Today we bring you another In Conversation with the highly talented editor behind The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, Sound City and Dogtown and Z Boys – Paul Crowder!
Tell us a bit about how you started your career. You’re from London and you started in the music business, right?
I moved to LA in ’89 as a musician. I was in a band called The ADVENTURES in the mid 80s. We had a top 20 hit, (Broken Land) and did a couple of big tours and I met some people in Los Angeles. When I left the band, I decided that I was going to hang out in LA for a little bit and just see what transpired. I ended up just staying there and I’m still here now.
During that period, I got older and I had to think about what I was going to do with myself because the music seemed to be ticking along but it didn’t look like it was going to sustain me financially or be a real career anymore.
When we decided to have a family, you can’t travel around in the back of a van when your wife is pregnant. You’ve got to start bringing in some proper money.
A good friend of mine, Michael Shevloff, who was English, a producer and had moved to LA just had an epiphany. For some reason, he had always thought that I would make a good editor. When I was in The ADVENTURES I did all the demos, I was the engineer. I had done studio engineering when I left school as my first vocation.
Michael told me to come to his office to work on his machines as an assistant editor. I just got a very lucky break working on these linear machines, it was a Strassner, an old DOS-based system. Avid came out and this company bought one and I was Mac savvy and I just made the transition to Avid like that. I ended up teaching all these old school guys how it worked. After a few months, they put me on a network show and I was editing network television within around nine months.
During that period, I met Stacy Peralta who was working on a show and we got to work on a couple of shows together. The Dogtown and Z-Boys story came up and he pitched and got the money and he approached me to do it. I was very reluctant, I’d only been editing about 18 months at that point and I didn’t feel I was ready to move into somebody’s life story or make that transition but he persuaded me that I was. Basically we did Dogtown and everything kind of fell into place after that. It just became a good calling card for me and that was that.
I did a lot of VH1 Behind The Music and broke my teeth on that show. That was my transition into editing. Dogtown was a riot! Stacy and I had done some network TV and we’d been so shackled.
With Dogtown, there was nobody telling us what to do. We were able to just go and have fun and do what we wanted to do. While the film may be flawed in certain aspects, it has this beautiful life and excitement and you can certainly sense that it has the freedom that it has because of the way we were able to create it.
You then went on to direct. Tell us a bit about that?
So far there’s only one film that I’ve directed that I didn’t edit. It’s a film called The Real Revolutionaries and it’s about Silicon Valley and the invention of the microchip. Other than that, I’ve edited all the films that I’ve directed. It’s great and a fun way to do it!
It came about a little bit by chance. I was asked to work on a film called Once in a Lifetime which had been shot by John Dower and it was produced by John Battsek and they had done the Brit Pop doc before that.
I was brought in to re-edit that film and they’d approached Stacy to direct but he wasn’t into it. Then they just asked me if I would be into it. I brought in Mark Monroe, who has been my writing partner ever since, and we worked on that. I was handed the directorial duties by default, just because there was no-one and I was editing and I was making such a visual statement to the film and restructuring it that they felt me worthy of having the co-director credit with John Dower.
That was my first venture into directing and that opened the door for me. I then did The Who film and The Last Play at Shea on the back of that and then the Formula 1 film.
At the same time, I was editing films as well. I edited Sound City while I was making Life on the Limit. I don’t have to direct, it’s all about enjoying the project. Like with The Beatles film. I’ve been blessed that these great gigs keep coming my way. The brilliant thing about most of these films is that they all show up when I’ve got time. When Dave [Grohl] called to do Sound City, he said ‘I want to start in March’ and it was perfect for me because I was finishing up in February. It was just a stroke of luck that I was available when he wanted to make the film.
Did you get to know Dave on the music scene or through video?
I think my name had come up and I guess my reputation preceded me with Dogtown. The people involved thought that the guy that did Dogtown would probably be a good person to have on this film so I got a call from his management company asking me if I’d be interested. Then I had a call from Dave and we spent about an hour or two on the phone just talking about my old recording days, my old studio days and I gave him all my insight that I knew already about the Neve desk and my knowledge of that.
I had a musical background, I had a rhythmical background and we hit it off immediately on the phone and so it came about that I got to do the film with him which was just great fun. I got Mark Monroe in. I said we should pull Mark in, he’s the best writer and you need a writer to structure the film. We pursued from there – Mark and I did our thing and Dave did his thing. A bit like Dogtown, it was one of those films where it was an amazing plethora of unbelievable music and footage and Dave – having the relationship he does with some of these artists – the chances of clearing this music became quite strong and so we were able to cut the film in a way that we felt might be the finished film.
With Dogtown, we weren’t sure, we had no idea if we’d clear those songs but we cut it that way just to give ourselves something to work with. We figured we’d probably have to score a lot of it but we didn’t in the end. With Dave’s film, there was an excitement that he had a relationship with Tom Petty, he had a relationship with The Pixies, he had a relationship with a lot of people.
