‘CUTTING THROUGH’ – PAUL SWAIN

AN INTERVIEW WITH EDITOR PAUL SWAIN

Director Marc Furmie  has begun a series of interviews with highly respected Australian film professionals working in Hollywood. Furmie will explore what it takes for Aussie directors, writers, actors, cinematographers, Editors and designers to make the leap from a local to a successful international career. Additionally he’ll share how these talented people are navigating the COVID pandemic and the film industry’s challenges going forward. 

Our first edition features Paul Swain, award-winning Editor of successful Aussie TV shows such as 'A Moody Christmas', 'The Moodys', 'No Activity' and 'The Letdown' - who has since made the tremendous leap into mainstream Hollywood TV, working with stars such as Will Ferrell, J.K. Simmons, Walton Goggins, Hank Azaria and many more, on hit shows such as 'The Unicorn', 'Brockmire', 'American Vandal' and the US version of 'No Activity'.  Swain was awarded an Australian Screen Editors Ellie Award ‘Best Editing in a Comedy  for 'The Moodys'. 

Furmie sat down with Swain on the porch of his home in Studio City, Los Angeles to learn a bit about him and what it took for Paul to establish himself in Hollywood. 

(Paul Swain)


Did you grow up with a love for movies and television?

Growing up in the UK, we were a family that loved TV, especially comedies. We always watched the British classics like 'Fawlty Towers', 'The Goodies', 'Blackadder' and my favorite, 'The Young Ones'. Brits have a great sense of humor out of necessity. You can’t go outside because it's always raining or too cold, so you end up staying in, just having a laugh and watching a lot of TV. I definitely had no clue that sitting in front of the box back then would have such an impact on my future as a comedy Editor.

Starting out, what inspired you to get into editing?

I can trace it to one moment. I was 26, living in Hong Kong and working in the advertising industry as an account manager. We’d just shot our first commercial and I was in the edit suite watching (the Editor) cut the ad. I was amazed at how creative it was. How this guy could manipulate the story and select performances to hit certain beats. And I thought, ‘Wow, this is way more enjoyable than writing strategic briefs and dealing with annoying clients’. There was something about it that really appealed to me.

How did you get your first break as an Editor?

I had moved from Hong Kong to Sydney, and after working for (ad agency) Young & Rubicam, I ended up working for Google. This led to me starting my own search engine marketing (SEM) company, which was doing ok, but was creatively unsatisfying. I remembered how inspired I was sitting in that edit suite in Hong Kong 7 years prior. I knew that was what I wanted to do - become an Editor. Life is too short to work in a job you’re not enthused about nor great at.

I then proactively did two things, enrolled in a filmmaking course, and researched the key players from an industry publication called the 'Production Book'.

I used the book to compile a list of all the Sydney post-production companies and the names of the Head of Post for each company. With this list in hand I went on a cold-calling and cold emailing exercise to reach out to anyone that would give me a break or meet with me.

After many months of push back and rejections I finally wrangled an opportunity with a company called Digital Pictures, one of the largest post facilities in Sydney. I had reached out to their Head of Post and with respectful perseverance convinced her to give me a go. I worked there on an internship for about three months. It was brilliant, it exposed me to all facets of post production and more importantly gave me access to my first network of industry contacts.

Then through a client of my SEM company, I met Craig Wilson, who owned a boutique editing facility in North Sydney called ImagesPost. Craig was an absolute legend, and to my amazement, he offered me a space at ImagesPost to run my company in exchange for edit-assisting work. Over the subsequent years, the assisting gig turned into real editing jobs cutting smaller-budget commercials. Eventually I decided to close my SEM. So the opportunity Craig gave me was my first real break into the profession.

How did you transition to cutting bigger budget commercials?

After working with Craig for a number of years, I went out as a freelancer and scored a job with a production company called Jungleboys (now called Jungle Entertainment), founded by Jason Burrows. Luckily for me they did a lot of comedy branded content and commercials. I ended up being the in-house commercial cutter for about 6 years, as they grew into one of the most successful production houses in the country.

