Red Stewart chats with Nick Fenton about A Private War….
Nick Fenton is an English editor who has been working in the film and television industries since the 1990s. He is best known for his work on projects like Submarine, The Double, and American Animals.
Flickering Myth had the chance to talk with him about his editing for A Private War, and I in turn had the honor to conduct it:
Now it’s well known that directors work closely with editors to get the final cut right. And you’ve been working as an editor in this industry since the late-90s, but in 2014 you had your directorial debut co-directing the Björk documentary. I’m wondering, how would you compare your approach to editing from before doing Biophilia Live to after. Did that experience change anything?
Interesting question. I think they were very different projects in that Biophilia Live was essentially a concert film that was filmed over two nights, and then it was very much a kind of construction within the edit, using archive and animation and what have you. So it was a very sterile, very different experience. In terms of that psychological difference of feeling absolute responsibility for all the creative choices, that was felt while editing and co-directing, and so there was an added pressure.
But in terms of the role of actually cutting, it was the same. Wearing the two hats certainly made that sense of responsibility just that little bit more acute. In every project, I take the role of the editor very seriously. There is an element of needing to feel ownership of a project, whether you’re the editor or the director.
That definitely makes sense, and it’s interesting to hear how, in some ways, it stayed the same, but in others made you a little more aware of the pressure that comes with being responsible for the final cut.
Absolutely, and so in terms of empathizing with the struggle that a director goes through and that sense of ownership and that kind of overall responsibility, I can totally appreciate the dilemmas and the difficult role that it is because it’s never-ending, from development to pre-production to shooting to editing to the sound of the grade. Every choice is down to them really. They have to stand by those choices.
Yeah, for sure. It’s cool how so much goes into a movie but at the end of the day you sort of are responsible for the culmination of all that work. But speaking of Biophilia Live, you’ve worked on a lot of other documentaries in your career, like On a Knife’s Edge and The Arbor. Does doing nonfiction pieces like that prepare you for a biographical movie like A Private War, or are they two different mediums?
The form of filmmaking, be it documentary or fiction in terms of the shared language these different forms take, provides so much crossover. And so, I believe a lot of my experience in making documentaries greatly informed the fiction work that I did.
Another reason is that need for authenticity. When you’re making a film like A Private War, it has to feel real in all aspects. And so, to come out of the documentary background where I’ve kind of dealt with quite raw emotional subjects, to try and retain that authenticity in a fictional sphere is crucial into how you judge performance, how you judge camera, and that sense of being there. It’s absolutely crucial.
So yeah, they’re totally inter-related.
Yeah, it makes sense. I’ve talked to a lot of people in different crew positions, be it directors, sound editors, and they all say something similar to what you’ve said sir, which is that there is a lot of bleeding over from the different projects they do, no matter the genre or medium or production schedule.
Now talking about A Private War, this is a very different project from your usual works. You’ve, in a way, specialized in independent comedy-dramas and dramas, which differ greatly from a war-based biopic. How difficult was it to get into this film?
Well, you’re absolutely right, it is definitely different in terms of the various action sequences, I’m never done anything with guns before. It was different, but it’s that desire and kind of striving for authenticity that keeps you there, as well as that strong sense of point-of-view. What [Matthew Heineman] wanted to achieve was to have audience really feel that they were there with Marie, that they were in Marie’s and poor Conroy, her photographer’s, shoes. That you were with them. That you were in their shoes. And that you felt the tension they were feeling. So we would go back and forth, cut and cut, reshape, and try different things with that goal.
Despite there being action, a lot of thought went into the desire to get the right sense of point-of-view in there, which I hope we achieved in some way.
Well the movie received great reviews so you did achieve that! You mentioned trying to get the right angle and get it down as good as possible. I’m wondering, when you put all the footage down from when you’re done filming, obviously it’s a lot more than what can be released in a marketable format, and you’re charged with cutting it down. You’ve been working in this industry since the late-90s. How difficult is it at this point in your career to do that? Has it become easier over the years?
You become aware of what’s required of a scene and the greater structure, the whole of the film, and you definitely become a little more disciplined. When you realize that the thing is too long or it’s extraneous, I think you’re able to edit a bit more quickly, and often there can be a lot to hold on to and so we learn to make those choices quite quickly.
But you also know that, if it’s the wrong choice, which you often do make, you can always go back. So it’s precious. As you get more experience, you’re not afraid of trying things. What I’ve learned is that you always listen to your intuition and listen to other people and take on forward and very often you find a different way if that makes sense- it’s about trusting those instincts.
That’s fascinating to hear. You think of editing as this process where you’re thinking and you’re thinking and revisiting things over and over again, but it’s nice to hear that there is that gut reaction, instinctual feeling that guides, or should guide, the process.
Yeah, I find, during the shoot period, that when you’re watching the material for the very first time in its rawest form, its unedited form, the moments that jump at you, amidst all that paraphernalia that is going on on a film shoot, they often retain their same power throughout the whole edit. And regardless of how over-familiar you get with that material, it’s very informative, those first reactions to a performance or a shot.
No for sure, and it definitely shows in A Private War because this is a film that could have gone wrong- it deals with a lot of sociopolitical topics and a real-life person. But you and Matthew Heineman and all the other people involved have done such a great job, and I’m happy for all of you. So thank you again Mr. Fenton for taking the time to speak with me.
It’s a pleasure!
Flickering Myth would like to thank Mr. Fenton for sitting down with us. A Private War is out in theaters now.
Special thanks to Britney Thai and Charles Martin of Impact 24 PR for making this interview possible!