Verna Fields

Verna Fields was an American film editor, film and television sound editor, educator, and entertainment industry executive. Fields edited more than thirty motion pictures, including Peter Bogdanovich’s golden period of What’s Up, Doc ? (1972), Paper Moon (1973), and Daisy Miller (1974). She dragged George Lucas, her student at USC, into the studios, and she supervised editing on American Graffiti (1973), many have said that she made that picture. Then she edited The Sugarland Express (1974), Steven Spielberg’s first major picture. Then she cut, Jaws (1975).

Verna Field’s invented modern Hollywood

In her own word’s on editing

Cutting film is really very much a matter of feeling and rhythm, and a cut that is off rhythm will be disturbing and you will feel it–unless you want it to be like that. That’s my favorite story about the cutting of Jaws (1975)–each time I wanted to cut I didn’t, so it would have an anticipatory feeling. You don’t know whether those things will work or not, but it worked.

There’s a feeling of movement in telling a story, and there is a flow. I think the rhythm, to a certain extent, comes from the direction and what’s on the film, but when you’re running it, you kind of have a feeling that now is the time to cut.

I don’t know how else to say it. It’s a feeling you get, and there’s no way to really instill it. A lot of people have started cutting, and one of the early exercises that I recommend to these people is to get a lot of footage and cut to music. I don’t mean the beat, necessarily, but you’ll get what I mean by rhythm, because what you’re seeing and what you’re hearing will create a rhythm, and then you’ll see it.

The next time you look at a sequence, watch for the choices in pacing. A perfect example is the early beach scene in Jaws. There’s a lot of rhythm cutting there. It’s a quick pace. Then, I broke the pace for the sake of maximizing anticipation. You see a dog go in the water. You see a woman go in the water. You see someone else going in the water, and so forth. And what I tried–and it worked–was to hold longer than where I would have normally cut.

On making a scene compelling

A shot with no cutting at all has a tendency to just sit there, so if you’re going to just sit there, you’d better make sure you have something interesting. An example is the Indianapolis speech in Jaws by Robert Shaw. I have two takes on that speech. A 1,000-foot magazine of film ran out. If it weren’t for the fact that it ran too long in the middle of the picture, it could have played just like that. It was fantastic. It was compelling, and to cut away from it was almost a distraction.

I never cut away from a scene unless I feel I want to cut away, either because it’s not compelling me any more or because there’s something else in the scene that I must see. If I’m on a single or on a two-shot that is really telling me everything I need to know at that moment and is doing it well, why cut away from it?

Teaching effective editing
When I was teaching, it became a terrible nagging thing to convince students to code and log the film. At that time everybody had the feeling that all the old methods of editing hampered art and tied their hands. Students would say, “Why cut by numbers like they do in the studios? I’m not cutting by numbers. I’m cutting by what’s on the film.” I think the thing I was able to convince students of more than anything is that in order to achieve real freedom in editing, you have to be able to lay your hands on the exact piece of film you want when you want it.

There’s only one way to do it, and it’s really dull, tedious, painful work, but you must log and code your film. Then you know exactly where to find what. Otherwise, you’re not free. All the freedom young filmmakers talked about wasn’t really freedom at all, because they couldn’t find that close-up. It was at the bottom of the barrel somewhere, so they had to cut to a second choice.

You really have to get in the cutting room and practice editing. I can’t just tell you that you’ve got to have rhythm. You have to feel it. After the fact–after something is cut–you look at it and intuit what’s not working. The mechanics of it are not that hard to learn. When you’re cutting from a hand going here and want to pick it up over there, if you don’t know automatically where to cut, you can try every frame until you’ve got it right. That’s the mechanics of it.

To get an impression across or a dramatic point across or a story point, sometimes those things you thought would work just don’t, and you realize you must do something to make it work. After the fact–after it’s put together–is when you as a teacher can be the most help.

In some ways I wish the word ‘editing’ had never been invented–it’s a terrible word. I think it’s caused a lot of the problems with people feeling that there is some kind of friction between the director and the editor, because the word ‘editing’ implies correcting, and it’s not. In French it’s monteur. You’re mounting the film.

You need to be damn creative and intelligent and everything else to mount a film well, and you can come up with some great, creative ideas. I’ve got stuff in a lot of pictures that I’ve done that I’m enormously proud of. By God, I saved the picture.