* * *Do you think there is a particular Ken Sallows style? I'd be horrified if there was a Ken Sallows style. That would mean that you'd failed in your job as an editor if you were only associated with one particular style. What I'd like to be able to do is make films with different styles. So it would be horrifying if there were a particular Ken Sallows style. Style is a different word from habit. I have developed a few of these, going back to my days at Crawfords. You were taught to start every scene in a wide shot. The reason for this, apparently, was that people wouldn't know where they were if you didn't start with a wide shot. Which is just totally ludicrous. So as soon as I left Crawfords I was determined then to start every scene that I could in a close up. Which has developed into a bad habit I tend to do all the time. Another bad habit that I do is a kind of reaction against the obsession with continuity. Obsession with continuity drives me around the bend. I'm happy so long as the mood and the story are brought out, especially in documentary work. So there are no Ken Sallows signature edits? I haven't really thought about it enough to decide if there is anything that I particularly do. I do tend to run shots a little longer and I also like overlapping dialogue. That is, not necessarily playing the person on the screen all the time. One of the good things I learnt from Crawfords was that you don't always have to cut on the dialogue. You can cut to the person listening before the person speaking has actually finished. Instead of going one line, cut, one line, cut, which is a very basic sort of editing. Do you have any favourite editors, people whose films you go and see because they cut them? No. I don't necessarily go and see a film because someone or other has edited it. Maybe if a film has been cut by a particular editor in collaboration with a director. I'd say I go more for films on the strength of a director than an editor. Obviously the standard one who everybody likes editing-wise is Thelma Schoonmaker and her work with Martin Scorsese. I like some of the '80s and early '90s Jonathan Demme films that Craig McKay cut because he was not overly flashy. But they did have a certain edge to them. What do I mean by edge? Well not offbeat but there is always a sense of excitement, of something about to happen in them and cutting out before everything is revealed. Playing a sort of 'what's going to happen next' game with the audience is a very tricky thing as it's easy to disorient an audience doing it. I also think Richard Francis-Bruce is fantastic. He's an Australian editor who works in America now and has been nominated for an Academy Award three or four times. It's extraordinary the sort of stuff he does. Nobody ever knows anything about him in Australia and whenever you hear Academy Awards mentioned it's for actors like Blanchett, Crowe or Rush or the odd costume designer. No one recognises that Richard Francis-Bruce has been nominated yet again for cutting some amazing film [Francis-Bruce has been nominated three times for the editing Oscar: in 1997 for Air Force One (Wolfgang Petersen), in 1995 for Se7en (David Fincher) and 1994 for The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont) -SJ]. Of the old style or older style editors, there is I believe the predecessor to Thelma Schoonmaker called Dede Allen who did a lot of stuff like Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) and Slaughterhouse-Five (George Roy Hill, 1972). She's not young anymore but I think she's still working [Allen recommenced her editing career after a 10 year break to do Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys (2000)-SJ]. She was the pace editor of the late '60s early '70s. Another editor I particularly identify with is a guy called William Reynolds who used to do a lot of stuff in the '50s [The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951); Three Coins in the Fountain (Jean Negulesco, 1954); Daddy Long Legs (Jean Negulesco, 1955), just to name a few -SJ]. You'd see a lot of stuff in the late '80s and early '90s and you'd always see him being brought in as a consultant editor. When in trouble call in old Bill to fix it up. That's actually one of the things I like about editing. You can be any age and nobody really knows who you are as you are not up on the screen and not in Who Weekly. You could be 18 or 70 and no one thinks of you as more than just a name in the credits trying to make the film work. A lot of your films have a particularly quirky thread that runs through them. I'm thinking of films like Malcolm, Proof, Love and Other Catastrophes and even Chopper. Do you particularly seek out this type of film? No. I just think that's a particularly Australian element that, mind you, a lot of Americans don't get because they don't understand the concept of irony. In some ways what's quite funny when you are watching rushes and when you are sticking stuff together in the editing room is that you get so used to the footage and you start playing little games that only you and the director are entertained by. You start putting together stuff that you think is funny. You start to include it, providing it is working within the film, in the hope that an audience will also get it. Obviously Malcolm is set up as a