Cutting Edge: A conversation with film editor Peter Honess

Trevor Hogg chats with Academy Award-nominee Peter Honess about his career and the craft of film editing…

“My parents were not involved directly in the arts,” states British Film Editor Peter Honess who was the son of the head of personnel at MGM Studios in England. “I left school when I was 17 and after six months or so my Father got fed up with me hanging round the house; he came back from the Studios one Friday night and told me I would be starting work on Monday in the cutting rooms. I asked him what a cutting room was; I soon found out and 48 years later I am still there! The film industry has always supported nepotism and in many cases, been very successful. All of my three children are involved in it; three of my four wives work in it, which means I am happy but poor! I have been married to a script supervisor, a first assistant director/producer and a unit publicist; from these three talented ladies I have had good advice and support throughout my career.” The movie profession does not revolve around working weekdays and 9 to 5 office hours. “We are all hired guns and out of necessity sell our souls to the devil. It is tough to lead a normal family life when often working seven days a week, on location in beautiful places or complete dumps and every place in between. I have set up cutting rooms in many places including a beach house in Hawaii, a truck following the crew to multiple locations, a trailer in a Canadian forest, and in the jail of a Crusader castle in Malta; many have happy memories but some were diabolical!”

“I was Tony Gibbs [Ronin] assistant for several years,” says Honess when recalling the industry veteran who served as his mentor. “I had previously assisted Mike Luciano [The Dirty Dozen], Thelma Connell [Alfie], Pamela Power [The Duellists] and several others. I recall that I realized that even though I was an assistant I had never cut two pieces of film together! Rarely did editors let their assistants cut. The thought quite terrified me so when working with Tony I would wind through his cut footage on the bench when he had gone home and see where he had made his cuts. It was invaluable as having never cut film. I was at least able to have an outline as to how many frames he would leave before actors spoke, the frames between pulling a trigger and the bullet hits, and where he cut to reactions and overlaid dialogue. Editors who have only cut on a computer may be baffled by this. Cutting film needed much more care because if you screwed up and started to add frames back into the cut too close together then the film would not go through the projector; it would rip. Now if you screw up, just press the delete button.” The rising talent was part of the crew working on a project being helmed by a director who established himself by making commercials with his older brother Ridley. “It was fun working with Tony Scott. The Hunger [1983] was his first feature film and my last film as an assistant. Tony’s editor, Pamela Power, kindly let me leave The Hunger about a month early so I could start my journey. The film was Memed My Hawk [1984] directed by Peter Ustinov [Spartacus]. What a treat to be around that great actor, mimic and writer. Peter never spoke with his own voice unless pissed off; he had such a remarkable talent that replies and requests from him would come in many different accents! Peter was always so kind when people came up to him and asked for his autograph.”

“Patience and more patience,” believes Peter Honess is essential to be a successful film editor. “For example, the director sits with you to look at a scene you have cut. You spend sometimes days recutting and structuring the scene; one of two things often happen. The director pronounces, ‘This is what I want.’ You smile but DO NOT tell him that the scene is now virtually the same as it first was. Or he gets up, after hours of agony, and as he leaves the room throws over his shoulder, ‘Just put it back as you had it!’ Another vital element is to listen; I mean really pay attention. If you get notes for God’s sake write them down. Nothing frustrates a Director more than to watch scenes where you have forgotten a note or misunderstood it; that’s how they lose trust in you. Make sure you watch carefully what the Director does with the camera. Do not cut out camera moves because you could be killing his baby.” Honess observes, “Fortunately, each Director works in a different way. I have worked with one who thought he was using me as a pair of hands to one who never came in the cutting room and was happy with the cut. The smart ones work with an editor as a collaborator. It is for me the best and most fulfilling part of the process. It is after all the Director’s film and to be the conduit to telling his or her story is deeply satisfying.”

“A Film Editor should be able to cut film whatever the subject,” remarks Peter Honess who has assembled films such as Madame Sousatzka (1988), Rob Roy (1995), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), Poseidon (2006), and I Love You, Beth Cooper (2009). “About 12 years ago I was branded as a ‘performance editor’, whatever that meant; I accepted The Fast and The Furious [2001] to show my agent that I could cut anything and the film did quite well!” Asked to define great film editing, Honess answers, “Seamless story telling – tease the audience, let them think they are smarter than you, then reel them in [and] do not let them off the hook or they will get bored and turn off.” He believes the three most important things when it comes to editing are timing, timing and timing “because it is the very essence of the craft.” Contemplating whether his profession is more physical than mental in nature, the native of Britain replies that film editing is “not a mechanical process or perhaps a state of mind; it’s more of a keen awareness of timing, rhythm and balance – the art of writing with pictures.”

Inserting a temporary music track while editing is a rare occurrence for Peter Honess, who states, “You influence the audience with music. Put the wrong temp music on and you’ll piss off the director as he cannot see the wood for the trees. It is not a good idea to cut your footage brilliantly to the Rolling Stones and find the production cannot afford to buy it; it will never look as good again. There are two areas in the film world that everyone is an expert in – music and script. It is silly to put temp music on a scene and spend the inquest discussing the temp music and not the performance.” Something which Honess does enjoy is the challenge of visual effects oriented films. “The technology is always improving and I am often staggered by the skills of the animators. We usually get pre-viz of most visual effects shots and this helps when putting the scene together for timing purposes. If there is no pre-vix available then I have the storyboards scanned and put into the Avid and use them between the live footage.”

“Test screenings have pros and cons,” remarks Peter Honess. “You can learn a great deal from the right audience for your film. The wrong audience can quickly unbalance a true reaction and sway the film makers into wrong decisions to please that audience. An idiot who laughs at your ‘tender moments’ can convince others to do the same and ruin the screening. I have tried for years to ask the studios to try the following at previews – ask only two questions: Did you like the film and would you recommend it? My other unsuccessful bleat is to throw away the multiple questions asked of the audience after the screening from the front two rows. Many negative reactions come from this part of the audience. Who can blame them sitting 8 feet from a 60 foot screen would do anybody’s head in.”

Peter Honess misses the camaraderie that existed before the digital revolution. “When I cut on film I always had an assistant with me; it was more fun. The computers seem to have grabbed the stage; they demand to be stroked with ever changing technologies and quite frankly are not sexy! A cutting room with those strange Moviolas, splicers, rewinds, weird looking KEMs and film hanging in bins was sexy, whereas a TV monitor and keyboard doesn’t do it.” As for the portable viewing option for movies, he has no trouble with it. “With the possibilities offered on iPads and phones the more people can have a go [at editing]. Why not? Its great fun and gives you total control over what you want others to see.” When discussing recent offerings at the cinema, the Academy Award-nominee for L.A. Confidential (1997) remarks, “Not a bumper year for movies in 2011, believes Honess. “I liked very much Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life; a director I would care to work for! I am looking forward to seeing Romeo and Juliet [2012]. I am cutting the film in Rome; it feels really good and hope the audience will think so too.” Honess adds, “Although English by birth I have lived in the US for most of my working life. I am fortunate to be an American citizen and a British subject which makes it easier to work in both countries.” As for what has enabled him to survive in the turbulent movie industry, he states, “Enthusiasm. It will never let you down.”

Many thanks to Peter Honess for taking the time for this interview and for his insights regarding L.A. Confidential make sure to read On the Record.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.