Discussing Editing with Maya Maffioli

Maya Maffioli

What got you into editing? My interest in editing stems from my love of cinema and watching films. I’ve always loved films and I enjoy watching every type of film, but when I discovered more “authored” cinema (when I was around 16 years old) it was like a big revelation – I discovered a new cinematic world that looked and sounded so different from the films I would watch on TV or at Sunday matinees. Then, in my early 20s I also started to read film magazines and film history books. I remember buying a book on film criticism that was somehow life changing. The whole book was just covering 5 or 6 sequences taken from classical films of masters of cinema (I remember Ozu was on it, and also John Ford), and the writer was just analysing these sequences shot by shot. The author was considering just camera angles, shot size and cuts and it was a lighting bulb for me: I liked films because of the stories and characters but I never thought about them in terms of their crude elements-shots and cuts. Years later after I graduated from University, I was trying to work out what I wanted to do with my life. For a second I thought maybe I could write for the screen but then I found a course in digital editing, and I immediately applied for it. I immediately fell in love with the practice of editing – although the course was just a practical one and wasn’t in a context of a film school. This was back in Italy, where I grew up. I then moved to London, partly because I felt I had a better chance to become an editor here in the UK. I first found a job as a runner in a post house, then worked as an assistant, did an MA in editing and cut quite a few shorts, docs and smaller projects until I finally started editing features.

I’d love to know how often you follow instincts more than the script. For instance, when you start editing, do you stick to the script, or do you start interpreting right away?

I think as a practice the traditional route is very valid: to see first how the script works on screen and then start changing it. But as you become more experienced maybe you start to see straight away what can be changed/is weaker/repetitive and so very likely will not make it to the final cut, what lines of dialogue are superfluous etc.
The more experiences you get, the more you dare to make suggestions early on. I think instinct comes in when you see something in the rushes and you respond strongly to it, you have to cling onto that first impression because that is how the audience will see that moment.

How does sound influence your cutting? Do you cut to music or without sound and then add it later?

Sound can be your main ally when you’re cutting a film, especially when you’re in the edit and things look and sound very unfinished. I don’t cut so much to music apart from when it’s needed in the scene – like if it’s diegetic or in a montage. Temp score is a very delicate thing because it needs to be discussed with the director as it’s a major aesthetic statement and it’s ultimately their call.

Nicola and Maya at Rocks Premier

So for example with Michael Pearce (BEAST) he likes to cut to temp score and to go even a bit over the top with it with the idea of turning it down a notch or take it out later on. Clio Barnard (ALI AND AVA) doesn’t really use score in her films, so for her it would be a real distraction to have anything in, even temporary. When I cut ROCKS with Sarah Gavron we tried for a long time to have a film without any score but ended up really longing for it in a few points and the final film has a minimal score, but with lots of diegetic music throughout as well as non score music. I sometimes slow down classical tracks so they sound like ambience to use under scenes as a non-intrusive score. I often cut a scene, even if I’m assembling it, to some kind of ambience atmos so it looks and sounds more pleasant and less depressingly rough. If I’m using temp music I try to do a bit of research or ask either the music supervisor or I do some research to find something more unusual and obscure, maybe even “vintage”. I like a mix of real sound effects, that often have a very rhythmic quality and more abstract psychological sounds.

Is there a scene to memory you’ve cut and are particularly proud of and why?

I think the practice of editing is a bit of a psychological one: it teaches you to let go of your ideas because you have to keep changing them, while by nature we tend to resist to change and get stuck into our ways. While editing a movie, you always have to be open to cut things out and rearrange them in a different way as part of the process. So you have to totally invest and work hard in ideas that may never make it to the screen. This long and convoluted intro to say that I find it hard to pick one scene or another as a favourite! Sorry.

Do you have rules for editing certain types of scenes (i.e. comedy, dialogue, action) that you like to follow – or like to break? Examples?

I have lots of little “rules” and tricks when editing a scene – things that I put into practice without thinking too much about – I think probably every editor has them. For example, I often prefer to start a scene with a detail or a reaction shot and then reveal the rest of the scene as it progresses (if possible), or try not to repeat shots (if possible) because I think it makes a scene look “cheap”. In dialogue scenes I try to look for interesting reaction shots, and not always play the shot on the person speaking. In action sequences I try to have fun and use as many shots as possible, play with cuts that you wouldn’t make normally (like cut from a close up to a profile close of the same actor) etc.

How do you decide when/where to make an edit?