How many ads did you cut over those years?

Hundreds. Most being in the comedy genre.

I got to work with a lot of great directors including Abe Forsythe (director of 'Little Monsters' and the upcoming 'Robocop' remake), Scott Pickett, Al Morrow, Alethea Jones, Luke Eve, Wayne Blair, Christiaan van Vuuren (of 'Bondi Hipsters' fame), Craig Melville, Darren Ashton and most frequently with Trent O’Donnell, who is also a partner in the company.

And how did you get from doing those ads into doing long form stuff?

During my time at Jungleboys, the company had branched out into long form scripted comedy. Trent O’Donnell had written a show called A 'Moody Christmas'. And I asked him if I could cut it. And he said. “Oh, the network has got their eye on another Editor who had cut long-form before. As luck would happen she was already booked on another show and couldn’t do it. So Trent pitched the idea of me editing to the ABC, and they agreed, with the proviso that if I screwed up the first episode, I was out. I had confidence in myself and fortunately it went very well and I have been editing long form ever since.

I had a strong follow-up with the 'The Moody’s, 'The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting' (a sketch show), 'No Activity' and two seasons of 'Here Come The Habibs', which was Channel Nine's first big scripted comedy in 15 years.

What drew you to editing comedy?

I think it goes back to what I said about growing up in England, I was exposed to the British wit and a lot of comedies. I have a good sense of humor and always try to find the funny in situations, which certainly helps when cutting comedy.

I also thrive on the challenge of making something funny. Cutting comedy is not easy, landing a gag is dependent on so many variables, from the script to the actors performance, to the supporting actors reactions, pacing, rhythm, music, SFX...most scripted gags need quite a bit of crafting and shaping to make it work…and I love that process.

Tell me a bit about your process. 

In the early days, a veteran Editor advised me to make my early scene assembles as good as possible. Schedules are so tight in TV, and having something that is progressed further along the process saves a lot of time. So when I'm cutting my assembles, I pretty much fine cut them. I finesse performances and lay in sound design, music and temp VFX. And I make sure I cut alternate versions of scenes to try a different gag or structure to present to the director.

Once I have the story down, I’ll then go back to the dailies to analyze every take and start the process of crafting performance, especially the comedy. That could mean finding one word, or the end of a line that has the right intonation that helps nail the gag. So it’s imperative to take time to look through all the dailies, which can be hard these days with digital technology because a lot of directors like to let the camera roll, especially in the improv world, resulting in hours of footage.

On many occasions the director has been so happy with my “fine cut” assemble that it makes it to the final cut with little change. Which, over the course of the schedule, saves a lot of time. And that frees the director and I to explore other options. I must say though, there has also been a lot of recutting done during the director cut process.

The most important lesson I’ve learned over the years is to trust the process and avoid taking critical feedback personally. You have to leave your ego at the door. As Editors we are just one cog in a huge creative machine. We are bombarded with feedback, some great and some not so great, but it’s our responsibility to try suggestions. In my experience trying something that may sound unworkable usually presents a unexpected outcome that’s inevitably better for the show. It’s imperative to have a ‘can-do’ attitude, and do it with enthusiasm.

What prompted you to make the move to the US?

The allure of Hollywood wasn’t there for me, initially. It just felt like it was this big other world. Maybe I was a little intimidated by the whole thing. And at that time I was well established in Australia and working on great material.

Trent O’Donnell had subsequently moved to Hollywood and found great success directing shows like 'New Girl', 'Grace and Frankie', 'The Good Place' and 'Brooklyn 99'. He was doing really well. However he’d come back to Australia to shoot a series called 'The Letdown' written by his wife, Sarah Scheller, and actor/writer Alison Bell. I was in Redfern cutting the show. One morning Trent called me and said, “Hey, Paul, um, quick question. Do you want to come to Hollywood and work with Will Ferrell?” And I went “What?”. He said, “You got 10 seconds to decide,” and he started literally counting down. "10…9…8." And I said, "Trent, what do you mean?” .."6 …5… 4…" And he got down to zero and said, “Are you in?”….there was a moment and I went, “Sure, yeah. Why not?” He goes, “Okay, I’ll call you back,” and hung up. I rang up my wife and said,  “Um, hey, sweetheart, not sure what just happened but I might be going to Hollywood to work with Will Ferrell.”

