'Keep banging on doors' Ghost Stories editor Billy Sneddon on cutting comedy and starting out
Billy Sneddon is a British film and TV editor know for modern, classic comedy movies such as Chris Morris's Four Lions and Armando Iannucci's In The Loop as well as a string of hit TV shows including The Inbetweeners, The Thick of It, The Catherine Tate Show and Smack The Pony. Here he talks to Mandy News about his latest project Ghost Stories, a supernatural thriller starring Martin Freeman, as well as detailing how he started out in the industry.
Billy, please introduce yourself and tell us how you got involved in the film industry.
I started out in advertising as a copywriter, but was pretty terrible at it and got made redundant. I then decided the production side of advertising looked like more fun, so started running on commercials shoots, and met an editor in a pub who needed an assistant. I didn’t even know what editing was, but that didn’t stop me telling him it was all I ever wanted to do. Luckily, he bought it and gave me the job. He had a couple of Steenbecks and a Umatic tape-to-tape editing system, which was horrendous to operate. Pretty soon after I was hired we bought one of the first new fangled computer editing systems, called an Avid. I immediately knew this was the future. Unboxing the thing was like a crap Indiana Jones moment. After that, things moved pretty fast. The technology was new, so if you figured out how to work it you were instantly in demand.
I once got flown to Germany just for two days work, which seems nuts but that’s the way it was. I got a job as the first full time Avid editor at post house Molinare, who are still going strong today, where I started doing broadcast TV. Back then there wasn’t much crossover from TV to film, but I had cut The Thick of It for Armando Iannucci, and he wanted to make a film version, which became In the Loop, so that was my first film job.
How did you get involved with Ghost Stories?
Although I was a fan of both writer/directors (Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson), I’d never met them so had to go through the interview process. Luckily, we got on great. They’re lovely blokes. Although I’m in no way as big a geek as those two, I do love a lot of British horror from the '70s and '80s, and I’d worked with Warp Films before, so that probably helped.
I actually think the interview process is mostly about demonstrating you understand the material, and establishing a relationship. They’ve seen your CV already, so then it’s about trying to figure out if you can all stand being stuck in a room together for several months. I also love working with Writer/Directors. The failed writer in me wants to get as close to the source of the material as possible.
Can you tell us about the process of editing Ghost Stories? When you came on board, how long was the process, what did you cut it on, etc...?
It took about 20 weeks, including a five-week shoot, which is about average for a film. I’ve got my own Avid so I always use that. It’s still the best system so I can’t see the point in even trying anything else, plus I’m far too old to change my ways now...
I had a cutting room on set, and Andy and Jeremy would come by at the end of each day to see how it was all fitting together. Normally, the director wouldn’t have time for that on a shoot, but I think they just needed some reassurance that it was working. Working with two directors sounds like a recipe for trouble, but in fact it was remarkably smooth. We developed a kind of unwritten democracy in the edit, so if one of us had a duff idea, the other two would vote it down. Also, they had been with the project for years as a stage play and then film script, so understood the material inside out.
All of us have spent our entire careers collaborating with other people, so it worked really well. I’d never cut a horror movie before, (although it’s probably more of a supernatural thriller really), I’m mostly a comedy guy, so it was fascinating to be in a new genre. There are a lot of similarities actually. You could argue comedy and horror are different sides of the same coin really, in both cases you are looking for that visceral release of emotion, and the construction of a joke is so similar to a scare.
Without giving away any detail, at one point in the film, something is revealed in a dark basement, and they must have shot it 50 different ways, and we spent a huge amount of time in the edit trying them all out. Creating a scare is often just trial and error. Every situation is different, so if you can shoot all the options it just gives you tremendous freedom in the edit to try things out.
Test screenings were also hugely helpful. There’s no hiding from an audience in this genre, if they don’t scream it’s back to the drawing board...
You have worked quite a lot with Chris Morris. Could you tell us a little bit about that and the different approaches to working on a series and feature film? And as a personal one for one of our staff... how did you approach editing Jam?
I can’t take much credit for Jam, I only worked on it for a couple of weeks due to availability issues, the vast majority of it was done by others...
I first got to work with Chris on the pilot for a sketch show called Big Train. To this day I’ve no idea why he hired me. I hadn’t done much at the time, but it must be the biggest break of my career. Working with him is an absolute joy. People seem to think of him as this brooding dark overlord of black comedy which is hilarious as he’s nothing like that. He’s only interested in the work. There’s no concern in self promotion or fame, so I suppose there’s an information vacuum there that has to be filled with nonsense...
We work in quite an unusual way, which has been developed over the years. Chris can work an Avid, so he has it all on his laptop, and sits in his office, and we communicate mostly by emailing Avid bins back and forth. Normally, a director will like to sit down and view all the rushes with the editor, but this is pretty time consuming, and I’ve already been through it all while creating the first assembly cut during filming. So Chris will go through the rushes for a scene on his own, and then email me his thoughts. I’ll then throw in a few ideas of my own, look at the assembly cut and create a new version. While I’m doing that, he’s off looking at some other scene.
It saves a lot of time because we are never working on the same sequence at the same time. It works for us, but I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone as it requires a massive amount of trust from both parties that one of you isn’t going to go flying off at a tangent. Also, comedy is so much about personal taste, and luckily we both seem to find the same things funny...
What do you have planned for the rest of 2018, and beyond?
I’m currently working with Chris Morris on a film project, but I can’t tell you anything about it or else I’ll end up in the mincer. After that I’m going for a nice lie down in a dark room for a while, I’ll be knackered. I’ve also cut Stan and Ollie, a Laurel and Hardy biopic directed by Jon Baird. I think it might not be out for a while, but I’m excited to see what people make of John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan, I really think they’ve nailed it...
What advice would you give to someone wanting to become an editor or assistant editor?
You only get good at something by diving in head first and doing it, so just get yourself into a position where you have access to equipment and start doing freebies in your spare time. Even if you can’t get hold of an Avid, there’s plenty of cheaper alternatives you can get to grips with on any home computer. Sooner or later, you’ll do something that gets you noticed.
And don’t be afraid of being a pest, put yourself about and keep banging on doors. There’s loads of work out there, especially in TV land now there’s streaming, and millions of channels all needing content.
Find this editing article useful? Check out our interview with Pia Di Ciaula, editor of Paddy Considine's latest film Journeyman.Tags: