Enticed by the dark mysteries of the cutting room? Melanie Oliver is an editor whose work includes Anna Karenina, Les Miserables and Pride.
Published on 16 September 2014
How did you get your started in the business?
I started off in New Zealand. I did an advertising/marketing degree and then as everyone else was moving into the video world, I moved back into film, which ended up being advantageous for me. I got a job on Jane Campion’s An Angel At My Table, syncing up rushes. She wanted to see the rushes early in the morning, so I used to show them to her on a Steenbeck and it was just me and her. I basically got this incredible masterclass from this woman who was extraordinarily generous. During the rushes, she would talk to me. I got to see her storyboards and how she was going to prep for the next day. When I look back at it, it was life-changing.
How long was it between this job and becoming an editor?
It was about four years. I left New Zealand when I was 19 and came to England where I luckily got a job at a documentary company. I was basically assistant editor on any film that came through the door. Sometimes I was given scenes to do. It was a different world. Everyone thinks they’re an editor now because it’s digital, which is fine. But I was given a lot of assembly work. We were cutting on film. I was given a lot of encouragement by the owner.
What was the breakthrough?
I made my own films at the same time in order to be able to edit something. Joe Wright was looking for an editor for a small BBC film called Crocodile Snap and I took along my films and I got the job. I remember showing Joe a corporate video that I’d cut for Ford.
What do you think a young would-be editor should be focusing on?
I was never a snob when it came to work. I don’t come from a privileged family, I had to work. I did one of the first reality shows and I cut corporates – I did anything. And it made me fast.
One of the biggest things about editing is communicating with people. I gave people what they wanted and tried to give it a twist on top. I feel like young people are really narrowing their expectations. They seem to want to come in at the top level and it’s never worked like that for me. I never came in with an agenda.
What’s so special about editing?
It’s the hub of decision-making. It’s where everything is finalised. I ended up coming back to the cutting room because of the very special relationship you end up forming with people, in the case of Pride it’s with Peter Morgan, and [writer] Stephen Beresford. I really value those relationships, they’re personal as well as professional in the sense that I enjoy the nub of everybody talking in the room and solving problems. [Editing rooms] are very intense places. I’m very lucky, I get to hang out with some of the best minds in the world.
How was your experience on Pride?
[Director Matthew Warchus] approached it in a very analytical way. He put out a spreadsheet and he said, ‘in this act, this is what’s going to happen and I want this music…’ and I remember standing back thinking this is going to be interesting. The challenges were setting up who Mark (Ben Schnetzer) was at the beginning of the film and setting up the world.
Did you ever think editing wouldn’t work out as a job?
All the time! There’s no easy path and there’s no formula. That’s why I think it’s dangerous to think you just want to work in film because there’s various other avenues to work in visual media, it doesn’t mean you have to start in film and end in film. At the moment, I’m waiting for a film to start in January with Tom Hooper and I’m lucky enough to be able to do commercials. But you’ve got to keep moving.
Looking back, would you do anything differently to get where you are?
No, because as I said, there’s no formula. It’s a fluid business, it comes it goes, you just have to do whatever you have to do. Many assistants come and see me – I’ve had four this week – looking for work. I think the worst thing for young assistants is to try and talk to editors because I don’t do the employing. It’s the first assistant editors. Looking for the assistants who work on films is a better way in because they’re the ones who are going to say, ‘hey, there’s such-and-such job going on at the moment.’ Assistants need to know assistants, because that’s the way I got onto films, someone mentioned my name. It’s not an editor who employed me. But don’t ever underestimate reaching out to someone because something may come of it.