“A Tedious Job” – Women and Film Editing


(When asked how it was that such a nice lady could edit Scorsese’s violent gangster pictures)

“Ah, but they aren’t violent until I’ve edited them”

Thelma Schoonmaker

Many lines have been written about women’s poor representation in the film industry, outside the “girly” costume, make-up and continuity jobs. After all, it took almost 75 years for a woman to win best director at the Academy Awards, and Katheryn Bigelow was only the fourth woman to be nominated for the category. In Cinematography, it gets even grimmer – no woman has ever been nominated for the award. Special Effects? Six female nominees, three winners (including paradigm-shifter Janek Sirrs for The Matrix).

However, as early as 1934 (when the category was created), Anne Bauchens was one of the three nominees for a technique which many consider the only that cinema can claim as exclusively its own. She would walk away with the Oscar for Best Editing in 1940 for North West Mounted Police. And just in case you think Bauchens was a happy exception (or spent her life dressed as a man to avoid gender stereotypes), a quick look at the list of nominees for Best Film Editing will quickly change your mind: Barbara McLean. Margaret Booth. Dorothy Spencer. Monica Collingwood. Adrienne Fazan. Alma Macrorie. Viola Lawrence. Anne V. Coates. Thelma Schoonmaker (rings a bell?). Verna Fields. Marcia Lucas. Dede Allen. Lisa Fruchtman. Nena Danevic. Susan E. Morse. Claire Simpson. Susan E. Morse. Gabriella Cristiani. Geraldine Peroni. Veronika Jenet. Sally Menke. Simona Paggi. Lisa Zeno Churgin. Jill Bilcock. Clare Douglas. Juliette Welfling. Pamela Martin. Anne-Sophie Bion. Sandra Adair. That’s 29 women that have seen their art and craft recognized by an industry known for its abhorring gender inequality. Some of these women have been nominated more than once – like Anne V. Coates and Thelma Schoonmaker, who holds 3 wins on 7 nominations.

Anne Bauchens

Anne Bauchens

But do not open the bottle of champagne yet. Despite the happier numbers when compared to the other technical categories, it is still not a 50% split, and numbers of active female editors and their recognition by the industry have actually been dropping in the last few years. Also, it would be important to remember that editing is not exclusive of drama, and most women editors are found working in documentary (a rewarding genre, but not as well paid) and are strangely almost absent from the high-paying world of commercial editing.

Footnote done, the question remains: what makes editing so different from other technical categories in the film industry? How have women managed to step so strongly into this craft? Do they have a special gift? Do (male) directors prefer to spend the arduous months of post-production in a small dark room with a female companion? Are women really better observers/storytellers, do they have more patience, are they more attentive to detail, and more nurturing and accommodating of the directors’ big egos?

Empire Film Co.  -Silent Film Editing and Inspecting Room

Empire Film Co. -Silent Film Editing and Inspecting Room

No matter if any of the points mentioned above is somehow true in some cases, the answer is very easy, historically based and not that mystic – the reason women are so strongly into editing is because the doors of the cutting room have been open for them since the beginning. In fact, in the early days of silent film, it would be rare to find a man looking to film strips and painstakingly gluing them together. Why? Because in those early days, editing was seen as a menial tedious job, something purely technical and not in the least creative, so more  appropriate to working-class women (which would be referred as “cutters”, as opposed to “editors”, educated middle-class women that would do what we now call “script editing”). Ironically as it seems today that women were consigned to something “purely technical” (in a sense, not very far from knitting), truth is, those girls didn’t wait for long until sticking some strong female creativity into the boringness.

It is hard to have an exact idea of how many women were involved into crafting the art of editing, as the cutter was never mentioned in the credits of the first silent films. One of the first notable references to a woman working in the shadows was to Rosie Smith. She was mentioned to have worked with D.W.Griffith since she was a little girl, and when the american director was putting together The Birth of a Nation (1915) – you know, the film considered by many the birth of modern narrative editing – she joined her husband Jamie Smith in the cutting room. She also worked (uncredited) in Intolerance (1916) and Way Down East (1920).

