About Melissa Kent
Melissa Kent’s diverse artistic background took her from dancing to design to a TV internship. She gave us some great advice back in 2018 about starting and building an editing career. Today she generously dispenses hands-on, practical information on the relationship between the cut, the pace, and the score.
Her most recent films are The Dirt (Netflix) and The Intruder, which made $36 million at the box office worldwide, and is now streaming on iTunes and Amazon Prime. Her next film, American Son premieres on Netflix November 1, 2019.
Lunacy Productions: Before we dig into how you approach music, would you talk about what brought you to editing as a profession?
Melissa Kent: Editing films and television incorporates a lot of different aspects of filmmaking where you don’t have to be an expert in that one thing, but it pays to be pretty good at a wide range. It all comes to play in editing. I had gone to art school for a year where I learned about juxtaposition and framing and composition and color, because at the time I thought I wanted to be a designer. But then I changed my mind and went to UCLA as a theater major. So I got to learn not just about acting, but writing, history of theater, costumes, lighting, sets. We also had to take ten film electives, and one of my electives was to be an intern at Entertainment Tonight.
They were great about exposing the interns to every aspect of production: attending celebrity interviews, sitting in the booth with the director, and observing the editors. I always knew I wanted a skill I could do with my hands, and when I saw the massive contribution the editors made to the storytelling, I knew that was the career for me.
Since the age of five I had been a dancer and also played the piano, plus I was really good at math, and editing does involve a lot of math and music. For example, if you’re editing a dance scene and you love how this section is, and you love how that section is, but this middle section just feels long… how do you fix it? If you shorten it, then what comes after is going to move, but you don’t want it to move. So you either have to re-edit the picture to feel faster while staying the same length, or edit the music to make it shorter so everything stays in sync. Those kinds of challenges really excited me.
LP: What do you look for in your assistant editors? How do AEs get hired and rehired?
MK: Assistant editors need to be extremely organized and accurate. They need to be pleasant, trustworthy and calm, have a sense of humor, and enjoy their jobs. If they are skilled at editing temp sound effects and music, and are adept at creating temp visual effects using Avid, After Effects, or other software, all the better. They get hired through word-of-mouth recommendations by people who have already worked with them.
To get started in that career, what I recommend for anyone who wants to work in movies (or television shows), is to be a production assistant in an editing room. If you can manage to be on a show from start to finish, you’ll only need to do this job once. Even when you have a bachelor’s or master’s degree, there is nothing that compares to on-the-job experience, so it’s important to show up every day with humility, enthusiasm, and a willingness to learn.
And being discrete is extremely important, because the editing room is a place where a director must feel free to try anything he or she wants. Even if as the PA you think it’s nuts, even if you think taking those scenes out or swapping the order is crazy. And you know what? A month later the director might decide, “Put it back how it was.” But people need the freedom to try. That said, the director and I will include the assistant editors and PA in the process and will ask their opinions often.
I had a PA, Mat Greenleaf. Amazing work ethic. He was my PA on The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 as he was finishing his master’s from USC. He did the work to become union eligible (100 days, paid, non-union) and on Just Wright we got him into the union as my apprentice editor. He went on to be the apprentice editor on Moneyball and my second assistant on a 3D dance movie. With that experience he was hired as an assistant editor on The Mindy Project, and just made himself indispensable. He was returning my phone calls at ten o’clock at night and he’s still at work. Eventually he got an opportunity to edit an episode, and then he became a full-time editor for them for several seasons. Big success story, thanks to his work ethic, ability to learn, being humble, and also being really smart and talented.
So, there’s a path for everybody. TV has much more of an upwardly mobile situation, but I also think it’s really important to join Film Independent, because that’s where indie filmmakers are gathering, where people are looking for crew members. It’s a great place to network and then they can help you get your own projects off the ground.
An assistant editor in the days before digital editing.
LP: Let’s talk about temp music. Do usually cut to music, or do you cut picture first and then add music?
MK: I like to cut at first without music. Unless, of course, it’s a performance or someone’s clearly bopping around in their room with the record player. You might need something for temp, absolutely. But for the most part, I’ll put the whole thing together without music.
Because for me, the pace has to work without music. If you’re relying on music for pace, there’s something wrong. Your story’s not working. That said, it could work a lot better once the music comes, but if it flat out doesn’t work, music won’t save you.
