and not a phony, indicated moment with all of his nervous, coked up body language. Amazing scenes. I want him and Amanda Peet for a movie I'm developing. I don't know that I can get them but I'm gonna try. As an editor, I would like to work with Steven Soderbergh. I think that Stephen Mirrione, his frequent collaborator, is absolutely brilliant. As is Sarah Flack who Soderbergh has worked with a few times on Full Frontal and The Limey, which was edited perfectly. The editing in The Limey elevated that movie to something more than just a revenge story. I'm in the process of developing another project for me to direct so the people I'd like to work with in Hollywood I think more along the lines of actors, DP's, other editors...not so much who I'd like to work with as an editor anymore. Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25. I'm fucking 30 years old.

FS: Lastly, what would you tell others who are trying to find their way into the business but have not had anything break for them yet?

MR: I hear this question asked of a lot of people way more successful than me and they all say the same thing. "Just keep going...never quit...learn all you can…go make a movie." It all sounds the same. But I don't know what else to add that would be more original. it seems to me, in order to have any integrity and anything valuable to contribute, you just have to keep learning about and doing what you're interested in and eventually you'll meet more and more people which will lead to other opportunities, which lead to more people, etc. Your work will speak for itself at any level. Your talent is in the choices. Eventually, if what you're looking for is a "break" into the business, and your work shows merit, you'll meet someone bearing opportunity.


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