Editor Carla Gutierrez on crafting “RBG”

A conversation about editing the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary

Editor Carla Gutierrez recently completed work on the film RBG, a feature documentary about US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The documentary was produced by CNN Films, co-directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, and lensed by cinematographer Claudia Raschke. It debuted at Sundance 2018 and has garnered critical acclaim. While visiting the festival last weekend, I had a chance to sit down with Carla and talk through her process as editor of the film.

PVC: What is your background in docs?

Gutierrez: I’ve been editing for the past 12 years. This is my fourth time at Sundance with a film that I’ve edited. So, I’ve been editing documentaries for a while.

PVC: How did you get involved in the RBG project? At what point did they bring you in?

Gutierrez: It was a recommendation from somebody else, I believe from somebody at CNN Films. They were interviewing people, and I showed them some of my work. I was working on a film that also was made out of interviews and archival, and I got the job. I was ecstatic! They had already filmed the bulk of a bunch of interviews, and had gathered a lot of archival material, especially a lot of talks that the Justice had given at various times. Mainly in law schools, academic talks, and key archival; her confirmation hearings for example. But there were still a number of interviews to be done, and they hadn’t done the main interview with her yet.

PVC: What’s your approach when you begin editing a documentary? It’s a mountain of footage I’m sure…how do you start?

Gutierrez: When I interview for jobs, I’m very clear that I’m the type of editor who wants to watch everything. I love to discover the gems in the footage, and, obviously with a lot of interviews I want to look at transcripts and be able to highlight transcripts. But, I love to take the time to see what the potential of the footage is and then come together with the directors to really compare notes. To find out what they’re reacting to so that maybe I can take a look at something in a different way, and also to get a very, very clear understanding of what the vision of their film is. With Betsy and Julie the vision was very clear. Their research was amazing! These are very experienced journalists, they knew the big strokes of the story they really wanted to tell. And then, I come in also with ideas of things that really kind of jumped at me in the footage, and then we start a discussion. I am the type of editor that likes to have something planned. I like to have an idea of where we’re going. Like, this is what I’m seeing in the material, the potential of really strong arcs or the really great moments that we should explore, and let’s have an idea of a structure. It changes quite a bit later on, but I feel like that conversation with the directors allows me to then delve into the actual editing of segments with a true focus of what the story is about, so that we don’t get lost or distracted by tangents. You know, because it is overwhelming. Like, oh, we can do all this stuff! And like, can I edit this film, can it be a film? So, that idea of an outline, it’s very useful for me.

PVC: What was the co-director relationship like? How did that work?

Gutierrez: It was very much a share in terms of the way that I communicated with them. They were great. We had that big conversation at the beginning, then I would take some time doing the first pass of the segments, based on our conversations, and then I showed it to them, and then we just kept going. You know, you’re building a lot at the beginning, so you do get big idea notes at the beginning, and then it starts getting more detail. And hard structural conversations and index cards, but it was all great. I really love working with them, and I learned a lot from them. And I was kind of surprised because I tend to let go of things sometimes a little too fast, like, oh, we can cut down … Like, I always feel like films that are tight, the drama moves.

PVC: You’re quicker to throw something away than to keep it?

Gutierrez: Yeah. To see how that changes the structure, the dramatic arc of the film, and a lot of times I feel like letting go of things that are lovely and that are amazing, but sometimes you let go of them, it makes the film stronger, so I’m willing to go there quickly. With Betsy and Julie, I had to stop that from getting there too fast. For me, it’s normally the directors, sometimes it takes them a little longer to let go. But not with them. They’re very quick to, like, “Oh, we don’t need this. Let’s try it without that,” and sometimes I had to be “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Maybe, let’s just keep that for a little bit longer, and let’s try it in the next pass.” So, I loved that because I’ve never had to do that before and convince people to keep things in these early stages. But, no, these women were fierce with that stuff, and I loved it. Never had to do that before, so that was a treat.

PVC: So, in practical terms, what does your Premiere Pro workflow look like? When you ingest this footage, do you have an assistant, do you have log notes? How did you manage all of the disparate sources that came in?

