Chicago native Michelle Tesoro began her career at Abkco Music & Records New York as a DVD and Promo editor. Since moving to Los Angeles in 2005, she has cut high-profile television series and feature films including HBO’s THE NEWSROOM created by Aaron Sorkin, Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS produced by David Fincher, HBO’s LUCK produced by Michael Mann and David Milch, and NATURAL SELECTION which won Grand Jury Prize at the 2011 SXSW Film Festival, and garnered her an award for Best Editing. Michelle credits Alan Poul and Rodrigo Garcia as key supporters early in her career which continue to influence her opportunities today. She is currently cutting the film REVENGE OF THE GREEN DRAGONS, by directors Andrew Lau & Andrew Loo, produced by Martin Scorsese.
What got you interested in editing?
TV was my babysitter growing up, so when I was a kid I wanted to be an animator. I would tape episodes of Tom and Jerry and rewind them and look at them frame by frame. I think I was 10. I got interested in photography, and took video production and 16mm film-making classes in high school. In 1999 I transferred to NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and became interested in editing after taking a couple of basic production classes. That was my best skill, and I got more compliments on my editing than anything.
How did you get started in editing?
There was a lot of pressure from my family to get a job right after college, so I started seeking part-time work right away. My first job was a Video/Film Librarian at Abkco Music & Records, Inc. in New York. It’s a music publishing company which owns the publishing and masters to a lot of big artists in the 60s such as The Rolling Stones, Sam Cooke, The Animals, etc. In the beginning my job was to log old Ed Sullivan performances and interviews. After 3 years there I was involved in the DVD production of some music films they helped produced: The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus and Sam Cooke Legend to name a couple. I also got to produce and edit a music video for Fatboy Slim’s remix of Sympathy for the Devil. Being at a small company allowed me to wear many hats.
My goal was to cut television and feature films, and at Abkco my hours were fairly regular, so sometimes I’d pick up odd jobs doing some assistant editing on a documentary, or editing on freelance projects in order to build a reel, and rack up some credits and get some experience. New York post production in the early aughts was a difficult scene to break into, and some of my classmates had found success in LA so I decided to make the move while I was still young. An editing professor, Lora Hays, recommended I apply to the ACE Internship Program. She put me in touch with some other former students of hers, Paul Barnes (Ken Burns’ editor), Marty Nicholson, and Peter Frank. I didn’t get the internship, but Marty had encouraged me to participate in the Internship Applicants week-long workshop then I moved to LA. On his advice, I immediately joined the MPEG, and met an assistant editor at the workshop who told me of a Post PA job on a pilot he was doing. I interviewed for the job and became the Post Coordinator on the pilot, which was for ABC called “Injustice”. The Associate Producer, Keri Young, was my boss, and she took a liking to me, and knew I was good at the avid and was in the guild. On her next pilot, she and Bruce Sandzimier, the ABC Post-Production executive, got me my first assistant editing job with editor Mallory Gottlieb. The pilot never got picked up, but the next pilot I did with Keri was with editor Peter Frank, whom I met back in New York through Lora Hays.
That pilot was SAVED, written and produced by David Manson. It went for one season, but that is basically where my career really started. After that show wrapped I went on to do another short-lived series with a producer and an editor from SAVED, called RAINES. There I met Ron Rosen. After we were cancelled, Ron and I left to do a pilot with Alan Poul called SWINGTOWN. SWINGTOWN was picked up for mid-season and wouldn’t start till October of 2007, so I was looking for a job in between. My friend Lisa de Moraes, the other assistant on SAVED, had assisted editor Lisa Bromwell (also editor on SAVED) on this new HBO series IN TREATMENT. She said they were looking for a 3rd assistant for Michael Ruscio (also an editor SAVED). I got the job since they all knew me.
The whole time I was assisting, I kept editing. Again, like I did in New York, I picked up odd jobs, usually free-bees or for low pay, to just get more cutting time and credits. I did a web series with my friends form New York called MIMI AND FLO, I did a short with Rodrigo Garcia (a director/producer on IN TREATMENT) for Make a Film Foundation called PUT IT IN A BOOK. I did a lot of free stuff. We wrapped IN TREATMENT at the end of 2007, then the Writer’s strike hit, and the work dried up. Lisa Bromwell, however was doing this super indie movie with Sebatian Gutierrez called WOMEN IN TROUBLE. She asked for my help, and I assembled the editor’s cut, and cut these little photo/flashback sequences that are used as transitions in the movie. The timing worked out where when I was done with that the writer’s strike ended and I was back assisting on SWINGTOWN.
Eventually, I got bumped up to editor for an episode on SWINGTOWN, and then again for the second season of IN TREATMENT. That is the very long story of how I came into editing.
