Recently I've been reading through Walter Murch's book In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective On Film Editing. Murch is celebrated film editor, sound designer, director, and screenwriter who has worked on a number of notable films, such as The Conversation, American Graffiti, Apocalypse Now, The Godfather Part II and Part III, and The English Patient.
His book provides valuable insights not only into the actual process of editing, but also the philosophy of editing itself. It's WAY more more than an instructional handbook. His thoughts on life, the mind, cinema, relationships between editor and subject matter, and an editor's methods are fascinating and extremely helpful to me as I seek to become a better filmmaker.
Sidebar: For additional information about the process and philosophy of film editing, take a look at this video from Every Frame A Painting.
One chapter from Murch's book I found particularly noteworthy is entitled "Seeing Around the Edge of the Frame." It deals with the contrast betweeen the relationship the editor has with the material vs. the relationship the director has with the material.
A director will ALWAYS remember the conditions under which a particular scene was shot. As the director looks at the footage, he/she knows what was happening beyond the edge of the frame; i.e. what it took to get the shot. That knowledge will affect a director's feelings toward the footage. As Murch puts it:
"'We worked like hell to get that shot, it has to be in the film.' You (the director, in this case) are convinced that what you got was what you wanted, but there's a possibility that you may be forcing yourself to see it that way because it cost so much-in money, time, angst-to get it.
"By the same token, there are occasions when you shoot something that you dislike, when everyone is in a bad mood... Later on, when you look at that take, all you can remember was the hateful moment it was shot, and so you may be blind to the potentials it might have in a different context."
These thoughts mean a lot to me, because often I'm the one editing my own material. So then, the question arises, "Should the director also serve as the editor?" Or to put it another way, "Can a director be an effective editor of his/her own film?"
During post-production on my short film Final Hit I struggled with the exact thing Murch describes in his book. There was a particular scene in the film that I just didn't want to cut, because I remembered how much time it took to get each shot. I thought back to the time and effort the cast and crew put into the shoot and I thought if I cut the scene I would somehow be disrespecting their talents and abilities.
I intended for the scene to be a character moment for the protagonist. It was supposed to reveal to the audience something specific about the type of person he is. However, in my gut I knew the scene wasn't working, so I made the tough choice to cut it from the film.
So, getting back to the question: Can a director also edit his/her own film? Many directors have. I think a director can also be an effective editor, but I've learned from Murch's book the importance of distancing oneself from the material after the shoot ends. As he says:
"Between the end of shooting and before the first cut is finished, the very best thing that can happen to the director (and the film) is that he say goodbye to everyone and disappear for two weeks - up to the mountains or down to the sea or out to Mars or somewhere...
"Wherever he goes, he should try to think, as much as possible, about things that have absolutely nothing to do with the film. It is difficult, but it is necessary to create a barrier, a cellular wall between shooting and editing."
I've also learned the value of working with an editor who can provide more objectivity to the film and who can help make the final cut even stronger.