An Interview with Carol Littleton, ACE

Carol Littleton’s body of work as an editor spans several decades and genres, from the 1970s to the present. She’s perhaps best known for her collaborations with Steven Spielberg and Lawrence Kasdan, on films including E.T., The Big Chill, and Wyatt Earp, and was nominated for an Academy Award for her work on E.T. MEWShop’s Janet Dalton talked to her about her early career and how studying literature made her a stronger editor (The following is a condensed and edited transcript of the interview.)

Janet Dalton: Where did you grow up?

Carol Littleton, ACE: I was actually born in Oklahoma City, but my parents moved to Miami in Northeastern Oklahoma, where I grew up. At about age 11, my family moved to the country, so I grew up really in a rural setting on a farm. It was a wonderful, idyllic childhood, with lots of animals, and a garden, and a lake nearby, and it was a beautiful way to grow up, I don’t think many kids have that opportunity now, so I feel pretty lucky

JD: Did you actually go to school to study film? What started you down the film path?

CL: No, I went to university, and I have my BA and MA in literature. It was only when I met a young fellow, John Bailey, now my husband and cinematographer that I started to become interested in film. John is from Los Angeles and studied film at USC in the early 1970’s. Hanging out with his friends, and seeing how much fun they were having, I realized film was a lot more interesting than what I was studying. When I finished my MA, I started working in entry-level film-related jobs, which eventually pointed me towards an editing room. Something clicked, “this is what I can do, I like this”. I was drawn to editing; you couldn’t pry me away. That enthusiasm has stayed with me all these years. It became a passion, and I’m still enjoying it.

JD: What got you your start in the editing room?

CL: I did a series of entry-level jobs. First, I was a PA for one of the creative producers at Grey Advertising. After working there for a couple of years, I got another entry-level job at a small production company that was owned by Richard Einfeld who had worked at Fox for many years as one of their top editors. This was when independent production was starting to grow in Hollywood, the studio system was breaking down and the films that younger people of my generation wanted to see were not the films that the studios were producing. Quickly there was a nonunion work force that was growing outside of the studio structure, and I fell into that group. At Richard’s post production company, I started literally answering the phones, cleaning the toilets, running the vacuum cleaner, I did a little bit of everything. Eventually I started to transfer dailies every morning, from quarter inch to either 35 or 16-millimeter magnetic film, and eventually organized Richard’s sound library.

During that time Richard worked on various projects and taught me how to organize a cutting room. There were several films that were uncut on the shelf, and he said, “You know, the clients haven’t paid me, and I’m not doing any more work on these projects, so if you want to try your hand at editing, go ahead and let me see what you can do.” One of them was a documentary, I finished it, and I thought, well, if I can do that maybe I can edit something else. So that’s how I started in the editing room. Along, about that time, at the American Film Institute (AFI) instituted their Women’s Directing Workshop. Richard let me use his editing equipment and on weekends and off hours, I edited three movies for the workshop.

JD: So these were up-and-coming women directors, and they were looking for an editor to cut their films?

CL: The AFI didn’t have an editing department, or any editing equipment at that time. So, in a sense, the fact that I had access to an editing room made me a valuable person on the workshop projects. By virtue of cutting those films, other people began to realize that I had a talent for editing and I started to get other jobs. To work on Hollywood movies, you had to be in the union. But I could not get into the union until several years later. The only way you got in the union then was through nepotism or some other fluke. I didn’t have any relatives in the film business, so I made my own luck.

Editor Carol Littleton, ACE on Bringing E.T. to Life in “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial”

JD: Obviously you have a wonderful talent for editing, but did studying literature in college help sharpen your editing skills in any way?

CL: Definitely. I tell students that the most important thing is learning how to analyze a story. What are the elements that make a story achieve its full potential? As an editor I analyze the story, and figure out how to make it as rich as possible, to have the most emotional impact. The main task of the editor is to compress screen time while being aware of an accretion of detail in the actors’ performances to guide the story toward its maximum emotional effect. Our work is interpretive, and the more analytical tools we have, the more successful we are.

JD: How do you know, as an editor, whether something is working or not?

CL: Even with a strong analysis of the script, editing is largely intuitive. I would like to say there’s a checklist you can click off, but I doubt if that would help tell a better story. Editing is not a mathematical problem.

JD: Right? That would be nice.

CL: It would be great, wouldn’t it? I encourage a lot of screenings. Admittedly, previews are white-knuckle events, but feeling and hearing the audience react to a film helps me more than anything. But, listening to comments or reading the cards afterwards can be misleading. I know that many directors, and editors have a defensive reaction when people criticize their work. You have to learn to listen, to listen to the problems they have with the cut, but disregard their suggestions on how to fix them, because the audience has not seen the footage, they don’t know what material you have or don’t have. They haven’t read the script; so many times they give a prescriptive solution to a perceived problem, a solution that is not useful. Test audiences help you locate problems, but their solutions to those problems are not reliable.

Dramatic exposition is difficult to write and edit. I think editors get hung up on the notion of clarity. Sometimes a subtle sense of mystery, or threads that are not completely pulled together until a certain moment, are more valuable than moment-to-moment clarity. And yet so often the first reaction of producers and studio heads is to want to clarify everything, and add exposition instead of leaving an uncertain moments hang unresolved for a while. Constant, unremitting exposition through dialogue is one of the things that degrades contemporary films. The audience does not have the joy of discovery. I like the audience to earn their keep, to be invested in the experience. Anyway, drama through character, accretion of detail and pacing are narrative skills that I picked up from studying literature and reading a lot. There’s a skill and pleasure in reading a story, and understanding why it works. To look at a movie, as a story, and to see what devices were used to captivate you, that’s what you learn when you get beyond the learning to use equipment.