quirky comedy from the word go. Yeah, they've all got a really strange sense of humour. Take something like Chopper. The weird thing there was that I was trying to get away from "Ken Sallows who does so called quirky films" and yet the film still has this sense of humour. It was there in the script but perhaps I should have noticed earlier. It's a very black humour though, which is one of the successes of the film. Andrew and I were sitting around the editing room having a great old time with some of the sicker moments of the film. You get so used to it that it doesn't mean anything anymore. So it became a case of lets have a bit of fun here and see if it fits in to what we are trying to achieve in the film and it kind of worked. The English understand that sort of stuff but the Americans have a problem with it. Hence I'm not as good at cutting American style films as someone like Jill (Bilcock). She has perfected the art of working towards an American style film as well as being able to do the quirky Australian film, which I applaud her for. So that's what has stopped you going on to work in America? I'd love to work in America. It would be terrific if I was allowed to. Obviously I wouldn't want to do mainstream films unless it had some kind of interest for me. The great thing about working in America, it's horrible to say, is that you get paid a fortune in comparison to what I get paid to cut films here. I do like living in Melbourne which is why I don't work in Sydney. I have cut some films in Sydney but I always like coming back here because it's my home. There's a totally different feel in Melbourne to working in Sydney. I think there is a different style of film made here compared to Sydney. The cliché there is that usually Melbourne films have lower budgets and are made by filmmakers who are struggling to make a film as opposed to making a name. You can kind of see the ones that work are the ones where the people making the film are solely preoccupied in making the film and not interested in themselves. Of the directors you've worked with is there anyone that particularly stands out? Someone that you would definitely want to work with again or that you had an enjoyable experience with. I'd like to work with all of them again. I've got no problems with most of them. I don't want to itemize people so that it becomes a matter of favourites. I'd really like to work with Andrew (Dominik) again, whether or not he wants to work with me again is another story. There's this weird thing that frustrates me a bit I suppose. I worked with David (Parker) and Nadia (Tass) and they went off to America to make a film. Then Jocelyn (Moorhouse) went off to America to make a film. Now I guess Andrew will go to America and make a film. I just hope he remembers that I cut Chopper. Emma-Kate (Croghan) has been trying to get a film up in America for a while but now she's married this guy and she lives in New York and has a baby. I don't know whether or not that film is going to go ahead or not. I know she's been trying to do it for a while. It is based on a Philip K. Dick novel called A Scanner Darkly which is very odd for her to do that style of thing. How do you get work as an editor? Is it a case of someone approaching you on the basis of your previous work? Yeah, pretty much so. You don't actively seek it out? Say, you don't hear about a film in pre-production and then approach the filmmakers? Actually, it's usually people ringing me up. But I should sharpen up in this area as I have been missing out on a few things that I really would like to be putting my hand up for. It's a wonderfully lazy situation to be put in where you sit at home and wait for the phone to ring. But that doesn't happen for everything so I've got to learn again to start pushing myself out a little more and say 'here I am'. In the mid '80s in Melbourne there were kind of little groups of filmmakers. There were the South Yarra people who were David and Nadia. When you actually work out who worked on Malcolm it was David and Nadia and Tim White, who was line producer, and Linda House, who was production secretary. There was this whole range of people who eventually became producers and that sort of thing so I knew most of them. Then working with the musical films group in Armadale - Ray Argall and Brian McKenzie. All these groups knew that I was an editor. But now these groups have all broken up and a lot of them have either moved to Sydney or are moving to Sydney. So it's getting to learn who the new Melbourne filmmakers are and whether or not they are willing to put up with this old codger who's got grey hair. You'd be amazed how much those grey hairs count for experience. There's another weird thing that happens with the funding of films in Australia. Because there is a lot of government funding of Australian films, the FFC (Australian Film Finance Corporation) do have a certain amount of control on "key creatives". In an FFC financed film they have approval of who gets to cut it. Which actually suits me fine as I am 'approved'. But it must be awful for people trying to get a break and I'd hate to be back in 1982 trying to get a break. But there are some really good young film editors coming through. Martin Connor and those sort of people in Sydney and they're really quite good. He's