Give us a run through of your editing process
The dailies come in and my assistant editor prepares them to my liking. Post schedules are getting shorter and shorter, and usually I don’t have a lot of time to get an assembly together so the goal is to try to keep up to camera (keeping up with what’s been shot) by at least 2 days. I have a little bit of an arduous process where I do what I call a “pulls” sequence. I take every line and/or action of every character in the scene and line each setup, take, and camera in scene order. So for every action and line I can see what all the possible options are. I put a locator/marker at the beginning of every series with a brief description, so when I am working in the scene later on I can easily find different takes for different lines and or actions. It’s sort of like having ScriptSync without the script. I think ScriptSync is a fabulous tool and people swear by it, and of course they think what I do is a waste of time, but on a practical level I don’t want to get dependent on it because you first have to convince people to now purchase the software, you need an assistant editor to spend time syncing every scene (nowadays most assistants don’t have time), and for me personally, I have a hard time looking at text. Also, because I do the pulls myself, I can familiarize myself with the footage quickly and organize how the scene is built-in my head before I do any cutting. So after I’ve done the pulls on a scene I watch it (usually at the end of the day when I’m more physically tired), and mark selects. After all my selects are marked, I duplicate the scene and then delete all the takes that I didn’t select so I’m left with a very rough assembly of everything that I think I should use in the scene. So it’s sort of like sculpting, the pulls sequence being the block of clay that I whittle away at. I try to save cutting scenes for in the morning when I’m physically and mentally more awake and the footage has had time to “rise” in my head. So I start cutting the scene with my selects, and sometimes start switching out takes the further I get into it by referring back to the pulls sequence. If I had the luxury of more time I would probably want to first watch the dailies just like normal with no stopping. There is something to just seeing how a take plays out. If I can get my assistant to do my pulls for me, I might adjust my way of doing things. I used to do it that way, but I found I would kinda get lost in the footage, and forget where things were, and miss something. Plus it would be a pain to find diff takes especially if the director does a lot of resets in the middle of a take. The pulls process is super micro, but I have found I get the best results doing it this way.
What tips were you given that has been really helpful?
Always cut the scene in your head before you attempt to actually cut it. Visualize it thoroughly. Hear the dialog in your head first too.
Some people say cut with music, others say that’s too distracting, you have to let the rhythm of the film play on its own. I personally don’t like to cut with music, but I like to let music inspire a cutting rhythm. So on the drive home I’ll listen to a track that I think resembles the tone of the scene and just get that into my head, then come back and cut the scene dry.
Watch as many movies and tv as you can! Go to see a play at the theatre. Go to see art, go to concerts. Be inspired.
How organized are you?
Pretty organized, it helps me to make sense of everything when things are in their place.
Can you work without a script, finding the story and building it on your own?
Yes. This is a very good skill to have in scripted film-making, because sometimes what was written and what was shot doesn’t work in the end, so you’ve got to make it work some how. I really admire doc editors.
What is your favorite film? Favorite TV show?
The toughest question! There are too many film and film-makers I love to really answer that. But I guess the films that inspired me? I’ll qualify my answers.
The films that inspired me to want to be a film-maker: Reservior Dogs, Smoke
The film that I can watch over and over: When Harry Met Sally
The films that I quote all the time: When Harry Met Sally, The Jerk, Austin Powers (first one)
Favorite TV shows: The Sopranos, The Wire, Sex and the City, Curb Your Enthusiasm
What style of editing have you done? (Narrative/Documentary/News/Corporate/Wedding/Etc)
Mostly scripted, little bit of documentary in school, music video, and promos.
If you could meet any editor, who & why?
Thelma Schoonmaker. She seems like a real nice lady.
What advice can you offer to get through complex edits?
Take a break, take a walk, get feedback, think before you cut.
Which plug-in(s) do you find most useful? Why?
Animatte – I don’t think that is a plug-in. I heard Shake is good. I don’t really use plug-ins.
How does the director-editor relationship work for you?
You want a relationship where you have the same tastes and the same goals for the film. It’s kind of like a marriage (not that I know anything about marriage). You’ll spend a lot of time together and you grow to love or hate each other, and be fine with both. You must work with someone who loves and respects you for what you bring to the table. In the end, it’s the director’s vision and you must be on board with taking it where they want to take it. So it’s better for your soul if you have the same vision as they, especially with all the hours on and off the clock you put into any given project.
How do you deal with problem clients/directors?
Therapy and exercise! Ha! You gotta stand up for yourself. Sometimes directors and producers forget you are a human being. Life’s too short to put up with people being rude in the cutting room, or yelling at you, or not treating you to your liking. I mean, we’re not saving lives here, we’re just clowns.
What’s your overall philosophy about editing?
Story is most important. Without that no one really gives a crap, you’ll be totally forgettable. If you want to be unforgettable, tell people a story that resonates in their hearts.
Name one thing that you would tell an aspiring editor
Don’t do this if you want to call the shots, at least there’s a limit to the shots you can call. Editing is a bit of glass ceiling, so you have to be happy with assisting others with realizing their visions.