HOW I HAVE BECOME A FILM EDITOR
London, May 2020. As I’m writing this blog post, I am at home while the city and much of the world are in lockdown to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. Like many others, I am alone in my room, I only see a few people at any given time and receive an endless (and often meaningless) amount of information through my laptop. Which is also, to some extent, an accurate description of what is like to be a film editor.
Flashback to Bergamo, Italy, the mid 1990s.
I am in my house and I’m playing with some toys from Thomas the Tank Engine. My mum is Italian from near Milan and my dad is English from Lancashire, which is why I get to watch a lot of British kids’ TV. As you can notice in the picture, not only am I interested in the trains, but I’m also positioning myself the recreate the same angle I’ve just watched. In other words, I am discovering what a shot is. For quite a few years I can only watch films and shows on our small TV, but at age 6, in 1999, my dad takes me to watch Disney’s Tarzan at our nearest multiplex cinema. Having been traumatised some years before by the explosion of some fireworks, it takes me a few trips to get over how loud the sound is, but I quickly become enraptured and replace the trains with the battleships of both Star Wars & Trek, the vast armies of The Lord of the Rings and the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park.
It’s around the age of 15 that, on the advice of a close friend, I watch Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, a film that brilliantly shows me how a story needs a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order. The spell of great cinema has just been put on me.
I start consuming 2/3 films a day and, as I gradually assimilate the rules of filmmaking and how they work, I start to apply my new knowledge to either writing rip off short scripts, filming video reports of student protests or re-cutting Beatles inspired music videos. It’s clear that I don’t know what I’m doing but it’s a lot of fun, maybe never more so than when me and my scout group, on a trip to Spain, are so inspired by Bunuel’s and Dali’s Un chien andalou that we decide to make our own surrealist film and, out of necessity for the horrible video quality, make everything black and white and experiment with all the possible editing effects like reverse, re-timing, freeze frames, jump cuts and colourful title captions. By now, my high school is about to finish and I have to decide what to make of my future. Becoming a professional filmmaker seems like the only plausible option and I decide to apply to the local film school in Milan, confident I’m going to be included in their selection. And then, of course, I’m not.
Hard cut. A sudden stop. A sense of disorientation. For a good while after the rejection I feel simply unworthy of pursuing my ambitions and as a plan B I quickly enrol at the University of Milan to study Cultural Heritage promotion and preservation, a course which includes history of theatre, cinema and literature. Slowly I get to appreciate what I’m studying and, as I form some really strong friendships, I eventually start to do some filmmaking again. These three years, from 2012 to 2015, are continuously intercutting between my university life, made of long daily commutes, overcrowded lectures and in-library study sessions, and a series of projects that I manage to do in my spare time, often on my own, without any real budget and constantly overlapping each other, but always with a desperate need to make something. The list couldn’t be more eclectic: a promotional video about local wildlife shot with hidden cameras and scored with classical music; an informative video about the experience of foster parenting; a music video shot over one adventurously alcoholic night in Milan; a “short” documentary, which ends up being almost an hour long, about the residents of a council house estate who have shared the same courtyard for over 50 years; a narrative short film about a young man’s internal struggle to compose a complete piece of electronic music, symbolised by a dialogue he has with a woman’s voice. Each project seems bigger and more difficult than the previous one, and even though I mostly shoot and direct them myself, it’s only when I enter the cutting room (= my bedroom) that I feel mostly confident about what I’m doing. I have decided that the time has come to make editing not my hobby anymore, but a professional career. There is no way, though, that this can truly happen anywhere near my hometown.
Fade to London, January 2016.
“I did not become someone different, that I did not want to be. But I’m new here. Will you show me around?”
Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx’s incipit to I’m New Here.