So two months later, after my visa had been approved, I flew to LA and started work on the show. That was back in September 2017. It was all very surreal, one minute I'm in Redfern, Sydney and the next minute I'm in Hollywood shaking Will Ferrell's hand and cutting material featuring Ferrell, Bob Odenkirk, JK Simmons and Amy Sedaris amongst others. The cast was unbelievable. The show was the US remake of Trent’s Australian 'No Activity'. It had been sold to Funny or Die and picked up by CBS All Access. The show went really well and my introduction to working in Hollywood was amazing, I loved it. So much so, that after my wife and kids had come over for a visit, we decided, as a family, to roll the dice and relocate on a more permanent basis. Before I knew it, we had sold our worldly possessions, rented out our house in Sydney and were back on a plane to LA with 7 suitcases.

(Paul working on 'No Activity')

How did you manage to get noticed and secure more work in Hollywood?

Luckily for my return to Hollywood, I’d secured a show for Netflix called 'American Vandal', another Funny or Die production. I was hired to cut season two. From there things snowballed. After 'American Vandal' I cut a show called Brockmire with Hank Azaria. Then back on to 'No Activity' US season two. So the first year was amazing and I was very encouraged.

However, it very quickly becomes clear that you’re a small fish in a very big pond.  When I landed here I didn’t think I needed an agent because I had work, but you soon realize that to have a long-term career, and grow beyond your niche, you need to know people.

This is very different to back in Australia, representation isn’t a big thing for Editors, although that may be slowly changing.

Securing an agent in Hollywood isn’t easy when you’re new in town. It’s all based on your credits and early on, I didn’t have enough US credits. Unfortunately, Australian credits don’t carry much weight here, but after that first year of back to back shows, I got a lot of interest from different agencies. And by year-end I had signed on with a prestigious agency that specializes in below-the-line talent. It’s very humbling and inspiring to be on the same client list as one of the original 'Star Wars' Editors.

And then there’s the importance of joining the Motion Pictures Editors Guild in order to work for the studios. Having a powerful Union to protect your rates and welfare is amazing. It’s something Australia really needs because Editors work just as hard and are just as dedicated.

In Hollywood, the competition is fiercer. How do you reconcile that?

You’re working with the world's best which can be a little intimidating. For example I’ve recently been working with a couple of Emmy award-winning Editors-turned directors. And they remind you of that: “Hi. I'm so-and-so. You may not know, but I'm an Emmy Award winning Editor”. So you have to raise your game but also back yourself.

That being said, I like the pressure and the competition. I think it brings out the best in you. We all have insecurities. But I try to park them and trust my instincts. Once I’m in that seat cutting, I rarely think about it.

What’s it like collaborating with some of these big directors, stars and showrunners?

One of the highlights so far has been working with writer/director John Hamburg, a big comedy filmmaker, who wrote and directed 'Along Came Polly', 'I Love You Man' and 'Why Him?'. He also wrote 'Zoolander', 'Meet the Parents' and 'Meet The Fockers'. He’s super nice and very generous and respectful in the edit suite. At first I was shitting myself, but soon realized we had similar comedic sensibilities, and got on very well.

I believe most directors want an Editor who has a voice in regard to cutting a story. With John, I didn't feel restricted to tell him, "Well, here’s your cut, but here’s an alternative cut that I find funnier,” and he’ll respectfully watch it and go, “Sure, great, let’s put it in”.

Another great example of a strong creative collaboration was working with Hank Azaria on the third season of 'Brockmire'. Hank was lead actor and executive producer on the show and he’s been doing comedy for over 30 years. I was told that he was very particular and would want to review every take and every performance in each scene, and change the Editor's cut accordingly, so I was a little nervous. The first day of the "Hank" cuts, he was on-screen, live from New York (where he lives), sitting at his desk, with a plethora of Emmy awards on shelves behind him, simultaneously receiving a massage from a professional therapist. ‘Crikey, welcome to Hollywood’, I thought.