the guy who won for Looking for Alibrandi (Kate Woods, 2000) at last year's AFI Awards and is a really good editor. I shouldn't say that she is a new editor as she's been working for quite some time, but Dany Cooper is a really good editor. Going back to Emma-Kate Croghan and Stavros Kazantzidis. I'm fascinated to know about their working process. Well they were partners. Stavros had been to the AFTRS (Australian Film Television & Radio School) in Sydney and Emma-Kate had been to VCA and they met and fell in love and decided to live and make films together. Stavros had a script that a producer I knew decided to produce. The producer put me in touch with Stavros and we got along. The film was eternally trying to get funded but could never quite manage it. I hadn't heard from them for a number of months and was working on a short when Stavros called up to say that he'd shot this film with Emma-Kate (who I'd never met) and a few of his friends. It wasn't called Love and Other Catastrophes when they'd done it. I can't even remember the original title only that it was pretty atrocious. They brought me in to look at the rushes that they'd shot on 16mm. I didn't find out till months later that the only reason they were bringing me in was to look at the footage and tell them whether or not I thought it was worthwhile and if I could suggest somebody to cut it. I thought they were approaching me to cut it so I watched all the rushes at high speed on a Steinbeck. Again, I didn't find out till later that they thought that I hated it as I was running it at high speed but you could see there was a real life to what they had shot. I told them that I thought they had something fantastic there and that I'd love to do it. We cut it to a point where it had virtually been fine cut and then took it to the AFC to try and get more money to finish it off. The so-called $45,000 film was really a $550,000 film because they'd received money from the AFC for the finishing off (sound, neg matching, printing, blow up etc). It's interesting the way they worked and it's a great compliment to Stavros in some ways. If he wasn't happy with something or other in the way it was shot he'd go out and do it again. This is after it was cut. He'd look at a scene and if there was something he thought was missing he'd go out and get everyone together to re-shoot it. It's an abusive way of working when nobody's getting paid but they didn't seem to be doing anything else so they went and did pick ups of scenes. The party scene at the end of the film is in fact three parties. He just went along to various parties and filmed people dancing around. A lot of the lecture theatre scenes with Frances O'Connor were picked up after the initial shoot. Even though Emma-Kate was the writer/director of the film, Stavros still had a substantial influence on it. As a result of that Stavros got finance for True Love and Chaos which is the script he really wanted to do. This was in pre-production when we were finishing Love and Other Catastrophes and he was saying to everybody that he didn't need to worry about Love and Other Catastrophes anymore because 'my film is going to be the greatest film ever made' (a shared laugh at this point) and it wasn't. We were all working on percentages with Love and Other Catastrophes. That meant we would only get paid if it made money - which it has. I get cheques every now and then from the AFC still, which is quite nice. Not huge cheques but it's still nice to know that something you worked on is making money. So Stavros went on to True Love and Chaos (1997). Then at the end of True Love and Chaos yet again Emma-Kate and Stavros all decided to move to Sydney. Stavros had written two scripts. One was called Strange Planet and the other was called Revolver. He gave me these two scripts and said "Ken we're going to shoot these two scripts back to back with the same crew so we finish one on a Friday and start the next one on a Monday" (he's a great opportunist). He told me I could choose the one I wanted to work on. I thought 'what's going on here' because Strange Planet looked just like Love and Other Catastrophes 2 and Revolver looked like True Love and Chaos 2. I thought, surely they're not doing the same films again. I thought they would change roles so Emma-Kate would direct Revolver and Stavros would do Strange Planet. I read the scripts and I thought Revolver looked too dark and I didn't want to do a really dark film. I thought I'd rather do Strange Planet as that looked like fun. So I called Stavros and said I want to do Strange Planet and he said "you bastard. That's the one Emma-Kate's going to do". The irony was that Revolver was never financed. Do you find it strange that Love and Other Catastrophes was such a huge commercial hit but Strange Planet (Emma-Kate Croghan, 1999) didn't do that well at the box office? Yeah. Initially I found it strange but in hindsight (which is wonderful) you can see why (and I've looked at the films back to back). If you look at Love and Other Catastrophes - it's as rough as guts, it really is a rough film. But there is a genuine sparkle about it which is light and really good fun. There's nothing overly manufactured about the film. Whereas, when you look at Strange Planet it really looks like it has been manufactured. It's