In the first few months I mature a great deal as me and my flatmate look for a job, which I find in a cinema in Piccadilly Circus, and I send my application for the Editing course to the National Film & Television School, aka NFTS. In June I get called for an interview, which I come out of sure that I will have to re-apply the following year and ready to start applying for a runner job at a post house and make my way up from there. To no one’s bigger surprise than myself, a few weeks later I actually get invited to attend the week-long final selection workshop in late July. But an even bigger shock is about to hit me, when on June 23rd the UK, against all forecasts, narrowly votes to leave the European Union. I feel lost, angry and torn between my two halves, feelings that I pour into a 2- minute abstract piece we are assigned to make at the end of the nerve-wracking selection workshop week. I come back home mentally exhausted but also with a newly found confidence in my abilities. Any way it goes, I know not only that I want to do this, but that I can. The email finally arrives: I am accepted on the course and will start in January 2017. The following six months are a weird and wonderful limbo, halfway between reality and a dream.
The first experience at the NFTS is a workshop where we are asked, in groups of 3, to cut a 3-minute piece with only one requirement: it has to be “the most personal film we’ve ever done”. On top of this, it’s all on 16mm film stock and we’re cutting on an analogic Steenbeck machine. It’s something I’ve never done before and the result is forgettable, but it’s only the first of many. In the following year, I learn how eight editors can produce eight entirely different films from the same footage, how to closely collaborate on a creative and technical level with all the other departments (especially Sound and Music), and how to accept brutally honest feedback. In other words, I am learning how to work with people, which adds a whole other layer to my work and inevitably makes it so much better. And it’s because of the relationships I establish in my first year that I also get to work on some incredible stories in my second year: a documentary about the impact of suicide on loved ones, a drama about the struggling relationship between two siblings, a documentary about a group of women in Boston battling drug addiction through dance therapy, and an animation that represents the deep roots of class inequality and its violent consequences. It all feels like a series of dialogue exchanges where I constantly talk with people about films that have just come out, the inherent gender and class discrimination of our industry and, while having a cheap pint at the bar, gossip about the newest dating couple. I also dance a lot, but that’s another story. Towards the end it is also, to be completely honest, a very stressful and hectic time that pushes me to my limits, but I come out of it much more technically and creatively proficient and much abler to trust my instincts as I’m about to enter a fiercely competitive environment. In my first year after graduating in February 2019 I am lucky enough to work on a variety of projects. To name a few, a WWI feature drama as assembly editor, a documentary mini- series on childbirth as junior editor, and the factual crime series 24 Hours in Police Custody as edit assistant, which I’m still working on when the coronavirus pandemic starts hitting in early 2020 and eventually forces everyone to stop. The following two months feel more like two years for the amount of events happening every day on a global scale and on a personal one, with my parents directly affected and many friends back in Bergamo and here in London heavily impacted by the crisis.
I desperately try to find an ending to this, a conclusion where it all makes sense, but it’s simply not over yet. I can only hope that my future self, as I’ve tried to do here, will find a compelling way to do so. Cut to black.
Robin is a film editor and assistant editor currently based in Harringay, North London.
He was born in Bergamo, Italy, from an avid-reading Italian mum and a record-collecting British dad, a combination which has inevitably led him to fall in love with the unique combination of literature, music and images that is cinema. During the teenage years he also found himself to be quite an entertaining dancer, but never made the most of it and instead stuck to filmmaking. He eventually focused on editing, a craft he likes to compare to being a musician not with notes but with images, which is also the cool excuse for never bothering to learn an instrument properly.
He is a alumnus of the National Film & Television School and has worked on a variety of projects as both editor and assistant editor, including the BIFA-nominated feature documentary "Island", the mini-series "The Baby Has Landed" for BBC Two and the latest season of "24 Hours in Police Custody" for Channel 4. Many of his works have shown around the world including the US, Portugal, France, Italy and Mexico. You can find out more about his latest projects at his website, his IMDb profile, and follow him on Instagram.
Usually you can find him watching some 50s or 60s classic film at the BFI in Southbank, showing orgasmic appreciation for a glorious Turkish or Lebanese lamb-based dish, or dancing it out to funky tunes in a random East London pub, but right now you will find him safely locked at home.