Jacob Schulsinger, who edited The Square, spoke with The Young Folks.
Thanks for joining The Young Folks today. How are things treating you?
Jacob Schulsinger: It’s been a real whirlwind, and very exciting! It’s always gratifying when something you work hard on gets recognition, and the Palme D’or is the most prestigious and important prize a movie can win — it is bigger than the Oscar, so it’s quite something.
Right now I am editing on Lars Von Trier’s new movie The House That Jack Built, together with his main editor Molly Stensgaard. It’s going really well. A crazy and totally original movie, in true Von Trier style.
You’ve worked on award-winning films Force Majeure and The Square. Can you talk about how it feels to have edited films that having drawn such acclaim?
Jacob Schulsinger: As an editor, your job is to help the director make the movie they want to make as successful as possible, and earning critical acclaim or gaining cultural cache shows that you did your job well.
Of course, I am also lucky to be hired by talented directors whose ideas I admire and find fascinating, and Ruben Ostlund is one of them. That said, I also select projects carefully, which means that I say no, too. I am very specific in following my own taste, as I think that is what separates me from others. Your taste is what makes you you. When the films you work on get such acclaim by the world, you feel seen and heard, and that is deeply satisfying. You feel connected with the world. You feel like you have good taste and it’s nice to know that the rest of the world sometimes has good taste too.
How did you get into editing?
Jacob Schulsinger: Well, basically, I was a young person who had no idea what I wanted to do in life. Everything seemed both interesting and uninteresting in equal measure. I couldn’t choose. First I thought a sneaky way out of the dilemma was to become a journalist, because in that role I could just research a new topic if I ever got bored. Later, while interning with my New York-based cousin Susanne Rostock, who is an acclaimed documentary editor and also director, I found that editing offered the same possibilities. I think I am different from a lot of editors in that way. I didn’t get into film because I particularly love film, or am mad about the technical aspects of the process. I was never able to quote every single line from cool art-house films the way other people in the industry can. I was not that nerdy, though I sometimes wish I was. My interest in film came more from a general interest in human behavior, as I have always been fascinated by humans and how and why we behave like we do. I think film became attractive to me because it works so extremely well as a tool for observing, scrutinizing and describing human behavior. I feel that where science can explain a lot about why and how humans function, it lacks the ability to describe what it actually feels and looks like to function as a human. Movies provide that insight. Movies provide an opportunity to face other cultures, other times, other experiences. Movies can safely take us outside our own comfort zone and worldview. My task as a filmmaker is to ensure that the movies I do are more than just story. Everybody can tell stories. Therefore you need to have content that is important; something that can help shine a light on the human condition. As a friend of mine said – dramaturgy is just a good friend you can lean against while exploring risky new territories.
What are your favorite software programs to use?
Jacob Schulsinger: These days I mostly edit on Premiere and Avid. I deliberately try not to be too biased, as it feels good to be flexible. I used Adobe Premiere for the first time on Force Majeure, and now recently on The Square, and the program has improved a lot. On both Force Majeure and The Square we did a lot of image manipulation. Everything from changing the speeds of a clip or even just a few frames, to masking objects or extras in and out of shots, and other small tricks that can improve the flow of a shot or scene. Back in the days, a lot of these things would have to be done by an Effect House or wouldn’t be possible at all, but due to technological advances you can now do it right in the editing software, and pretty fast. Premiere, for instance, enables you to work smoothly with After Effects and Photoshop, which I feel has opened up for me to have a new range of creative possibilities as an editor. The job has and always will be about telling a story, or as I like to call it, a series of situations; you have to sift through the footage and find the bits and pieces that, when strung together, make for the best rendering of the director’s vision.
As an editor you are orchestrating information. Some information comes as lines. Some like sounds, and some like images. But since you can now manipulate those bits and pieces of information so much and in so many interesting ways, it has become part of my creative process to also take these possibilities into consideration. A dialogue exchange in single shot that doesn’t quite feel authentic might feel better if the pause between one sentence and the next is a bit longer — and this can be achieved by slowing down a few frames. Or maybe a shot might have a totally different visceral feeling if you add a camera move, or do a split screen, and change how the shot plays out. You can basically change the mise en scène sometimes. In many ways, part of the process that takes place on set can now happen in the edit suite and that is thanks to technical advances of the editing software.