almost too slick in comparison. The fortunate thing that came off with Love and Other Catastrophes was that if you made a slick version of that script it would be terrible because the script would not hold up. It's too lame an idea to work as a slick film. It had to have that youthful and fresh energy. Strange Planet was trying to be youthful and young but became Sydney-sophisticated. The other fortunate thing was that Love and Other Catastrophes was centred around a group of people who were university students whereas Strange Planet was the so-called five years later group. Somehow or other Strange Planet should have been better. How much do you take notice of the success of a film (both commercial and critical) once it is released? I read reviews and I can get obsessed with reading as many reviews as possible. Much to my own detriment though because there is nothing worse than reading a stinker of a review. I remember when Celia (1988) came out, which I cut back in the '80s. It was Anne Turner's first feature film and is now regarded as quite a worthwhile Australian film. Neil Jillet wrote a review of that in The Age when it was first released which was four lines basically saying that this was the biggest heap of shit of all time and don't go and see it. When you read the reviews of the films you've done you try to figure out whether or not the reviewer has actually picked up on what you were trying to do which I find a really interesting thing to do. But they can destroy you pretty badly if it is a mindless 'don't go and see it' type of review. You hope that if they think it doesn't work they'll say why they thought it didn't work. The difficulty with any feature film is the editor might work on it for six months and this isn't anywhere near as long as a director might be working on it. Then you watch it when it's released and it goes for 90 minutes and that's it. Hopefully you might get some sort of response from the audience. The critic might watch it only once and spend an hour or two writing a review and dismiss it. That's always frustrating, thinking "well, I've just wasted six months of my life as an editor". The other difficulty there is you can extend that question back. Have you worked on films that halfway through, you think aren't working out? What do you do in that situation? As an editor you believe you can fix most things but it doesn't always necessarily work like that. Sometimes I don't like what I did in a film but the film works and people seem to like it but you have no idea why. It's this constant sort of conflict of whether it is right or wrong. I suppose the overall test is whether you are happy or not with it yourself. When they had a run through of the mix of Chopper I had no idea what music they were going to use. I was just terrified at what might be done but I was amazed at Nick Harvey's soundtrack. All it is is an underlying hum with a sort of whistle. A full-blown score would have destroyed the ambiguity of the film and given a definite perspective on Chopper, so the music was very clever. Critics rarely pick up on that kind of thing. So how much control do you have when you see something happening that you think is not right? Do you actively say that it isn't working or do you leave it to the director or do you present them with a range of options? As long as you've got alternatives to work with you can actually say "no, this doesn't seem to be working for me". You start playing around with things and say "I'm not really happy with this, this isn't quite right to me somehow or another". You might say that to the director and they turn around and say that they think it's wonderful. Usually when you present that to a director (who in general are quite neurotic) they start thinking about it. So you can place the seed of doubt there. Then again they can do the same thing to you. At the talk you gave on Chopper you kept referring to 'the powers that be'. I'm not going to press you on who they are but how do you deal with outside forces once you and the director have decided something works? Do you have any say if they want to change it? To quite a large extent actually. There were certain things that were changed in Chopper that I wasn't happy with and I don't think Andrew was happy with either. We fought for a number of things that we thought were right for the film. In particular the Jimmy and Chopper sequence in the council flat which is quite a long sequence. We fought to keep that at that length. The so-called powers that be wanted that cut in half. You have to have a pretty good reason to keep something in if the powers that be want it changed. A lot of the time the editing process is spent on this kind of thing. On your average film with an eight-week shoot and the technology available with computer editing you can have a basic cut of the film two days after you finish the shoot. Then you have another eight weeks of picture editing and everybody thinks "eight weeks! That's a long time to cut the film". But really of those eight weeks you've only got about three or four to actually cut the film. The rest of the time is just screening it endlessly and altering the film to other people's thoughts or what you think should actually change in the film. That's the process really. To try and get it to a point