In 2013, Film Independent Project Involve Mentor and editor Kelley Dixon won an Emmy for Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Drama Series for her work on Breaking Bad. This year, Dixon was a double nominee in the same category for Better Call Saul.
Film Independent caught up with Dixon to talk about her career, her role in the infamous Reservoir Dogs “ear scene” and the changing landscape of television.
Do you see TV as becoming more like film in that the creators now know where the story will end and are writing toward it?
I guess that’s sort of true. This is just my opinion, and it’s a lot of me seeing how Breaking Bad went and just looking at the way things work, but I don’t think that writers in television necessarily know what that ending is going to be. A lot of times now days they know they would like to write to an end. In the earlier days, networks wanted television shows to go on forever and ever because they make money, but lately with the success of some of the more recent television shows, these writers are saying, “Look, we have a certain amount of story to tell and then it’s going to be over.” Whether that’s three years or five years or thirteen episodes or thirty episodes, they want to write to an end. [Breaking Bad creator] Vince Gilligan has gone on record many, many times saying that he wanted to write to an end, but he wasn’t sure where that end was. And I know from season to season, a lot of times they didn’t know where that end was, but they knew that they wanted it to wrap up. I was with Vince Gilligan on the pilot and I asked him many times, “Hey, what happens next?” And he said, “I don’t know. It doesn’t look good for anybody.”
A feature is going to pretty much be about 120 minutes—if you’re Scorsese, 160 minutes—but they’re going to have an act structure: a beginning, a second act where things start to change and then a wrap-up. But in television they have a ridiculous amount of time for character development that you’ll never have in features. It’s a way different thing to tell a 30-hour story than it is to tell a two-hour story. And that’s what I love about television, now especially and I don’t think it’s going to change at all. I love the fact that television stays with you way longer. You go to the movies and you’re done in two hours. If the movie is really good, you might talk about it for weeks or months, but with television, you can talk about it for a couple of years because you’re still in the middle of that story.
When you started out in editorial, did you want to work in television? What was your dream job then?
When I started out in editorial, features were king and feature assistants were highly-paid individuals. The way I saw it, all you had to do was be a really great feature assistant and you could make several thousand dollars a week and you didn’t really have to go look for work because you were always working with the same editor and that editor would get jobs. So all you had to do was get the phone call and say, “Okay, I guess we’re going to China today.” Or, “This month we’re going to Morocco.” I was really wanting to be a heavy hitter film assistant who works with the same editor and has a great relationship with that editor and goes to all points of the globe and is really highly paid and has a great life and is able to brag to their friends about all the amazing features they’re on. And that never happened. I got close a couple of times, but it never happened.
You’ve worked on some brag-worthy features. [Dixon was first assistant editor on Reservoir Dogs and Good Will Hunting, among others.]
I’ve worked on some nice features, but that dream was never the reality. When I first started out, editing was just starting to go non-linear. Features were only done on film and only done in the way that they had been done for the last 50 years. And television was more interested in going non-linear. Features were a lot slower to adapt non-linear editing, maybe because a lot of the feature editors were older guys that said, “Why change it if it’s not broken?” But I started out as a production assistant in television and the editors that I was being mentored by were in television, and we were working on non-linear systems. So that’s what I learned first. And then I knew that if I wanted to work in features, I had to learn film editing. So I went to a couple of people that I was working with and at one point Ed Zwick, the director of Glory who was my executive producer on Thirtysomething, was editing Glory and his cutting room was across the street from the Thirtysomething office so he made it so I could go there and start learning film from those assistants. So by the time I actually was an assistant editor, I was well-versed in both. And I found here in town that there were very few people who could do both. It was a big difference in languages. There was definitely a dexterity in cranking film and splicing and being fast at it and understanding how a feature cutting room works. And the film assistants had no need to learn non-linear systems because they were only used in television and features were king. So everything stayed very separate. If you came up in television, you pretty much stayed in television. And it turned out that I was one of the few people who was well-versed in both. I could move back and forth in both disciplines and it helped me out a lot.
It’s interesting that you love television now, but back then it was movies where all of the excitement was.
Everybody thought that. No disrespect to anybody back then, but television just didn’t hold my interest. They were doing things like Dallas. Television was just sort of a week-to-week kind of thing. And features were like big, gigantic, cool movies. And all of your heroes were the film directors and the editors and television was just this thing. I got very lucky being the right age at the time, when it started to evolve into something else. I think television, from let’s say the early 90s to now, has been evolving at a very rapid pace compared to the previous 20 years.
When I got on Thirtysomething, I knew that it was different. [Dixon was a production assistant on the ground-breaking ABC drama series.] I was a little bit too young for Thirtysomething, but I had a lot of respect for it because I knew that it was changing the norm of television. At that point, people were wanting to come home and watch a lot of comedies or watch something that was very different than their own lives, and I think what [series creators Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick] did with Thirtysomething was put regular life on television, with all of its depressing moments and all of its hard moments. Even the filming style was very different. It was almost what you might think of an independent movie at that time, but on television. They were probably two of the smartest filmmakers that I had ever met. And they were incredibly generous. They and other producers on the show really made it possible for me to start to look at what I really wanted to do. I’m very glad that was my first experience. I thought all TV productions were like that and I found out very quickly that that was not the case.
