If you’re interested in storytelling, this is the interview for you. Editor Valerio Bonelli has edited over 30 films in the last 20 years, working with some of the top directors, including many collaborations with Ridley Scott (The Martian, Black Hawk Down, Hannibal, and the Oscar winner Gladiator), and Stephen Frears (Philomena, The Program). In this interview, he gives a lot of amazing insight on the art of editing a feature film and what it takes to succeed in Hollywood.
Matthew Toffolo: You’ve worked as an Assistant Editor on many big Hollywood productions. What is the role of Assistant/Associate Editor? What is the biggest thing you’ve learned doing this task to help you grow as an editor?
Valerio Bonelli: It’s now quite a while ago but what I remember of my experience working on those big movies is that I felt that I was like a kid in a candy store. I was working and learning from people I respected a lot in the industry like Ridley Scott and Pietro Scalia and at the same time I was given challenging tasks mostly to do with the organization of the cutting room. That sometimes can be seen as boring and not so creative but I believe that learning to run those big cutting rooms gave me the confidence to become a film editor and to handle very stressful situations.
MT: What film that you’ve worked on has been your most valuable experience?
VB: It’s difficult to say because every film I worked on somehow added something to my knowledge as an editor and as a person. Each film is different even if you work with the same director, but I can say that there are few films that have stayed with me for one reason or another. Recently I’ve cut a documentary feature called “Palio”, this film was particularly challenging for me because unlike most conventional documentaries the story is narrated in the present time and not retrospectively with a narration voice but with the voices of all the characters of the film. The film is about the famous ancient horse race in Siena, Italy, it did not have a script, and was ‘written’ during the editing process by me and Cosima Spender.
PHOTO: Still Shot from the documentary “Palio”:
The Palio is possibly the only race in the world where in order to win you have to spend a lot of money in bribes. The story is about a young jockey that challenges his old master, who has monopolized the game for the last 16 years and won it 13 times.
In terms of feature film one of my favourite experience was cutting Philomela by Stephen Frears. For me this was a unique experience for several reasons because not only I was given a chance to work with such a great master of cinema like Frears (who by the way was one of my Teachers at the Nation Film and Television School) but I was cutting a story that was very important for me because of my upbringing in a Catholic country. Also I was cutting Judi Dench’s masterful performance. I learned a lot from looking at her performances in the rushes.
MT: What is the art to being a great DOCUMENTARY editor? How is working on this type of film different than a conventional live-action film?
VB: The most important thing you have to remember when you cut a documentary is that almost everything is possible in terms of narrative. There is no script and the way the material is cut decides the narrative of the film. As an editor I feel you have even more responsibilities.
I try to bring narrative documentary techniques of editing in the feature genre and vice versa.
One example is when I cut “The Program” for Stephen Frears. The film is about Lance Armstrong and I was given a lot of documentary footage and news reports as well as all the live coverage from all the Tour de France Lance won by Lance between 1999 and 2005. I was able to use this footage cut together with our footage of Ben Foster playing Lance mostly because the impressive physical change that Ben did in the months before shooting in order to look like Lance. Also the news footage helped us to build narrative threads of stories particularly around the media buzz that Lance’s victories generated, most of this sequences were not scripted in the original script.
PHOTO: Judi Dench in the feature film “Philomena”:
MT: Generally, when does the editor join the production on a feature film? Do you begin editor when the film is still in production?
VB: I always start at the start of the shooting but often I get to talk to the directors I work with in the weeks and months before the film is shot and I give my feedback and opinion on the script.
MT: What is an editor looking for in their director? What is a director looking for in their editor?
VB: In a director I look for a relationship where I feel that I learn something new, at the same time I like to be challenge by a director, it is also important for me to know that I can contribute to his vision of the film. Probably a director feels that the editor is a collaborator but also the first audience that sees the film and so he looks for his objectivity as well as his understanding of what he’s trying to achieve.
MT: Is there a type of film that you would love to edit that you haven’t edited yet?
VB: I’m very eclectic in my taste and so I’ve switched already quite a lot of genres so far but I must say that I sometimes would like to cut a Western movie, maybe because as a kid I’ve seen so many.
But mostly I react to stories, so for me when I worked on The Martian as a co-editor with Pietro Scalia it was a dream come true to do a Sci-Fi; but for me that was not the main exiting thing, the story was what exited me, the humanity that came out of the film was relevant for me.
MT: What film, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you seen the most times in your life?
VB: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly by Sergio Leone.
MT: What suggestions would you have for people in high school and university who would like to get into the industry as an editor?
VB: Try to cut as much as you can (Short films, Docuentaries, music videos…anything) and if you can go to a good film school like the NFTS in the UK because is a good place where you can meet talented and motivated people.
MT: Where did you grow up? Was working in the Film Industry something you always wanted to do?
VB: I never imagined that I was going to end up in the film industry when I was a kid, I actually dreamed of becoming an orchestra conductor!
I was born in Naples but my parents moved to Florence very early on in my life. I feel I grew up in a beauty box, surrounded by stunning hills and monuments and this beauty is for sure an element that has influenced me a lot in my choices in life and still is part of me. Sadly I had to leave my county in order to flourish but I can’t explain why otherwise I would turn this blog into a political and sociological critique of Italian life!
Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Fesival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.