For Chapter 6 of Moving Images — titled Recording and Presenting Reality — the Close-Up interview features insights from Deborah Hoffmann into the work involved in documentary filmmaking and the editing process. Hoffmann has been working for the past few decades as a documentary editor and director, and her work includes the award-winning movies The Times of Harvey Milk, Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter, and A Long Night’s Journey into Day.
Did you have any early inspirations to use moving images to communicate?
When I was in college, I got very involved in still photography, and the one connecting thing – other than liking working with images – was that I got very involved with putting on exhibits, and I really liked thinking through the order of the images, so that viewers can have a specific type of experience going to the event. That was the beginning for me. It took a while for me to get from there to being involved in making documentaries, but I think that was where it began.
Describe the path you took to become an editor. Did you initially plan on working as an editor? Did you specifically choose to work in the documentary field?
Things were not that well thought out for me. A lot of my career was a bit of fumbling around in a series of accidents for me to end up where I ended up. I did sort of fall in with a crowd of documentary filmmakers and because of my background as a still photographer, I initially was going towards being a cinematographer. It just so happened that I developed a back problem, and I couldn’t deal with the equipment, so I shifted over to looking into editing, not realizing that sitting all day isn’t really that much better for your back. Nonetheless, I found myself moving towards editing, and it was a really fortuitous change, because I love editing and am very well attuned to it. So, slightly accidental, but I think it was meant to be.
During this shift to editing, what were your initial steps professionally?
Because this was the 1970s, there’s a way in which my personal story doesn’t really translate to today. These days, I teach documentary editing at the graduate school level at UC Berkeley’s school of journalism. I never went to [film] school, I never studied documentary filmmaking, and I was able to find my way to make a career out of it. I think that’s a lot harder today. So, my path, I really don’t think, is what kids coming along today can do. I began by volunteering as an assistant editor on a documentary in the mid-70s, and I got very lucky because very shortly thereafter I began volunteering on Dark Circle, a documentary about the anti-nuclear movement directed by Judy Irving. They got funding very quickly after I began, and there I was, I had a job. I worked as an assistant editor – and, again, this is dated stuff, because I was editing on film and I was doing a job that virtually no longer even exists. I went from assistant editor to sound editor, and I was very determined and very devoted, and I was able to start making deals, “I’ll be assistant editor if you let me edit a scene.” That happened on one project, then on the next project I edited enough scenes to be associate editor, and then I was off and running and editing film.
When you first started editing films for other directors, was there anything that surprised you about the process? Any lessons that you learned from your early efforts?
It’s a very delicate relationship. I remember very early on, when I was an assistant working with an editor, he said to me, “You know, the relationship between the editor and the director is more difficult than a marriage.” And I’ve always remembered that, and there’s a lot of truth, not that it needs to be difficult, but it is a very complicated relationship, and of course when I became a director, now I’ve seen it from both sides. Directors are handing over their baby, and that’s their point of view. And the editor feels like, “I can really see what’s working and what’s not, and the director is too close to the material.” So there’s that tension, and I think that this tension can be really helpful in film. And when I teach the students that I teach, and they’re editing their own films, and I always tell them, “You are doing the most difficult thing possible.” You go out, you round up the subjects, stand in the snow and rain to film them and go through all that, you become convinced you’ve got a masterpiece and every frame is wonderful. And the person who didn’t do any of that and they’re just seeing what ended up in the footage – and not what the entire surrounding experience was – which can allow them to see more clearly. So when you’re editing your own material, you have a unique challenge compared to when you’re editing someone else’s material.
You have also directed documentaries. What inspired you to do this? Was your previous work as an editor helpful to your role as a director?
Well, if I ruled the world, or at least the world of documentary film, I would make every director be an editor first, because I do think that you learn so much about what makes a scene and what tells a story by actually having to do it in the editing room. So I felt it was really, really helpful that I had been editing before I was directing. The first thing I directed was a personal film I made about my mother and Alzheimer’s, and that was almost not a decision, it was just an overriding need that I had to make that film. So I did. And then I thought, this is kind of fun, you get to make all the final decisions. There was something very appealing about that, and so I thought of dividing my time between editing other people’s projects and directing.
As a documentary editor, what distinctive challenges do you face in contrast to editors of fiction motion pictures?
Let me just say that I’ve never edited fiction features, so what I’m saying you can take with a grain of salt, but I think that a documentary editor has a much more thrilling job than a fiction editor because you really find a make the story in the editing room. You do wonderful things as a fiction editor too, but you’re not sort of writing the story, and I feel that you really are doing that as a documentary editor. It’s a wonderful thing, and you really can discover unexpected things in the editing room.
Could you comment on the process of editing documentary films and some of the ways in which you have experienced a particular project?
Unless I was doing something historic that was mostly archival – and even then there would be current interviews – it was not a long time after the shooting process, and in fact, it was usually while the shooting process was still happening that I would be brought on. So, I could start editing, we could see where the weaknesses were, and we could see what filming still had to happen. I think that absolutely works the best. I think this is also smart financially, for directors not just to film everything and see if they’ve got it later, assuming it’s not something where they’re halfway around the world and it’s a one-time thing. But if the project is one in which you can go back and fill in the holes.
Documentary filmmakers seek funding from a variety of sources, including institutional grants and foundations. Taking one movie as an example, how have you sought support for your projects?
The biggest project we had to fundraise for was the film we did about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called Long Night’s Journey into Day. I made that with my partner Frances Reid, we started that in 1997 and it was 90 percent funded by foundations and the remainder funded by individual donations. We sold it to HBO and that’s how we got our finishing funds. But 1997 was a very different time economically than now, it was sort of a peak. Here we were making a film about reconciliation, which was a hot topic then. Fundraising is never easy, but that was one of the easier experiences I know about. In fact, there was one foundation that responded to our request and said, “Actually, we want to give you more.” We were very fortunate, and I think right now it’s very tough for documentary films. But right now, documentarians can be a one-man-band. A lot of my students, they go all over the world, they take one crew person with them, and they do everything incredibly cheaply, and then they edit it at home with Final Cut Pro. The expenses have come down in a lot of ways, but it’s still tough in a lot of ways.
What has been your experience of the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process? Are there particular relationships that have been fruitful to you in your career?
It is extraordinarily collaborative. I’ve been very, very lucky in that all of my collaborative experiences have been quite wonderful, in fact they are some of the most wonderful experiences in my life. For instance, from the first major film that I was the editor of, The Times of Harvey Milk, the people I worked with on that have been best friends ever since then. I’ve formed many long-lasting relationships, and I love that give-and-take collaborative.
What have been some of the greatest challenges you have faced during your filmmaking endeavors?
Most of them are economics. If you’re doing your own projects, the constant search for money can really beat you down. If you’re working for other people and you want to be working independently as I always did – that you don’t want to be working for a TV station or the news – then you are constantly looking for work. You can feel very insecure a lot of the time. It’s grueling work, but it’s thrilling work, so until you get burned out, your problem will not be that you’re unhappy at your work.
What have been among your most fulfilling experiences in moviemaking?
One thing I feel that I haven’t said is that sometimes I feel that there’s a selfish, cheating thing being a documentary filmmaker, because it was a way to go places and meet people that you would otherwise have no way of experiencing. You have the excuse of making this film, and you meet the most fantastic people in the world.