I think it needs to come at a point where it feels it has a purpose in terms of emotionally progressing the story, but a cut is also dictated- or serves- the rhythm of the actors’ and the rhythm of the camera.
If I had to write a list of reasons for a cut I would just copy master Walter Murch’s “rule of six” – the six reasons to make a cut – in his book “in The Blink of an Eye”.

Do you ever get editor’s block? This is when perhaps you get stuck on a particular scene and can’t think of a way to make it work, and how do you deal with it?

I definitely get it when I am deep into the editing of a movie and start to struggle to see it cut any differently – once the cut is quite formed but I know it’s far from “finished”. The only way to get out of it is to screen the film to someone: it can be a friend or somebody involved in the film, like a producer, or my assistant, or even to a small test audience. See their reaction to the film, talk about it extensively and also watch other films (I watch a lot of films while cutting a movie, even if I just make it to watch 20 minutes of a movie before falling asleep at the end of the day – it’s a great motivation and inspiration for me) usually gets me out of the block. Even the smallest off the cuff comment could trigger a new idea and propel the next phase of a cut.

Is there anything you discovered about editing that perhaps they don’t teach in film school? (The main focus here really is more on your discovery as opposed to having a dig at film schools, as that’s not the intention).

My experience at film school (I studied editing at the NFTS) was a very practical one – so I don’t think they “taught” me anything in particular but they gave me the time and space to learn and practice together with fellow filmmakers, outside of the pressure of the industry.
So the one thing I learned once I was out of film school was that in the real word you don’t have 3 months to cut a short film! Ha.
But seriously, the pressures of the working environment and how to navigate it, choosing projects, forming professional allies, and not getting swamped in the industry, all these things are so crucial for a career in editing and they are impossible to teach.

Can you watch a TV series or other films without over thinking or analysing what you are watching from an editorial perspective – in other words without going crazy lol.

I don’t usually watch films with an eye just for the cuts and the editing but of course I do notice if I particularly like (or dislike) the edits. This can be from watching Mission: Impossible or – say a Claire Denis film – if I see things I like in the edit I make a mental note of course.

What’s your favourite kind of director in terms of whether you take charge or if you let them stir the ship?

Ideally I like a director who spends a lot of time in the edit and riffs ideas off with me. I get bored if I’m left alone for too long and I can’t share my ideas almost as they come and I can easily hit a wall.

What do you enjoy cutting? TV, Film or any specific genres.

I enjoy the form and rhythm of the one off, single feature drama, but it’s also because it’s what I have done the most.
I love love character based documentaries and I’d love to edit more of them – it’s just that often either the timings don’t work out (as docs take so much more time to cut) or they don’t come my way! I don’t have much experience of working in TV, I did only one episode in TV working with the great Lena Dunham, so I can’t really say much about it – I just find it hard to start to tell a story but not to bring it to its conclusion – so I’d be very interested in doing a series but cutting the whole thing or a bigger chunk than just 1 episode.

What influences you to accept or decline working on something. (Now I sort of thought of this question from an actor’s perspective; I’ve heard of actors who when they feel like the character they are proposed to play has no depth, they decide not to do it. I don’t know if the same applies to editing).

Yes when you first start receiving scripts to read and to choose projects it’s both quite exciting and quite overwhelming. You try to guess the magic formula to guess if there’s a good film behind these pages and how do you know? Right now I am at a stage where in choosing I always put the director first, the script second. So working with a director I like/admire, somebody who had done work I like, comes before anything else. For me this is a strong guarantee of not only quality but also of a satisfying working relationship. I often hear from people that they “don’t connect” with a script or a story but I find this hard to use as a meter. As an audience I can connect with a war movie as much as with a love story or a comedy, depending on how it’s handled.
Sometimes I play this game: I watch films/tv shows I like and try to imagine what certain scenes would have looked like on paper, and often the words or scenarios aren’t that special, but the way the scenes are directed makes them shine.

Any funny moments or stories worth sharing? Could be anything like maybe cutting in your sleep? Lol

Hahah I never cut in my sleep but when I was an assistant my dreams would often be out of sync!

How do you generally feel when you are watching something you’ve made in the cinema full of an audience watching your work for the first time.

I try to watch my films with an audience as much as I can and I enjoy the different reactions to different crowds. Also, when your film travels to different countries in festivals it’s fun to see how different cultures find different things funny or sad.
For me that’s really the final goal – sit in cinema seats surrounded by strangers watching a film I edited! Am I dreaming?