Gutierrez: We transcoded everything. Which makes the archival much bigger, but it makes it a lot more stable. Adobe Premiere Pro has been really great at it, you can throw everything at it, but again, we’re talking about hours and hours of footage. I usually have an assistant because this was just such a massive project that media management, besides just organizing media management, had to be very careful. But, with all the projects, because I’m working with a lot of really low-budget films, I do tell the directors, it’s better for you to hire somebody because you don’t want to pay a editor’s rate to do media management. And I talked with the assistant editor about the type of material, so if it’s interview and archival, then I just kind of tell them how I’d like it, and then I’ll move things around if it makes more sense as I’m watching the footage. After that, I’d like to really get in touch with the stuff. I do markers a lot on the footage itself within the bins. So, I click on the master clips, and as I’m watching it I put markers, sometimes with notes. If it’s just a marker it’s because there’s something good there so that makes me make sure that I don’t miss it when I’m building that scene. I recently finished watching footage for the new project I’m working on, and on that one I ended up taking notes on a Word document just because there was a lot of vérité, and it just made more sense for me to know what’s in each scene.

PVC: How do you find the heart of a documentary? What is that process for you, in practical terms?

Gutierrez: I think it goes back to this planning thing, but the planning early on has to be informed by you becoming one with the material. For example, the film that I’m working on right now, it’s a film that there’s a lot of on-the-fly interviews, and the on-the-fly interviews are really helpful. It allowed me to understand what they were feeling or what they were thinking, these characters, but then the beauty of the emotions really lights on the vérité, right? So, it’s really easy. I mean, it’s really easy to fall in the trap of doing the easiest thing. Like, you can just say how they feel, right? And it’s more of a challenge and difficult to really start hacking away and hacking away at the vérité, but you know that that emotional truth is also there, right? So, that’s something that I react to when I’m watching the material, so now I watch all the material. The material has interviews, the material has vérité, but I know that the heart of the story, that’s how I felt when I was watching, the heart of the story lies in the vérité. So then that’s what I react to when I plan. Like, we’re going to restrict ourselves, we’re going to be very disciplined, let’s try to tell this story on the vérité. And then if there’s something that we need to say that just can not be told by the vérité, then we’ll start exploring the different elements. So, that particular film is being edited in a very different way where I’m starting just vérité scenes in the middle of the film, like, the third of the film, but also kind of having an idea of what their arc can be. Because then if you’re working on scenes that are on your third act, you’re going to have to set it up and you need to know when you’re going to land. So that outline that you have in your mind gives you a little bit of focus of how to edit those third act scenes. But all really good vérité is in the third act, so let’s start there, right?

With RBG, that was kind of like a puzzle made out of a lot of little pieces. It was kind of like being a thief, stealing from all these different elements to create some kind of intimacy with her. And a lot of the archival is her talking about herself but in public speech settings. Like law students. And they’re asking her about Harvard Law, for instance. So she tells one anecdote. There’s a lot of those. So, we took a little piece from here, we took another piece from there, and then suddenly you have her really talking about Harvard Law School. Early on I spent a lot of hours watching her confirmation hearings, and a lot of it is the senators. They like to hear themselves talk. They’re kind of talking through the TV. They’re talking to their voters. And she’s listening to a lot of it. They ask very specific legal questions, and she’s answering in very specific ways, but there was something about those confirmation hearings that I hadn’t seen in any other material of her that was just jumping out, and the way that she was defending her way of thinking, the way that she was talking about her inspiration for becoming a lawyer…there was just something about those hearings where the rawness of her experience was coming through. Even the stuff that she read of her life that was prepared, but there was something about the energy that just made it really special, and that became a thing that we really used in the film.

In RBG, we have interviews of people talking about her, they’ve got a lot of interviews of people that share her experiences, which is great, people that were there, that worked with her, so that’s amazing work that the directors do, right? It’s my job to get a little bit of personality even though it’s an interview and the person’s talking about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, you can inject personality, you can use the personality, the energy of the person to help tell the story of somebody else. Some people are really difficult to edit because they don’t finish a thought or stuff like that…but they’re just so rich in terms of how they’re saying things or the details that they choose to share with you, so I never really just take what’s the actual exposition. It’s about reveal of character. Even if the film is not about them as a character, that’s still really important. Like, how are you mixing the energy of the interviews with the archival that you’re choosing? How are you building a scene with archival to really paint an emotional picture of something, to take the viewer emotionally there? And it takes a few passes to get there. Because if you have a film that is just exposition, you can read that film on an article. That’s what makes film special. And it’s all about a feeling that you get, right? The interviews read very differently on paper than they do on screen. A lot of times, the notes from the field or the reactions that the directors had on the interviews, they’re very surprised as to how the interviews come across once we edit them. Interviews that that they are really excited about, sometimes they don’t come across as exciting with the cuts.