where you and the director are happy enough with the film to put it on the screen and sit there for a barrage of stuff. Hopefully not a big barrage but with some positive criticism to re-direct you to what they think are the good and bad things about the film. Generally, in those sorts of screenings everyone who is invited thinks that they are there to criticise the film because it hasn't been finished. At the start they are told "the film is not finished and we want to hear what you think about it". And everyone feels the need to say "well I think it's got problems here". So you are in a sense inviting those responses and either you listen to them or you don't. Do you think there is a perfect way of putting together a film? Such as a time frame within which the film should be edited? I understand that Woody Allen likes to shoot for five weeks then edit for five weeks then go back to shooting for a few weeks before the final cut. That would be brilliant if time and budget were no consideration. That would be the absolute best way to do it. That's sort of how we did Chopper. We shot for three and a half weeks then took a four-week break primarily so that Eric could put on weight. Then we shot for another three and a half weeks. Andrew was in the editing room for at least two weeks of that four-week break. It really was great as you could stand back and look at what you had done and see what you were going to do with the rest of the film. You can use the knowledge gained to re-focus your direction or look closer at what the actors are doing and that sort of thing. So, yes, it is a fantastic way to make films. It's difficult to go out and say " we'll shoot for eight weeks and pack up. That's it. See you later." To actually have a break in the middle is a fairly costly exercise. You've got to keep the same crew and on an Australian film you can't really afford to pay them. Sure, on American films they can put a crew on stand-by and afford to pay them a fee to sit around at home but in Australia if you are not working then you don't get paid so you would be hoping people would be willing to sit around without pay for a few weeks. In Australia we now have two major production houses, Fox in Sydney and Warner Brothers on the Gold Coast, and an Australian dollar that seems to be encouraging people to come here and use facilities. Do you think that this has improved the film industry here and that the Australian film industry is in a healthy state? No, it hasn't improved it. You'll get people from Fox (I won't talk about Queensland as I don't know that much about it) saying that it is great for Australian film as it's improving the skills base of Australians. Basically all it has done (and everybody could see this coming a mile off) is raise people's fees. It's made Sydney more or less impossible to film in because American films that had access to shoot here were paying $5,000 a day to councils. So why shouldn't Australian films pay $5,000 a day to shoot in the street too. Hence all production costs have gone up. Most American films and telemovies being done here are using American editors and they are actually cutting them in Hollywood or they assemble them here in Australia and take them back to Hollywood. So in my position as an editor I'm really not considered at all. It hasn't improved my situation. It's actually putting me out of work. The other silly thing that governments seem to do is use lines like 'there were so many millions of dollars worth of production in this state last year'. But they are including American movies in that as well so when they say Sydney saw $120 million worth of production they are not really talking about Australian films. It's nonsense that they can come up with a figure like that. Melbourne has always been regarded as a place where you make lower budgeted films than Sydney (I know that's a big generalisation). The whole idea that making an American film in Australia will educate Australians and improve their technical prowess is a noble idea but it doesn't work in reality. It's wishful thinking. The joke is when you get an Australian DOP who goes to work in America. The Americans are stunned that Australian DOPs are so good and can do so much because they are used to working with no budget. Our DOPs are able to do a huge number of set ups per day whereas the American productions plod along at a few set ups per day. The Australian DOP gets the same quality doing say 24 set ups in a day to their 6 or 7. Does this mean that for us to learn from the Americans we should start doing fewer set ups per day or is it maybe that we are technically better than the Americans? The big studio influence here in Sydney doesn't make us better. It makes us subservient to a system that is totally out of control with production budgets. In fact, there has been a reduction of production in Australia. The last feature I worked on was Yolngu Boy (Stephen Johnson, 2001) which I finished working on in February 2000. That's now 15 months ago and I haven't worked on a feature since. I've worked on three doco's and was out of work for eight months last year. That for me is actually quite rare. I'd much rather be working more than that. Do you think you can work as an editor on feature films in Australia today and still make a living and