Everything is Editing:
Bill Russo on Blue Murder, intuition, and that small dark room
At the beginning of his short course, "The Art of Editing", Bill Russo asks the class a deceptively simple question: "Who does the editor work for?" "The director?" one student calls out. "The audience!" volunteers another. "The executive producer?" Bill shakes his head. "The story! Anyone not working for the story is working for themselves. You're on an ego trip and not doing a very good job."
The class is slightly chastened, but it's difficult not to be swayed by Russo. He marries twenty-five years of hands-on experience with a passionate eloquence and a far-reaching curiosity. These qualities mark him as a member of a rare breed: a great practitioner who is also a great teacher.
One of the first editors to be accredited by the Australian Screen Editors Guild, Bill Russo's sound-and picture-cutting career ranges from features and television, to documentaries and ads. He's worked with some of Australia's greatest directors, on shows such as Two Friends (Jane Campion, 1985), Police State (Chris Noonan, 1989), The Castanet Club (Neil Armfield, 1990), Blue Murder (Michael Jenkins, 1995) and Wildside (Michael Jenkins, 1997). Three and a half years ago he became Head of Editing at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, where he's responsible for the Masters and Graduate Diploma editors. And in addition to teaching his short course around the country, Russo still finds time to cut professionally-his most recent show was Young Lions (various, 2001-2002) with long-time collaborator Mike Jenkins. Not bad for a man whose initial aim was to surf full-time.
At university, Russo went to the beach to escape chartered accountancy, his "boring as shit" major. He'd always loved photography, so one day he started taking pictures of his surfer friends. Bill dropped his first roll of film off at a surfing magazine. The editors called him in the very next day, bought the photos, and hired him to take more. "It was fabulous", Bill recalls. "They gave me all the film I wanted for free! I all of a sudden had ratio. And what do you do when you have ratio and don't have to worry about the costs of it? You act instinctively!"
Russo learned a crucial lesson from this freedom: "If you let go and trust that you're going to take the right shot at the right time, it's going to happen. It's the letting go." Unfortunately, the magazine went broke. Russo went to work at George Patterson's agency, training to be an ad director, but it wasn't quite right for him. Then another Patterson director suggested that Bill try editing. Russo took to it immediately. In his view, he'd been editing since he was a boy, taking photos with a friend. "We used to walk around looking for good shots-just thinking about framing, which is editing of course." Bill pauses to let the idea sink in.
"You put a frame around stuff; you've taken something out. You're editing. If we're in a room full of people and we're having a conversation, we've edited the others out. We're surrounded by chaos, everywhere we look, the world is chaos. The only way we can make sense of it is to edit it. Everything is editing. "
I ask Bill if there's a connection between surfing and editing. "There must be", laughs Russo. "Ken Sallows is a surfer too-must be something about the rhythm!"
After leaving Patterson, Bill cut when he could and also assisted. The latter is something he remembers not as a chore but as a great learning experience, an entry into a filmmaking world that no longer exists.
"As an assistant you were in the room with the editor doing the technical stuff like filing trims, but you're also chatting with the editor, watching what they're doing. And occasionally the editor would turn and ask your opinion: "Hey, I'm trying to get away with something here, do you think it works?" And you started to realize you had an opinion that was worth listening to."
That wasn't the only advantage of his physical presence in the editing room. "The other part you learn", Bill continues, "is cutting room culture. That relationship between the editor and director and the producer."
Russo reckons it's crucial for an editor to understand these dynamics. "Obviously you"ve got to have the skills. But beyond that, how well are you going to collaborate with people and work your way through that incredibly challenging process on the way to a lock-off? Two minds, when they work together to create something greater than the two minds, that's the enjoyable part. But how to get there, satisfied yourself, without resorting to compromise, and with both yourself and the director serving the story and not your egos? That is the question."
If Russo frequently sounds as much like a psychologist as he does an editor, it's because the job requires a high level of sensitivity to his collaborators" often fragile emotional states. "It's a very difficult thing sitting for days on end in a very small room. Trust is a very big thing." That trust needs to be nurtured from the very first day. "Often at the first screening, the director is confronted with the shortcomings of the shoot. It can be a very traumatic time for them. The footage has been compromised to some degree-it's no longer the idea, the dream."
The editor's job then, is not just to cut the film; it's also to help the director understand that the storytelling starts all over again. You're no longer making the script; now you're making a film based on the footage you actually shot. For Bill, it's an exciting opportunity. "You can write the film again, not just in terms of structure, the order of the scenes, but internally, within the scenes - it can create meanings you might not have imagined originally."
Unfortunately, Bill laments, young editors today have little or no access to the sort of observation that taught him so much about the art and the craft of editing: "Computers have turned the assistant into a number cruncher who frequently works from dusk till dawn." Often there's limited creative interaction between the editor and the assistant, and as a result, "that link in the knowledge chain is gone now and it's very hard to replace."