Margaret Booth

Margaret Booth

Margaret Booth would also work with Griffith in Orphans of the Storm (1921) and other uncredited projects, but she is mostly known by her later work in Mutiny at the Bounty (1935). She also wrote an essay called “The Cutter” (1938), where she mentions how to use close-up to emphasize certain lines. Booth is considered one of the pioneers of the “invisible edit”, and though she learned a lot with Griffith, her main influence actually came from German expressionism. She would go as far as foreseeing the auteur theory, claiming that great directors have a distinctive rhythm of their own, and it was the job of the cutter to find it and bring it out in the editing. It would be good to remember she was saying all these things when editing was made by hand – not exactly a case of having the salvation of auto-save or the undo button. Booth would go on to have a successful career, with increasing command over post-production at MGM, and die at the age of 104 in 2002.

After a brief interlude with the advent of sound – when suddenly men became aware that it took more to a good edit than it met the eye – the studio golden age began. In those days a collaboration between director and editor was not the norm, and the director was not allowed a director’s cut – and most of the times not even into the edit room, giving the editor almost full creative reign. Dorothy Spencer worked on this environment, and edited what are today considered John Ford’s best films:  Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946) and What Price Glory (1952). She also worked with Lubitsch, Preminger, Kazan, Hitchcock, Zinnemann, Mankiewicz and Walsh, between others. Academy Award winner Anne Bauchens, on the other hand, has worked mostly in exclusivity with Cecil B. DeMille, editing 41 films with him, including Cleopatra (1934), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and The Ten Commandments (1956)

Anna V. Coates

Anna V. Coates

It takes great courage to be a woman in the film industry, but what about being the editor for a man recognized by his superior editing skill? Anne V. Coates felt the pressure when she landed a job with no one less but David Lean. Coates started her career wanting to be a director, so editing was more of a career accident. For something she felt in by chance, she does has an impressive list of films – from Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1969) to Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980). She was one of the first editors to jump in the digital revolution – “Well, it’s only a tool. You’re telling the same story and going for the same laughs and the same action” – and is “the” champion of invisible cutting (to the point of saying she does not want people to see a film and say that it was edited by her; she may have a style, but she tries to adapt it to whatever picture she works in). But as Coates is picking her Best Editing Oscar for Lawrence of Arabia, someone else was making very fast cuts on Editing History.

Dorothy "Dede" Allen

Dorothy “Dede” Allen

When the 60s hit the cinema industry, Dorothy “Dede” Allen was at the forefront. She was not only the first editor to receive mention at the opening credits of a film; she was also fired by the studio for her violent, pace-eccentric editing. The guilty evidence? The final scene of Bonnie & Clyde, which editing is copied over and over to this day. In the end, Warren Beatty was so impressed with her talent that he paid her to stay from his own pocket. But Dede did not have it easy to start with. Wanting to learn the craft, she landed a job as a messenger at Columbia, but was told she, as a girl, was too weak to fool around with the heavy film cans. Luckily for her, World War II started and she landed some editing apprentice work, but she would only manage to get a proper A-feature job (Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959) when she was 42. From then on, however, no one stopped her. Despite the Oscar nominations, she rarely worked in Hollywood, and got to collaborate with the likes of Arthur Penn, Robert Wise, Sidney Lumet, Robert Redford, John Hughes and Paul Newman. She also found the time in 2002 to edit guilty pleasure The Addams Family (1991), so no one can accuse her of lack of variety.

Inspired by the French Nouvelle Vague, with which she had direct contact while living in Europe with her husband, Allen gave two massive contributions to the art of editing; the first, her trademark quick cut-in following a slow fade-out. The other, which gave her name to the “New York School” of editing thought, was the prelapse, which meant the sound of a subsequent scene would start just before the scene starts. Dede had to fight for other editors to stop correcting her “mistake”, but soon she had trained and taught enough editors for them to go away and spread the “Dee-doid” Gospel. After her work, editing would never be seen again as a mere technical discipline – it has became an art on its own right.

Bringing editing to the blockbuster era, Verna Fields may have started her career as a sound editor for broadcast, but soon she established a close relationship with the New Hollywood directors- Peter Bogdanovich, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, which did land her some very sweet gigs, including Targets (1968) and American Graffiti (1973). The one that gave her a bite of the Oscar glory was Jaws. Her editing is, with John Williams’ music, one of the reasons of the film’s success. Her quick succession and emotional manipulation, together with a wicked sense of humour, made her noted in a way unusual for film editors until then. She was hired as an advisor for Universal, and then established as Vice-President for Feature Production, making her one of the first women to enter upper-level management in the film industry. Not bad for a technical, menial job craftswoman, eh? Fields can also be credited with introducing her assistant Marcia Griffin to George Lucas. Marcia would then become Marcia Lucas and the cutter behind Star Wars (1977) and Return of the Jedi (1983)

