'Never say no to a director' Cutting Butterfly with editor Josh Cunliffe
Josh Cunliffe is a seasoned TV editor known for his work on New Tricks, Mount Pleasant, Wolf Hall, Hobly City, Stan Lee's Lucky Man and, most recently, ITV mini-series Butterfly starring Anna Friel. Here he tells Mandy News how he started out and about his process of cutting the show.
How did you get involved in editing and how did that take you into the film and television industry?
I started out working as a production runner and a floor runner. A long time before I even went to university I’d started working as a runner. One of the first productions I was a runner on was a Channel 4 drama called Melissa and the cutting room was next door to the production office. There was an editor called Colin Green working on it and I just thought it looked really interesting. I got quite friendly with Colin and he was nice enough to let me sit in with him whenever I got the chance.
I carried on working as a runner for a bit but from then I was hooked on editing and wanted to work in the cutting room. So I took whatever opportunity I could to get into cutting rooms.
How did you actually get involved with Butterfly? What was the method that you chose in terms of editing and process of working on that production?
Butterfly I think came about because I’d previously worked for Red Productions on the second series of Ordinary Lies. I’d got on very well with them, we had a good relationship and they asked me in for an interview for Butterfly. It was then that I met the director Anthony Byrne.
We had a nice chat and got on very well, which resulted in me being hired for the job. The show was shot and assembled in Manchester so I was there. I saw Anthony and the producer, Louise Sutton, but I didn’t end up spending any time on set. I tend not to go on set as an editor unless I really need to as I always feel a bit like a fish out of water. People tend to get quite nervous when the editor is on set because they think you’re there because something’s gone wrong and needs re-shooting. I always feel a bit awkward.
We did the assembly up there and then the fine cut in London. I had a really nice process with Anthony and he was very open to ideas. He basically said “surprise me, show me some stuff I haven’t thought of.” He was really open to different kinds of input in the fine cut so we had a really nice conversation going between us where we would just offer things up to each other. I think we got to a very good place in the edit because of that.
Red are very supportive and they have a very structured post-production process. Another really nice thing about Butterfly was that it was great to work with Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, the composers from Stranger Things who also did the music for us. They were in town at the time so they got to come into the edit. I think their music is really awesome and really lends a dimension to Butterfly that is really valuable.
When a director says to you “show me something that I haven’t seen before,” how do you approach trying to come up with something a little different or new?
It’s not so much trying to think of doing something new but just being true to what you think is the best version of the edit. What I most like about my job really is the fine cut, especially if you get a good process going with the director.
When it works really well, I think what happens is you offer them something that they maybe weren’t quite expecting just because you have a slightly different take or outlook on it. In turn, that provokes them to have other ideas and they say to you “well, how about we try it like this?” They then give you back something that you weren’t quite expecting. You go back and forth like that and end up somewhere where neither of you really saw it going in the first place, it’s a really surprising, exciting part of the process.
What was the show cut on and do you have a preference?
I started out on Lightworks but that didn’t last too long, unfortunately. It was a great system and I really enjoy working on it but for all kinds of reasons, it wasn’t well supported.
I moved over to Avid and I’ve been on Avid for many years. I know some people really enjoy the technical details of the work although I’m really not a huge technical editor, it’s not really where my focus is at all. I’m good enough with the equipment to get what I want out of it and Avid is very useful for that. It does what I need. I don’t really relish the technical side of the job, I’m much more concerned with the storytelling.
You’ve worked on lots of other television series. What has it been like working on long-running British shows like Holby City and The Bill?
I enjoyed working on those shows and both of them provide great working environments, which are very well-managed and run by very nice people. It’s nice to be part of something which is like an institution, in each case.
I think as an editor what you learn in those kinds of environments is to work very fast because they turnaround very quickly. I remember on Holby City you get two and a half days to fine cut an hour. So you really can’t waste any time whatsoever!
They’re very supportive and very realistic about what can be achieved in that time. Obviously, we’re not using music really so some things you don’t have to finesse in the way that you would if you had a big temp score to work out. But yeah, it’s a quick turnaround so you really do learn to move very fast and focus your mind as everyone’s having to turn around a lot of content, with the directors shooting huge amounts of material in a day.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced as an editor?
It changes. Sometimes it’s personalities, sometimes it’s storytelling. I always think if you go on to a project and the script isn’t in great condition to start with right from the beginning, you’re always patching holes. You’re finding ways of making things work that aren’t working very well. That’s the most difficult because you have a feeling it’s never going to be great but you’ve got to excavate something workable out of it. That’s really difficult.
I used to love the assembly because you’re left to your own devices, although I don’t really enjoy it so much anymore and instead I much prefer the fine cut. The most challenging part for me is if you’re in assembly facing a wall of rushes and you know that the script is not really working, but you’ve somehow got to make something hang together that you’re working against the odds with.
You’re in pre-production for a show called Beecham House. Could you tell us about that and anything else you’re working on?
I’m actually on a little hiatus on Beecham House. We had a shoot in Ealing Studios for a few weeks and now the unit has gone out to India where they’re filming on location there. I’m actually going to go out and join them in two weeks time myself where I’ll be on location in Jaipur for a month. Then we come back and fine cut in London.
It’s a really nice project. It’s a romantic adventure story set in the pre-Raj days of India. It’s about an English man who breaks away from the East India company because he doesn’t like their practices. He tries to set up as a trader by himself. It’s about the adventures he has there trying to set up his own business and the relationships he develops with local people.
It’s a really nice, big, fun, sumptuous Sunday night ITV adventure series. I think it’s going to be fun! In the past, I’ve worked on productions that have been to very exotic locations but they haven’t usually taken me with them. I’ve sat in smelly alleys in Soho watching rushes come back from Thailand and wished I was there in person, so it’s really nice to actually get to go there myself.
What advice would you give to aspiring editors?
In terms of finding work, who knows what the answer is? You have to let your work speak for itself. Do the best job you can.
In terms of technique, there are two things I’ve learned about editing. One is that whenever I’m really struggling with a sequence, whenever something doesn’t work very well, it’s because I’ve had too many preconceptions about how it should go together.
You just need to stay open to what the material offers you. Try and respect that. When you try and impose your own will on it too much or your own fixed idea of how something should turn out, that’s when it becomes really difficult and that’s when I always have trouble when I’m cutting.
The other thing is a bit of advice I think I read in a book somewhere but it was one of the most useful things I’ve ever come across. They said, “never say no to a director”. That’s not to say you don’t fight your corner or argue for what you believe in or make your case for your way of doing things. What it means is that your first response should never be a flat no. You should always say “let’s have a look at that”. I think that’s for a couple of reasons. One is because it reassures the director that you’re on their side and that you’re going to be a collaborator. The other is that when you’ve been in assembly by yourself and you’ve put a lot of work into it, it’s very easy to feel like it’s the best possible way of doing something.
If you’re always open – however crazy the idea might seem initially – then you can really learn something about new ways of approaching the material.