Russo has other bones to pick with digital technology. "When you're cutting on film you can see the frameline. You put the splicer through the frameline and you know that you're keeping that frame, that's the valuable one, and that's the one that you're discarding." Now that cutting happens on the computer, Russo frets, "You're rolling along, looking at the shot, and you hit the space bar, and you think-that's where the cut is, where I hit the space bar. But that doesn't take into account the reaction time between the brain thinking and the hand hitting the keyboard. You'll never get the frame your brain wanted."
For Bill, that lack of precision is unacceptable. "Near enough isn't good enough. Every frame has to have a reason to be there. On computer, people are unaware that single frames even exist."
I'm sympathetic to Russo's argument, since I learned to cut on film myself. Now that I'm editing digitally, I tell Bill, I really miss scene rolls. Working on film, I often found great forgotten material when scrolling through footage on a flatbed. I expect him to agree with me, but I"m surprised by his reaction. "Nothing to stop you from doing that on a computer," Bill proclaims. "You can make these machines work for you."
So Russo is no Luddite. In fact, he was one of the first editors in Australia to work on the only AVID in the country, cutting an episode of Police Rescue (various) in 1991. His current can-do attitude towards technology was developed through painful trial and error. "One of the most fabulous things with non-linear is that everything's available to you immediately. You can dip in and dip out and you grab little bits and pieces." But Bill found this ease of access also had a downside. "I became hyperactive and got RSI," Russo admits ruefully. "And I found I was missing a lot of usable material."
So Russo came up with a typically common-sense solution. Now when he cuts on computer, he explains, "I create scene rolls and sit back and relax and watch the rushes through. Things start to jump out at you. All sorts of things talk to you when you slow down and play it through, start to finish, every take. It will inform you in a way that it won't if you just grab, grab, grab. You get a much better cut."
I wonder how Russo's digitally-reared, quick-fingered students take to this advice. "They're all told," Bill says laconically, "and then I leave them in their room and it's up to them. That's all you can do. You can't go in there and..." (here Russo puts on a dictatorial voice), " ... You have to do it this way!" It's not going to work. Everyone has their own style of cutting." Bill's style usually involves letting the performance guide his editing. "Great performances will scream out to you - in terms of pacing, rhythm, but also what they're doing." For example in Blue Murder, Richard Roxburgh's performance was enormously powerful and consistent, even when he wasn't speaking. Watching the rushes, Russo knew that he'd have to use shots of Roxburgh simply looking.
I ask him, how did he know? "It's a horrible thing to say," Russo replies sheepishly, "but it's intuitive. I like to feel, where do I want to be now?" This method presented a problem for Bill when he was offered the AFTRS post. He knew that as a teacher, he would have to articulate his own process as an editor, something he'd consciously avoided his entire career. His philosophy had always been not to let his brain get in the way. But Russo soon realized that his intuition had been formed by twenty-five years of practice. "It's experience as well. My intuition was informed by working with lots of really good directors." And the knowledge that comes from that experience can be passed along to his students.
"You can"t teach intuition," Bill explains, "but you can teach people to believe in and trust in their own intuition. To allow your intuition, your feelings, your own natural rhythm to come through-to not be so tight and buttoned down about it all." Russo strives to help his students "strip away the shells that we build around ourselves to allow the raw feeling to come through." Initially, Bill felt that this stripping away could best be achieved with a hands-off approach. Not being a trained teacher, Bill drew on his experiences with his own children and their school projects: "I felt I should leave it up to them to discover for themselves, to not inhibit their own natural creativity."
However, Russo discovered that sometimes students need to have their horizons expanded-they can't always imagine the available choices without first being shown that they exist. Bill now finds that it's often more effective to be quite interventionist in the early stages, to raise the bar of what is possible; to focus the eye and ear. Then he can step back and encourage creativity and individuality. "There are no simple answers," Russo tells his classes. "You're out there without a safety net. Make it up as you go along. There are no rules. Though some things do seem to work better than others."
Russo clearly relishes his interactions with his students. "It's very challenging-for me as well. I've probably learned more in the last three years here than in the last thirteen of editing because I've been challenged by new ideas and new approaches to things." He adds with a smile, "I was very set in my ways."
One of Bill's most important jobs is helping his students learn about editing room culture, now that apprenticeships don"t serve that function. He's come up with some innovative ways to recreate those links in the knowledge chain that digital technology has severed. On his last professional job, he convinced the Young Lions team to let him try an experiment. While Bill and the show"s other editor, Martin Connor, were cutting the day"s footage, a group of AFTRS students were at an AVID in the kitchen, cutting the exact same footage. "There was resistance from some quarters initially," Bill says. "But Mike Jenkins and Errol Sullivan really supported the idea of it." Russo argued that the deal made sense from a producer's point of view. "What did they get? They got another AVID over there, and a lot of young bright minds coming in for other opinions. And if they came up with good ideas we'd steal them," Russo adds happily.