It wasn’t long after that that you did Reservoir Dogs. Were you in the cutting room when there was the disagreement about whether or not the ear scene would stay in?
No. Everybody sees my resume and the think I had everything to do with Reservoir Dogs. Unfortunately it’s not as romantic as all that. First assisting on a feature is a really labor-intensive job. The highly-paid first assistants were getting maybe $3000 a week at that point. Sally Menke met with me to be a first assistant, but I didn’t have the experience to be a first assistant, and Reservoir Dogs was being done independently and they had no money. And I knew that if I did that job I would work at least 12 or 13 hours a day and then another four or five hours that day fixing the mistakes that I would inevitably make. I turned the job down in the summer, and they called me back again in December because they’d gone through about four or five first assistants. I came on to finish the film, and by that point we had actually locked the picture but the ear scene was still in flux because they were having to deal with the MPAA. They didn’t want to give the film an R-rating; they wanted to give it an NC-17 because of the ear. I was never really privy to any of that. What I did have was several versions of different edits of that ear. And they were all sitting as pieces of rolled up film. And obviously we tried the most egregious one, sent that to the MPAA. They were like “No, no, no.” So I had to come back to the cutting room and cut the next one in. So no, I really was never a part of that, if that’s the legend out there, then let’s set that record straight. All I really did was cut the versions that Sally Menke and Tarantino wanted to try next. And I would just say, “Okay, this is alt-1, cut that version in, roll it back up and get the movie back over to the MPAA. I did a lot of driving.
Talk about making the move from assistant editor to an editor and your involvement with Breaking Bad. How did that all go?
I was an assistant editor for a really long time and I think it was because I was chasing the dream of being a feature assistant. I would edit for different people, different mentors of mine if I was on jobs with them. And I always got a lot of praise. I always got a lot of people saying, “Wow, you’re really talented. You should really start thinking about moving up.” And I was like, “Well, I really want to be on features, and I really want to travel the world. It was really romanticized for me. So I was chasing that dream for a long time. And I got close. Probably Good Will Hunting was the closest I got. But then right after that I got television calls for some reason. I just got a lot of TV calls and I started assisting in television more and I started seeing that it was much easier to move up. And once my friends started to get bumped up, I started saying, “Wow, I really need to change my ideology and my thought process here. And I need to start working for editors who are going to let me cut a lot.” And so I was on a television mini-series called Revelations. I think it was in 2005, and through that I met Lynne Willingham who was one of my editing heroes because she had done several seasons of The X-Files. And I got along great with Lynne. And I went and did Without A Trace with her for a year and a half and then she got Breaking Bad. And she said to me, “Do you want to come with me on this pilot or do you want to stay here?” She thought maybe they would move me up and give me her spot. And I said, “No way. I’ll always go and try to work for the X-Files guy, Vince Gilligan.” And the script seemed fun. And that was absolutely the right decision to make. We did the pilot and I didn’t cut as much as I had wanted to, but I did cut the meth-making montage and one other scene. And that was enough for Vince Gilligan and Sony Pictures to let me have the second editor job on Breaking Bad if it got picked up. And luckily it did.
Has anything changed in the way you cut TV now that it’s being consumed differently?
I don’t think that much has changed in the way that I approach footage. As you evolve as an editor, as you get more and more practice, you learn to analyze dailies in different ways and you get quicker at it. But yeah from episode to episode, my process hasn’t changed. I look at the dailies pretty much the same way. And unless somebody has come to me beforehand saying, “We want to do it in all closeups,” I will look to be a little bit more wide because I personally think it’s more interesting. Assistants, especially assistants that I’ve worked with that start cutting, ask me a lot, “I looked at the dailies and I want to make sure I did them like you would do them.” And that’s all flattering and I’m not saying you should never do that, but honestly, you need to develop your own style. And what I tell them is, “I’m letting you cut because I want to see what you can do. I don’t want you to try and second-guess me. I can always recut the scene.” And they say sometimes it takes them a long time because they’re second-guessing themselves. And I say to them, “When I go to a new job, I do the same thing. I start to second-guess: Are they going to like this? What do they like? What is their aesthetic? And you have to remember that they hired you for yours. Just try and look at the way the footage speaks to you and what’s in your heart, and do that. And then if they want you to change, they’ll tell you.” If it really goes off the rails, they’ll fire you. But you shouldn’t be upset about that either because usually it’s just because you’re not seeing eye to eye. It’s kind of the nature of this business. It happens all of the time. It hasn’t happened to me yet. I’ve been close. People want a certain thing and they think they see it in their heads and you work really hard to try and get it there and sometimes you succeed. Hopefully most of the time you succeed.
Tom Sveen / Film Independent Blogger