“Adrienne knew what she wanted, and the actors were really good because she was pretty clear with them about how she wanted things to be. She had a clear vision about things. She was also happy to have you collaborate and experiment as well.”–Annette Davey on filmmaker Adrienne Shelly
Today is the release of “Adrienne” documentary, which is now available to stream on HBO Max. It is a loving portrait of the filmmaker Adrienne Shelly, who was on her way to being one of the most influential filmmakers of our time, but was robbed of it when she was murdered in 2006, right before the Sundance premiere of her film, “Waitress”. A single quote that stayed with me after viewing the film was, “Find what’s funny in what’s painful.” This was something that Adrienne pursued in her work, and there was perhaps no one better to help her in this pursuit on “Waitress” than film editor Annette Davey. I was fortunate to speak with Annette about her work with Shelly. We also talked about her recent job of editing multiple episodes of the popular Netflix series “Maid” starring Margaret Qualley. The through-line in our conversation was her passion about supporting other female filmmakers and female editors, as she was mentored early on herself. “Maid” is streaming now on Netflix, “Waitress” is available to stream on most major platforms, and you can now watch “Adrienne” on HBO Max.
What brought you to editing?
I have a funny story, it’s quite different than most people. I grew up in Adelaide, Australia. Where I grew up, there was really no film industry. I ended up moving to Sydney, because that’s where all the films were. When I moved there, I went to the unemployment office, like we all do in Australia, to register for unemployment benefits. They said, “What kind of work do you want?” And I said, “I want to work in film.” Normally that would be the end of the conversation, they’d throw you out the door and you’d never see them again. But they said, “We have a job in film.” I said, “Really?” And they said, “Yes.”
What happened was there was a group of women in Australia who got together and they got this giant grant from the government to train 17 women in filmmaking, and there was one spot left. I went on the interview and I got the job, and that’s how I got started. It was an amazing opportunity. It was six-months, completely funded by the government, and we made a film. We had all of these professionals come in every day and teach us how to use a camcorder, and how to record sound. While I was doing that, the person that was the editing tutor took me aside at some point and said, “Would you ever consider editing as a career? Because I think you have the right personality and the kind of natural talent you need to do this job.” And I’d loved the editing as I learned it. So that kind of led me into editing, and she became my mentor.
That is so cool to hear that some countries have governments that support opportunities for women in filmmaking. That is so refreshing to see compared to other governments, like our own most of the time.
It was forward thinking at the time. At that time, they were doing a lot of those kinds of things.
What draws you to certain projects? Can you talk about some of your positive experiences you’ve had and also your work with certain directors?
Initially I respond to story. If I like the script, I get excited about it. Then you have to meet the director, and that’s a very personal thing. Sometimes you really like them, and sometimes you don’t get along so well. Sometimes you just don’t speak the same language, you know? Those projects then generally go away. But with “Waitress” in particular, I liked the script very much. And then when I met Adrienne (Shelly), I was completely sold on the project. Because she was so smart, and also so clear about her tone and what she wanted. That was a really special experience in many ways. There was no confusion ever. She was also really into collaborating. I remember the first day we started working together, she pulled up a chair, got the script out and sat right next to me. I thought, “OK, this should be interesting.” By day two, she was back on the sofa and we would just talk about things. A lot of the time she wouldn’t be around every day. In a way, it was kind of a perfect kind of situation in that you know what they want, and they trust you.
It was really a great experience, and it was really a fast experience. We did a very different thing on “Waitress” where we didn’t cut during the shoot at all. We didn’t cut until after the shoot, and there was a few weeks after we waited because she wanted to be with her small baby at the time. And we assembled it together, which actually saved us a lot of time because there was never any confusion between us of why things were the way they were. I really enjoyed doing it that way. Everyone thinks it’s slower, but in fact I actually think it makes things go faster. Because I never had to explain to her why I made certain choices, or why it was like this, because she kind of saw it while we were doing it. That was really fun.
“Waitress” was very musical, and the montage scenes with Keri Russel’s character Jenna were seamless. When she smiled after making love with the doctor, the smile was identical in every scene. How do you go about editing something like that?
It’s a lot of fun, and again, because Adrienne knew what she wanted, and the actors were really good, she was pretty clear with them this is how I want things to be. She had a clear vision about things. She was also happy to have you collaborate and experiment as well. But that made it much easier because you knew going in what needed to be done. A lot of the smiles were kind of stolen from all over the place.
Can you talk to me about the visual emotion that you translate onscreen through editing? I saw a lot of examples through the series “Maid”, especially when it comes to memory. Like when Alex (Margaret Qualley) places her daughter in the cupboard to hide her and her flashback of when her mother did the same to her.
To be honest, that is my favorite kind of editing. You can really make the emotion look best, when you can do it visually, rather than just the words, you know? A lot of that stuff about the cupboard was already written into the script. It wasn’t like it was something where we had to come up with it by ourselves. We obviously did change it quite a bit from how it was written, but we did have all of the elements. I really liked that, so I tried to really react to the material intuitively, and kind of feel what’s going on and go from there. I try to not overthink it too much really because I feel if you intellectualize it too much, you might lose some of that feeling. I really try to go off what I feel after the first time I see it. The girl, the little actress, was so good, all the time. Because it’s not easy to be in a cupboard.
Can you talk about the “Cashmere” episode? There were so many different facets and dimensions with the Tinder date, and the use of the cell phone. Can you talk about that episode?