As it turned out, he really appreciated my work and was very receptive to suggestions. I think he was relieved our comedic instincts were aligned, and that I was willing to voice my opinion, but more importantly, I was happy to try his suggestions. And in another surreal Hollywood moment, he took my number and personally called me months later to see if I could cut the entire next season. To this day, seeing "Hank Azaria" come up on my phone is very bizarre. And just quietly, I was gagging to ask him to do a "Moe" from the Simpsons impression, but never had the balls.

I was also fortunate enough to work on a show called 'The Unicorn' starring Walton Goggins. He’s traditionally a very intense, dramatic actor, but for this show had to play it very different. He trusted the writing to be funny, played it straight, and with a little help from me in the edit, it came out great. He was another ‘good’ guy, very friendly, and respectful. That show was a great experience and it rated really well in the US.

Where would you like to see your career moving forward?

The goal, which is currently in process, is to work on a comedy feature film. The idea of working in the trenches with a director for a longer period of time, brain-storming ideas, problem-solving and having more creative input is something that I’m striving for.

And what are you working on next?

I have been invited back to cut season two of 'The Unicorn', which I’m delighted about. I feel very humbled they invited me back, and it feels great to have your work validated. I’m not 100% sure when it’ll happened, with COVID , but am hopeful sometime this year.

How do you feel production and post-production will change in the wake of the corona virus?

This has been an unbelievably devastating blow to the industry. Everyone I know has been out of work for months and minimal new content is being made. It has been heartbreaking to witness. Having said that, for the Editors who have been working, remote cutting has become a reality. New systems allow seamless integration from an Editor’s home system to the Avid suite at the post facility. In a city where the traffic is so congested, the prospect of avoiding hours in a car each day is also a real joy for many.

In terms of production, there are many changes being implemented by the studios and unions regarding safety protocols. Scenes may have to be blocked and shot differently with actors in separate shots. And perhaps we’ll have to do a lot more VFX work as Editors.

How do you think the pandemic has affected the industry’s future?

I'm hoping that because there's been minimal content made over the last six months, we’ll experience a kind of renaissance next year. Networks are screaming for content and writers have been working their arses off. So once these protocols are implemented and the teething problems worked out, shooting will recommence, resulting in an abundance of work for everyone.

I’m super excited and positive about next year. Working remotely will hopefully widen the scope to jump on Australian or international projects while maintaining a base in LA.

What advice would you give to an aspiring Editor trying to get into the industry or follow in your footsteps? 

I would say that you have to be persistent and tenacious. I have a mantra - “persistence beats resistance”. Try to meet industry folk and if they don’t get back to you, follow up every couple of months, don’t give up. Also just go for it. I mean if someone told me when I was a young 18-year-old printer in the UK that I’d end up working in Hollywood as an Editor, I’d say they were nuts.

In regards to editing, cut as much and as often as you can. The more you do it, the better you get. If you’re an Assistant, ask the Editor if you can cut a scene, even if that means staying back after work or over the weekend. If an Editor sees your commitment and enthusiasm, they’ll be more inclined to give you a break. And when you do cut a scene, trust your instincts, don’t second-guess how someone else would cut it. Once you’re happy with it, ask the Editor if they have time to critique your work, and do not get defensive when they do.

If you do get an opportunity to come to a Hollywood, it's not going to be easy. It's a really tough town, you need thick skin. There are thousands of very qualified and talented people here, so be prepared for a long, hard journey. Having said that, it’s bloody amazing and worth the risk.

I’m definitely still learning about the workings of Hollywood, and I have a long journey ahead of me, but I have no regrets rolling the dice and giving it a crack. And neither should you.

By Marc Furmie "courtesy of 'Filmink'"

August 26 2020

(eNews #99, August 2020)

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