His management have a big strong outreach so there was a good chance that we could work with so much great music. It was exciting to be able to do all that and then it kept clearing – that was always the best part – when the music cleared. There were a couple of things which we couldn’t get which was very disappointing but it didn’t hinder the film too much.
How long did Sound City take to build?
That came together pretty quick. I might have started in the edit room as soon as February or March of that year. We then delivered a cut to Sundance in October and then we screened at Sundance and we finished our online in December. It was nine months really, it was one of the shorter ones.
Dogtown and Riding Giants were about the same. The Who film was much longer, The Last Play at Shea was much longer, The Beatles was certainly longer.
The length was pretty average because Dave had a goal. Compared to a lot of other projects where you don’t know if you’re going to sell it and there’s no guarantee that anyone will buy it, this was great because Dave had an idea of what he wanted from it. He wanted to either be at Sundance or South by Southwest.
He wanted it out in February so we had to be done by a specific date. He was striving for those dates so we were just pushing and pushing to get it done by then. That’s great as you’ve got a goal, you’ve got a deadline and you’re working under those conditions.
You’re usually working under budgetary conditions – you’ve got 16 weeks of budget but you might have 20 weeks of editing so you’ve got to work out how you’re going to get the other four weeks of editing that it needs. There’s no deadline for it, you’ve just run out of money. Those sort of things are usually what hold you back so when you’ve got a deadline like that, it’s much better.
Sundance has regularly been a deadline for us with many of the films we’ve made. Because of Dogtown, it was the first festival I went to and I have great memories so I always love it if we can go back there. I always try and strive for that! If you’ve got a production in mind, I always think we should try and have a rough draft by October so we can submit it. Generally, it’s rarer that you have a hard deadline that’s actually based around a release date when you start a documentary.
With The Beatles, we didn’t know when it was coming out but we did think to ourselves that the summer of 2016 seemed the most obvious because of it being the 50th anniversary. We thought it would be good if we could be ready for that.
How did you end up working on The Beatles documentary?
This was through White Horse Pictures which was previously Spitfire Pictures. They changed the company name in 2014. I worked with Nigel Sinclair on The Who film and Last Play at Shea. Then 1: Life on the Limit was also done with Spitfire Pictures so I’d made those three films already.
Nigel and I became really good friends during The Who film. We were friends outside of business as well, I play with his band sometimes – it’s lots of fun!
When The Beatles project came up, Nigel thought that my writing partner, Mark Monroe, and I would be the perfect fit, having made The Who, Last Play at Shea and Sound City so our names were put forward.
Ron Howard was attached, Imagine was attached and Mark and I were attached as editor and writer. It was lucky because with Last Play at Shea and Sound City, Paul McCartney had ended up in the finale of those films, so when our names were submitted to Apple and went upstairs to be reviewed, obviously they were already familiar with Mark and I for that reason.
Mark and I got the gig for our reputation, knowing him was an added bonus! Anyway, it came about that way, Nigel hired us. We sat down and met with Ron and Michael Rosenberg and talked about things. We also met with Jonathan Clyde and Jeff Jones from Apple. We met with everybody and had a powwow about how and what we could achieve and how to approach it. We all ticked the boxes and away we went.
It was brilliant! What a project to get to do! It was just ridiculous, I got to sit with all this Beatles archive for a couple of years and just spend time listening and watching them and finding the best parts. It was a very cool project to be a part of.
How long was the research period for The Beatles?
There was a company that first got involved with this, which was OVOW. They had been commissioned by Apple to locate as much unseen Beatles footage as they could find. They had been making inroads. They had spent quite a few years researching a whole bunch of media. Their research was then handed over to our production. OVOW was still a part of it, they co-produced the film and were still involved throughout.
They handed the research over to us and we started working with that in February 2014. Then around July of that year, we opened the edit bay and we started going through it and actually creating, digitising, making subclips and organising it in a much more precise fashion. Then we started getting the interviews together.
We spent the first four or five months writing a treatment, organising all the media we had, filtering the good from the bad and getting our principal interviews in the can. Then we really started editing the film on the back of that which was about February 2015. That was when we really started getting into editing the film, structuring it out, starting to lay it out based on the treatments, based on all of the discussions we’d all had.
How long did that take from starting the cut?
There is so much great material and it’s all good and there are so many great stories. I started to lay it out and it’s very easy to end up going day by day. I cut 45 minutes of material and we hadn’t even got to America yet. We had started in ’63 but we’d done a little backstory and then I watched the first few discs of The Beatles Anthology again. I can see why they made it just because you have all this stuff. I thought “I’m remaking Anthology, this isn’t right”. It was different, it was presented differently but essentially we were hitting too many of the same points.