That said, it is important to emphasize that while these technical advantages are important for editors to be aware of, as it expands the creative possibilities in the editing room and creates room for ideas that can improve your movie — at the end of the day, if the story itself is not good, or more importantly if the content of your movie isn’t interesting, then these storytelling tricks honestly don’t matter at all. They become affectations, smoke and mirrors to mask a gaping absence. Storytelling in itself is just mechanics. So having something to say is still always more important than how you say it.
When you edit a film, what’s your relationship with the director and how does play a role in the finished product?
Jacob Schulsinger: I think it is crucial that you share taste with your director, and by that I don’t mean you need to like the same food or even the same movies, but that you need to see the world in a similar way. You need to have, if not a similar sensibility, then at least an understanding and appreciation of each other’s ways of looking at the world. Often, humor is a good way to find out if you can swing well together. That said, in my collaborations with directors or taking on new projects, I also always try to look for something that does not remind me too much of something I’ve tried or seen before. I do not like when people have ideas for movies where I think: “I could come up with that easily myself!” Because then it would be easier, and more enriching to just do it myself. It’s more fun working with someone who shares perspective with you, but who also thinks differently than you do, and the directors I work with often do. I think they pick me for that same reason. Conversation, and spending time together in the editing room is therefore crucial to me. I need to understand what it is the director wants, so I can help them achieve that, and that often takes spending a lot of time together, talking and playing with the material. The edit is the only part of the filmmaking process where you actually “make” the movie a movie. The rest of the process, while of course crucial, is a process of gathering and creating pieces for it. So it is absolutely essential to have the director present in the edit suite.
Most of the directors I collaborate with involve me very early in the process of their movies. I am often consulted even during the idea-development process, as well as during scriptwriting, and I will have input in the way the movie evolves that ranges from broader thematic discussions to specific ideas for a line, or a way to shoot something. This kind of participation is not always common for an editor. But I greatly value this role, and it gives me some advantages later in the edit, as we start the conversations about how and what to tell early on, instead of waiting until we are both sitting in the edit suite and have to put the pieces together there.
Are you one who edits from footage filmed that day or do you prefer to wait until longer in the production process?
Jacob Schulsinger: It differs from project to project, as each is different. In general nowadays, a lot of productions want you to edit during the shoot, and that is often suggested to the director. In those cases, I will start editing the material in the order that it comes into the edit suite, which is in the order it is being shot.
With some directors, like Ruben Ostlund, the editing doesn’t start until the shoot is over. What I like about that, is that it helps you think of the shoot and the editing as two different processes. It makes it easier to forget about the movie you tried to shoot and focus on the footage at hand, and how to make the best movie out of it. It’s easier to make a puzzle if you have all the pieces when you start out.
On top of that, directors often want get that movie that has been ruminating in their brains for so long onto the timeline, and it is important to let them empty their head of that and all their other ideas before they can be open to discussing and developing even better ideas, together with me, the editor.
Making a movie should be an investigation, where you will end up making something that is even better than what you imagined before you started. Otherwise, you might as well just draw a storyboard and train some robots to execute that idea, which you already saw with your inner eye. What’s fun in that? You already saw that movie. Let’s make a better version of it. You can’t be an explorer in this world by constantly visiting a place you have been before.
What advice would you offer to someone wishing to break into editing?
Jacob Schulsinger: I think the most important thing is to trust your own intuition and taste. Don’t try to aim at other people’s taste. Learn about structure and plot, of course, but trust in your gut instincts. Aim to do something original that has your own voice. And then above all be positive. Editing can quickly be a process of fixing problems, and it shouldn’t be. It should be fun, and a process of discovering opportunities and tiny small gems, and polishing them with increasing excitement as your jewel of a movie gets shinier and shinier — so in the end the world, and you, can see what a wonder it really is. Editing is about honing and shaping and expressing your director’s view of the world through your interpretation of the material. Use yourself. Observe how you react to certain images or sounds. You are orchestrating information, and the best part is when you find a certain reading of information that affects you, and then show it to others who are also affected. Then it is extremely validating, as it feels like the way I function as a human is also the way other people function. I feel heard, seen, felt and recognized by the world, and it makes me think: maybe I’m an okay person. I feel connected to the world. That is what makes me happy in my work.
Thank you for your time.