Thelma Schoonmaker (Photo: Marc Ohrem Leclef)

Thelma Schoonmaker (Photo: Marc Ohrem Leclef)

A few years before, strong opinionated Thelma was taking politics and Russian language at Cornell University. Her position on South Africa’s apartheid (she was not for it) made her inadequate for a job at the State Department, which made her to go from politics to primitive art (probably following the courses offered alphabetically). While a graduate at Columbia, she got some on the job training as an assistant editor, which made her sign up for a short filmmaking course at the New York University, where she met Martin, a young director crying over his short film, What’s a Nice Girl Like you Doing in a Place Like This? butchered by a negative editor. Thelma saved the film, and Martin never stopped working with her for the next 35 years (with only one exception). Schoonmaker and Scorsese are probably the best well known editor/director collaboration, so it is probably good to remember Thelma did other things, like Woodstock. After a long struggle to become a member of the Motion Picture Editors Guild (a very closed boys club), so she could work with Scorsese, she finally managed to enter and punched everyone in the face with Raging Bull (1980). After that, “edit like a girl” would be the best compliment an editor could hope to get.

Many, many women followed Schoonmaker’s example, like Susan E. Morse, who edited 22 films for Woody Allen between 1979 and 1998, and Alisa Lepselter, who took over with the neurotic director from 1999 to the present; Anne Goursaud was discovered by Francis Ford Coppola, who gave her One From The Heart (1982), which kickstarted her career; Mary Sweeney got so much into David Lynch while editing The Straight Story (1999) and Mulholland Dr. (2001) that ended up marrying him (only to divorce a month later); Mary Jo Markey has gone where no man has gone before and works regularly with J. J. Abrams, and is, as we presently write, putting together nerdom orgasm Star Trek VII: The Force Awakens (2015) together with Maryann Brandon. Molly M. Stensgaard has already won a place in Heaven for being the regular editor for enfant terrible Lars Von Trier, a collaboration that has been going  on since TV show The Kingdom back in 1994. And Australian Jill Bilcock, a personal favourite, whose editing was once compared to something made by a Russian serial killer on crack (they were talking about Moulin Rouge! , though, for reference, Bilcock also did Road to Perdition (2002) and Elizabeth (1998), two very differently paced films).

There is no space for us to talk about all the great female editors that are out there, and each day, fortunately, new ones help cinema’s language to grow while sitting in the dark. But our article would not be complete without mentioning Sally Menke, Tarantino’s secret weapon, who died suddenly in 2010, leaving him and all of us poorer. To Menke we own the great fighting scenes in Kill Bill vol. 1 and 2 (2003-4); to her we own that slow-motion sequence and that “dance” number in Reservoir Dogs (1992); to her Tarantino owns a part of his “style”, and no matter how good Django Unchained (2012) was, we all know it could have been ten times better if Sally was there to put him and his mega-ego in their places. She is irreplaceable, and yet we need someone to step in and fill her void. Hello Sally. Thank you Sally.

Is there a final cut for this story? Maybe the film industry has no problem in accepting women in their midst, as long as they are locked away in dark rooms. Or maybe having access to the craft since the beginning, and the example of so many pioneers and models, makes women more confident about their chances of becoming a successful film editor, and being accepted and recognized as an equal by their peers. After all, there’s so many articles written about the special sensitivity of women directors, or female writers… but can you tell when a film was edited by a woman, or by a man? Why don’t you give it a try? Answers (and the realization of the idiocy of gender stereotypes) below.

  1. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)
  2. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
  3. Léon (1994)
  4. The Breakfast Club (1985)
  5. How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
  6. Breathless (1960)
  7. The Fifth Element (1997)
  8. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
  9. The Last Emperor (1987)
  10. Serpico (1973)
  11. Henry & June (1990)
  12. Boyhood (2014)
  13. Wall Street (1987)
  14. The Fighter (2010)
  15. Life is Beautiful (1998)
  16. Striptease (1996)
  17. Mission: Impossible III (2006)
  18. Platoon (1986)




Answer: (all films mentioned were edited by women)

Sara is originally from Coimbra, Portugal, where she studied Film Studies before moving to London to enrol in film school. Having made her first short film about her neighbour's chickens when she was 9 (a dystopian sci-fi, still her favourite genre), she is now a London-based film director and editor, and also a writer for the Portuguese Take Magazine. She is a huge fan of Lars Von Trier, Krysztof Kiéslowski, and David Lean.