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JD: Is there anything else, apart from reading, and obviously watching films, and movies, that one can do to sharpen editing skills?

CL: Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I like a paper version of the shooting script, which I read very carefully and I write my first reactions in the margins. I also note the sounds or musical ideas that start me thinking about how to treat emotional moments. Initially, I don’t worry too much about acts or the structure. I just read the script very thoroughly, two or three times to understand the dramatic flow. I like to keep the first notations in my script, because later on when I have the reality of the footage in front of me those initial reactions are very important. Once I have the footage I can see if actual film has the same kind of power when I read the script initially and if it doesn’t, I start to look at the film, and ask myself what I can do to restore that sense of wonder, excitement or emotional impact.

JD: If you had a choice of editing systems, is there one that you would pick over the other?

CL: Without a doubt, an Avid.

JD: Have you always cut on Avid?

CL: Yeah, that’s the system I’ve used now for many years. I made the transition from film to digital in ’96 or ’97 with the Lightworks. I edited two or three pictures with that system, and then I switched to the Avid, which I’ve used ever since. But I’m not an engineer and my knowledge of the Avid is rudimentary. I don’t know how to use every button; I depend on my assistants to help me with a lot of the functions. You can ask them! I’m hopeless.

JD: I think the role of the assistant editor has changed a lot. Would you agree?

CL: Yes, back in the film days, editors cut picture with the assistant standing by. Being in the same room was a great way to learn by osmosis. Now, the assistant has a totally different job of digital media management and we no longer work in the same room together. Back then, editors had one work picture and a track or two until the picture was locked and handed over to sound. Now, I like to give my assistants a chance to cut scenes and to do other tasks if time permits: music, sound effects, adding visual effects and color correction. I have been very lucky to work with very talented assistants who consistently save my bacon.

JD: Do you have a favorite edited scene, or movie, not necessarily that you’ve cut?

CL: There are many but Battle Algiers as a film sticks with me, because it’s so powerful. Even today it has incredible resonance, and a large part of that power is how it’s edited. There are several sequences, especially the one at the end where you realize that things are going to change forever: the French are going to leave North Africa, they’re going to leave Algiers, and a revolution is underway. I just think it’s an extraordinary film, and it is one of the films that inspired me to become an editor. One of those moments you think “God, that’s so powerful, maybe someday I can do something like that.”

JD: And you did.

CL: I don’t know; I wish I could have edited a film like that. I haven’t done a war movie or anything politically revolutionary. It would be interesting.

Editor Carol Littleton, ACE on the Filming Style Used in “Body Heat”

JD: There’s so many films to pick from that you have cut. Is there one that stands out for you that perhaps was the most challenging?

CL: Well in a way, I wouldn’t call it difficult, but I think it is one of the more challenging films I’ve edited. Places in the Heart, looks simple, straightforward, but it has a mood, and a sense of Texas in the 1930’s depression era, that was a challenge to evoke. I felt I knew those people, and I wanted to be very respectful of their lives, did not want them to seem like hicks, which is usually the condescending judgment that someone from an urban area might have towards them. I wanted to be very respectful, and to have a genuine sense of understanding their lives in the context of a harsh, unforgiving world. We’re dealing with a lot of the same challenges now: racism, poverty and violence. Yeah, some things never change, but we have the power to forgive.

JD: I understand you have been doing work around archiving and preserving film?

CL: Yes, I am very interested in film restoration and preservation. There have been so many movies lost because they weren’t taken care of. For the past 25 years the Academy has been at the forefront of film preservation. They have restored more than 1000 films which are now in the permanent collection. I am very excited to be active in that effort. Filmmakers know the Academy will preserve them properly for posterity and have given negative, copies and paper documentation to the Academy for safekeeping.

Digital preservation is another concern of the Academy. We are under the false impression that having a film on a drive is going to last forever. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Even if the drive itself lasts, the machines that open the drive will not. You may have data on a drive with no way to read it. Technology is changing fast. You have to migrate data every 5 to 6 years, or your film will be lost, a process many call digital nitrate. A piece of film, if it’s taken care of will last 100 years or more. If you have a negative you can always make a print or digital copy. But most studios and producers are not making negative protections of their finished films any more. Some films, which were made only 10 years ago, have been lost. There is no way to read the data. The cloud technology scares me, too. I’d say make a negative of your film, if at all possible, if you want to be assured of successful archiving.

The Academy has a publication called The Digital Dilemma, I think every film student needs to read this publication. Documentary filmmakers will suffer more than anyone. For lack of sufficient funds, documentaries are stored on drives, in the cloud, under people’s beds, or in shoeboxes in the top of the closet. You think you have a drive, and you think it is safe, well, it’s not. We’re headed for disaster here.

About the Author: Janet Dalton is the Director of Education at Manhattan Edit Workshop in New York City. Manhattan Edit Workshop offers a full range of courses, from the Avid, Autodesk, Assimilate and Apple products to the complete suite of Adobe applications .Go to www.mewshop.com to find out more information about our Six Week Editing Intensive.