When I choose a temp score, I always ask the director, “What composers do you like?” If they don’t have a strong opinion about that I’ll ask, “What movies are inspiring you for this particular movie? What are you telling your DP to watch? What are you telling your actors to watch to get a tone?” So I’ll certainly get those scores, and if I like the sound of them, I’ll probably grab a few more scores by the same composers.
Before adding temp music, I’ll wait until I have really long sections edited, or sometimes the whole assembly, and then watch it without music. That way, I can feel when music underscore should start and when it should stop, and I make note of those timecodes. Then I measure, “Okay, that needs two and a half minutes. This needs three minutes,” and I go to those scores that I’ve pulled and look for cues that are the same length. I’ll try those and quite often it’ll be good! It was written for a movie that had its own ebb and flow and conflict within that same time frame. It may not be exactly the way ours is, but it will have changes within it that’ll highlight what I’m also trying to do.
I usually advocate for not hiring the composer until about halfway through the director’s cut. By that point you’ll have a feel for whose music is starting to inform your movie, making sure the tone feels right. That’s how we got Rachel Portman on The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, because her scores worked better than anyone else’s. The director wrote her a letter about how much we wanted to work with her, and since she loved the way the temp had been utilized, she agreed to write the score…which turned out beautifully by the way. Getting to attend the recording sessions in London was an added bonus that I’ll always remember.
LP: And then you end up working with the composer?
MK: Once the composer is brought on, yes. You’ll preview the movie with temp music, because as long as you’re not charging money, you can use whatever music you want. The downside of temp score is that it is coming from different sources; you want a cohesion for your own sound. That is what the composer will provide.
The Intruder is my third time working with Geoff Zanelli, who came up through Hans Zimmer, who composed music for the Batman movies and myriad other hits. Hans is well known for mentoring a cadre of young composers. So Geoff worked there, and you know how it goes—you start out making coffee and you end up writing parts of the movie’s score. Deon Taylor, who’s the director, was a huge fan of one of Geoff’s scores, so that’s how Geoff got the job. But we already knew each other and enjoy working together.
I really understand music and I can hear the individual instruments that make up a sound or a feeling. For example, a director might say something like, “It just seems too sad.” So we might try swapping out the cello for a different instrument. It helps to be able to hear the instruments within a sound, and then to learn how those sounds tend to affect you. Is it not working because of the percussion? Is the percussion too fast? Or is it the instrument itself? Is it the melody? Is it too high? Sometimes as women we hear higher sounds than men do, or are more sensitive to them, and I’ll ask, “Don’t you guys hear that?” And so you’re very actively trying to break it down to find out, what is it about that music and how is that going to affect the story for the better?
Ultimately you get a score that’s tailor-made, where the rhythm can’t only be musical. It has to react to characters. So one thing Rachel Portman has a genius for is leaving space for dialogue. Any of her scores will have a little something and a little breath, and a little something, a little breath. You always want your music to be just behind the action. I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand it when the music’s like, “This is going to be funny,” or, “This is going to be scary.” It’s like, you want to get scared and then have it react, even if it’s only an eighth of a second later.
LP: How does the music supervisor come into this scenario?
MK: The music supervisor will suggest composers and set up interviews, and will also provide and then clear—legally procure the rights to—songs. Let me talk about The Age of Adaline, if that’s okay. For that we had a composer, Rob Simonsen, but we also had a lot of songs that took place through the decades. So when I know we need something from the ’40s or ’50s or ’60s, we’ll start by gathering songs where cost is no object, just to get a vibe. Then when you really clue in on something, like, “Oh, this Jefferson Airplane song works well,” then they’ll come back with, “We can’t afford that one, but here are eight other Jefferson Airplane songs that we maybe could afford.”
So, they start working the deals and getting the rights. Or we just need a classical piano in the background and they’ll send me tons and tons to choose from. Sometimes they go through it for you, but I like to do it myself, because music is such a personal thing. Once I narrow down my favorites, I’ll play the scenes for the director with anywhere from three to eight song options and we’ll choose together. Sometimes you feel lucky to find just one great option, but in the end, that’s all you need.
Thank you for taking the time to share your insight with us, Melissa! Keep watching the Lunacy Productions Blog for more stories and tips from Melissa Kent, coming later this year.