Frequently, Bill explains, the students would "see things differently to me, and I'd think, wow, that's interesting, great, and they'd give it to me and then I'd work on it and polish it up, and they'd get feedback." Ian Barry, one of the show's directors, was particularly excited about the process. "We were sitting in the cutting room," Bill relates, "and there were two students sitting there watching how the editor and the director were working with each other, and what was happening? Ian wasn't talking to me, he was turning around and talking to the students." Barry liked the students so much, he took one of them, Amanda Barton, and cut the opening scene with her. "A golden opportunity," Bill remembers. "The opening scene to a new television drama series was cut by a student. Entirely cut by a student. With a director who has a CV this long!"
Russo's current students aren't the only ones benefiting from his professional ties. He hired a recent graduate, Julie-Anne De Ruvo, to be his assistant on Young Lions, despite resistance from Martin Connor, who didn't know her. De Ruvo says the interview was harrowing. "It was a bit of a baptism by fire situation," she recalls. "I was straight out of film school and I'd never assisted before and they were a bit worried that I didn't know what I was doing-the post supervisor didn't even think I knew how to use AVID."
But Russo pushed for Julie-Anne, and in the end Connor, the producers, and the post supervisor reluctantly agreed to bring her on board. As the team got to know her, trust gradually developed. "By one stage everyone was so behind, Martin Connor asked me to assemble an episode for him." That gave De Ruvo even more work. "On top of being the only assistant on a show that should have had two, I had to cut as well." The time commitment paid off. Her assembly was well received, and Russo and Connor encouraged her to cut more.
Ultimately Julie-Anne assembled three complete episodes. "It was awesome," she says. In words that echo Bill's description of his own assisting days, she continues, "They were trying to apply the old-school mentality to it. Bill tried really hard to include me; every time he had a screening he would ask me in. If they finished cutting a scene they'd call me in to see what I thought of it."
They thought she was a genius!" crows Russo. Martin Connor eventually hired her to be his assistant on the next feature he cut and wanted her to do his next one but she decided she needed to look for cutting work. The day after De Ruvo finished working on Young Lions, she flew off to Japan for a break. The afternoon she returned she was offered a job cutting Desperate Man Blues (Edward Gillan, 2003), which went on to win Best Documentary at the 2003 Dendy Awards. And De Ruvo isn't the only success story. Most of Russo's graduates are finding work, often before they graduate, in a range of jobs that reflect Russo's own diverse career. Recent AFTRS graduates and some current students can be found on everything from All Saints and The 7:30 Report, to The Hot House, National Geographic and TVCs.
For young editors who aren't lucky enough to cut with Bill on a national television series, Russo is enormously generous about sharing his own work. For example, to illustrate his point about the importance of the frame, Russo shows a scene from Blue Murder. In the scene, crooked cop Roger Rodgerson (Richard Roxburgh) coerces a reluctant Neddy (Tony Martin) to lie in his upcoming testimony. In the script, Neddy does not verbally agree to perjure himself. But Russo's editing suggests that he's going to bow to Rodgerson's pressure-and he does it with a frame. At the end of the scene, Rodgerson asks Neddy if he'll cooperate. Neddy looks at Rodgerson, looks away, looks back at Rodgerson, and then looks down-and because of the look down, we know he's going to cave. It's a frame or two, but if it weren't there, the story would be very different. "Every frame has to fight for its existence," Russo reiterates. "It should not be there if it's not important."
In his short course, Russo actually demonstrates how the often mystifying process of editing works. He takes the rushes from a very troubled Young Lions scene, and in front of the class and with student suggestions, cuts the seemingly unusable footage into a good scene. "Some of the greatest things you do actually come from running into a wall of problems," Russo tells the class. "You're not actually doing what you said you would do. That's where the most interesting stuff comes from."
This sort of editing doesn't necessarily win recognition. "When audiences say I really like the editing, it usually means they notice the editing. Obvious things win awards," Bill acknowledges. "The person who's actually salvaged the story by completely reconstructing it, raising it only to the level of mediocrity, is never going to get the award-but it may well be a much more impressive piece of editing."
Maybe that's why, throughout his career, Bill has been drawn to character-driven drama. "Action," says Russo, "is fun to cut. But to do a deep and meaningful two-handed dialogue scene is much more difficult-the question of who you play that shot on and how long you hold it is much more difficult to play and get the most out of."
For students frequently used to showy cutting styles, this observation is a revelation. For Russo, it's the heart and soul of the editor's job: to tell a story that makes the audience feel. "The only thing that endures is emotion," Russo affirms. "If you haven't got the emotion there ..." For him, such a film will never stand the test of time. "The action comes and goes in a moment, but the emotion lingers."