I’d cut 45 minutes and upon review, we literally had to scratch it and start again and rethink slightly. That’s when it really sort of took film structure. We need to be here by 30 minutes and we need to be there by the hour mark and so we started structuring it more with trying to get places and realising that so much detail was going to have to be withdrawn and what we needed to focus on was the important things.
We started focusing on the bits that were more story driven and more emotional. We ended up with a story of brotherhood and the arc of their journey. For me, every time we were in the bubble, every time we heard them talking, whether it was in the studio or it was them with Larry Kane or whatever, those were the moments where it comes to life and that drew me in.
When I was listening to it and watching the cut back, that was the stuff that I could just listen to over and over today. We knew that was really where the strength lies. The more we hear from them and the more we hear from them in the moment, the stronger the film feels and whenever we could get into those moments with Kitty Oliver, with Whoopi Goldberg, with Sigourney Weaver and with Richard Curtis we did.
Richard’s a seven year old kid outside of a hotel in Sweden and you think to yourself “Why is Richard Curtis talking to me?” He’s a witness, that’s all, no other reason than he’s just a witness. He just happens to be Richard Curtis as well and we have access to him. Really he’s just a fan and it was the same with Sigourney and the same with Whoopi and also with Kitty Oliver who we found inadvertently through an article in the paper. These things really bring the intimacy of the moments to life, especially Larry Kane. They were actually able to talk to you as hands on witnesses. Then you can hear and see those moments they’re talking about actually portrayed and it really draws you in.
I feel like we were able to really get in the bubble, as it were. It really feels like we’re there for a lot of the film and I think that’s what makes the film as strong as it is.
It’s a very difficult process having to make a Beatles documentary. We’re up against a lot of others! It’s been done. The fact that someone’s making another one is just going to make people roll their eyes and go ‘Oh God, they’re making another Beatles doc.’
So how do we do this and not make people think that? How do we make people think this one is worth watching? That was always the struggle and we managed to find the magic that took it to a place that’s it at. I’m very pleased with it, I couldn’t be more proud of the way that it turned out.
— The Beatles (@thebeatles) September 15, 2016
What advice would you give to current or aspiring editors looking to work in documentaries?
If you’re aspiring to edit documentaries, you’ve got to remember that’s where the least of the money is. They’re not the most financially satisfying. For me, they’re certainly far more satisfying in a sense that the films I’ve made I’ve been happy to tell that story. I’ve been proud of every film I’ve made.
The fact that it might be about music, it might be about surfing or skateboarding, or The Who or Formula 1 racing or whatever it might be, I feel like I’m telling a true story, a real story. It’s so exciting.
Remember when you’re making documentaries, the easiest trap to fall into is wanting to use everything you shot. “I shot all this stuff, I know the backstory myself, I was there when I shot it so I’ve got to use it because this moment that I caught was brilliant”. There’s not always a way to portray that in the film and sometimes the best thing you shot isn’t the best thing for the film. What a lot of documentaries tend to do is get stuck and bog themselves down in areas where they really need to concentrate on story.
All I can say is think about arcing it as if it was scripted. Just arc your story that way. Find your first act, your second act and your third act. Find the big drama at the end of act two. Find the moment at the end of act one that kicks you into act two. Just work towards these different places and give it an arc that lets the audience feel as if they’re watching a film in the theatre and have the same emotional sort of spread. That’s how I always strive to make the docs. Make it feel like it has that arc, that you’re always going somewhere, you’re always moving forward.
As much as self-indulgence is fine – especially if you’ve got a style as a filmmaker – remember the self-indulgent moments are only important to you. They very rarely play for a broad audience. Just ask the question, when you’re putting the information in “Do I care?Does it really matter if we tell this bit or not? Can it do without that or does it need it?”
At the same time, I’ve always been very lucky to be able to do what I want to do. I try new things. I don’t like to be a cookie cutter editor. I’ve fallen more into that trap the more often I’ve been influenced by studios or anything like that. You sort of get painted into corners a little bit more.
Try and always keep it your voice. Make sure that you, as a filmmaker, are present within your film. That you don’t get completely blanked out. Make sure that there’s something of you in there. Follow your idea, if you really do think you’re right then follow your instincts.
Be smart about what you’re doing and think it all through. It’s very easy to get bogged down in a story thread that you just love – because it’s a well told story – but it really doesn’t help your film. It’s just slowing the film down. Those are the decisions in any film. Cutting the scene.
I read once that Scorsese said when he’s struggling with a film structure, he’ll take his favourite scene out of the film and see how the film plays without it and then he can find the real issue. There are ways to discover the strengths and the weaknesses in your film. I’ve been very blessed with the films that have come my way, it’s been quite a treat for the last 20 years.
Thank you, Paul!
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