have a fruitful, creative career? I have been able to up until now. There's always that reasoning, you know, am I getting too old at the age of 45. Maybe that's true. I don't know. I've always felt that when you are in your 20's you believe those rock and roll lines that once you are over 30 you've had it and you might as well find a new career. But I have been rather fortunate to get work consistently up till now and also lucky enough that I don't rely on features. Even though documentaries hardly pay anything they are a way of keeping your skills honed. They are a lot harder to cut than features in many ways hence the irony that you are paid half as much yet you are working harder. They are also a lot more fun as you have much more control over them. Often you are trying to make a story out of nothing - just lots of footage. So apart from the documentaries do you do any commercial work? Well, I did commercials quite a number of years ago but at that time there was a quota system that was subsequently dropped by the government (thank you very much). Now American commercials can be screened on Australian television. Instead of making an Australian advertisement they just use an American advertisement with an Australian voice-over on it. So that's wiped out a whole range of possibilities for young filmmakers. Talk about training schools. Commercials used to be a great training school for production people learning their craft and this has now disappeared entirely. There are quite a lot of us who used to work out of (local production company) Leave it to Beaver in South Melbourne. They'd ring up and say "we've got a commercial do you want to work on it?" They were a great way of making money. Working on commercials was a different skill but it was like a security blanket or the dole for production people. You also learnt a lot about learning to shut up and dealing with people from the ad agencies. It was quite good fun. You've got 30 seconds which is 750 frames and you had to sell the product in that short space. You were really aware of the 750 frames. But that's pretty much gone now. People ask me why I don't do television series again but there are people around who now specialise in that. Is there a different approach to working on television? You've less time, a lot less time. Basically, you only have time to do at most three cuts or three versions. You do your first cut which hopefully is pretty accurate. A director comes in and looks at it then you do another version and the producer comes along and looks at that and that's it. You're onto your next episode. They churn them through pretty quickly. There's not much room for questioning like there is on a feature or documentary. Why are we doing this? What's all this about? Which is the great thing about working on film. That indulgence to look at things more closely. Of all the films you've been involved in does any one in particular stand out as being the best? Being perverse in some ways, I used to say my best work was in a film called On The Waves of the Adriatic (Brian McKenzie, 1991) because nobody had ever seen it. It could therefore be relied on to be classified as the most perfect film. As nobody would ever see it nobody could ever pull it apart. It was a Brian McKenzie doco which again had my so-called signature of letting shots run. It won the Grand Prix at the Cinema du Real in Paris which is theoretically the best documentary film festival in the world. It's a really great film and I love the fact there is a story that develops at a fairly slow pace. You tend to like films that other people have liked because you're always hearing "oh other people liked it so it must be really good". So you know, Chopper, Love and Other Catastrophes, Proof, Malcolm. The one I think was really mistreated which I really liked was Doing Time For Patsy Cline. I really liked that film but it suffered when it was released because the distributor changed hands. This changed the release and the distribution of the film. Also, it was directed by Dr. Chris Kennedy (a dentist), who is one of the funniest people I've worked with. I had a great time working on it. Do you have any tips for young editors? The key thing, as George Fairfax told me when I first started, is not to centre yourself on one thing. Never narrow yourself down to one of the so-called art forms. Keep as broad as you can. Go along to rock and roll venues. Go to the theatre. Go to the opera. It's difficult to do as you find yourself narrowing yourself down to what you believe in but I think that's the main thing. To be aware of as many things as possible. The general line I always use in describing the difference between an assistant editor and an editor is that I believe a good assistant editor could probably cut the film just as well as the editor can. The only difference is that the editor is putting up with all the other people around them and being able to do the same editing job as well. And that's only a matter of training to overcome, working in a situation where you are under pressure.
An Interview with Ken Sallows
About the Author
Shan Jayaweera is a film theory graduate from the University of Melbourne. He spends his time working on film and video projects as well as the occasional stand-up routine when he has the time for it.