It was a privilege to chat with the talented editor Tod Modisett on the art of editing.
Matthew Toffolo: You have edited many television shows. Do you have a favorite experience?
Tod Modisett: The best experience is when you understand the show you’re working on. You get the director or the producer, and he or she gets you. Then interesting things can happen pretty quickly. Some editors can talk articulately when they’re working. I usually can’t.
Sometimes I mumble. It’s great when a director can hear me mumble something and he or she knows what I’m saying. It reminds me of how some dentists can understand you even when you have all kinds of crap in your mouth. Jeff Schaffer, the creator of “The League,” was like that. Once I mumbled something as I hit command-Z to put the edit back to what it was before I started messing with it and he said, “It’s okay. I know what you were going for.”
I have to ask about the “Bachelor” experience as there are tons of fans out there who want to know. What was the process like editing an episode together? Was the episode already written and you simply needed to piece together the story with the hours of footage you had? How much footage did you (or your assistant) have to go through?
I had to look this up on my calendar program. I stopped working on “The Bachelor” in December of 2008 and my last “Bachelorette” was July of 2009. So it’s been a while! Back when I was there, the story side of the show was run by Martin Hilton, who is certainly one of the smartest people I’ve met in Los Angeles. Martin always had a strong point of view about how the storylines should unfold, and he wouldn’t let the actual footage stand in the way. I learned a lot from him about how to shape the footage to achieve the desired result.
More importantly, he helped me realize that an editor needed to have a perspective when cutting a scene. There’s no point in being passive.
Martin started as an editor at Next Entertainment, so he empowered editors there to work the stories out themselves and pitch him their ideas. The story producers were there to help the editors find the interview bites the editors wanted. Not every reality company worked that way.
There was, of course, a lot of footage on those shows. But usually I didn’t watch everything. If something amazing happened in the house during a down period, a field producer would note it for us. You can’t watch every frame on that kind of schedule.
Did the TV show “Redneck Island” actually happen?
Yes! But I wasn’t on it for very long. I think I only cut one or two episodes. I don’t know why they put me down as having worked on all of them in IMDB. I left that show to cut
“Burning Love” for Ken Marino.
What is the biggest thing you’ve learned working as an assistant editor early in your career that helped you grow as an editor?
Every show ends. No matter how bad it gets, it’ll be over sooner than you realize.
What makes a great editor? What skills does he/she need?
First, you need all the stuff people talk about in seminars, like sensitivity to performance, a sense of pace, etc. A lot of editors I know are former musicians, so they feel rhythm and dynamics better than other people. But that’s only half the battle. You also should understand how you come across in a room and how you’re best able to work with other people. You need to know how you can personally convince others of your ideas without being overly combative. It’s different for everyone, because what works for one guy might not work for another. In the beginning, I was too much of a push-over. I’d say, well, it’s your show, do what you want to it. I’m just the editor. But what happens is, after a couple of years directors and producers have a way of forgetting what it was they insisted on in the cutting room, and they blame the editor if the show is bad. So now I try harder to push back if I think someone is making a real mistake. I don’t always prevail.
What is an editor looking for in their director? What is a director looking for in their editor?
Just to be on the same wave-length. With comedies, we have to think the same general stuff is funny, otherwise it just won’t work.
Is there a type of film or TV series that you would love to edit that you haven’t edited yet?
So many! I like a lot of stuff.
What film, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you seen the most times in your life?
Through no design or intention, I’ve probably watched “The Godfather,” “Alien” and “Blackhawk Down” the most. The first two are kind of obvious. I don’t know why I find “Blackhawk Down” so watchable, but I’ve seen it five or six times.
What suggestions would you have for people in high school and university who would like to get into the industry as an editor?
I don’t know those people. Most kids want to write and direct. Or act. Usually if they’re in high school and they’re talking about wanting to edit, it just means that they lack the confidence to say they want to direct, because very few teen-agers know what editing is all about. So my suggestion is, don’t say you want to be editor. Just go make short films of your own. Write them, shoot them and edit them. And see how you feel after doing all of that. Maybe during that process you’ll find you have a comparative advantage in one area.
Where did you grow up? Was working in the Film Industry something you always wanted to do?
I grew up in San Pedro, which is the harbor of Los Angeles. I lived with my Dad. Every Friday night, he would take me to pizza and then afterwards we’d go to the Wherehouse and he’d let me pick out a VHS movie to rent. I was maybe 12 or 13 then. He never looked at what I picked, so I got all kinds of inappropriate stuff. After watching Scorcese’s “Taxi Driver,” I thought, wow, that seems like a cool job; I’d like to do that.
Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 20-50 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto, and Los Angeles at least 2 times a month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.