Joe Bini: documentary filmmaking through the eyes of an editor

10. 5. 2017

Author: Marta Obršálová

[edited on September 29, 2020]

Joe Bini, the award-winning editor, attended the East Doc Platform 2017 as one of the Ex Oriente Film tutors. Now, he will be joining us, again, online during the second session of the Ex Oriente Film 2020 workshop. This is a great opportunity to dig out this older interview, where he explains why he hates trailers and shares his thoughts on the editing process, as well as the difference between the work on fiction and documentary films.

Joe Bini is an American film editor who has worked with Werner Herzog on numerous documentaries and narrative films, including: Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), Grizzly Man (2005), Rescue Dawn (2007), and Into the Inferno (2016). He has also collaborated with Marina Zenovich (Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, 2008), Andrea Arnold (American Honey, 2016) and Lynne Ramsay (We Need to talk about Kevin, 2011; You Were Never Really Here, 2017).

What did you observe at the Ex Oriente Workshop?
It was interesting to see filmmakers showing their trailers and pitching their projects. This is a foreign world to me. I have almost no experience cutting trailers. This is by choice. They are usually cut by trailer editors – in my experience, the trailer is rarely made by the editor who is actually cutting the film. So it was interesting to hear some of the advisors who have more experience with pitches comment on the trailers, to see how involved the thinking is behind them. I didn't feel I had much of value to say in this regard. I enjoyed talking to people more – not really about the trailer but about their actual films. We discussed issues they are having.

And why do you avoid trailers?
To be honest, I hate trailers. For me, it is putting the cart before the horse, as they say. Especially when you are asked to cut a trailer before the film has been edited or perhaps even shot. How can I make a trailer when I do not know what the film is about? It’s more like advertising. I absolutely understand how important it is but it is not something I am good at. I did a couple early on in my career and I just realized it is definitely not something I enjoy doing.

My next question concerns the beginning of the filmmaking process. Do you think it is a good idea to get an editor involved before shooting?
A lot of what filmmaking is about, particularly in unscripted non-fiction, is the structuring of the narrative, finding the best way to tell the story. That´s why I think it is a good idea for the director to speak to the editor before he shoots. It's an opportunity to talk about structure and characters, to streamline the shooting process. With narrative films, generally, there is a screenwriter whereas in documentaries, the so-called screenwriter is the editor in the majority of cases. Therefore, naturally, you should involve your editor in the process right from the start.

A film is generally edited by two people – the director and the editor – two people who have a different relationship to the same material. In a documentary, I usually start my job after the filming is done. By that point, the director has already formed a relationship with the material. He or she already has an idea about the characters – who is lying, who is telling the truth, who is important in the story or not. The editor does not have any of that in his mind. The editor has only what they see when they look at the footage. I have often had the experience, especially with young filmmakers, when they come back from shooting, they say to me: This is what happened, it was an amazing scene, the guy was great! etc. But after I have a look I often have to say: Maybe so, but that’s not what I saw. I don’t think the guy interesting at all but the girl was incredibly interesting. This is the real fun in the whole process. We, editors, always have to be absolutely focused on the fact of what is in the material – not on what is pre-planned or what the director would like to have had happen, but what you actually have.

You have abundant experience with editing documentaries and feature films as well. What is the difference?
The principal difference is that it is much more difficult to edit a documentary, it takes more time, requires more effort. With a narrative film, you start with the script. In a documentary, it might be three months before you have something like a script: the first idea of what the story actually is.

So the hardest work in a documentary is usually keeping your freshness as an editor because it is a long haul. But in terms of differences in the actual editing process, people tend to overcomplicate it. It is still just editing. You are basically doing the same thing in both forms, structuring story ideas and judging performances. I come from a narrative background so when I am editing a documentary, I am thinking about the characters, about their performances, about truth – do I believe what the characters are saying, do I want the audience to like or dislike them? To me all of this is very similar.
Being an editor is a very powerful role. You are in a difficult position. How do you choose your projects? For the documentary about Polanski, you said you knew straight away that was the film you wanted to work on.
Particularly with narratives, it is usually because the director is someone I want to work with. Of course, if I don’t like the script that is a consideration. But, usually, I would trust the director, this would be the topmost on the list. In documentaries, I had been working with the same person for 20 years so I knew what I was getting into. Maybe there were eight other times I worked with other people and in some cases I did not know the person but I got involved because of the story, I liked the idea of what the documentary was about. The difficulty for the editor is that it could be literally at least 2 months of looking at the material before you realize you cannot make a film out of this. Maybe someone else can, but not me.

And there you are, in a difficult position, because they cannot pay you for two months and have you tell them you cannot do the job! I learnt early on in my career, with people you do not know, especially in documentaries, you have to be very careful about the projects you take on. Or you may be in for a lot of pain. It is difficult.

Could you tell us what you are working on now?
At the moment, I am working on a narrative film with the Scottish director, Lynne Ramsay, I have done another film with her in the past. I like to work with her because her way of making films is documentary- like, in that the films are created in the editing room. So there was script but they oved away from it while shooting, which was gutsy. Lynne is very visually oriented and genuinely interested in details in the room and psychological things. She captures all these details but it is not clear how they fit into the story. So you have to structure it and the story ends up quite different from the script. Editorially, it is a difficult process but the making of it is exciting. 

Thank you for your time, it was a pleasure to talk to you.

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