Lisa Fruchtman is an Academy Award-winning film editor who has worked on films such as Apocalypse Now, The Right Stuff, Children of a Lesser God, The Godfather 3, The Doctor, My Best Friend’s Wedding and The Woodsman.
In addition to her Oscar for editing The Right Stuff, Lisa received Academy Award and BAFTA nominations for Best Editing for both Godfather 3 and Apocalypse Now, as well as an Emmy Nomination and a cable ACE award for Truman. Her work for Children of a Lesser God was nominated for Best Picture.
In the following interview, Lisa discusses why she gravitated toward film editing and what she thinks kids could learn from Cinderella Moon. She also talks about her upcoming documentary about women in Rwanda.
Q: You have an amazing resume. How did you get your start?
LF: I started out in documentary film, but I wasn’t headed in that direction originally. I had thought of going to law school, or even going into science. But I apprenticed for the first documentary film collective in the country, and when I arrived in the Bay Area, my first feature film job was as an apprentice on Godfather 2.
Also, I think having a model is important, and at the beginning of my career I saw women editors and realized that could be me. Editing fits my mental style. It combines analytical and creative skills, and really is a writing and rewriting process. You’re not just working with a blank page. At a certain point, I realized, “I’m good at this.”
Q: I think even people who love cinema don’t often think that much about how editing — as much as shooting — is an integral part of what goes into the artistry of film making. Can you talk about it a little?
LF: What I think most people don’t understand is that film doesn’t exist before it’s edited. My favorite analogy is that a film is like a quilt. You can have the colors and patterns, but it doesn’t exist until you put it all together. Editing helps to frame your movie-watching experience. As an editor I ask, do I choose a long-shot or a closeup? What do I focus on? The speaker? The listener? Every decision helps create the film; otherwise, it’s in fragments. Once it’s edited, you might wonder: how could it have been any other way? But really, it could have been any of number of other films. An editor helps create the film’s dramatic arc.
Filmmaking is an alive process. At each stage, it acquires a new layer. If the director and cinematographer only shot things as they were written, or the actors only read their lines with the directions they’re given, it wouldn’t be the same thing.
Q: How did you become involved with Cinderella Moon?
LF: Richard and I met 25 years ago on a film his wife Jenny directed that he shot: Street Music. They knew I had experience shaping films from the story point of view, and asked me to participate.
Q: Are there different considerations that go into editing a film like Apocalypse Now versus a romantic comedy like My Best Friend’s Wedding, or a film in the magic realism style like Cinderella Moon?
LF: Yes and no. As an editor, I’m in a responsive position. My mindset is that I’m responding to the quality of the story, the actors, the intention of the director. Every film is different, but what you’re trying to tease out is the film’s emotional resonance, the director’s original intent.
Q: Cinderella Moon was shot digitally. How did that affect the editing?
Cinderella Moon was filmed in digital on a Red camera, and the finished product is exquisite. Shooting in digital made it malleable from the point of view of special effects. In the old days, you paid a fortune to optical houses, and you couldn’t even do that until the film was finished. Being able to work both with digital and with Max Chan as an assistant (who’s talented as a special effects person, computer guy, and translator), things were much easier. I’d say, “Let’s try this with the sun and moon,” for example, and he’d go to the other room and try it out, come back — and if we could use it, we would. Fantastic compared to the old days!
Q: What was is like editing a film that was shot in Chinese? Do you think there are differences in how Chinese films are edited versus films made by Americans? Is there a national “style” of editing?
I think there is a style of film that’s culturally based. Richard succeeded in making a film that’s in Chinese, that’s visually stunning, about a little girl in a long-ago China, yet he was also able to get performances that are accessible to a Western audience. It was easy for me to read the actors’ performance and to choose their best moments. All of this was due to Richard’s skillful direction. Richard’s also a sophisticated craftsman and has a lot of knowledge about film as well as a respect for its different crafts, including mine.
Q: Not a lot of films are explicitly feminist. Any thoughts about working on a film, as a woman, whose message is that girls are as good as boys?
LF: As a woman and a feminist, I think Cinderella Moon’s message is a great thing to put out in the world. It might be trickier in China than here, but I also think that ultimately the message of Cinderella Moon goes out to all kids: to be all that you can be.
Q: What projects are you working on now?
LF: I’ve gone back to documentary filmmaking. I’m the director, producer, and editor of a documentary with my brother about Rwanda. Specifically, about the women there who are redefining their lives and emerging from the genocide there. They’re the first women drummers in Rwanda and they’re opening an ice cream shop.
Q: What’s the film called?
LF: Sweet Dreams. That’s the name of their ice cream shop, whose sign reads, “Sweet Dreams: Ice Cream, Coffee and Dreams.”