PVC: My friend Peter Nicoll worked on the film, but I understand that RBG was primarily created with a team of female creatives?

Gutierrez: Pretty much. There was the cinematographer, myself the editor, two female directors, our associate producer, our archival researcher, our associate editor, and then also the CNN Films team, the two other producers on the film are also female. We also had a few other DPs coming in to help out, and some of those people were male. But the core team was all female, which was pretty cool.

PVC: I understand that the Justice will be here at the Sundance premiere?

Gutierrez: Yes, and there’s going to be a luncheon with her that the Sundance Institute. So, I’ll be there, and that’s where I’ll meet her. And I’ll look at her really weirdly…like, “I know how you talk and your pauses.” And she’ll think I’m a stalker, and the marshals will be like, “Hey.”

PVC: Is there a lesson that you learned from this project that will change the way you approach future projects?

Gutierrez: Lots of lessons. I think the biggest lesson I learned over and over again is to try to be open to how all the people are reacting to the material. Because there’s definitely something that attracts me, special moments that attract me, and I just really have to remind myself always to be listening to the directors and how they are reacting to the material. So, I think that that’s something that we just have to re-learn over, and over, and over again. I love watching other editors work, and I can tell sometimes, oh, “this was done by this person,” and you can tell a style…so we definitely tend to react to things in one way.

PVC: If you had any advice for a new editor, what would you tell them?

Gutierrez: To ask a lot from other editors. I had a great mentor at the very beginning of my career, and I’ve been lucky enough to meet people with a lot more experience than me throughout the years. So I study their work, and there’s a really strong community that we have. I find documentary editors are incredibly generous. I would say to be curious and to want to be there. Because the hard part is thinking about long-format structure, the big picture of storytelling, and that’s not something that you can learn by media management or cutting something to music in a cool way. So, to just ask to be present, ask other editors to allow them to be around when those conversations are happening. The worst thing that you will get is a no. But I know a lot of experienced documentary editors like to get those questions, and for them it’s also important to mentor the next generation. And I’ve mentioned this before, but the Sundance Institute is incredibly supportive of the art of editing and the craft for documentaries, and they’re really supportive of mentorship of young voices. It’s applying for jobs and then being very respectful of who they’re working with. But also asking, tell them that you want to learn, and tell them “I’ll just be quiet, taking notes on the side, but I want to be around. Please include me if you can.”

On RBG we had this very technically savvy assistant editor that made everything run really smoothly, and then because it was a massive project, and we were going against deadlines, she came onboard full time, and I just gave her scenes to do. And we would discuss what was the point of the scene before she started, then she would do a pass at it, and then we would watch it together, and then I would give her notes, and then she would do another pass at it. And there’s a couple of short scenes that she has in the film, and she’s an associate editor. But also, there’s a great organization in New York called the Karen Schmeer Editing Fellowship that supports young emerging editors. They have a fellowship that grants one person and does mentorship for them, but they also have Editor’s Center events where they invite editors to talk about their craft, and show their work. And young editors, they need to look for that stuff because hearing how other editors do problem solving, or the way that they approach thinking about archival, or thinking about vérité…for me it feeds me and shakes me up a little bit, and then maybe I will approach a scene in a different way. Young editors can definitely learn from that. And the Sundance Institute has a partnership with them now. There’s support out there, and then there’s some drinking things happening in the city. Editors come together.

RBG is now in theaters, you can find a screening near you here.

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Matt Jeppsen is a working DP with over a decade of experience in commercials, music videos, and documentary films. You can view Matt's cinematography reel and contact info at www.mattjeppsen.com

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3 Comments on "Editor Carla Gutierrez on crafting “RBG”"

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Philip Luckey
Philip Luckey

The title of the documentary is wrong in your article title: it should be “RBG” not “RGB”