It was kind of a different episode than a lot of the other ones. I enjoyed it, because you got to see Alex have some fun, and be a bit playful. She got to be herself for a little while, and allowed herself to have a good time. The Tinder guy I thought was great, and they had a really good chemistry together. And that was, again, a really fun sequence to do. It wasn’t covered like a conventional sequence, a lot of it was the fantasy in her head. It took me a while to figure out the balance of seeing him and seeing her, like when we would see the words as texts, and when we would actually see him saying the words. But again, I really liked taking on these kinds of challenges because I think it makes it really interesting. I think if you can make it work, it’s very satisfying when you capture the right emotion attached to it. It’s a really good feeling, you know? And you’re like, “oh yeah, that’s good, it’s working.” Because sometimes you can make a fantasy still feel emotionally fulfilling.
What do you hope people see in your work?
I hope they feel things from the work. That would be my main takeaway that I hope they would get. You feel something and then think about what that meant. The thing I love about “Maid” is it’s not judgmental, it’s showing you things people don’t want to talk about that much. I would love it if people thought about those things, and what it’s like–being a single parent and having to leave your home, and figuring out how on earth you’re going to survive and take care of your child.
I saw you had a few projects that are in post-production. Can you talk about any of them?
I think that you are referring to “Pam and Tommy” right?
You got me.
You probably already know who the actors are, and I think they’re fantastic. Lily James in particular is incredible as Pam. You wouldn’t think of her doing that kind of role. Sebastian Stan as Tommy, is also amazing. Everyone has an incredible transformation. It’s really fun, and I think people will really enjoy it.
What are your thoughts about female editors, and representation behind the camera?
I think there are a lot of female editors. I think women are generally pretty intuitive, because that’s a skill you need to have to navigate life as a woman. You often have to read between the lines of what is happening, and figure out what is behind things. I feel in a way that gives you some good skills as an editor, because you’re always trying to read behind the lines a little bit, and get to the core of what’s really happening, rather than necessarily what’s on the surface. Obviously not everyone is like that, but it’s certainly my feeling that it’s a helpful skill, perhaps a little more developed in women.
I really enjoy working with women. For “Maid,” we had three female editors, which is unusual. Usually I’m the only woman editor on a TV show, so that was really fun. We all collaborated together a lot, even though we weren’t in the same space. Especially one of the other editors, Annie (Eifrig) and I, we’d share our episodes with each other, and we’d give each other notes. I feel like we were very open to that with one another, and felt it was a great thing to do during the editing process.
Actually on “Pam and Tommy,” I ended up taking over a couple episodes from Tatiana Riegel, and she is a fantastic editor. That was really fun just to have an opportunity to see how she really had done it. And I could see more behind the scenes. It was really inspiring. I think she is a wonderful editor. I felt privileged to be able to inherit her work, and take it to the finish line.
Film editor Nancy Richardson talked to Cinema Femme about the gender pay gap for editors, and how men get paid more in general. Any thoughts about that?
I don’t know of any specific instances of men being paid more, but I suspect they generally do. I don’t have any concrete evidence, I haven’t seen anyone’s pay slips. But let’s face it, that is generally how it is in this industry, and it shouldn’t be like that. We do the same work, why should we not be compensated in the same way? Men do seem to be promoted more quickly as well. This is just an observation. You know, it’s the same as male directors, they tend to move up fairly quickly. Unfortunately sexism is not done yet.
That is why I started Cinema Femme. I feel like more female voices need to be heard in the industry.
Absolutely. I think it’s great what you are doing, and you are absolutely right. If we don’t start speaking about it, it’s not going to change. Editing is one of those jobs where most people don’t really know what we do, they don’t really understand, it’s very much behind the scenes. So that doesn’t help either, because no one is quite aware of how it works.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat on a plane and someone said to me, “what do you do?” I tell them I’m an editor, and they’re like, “you just take out the slates, right?” I usually don’t bother to explain too much, because it’s too lengthy. They don’t really believe you anyway, you know? It’s just one of those jobs that people don’t quite understand. It’s obviously because they don’t see it as much. It’s not that it’s so mysterious, it’s just that we do it in a room by ourselves a lot. No one really has time to come in and see what you’re doing.
What would your advice be for emerging-female-identifying editors just starting out?
Persistence. Don’t give up.
That’s great advice.
I actually mentor a lot of young women who are in their 20s and 30s, particularly young Australian filmmakers. I try to help them a lot because it’s really important to keep female voices coming up. I am happy to do this because I had that crazy experience with the Australian government giving me that opportunity. I try to give back as much as I can, I’m always trying to support them, and I always say just keep going. Don’t get disillusioned. Persistence is usually a huge part of being successful. They often send me their work and I give them notes. I really enjoy that role. In fact, last year, shortly before the pandemic, I consulted for a series in Australia. And that was really fun, because I didn’t have to do any actual editing, but I just gave them ideas, and I really enjoyed it. That’s when I started to really get interested in that work as well. And yes, young women in particular, because you know they have so many stories to tell. It’s important that they get out there.
Those relationships are so important. Cinema Femme has a mentorship program where we match a seasoned filmmaker with an emerging one. The mentorship brings together womxn filmmakers in the industry.
For sure, there are a lot of politics that we have to navigate. I feel like that’s something when you’re younger that you don’t understand very well. I feel it’s really helpful when you can talk to someone who has really been through it, and say, ‘Is this normal? What should I do?’ Because that’s a big part of the job, to be honest. Handling the different personalities, the producers, the directors, actors. There’s a lot of them sometimes.
I was lucky to meet my mentor early on during the government training team, and she really ended up helping me. She helped me get my first job because she recommended me. Those things mean a lot. And then when I came to America I had another mentor, her name Gabriella Cristiani, the editor for Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” (1987), for which she won an Oscar. She could look at a film and say, “That is not the right angle, look at that line.” he was incredible.
I’ve been very fortunate, and that’s why I like to give back as much as I can. Those people helped me incredibly.