After a career spanning over 30 years, editor Jon Gregory has made the transition to digital. But, while the tools may have changed, he remains dedicated to delivering the director’s vision.
Film editors, along with screenwriters, are the unseen creative faces of a movie, working at opposite ends of the production cycle. When we tracked down Jon Gregory in his Soho edit suite, he was finishing an untitled project for long-time collaborator Mike Leigh; recently two of his latest films, Leigh’s Another Year and the East Is East sequel, West is West, premiered at this year’s London Film Festival. But even though he is now prolific in the world of film, Gregory started out working in television.
“It wasn’t intentional,” he says. “I’d always wanted to get into the film industry, but I couldn’t break the union. It was the time of ACTT [Association of Cinematograph Television and Allied Technicians], where you had to have a job to get a ticket, and a ticket to get a job. I managed to get into the BBC, but even there I couldn’t get into the editing courses because my academic qualifications were pretty dismal. I got in on the scenery crew, which was fantastic fun, and once you’re in the organisation you can see where to go and who to approach. I managed to get a job as an assistant editor, so I could join the union. I worked with Les Blair on a film called Beyond the Pale (1981) and [then] I got an 18-month contract to do a series called The Nation’s Health, so I left the BBC.”
With most of his TV work being drama-based, Gregory didn’t find the transition to film that difficult, particularly as most of the best shows in those days were shot on film. “I’m certainly glad I started from the film side, because making a cut in the pristine film, you thought more about it, so it’s more of a disciplined approach to editing,” he says. Like everyone else, however, Gregory has moved on to digital editing, with Avid as his preferred choice.
“I went over to digital in 2000, with the change of century. If you see some of the films from the late ’90s, Mike Leigh and I used to always put a caption at the ending, ‘cut on film’, but once something gets invented, people get used to it and you can’t go back. It’s the expectation to see cuts and things changed overnight, so you just can’t work on film. We used to do it, but it would take a day because you would have to send to the laboratories for a dupe of the cut, then redo it. However, I wasn’t naïve enough to think digital was a fad, because it couldn’t be uninvented.” And Gregory is happy to stick with digital workflows.
“I wouldn’t go back to cutting on film, as nice as it was at the time. When I look back at the stuff I did, I think, ‘How the hell did I do that with all the trims?’” And he has nothing but praise for today’s assistants. “Being called an assistant denigrates the job, up to a point, but their job is so vital. If the film isn’t digitally logged correctly at the beginning, it all starts unravelling at the point when you have to hand the film over to the sound editors and music editors. Everything has to be really precise. That’s the time when the schedule is accelerated, so that’s when they don’t have a great deal of time for any real cock-ups, so you really need a good assistant who really knows the ins and outs of the machinery. For me it’s too mind-numbing. As long as I’ve got a picture and can cut the film, tape, hard drive, that’s all I really want to know.”
That’s not to say Gregory doesn’t have any concerns about working digitally. “This latest project I worked on with Mike Leigh was shot digitally on an Arri Alexa. The thing I think about is, with film the negatives are stored in safe places, but this thing doesn’t have any negative. You can get a negative from 70 years ago and reprint it. What are you going to do with these things, because the machines change so quickly?”
And there are other drawbacks compared to celluloid. “You don’t have the get-together at the end of the day to watch the rushes on a decent screen, and talk to the director, although Mike still does that. We would take the first cut and look at it maybe four times over a couple of days to get the feel of it, because the first time you see it, especially for the director, it’s a bit of a shock. They’ve got everything in their mind, but this is the reality, so you need to see it more than once. Another downside to digital is it is so accessible and all these people have rushes on their computers and you get all these comments and notes, and if they’ve got some influence, you have to placate them. It’s tough enough without all these people who think they’re film producers.”
In spite of these little bugbears, Gregory is enthusiastic about the process. “The best thing is, you are left with the film and you can do a lot on your own. I love that, just being alone with the film. The advantage of digital is you can try out lots of different things, which may end up not working, but you can try them because it’s easy to do. Even when I show it to the director at the end of the day, or end of the week, and he changes lots, that’s part of it, and I just love editing film.
“You have to be the audience,” Gregory continues, on the role of a modern editor. “You have to look after the film. You want to tell the story the way the director wants to. You don’t try and take over the film and do it your way—which is easy to do if it’s a film you really like—and say, ‘I would do it this way’. It’s the director’s film so you’ve got to give them what they want. If their way doesn’t work then you have to come up with ideas, but you have to stand back, because, in the end, it is the director’s or the producer’s film.”