Cutting the Horror Documentary!

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Cutting the Horror Documentary!

When I think about documentary, I usually think about two types: the fluff piece that promotes a celebrity’s new project, or the one that is going to change the world. 

There are actually many types of documentary. Documentary storytelling is about revealing the truth of an event, person, or subject matter. Or they are supposed to be about revealing the truth. Some docs are so skewed in their perspective that they don’t let the audience have a fair chance at making up their own mind. The facts are too manipulated. I tend to shy away from these types of documentary for this reason. I really have to search hard for a doc that I enjoy watching, which brings me to the subject of my latest post…


While I was working full time for a television network, a Producer friend of mine got a project on his plate about the movies that revived the teen slasher genre. That’s right, I am talking about the original Scream Trilogy. He was producing a feature documentary about the behind the scenes stories and the influence that Scream had on pop culture. I absolutely love the movies, and I really wanted to cut the project. We had already worked together previously and he trusted me to be the editor on the doc. 

So after I was cutting all day at my network show on Avid MC on a PC, I would come home and edit the doc on FCP7 on my MacPro. There was a lot of swearing involved when my fingers got confused and I would hit the wrong shortcuts for the wrong NLE. Whoops!


The format for the doc was to devote roughly 30 minutes to each movie in the trilogy so we would have a 90 minute feature. There were about 40 interviews to sift through and we were not going to use voiceover at all to tell the story. So that meant that we had to create a cohesive story about each film based on interview bites. We also used pictures, headlines, articles, and sound bites from the films. We had a short turnaround time for the doc and there were no transcripts for the interviews, so my director agreed to create a selects stringout for me for each film section. Since he directed all of the interviews and had a working knowledge of FCP, it worked out nicely.

When I received my first selects stringout, I put on my driving gloves (or ergonomic wrist brace) and started watching the selects and taking notes. Each of my three stringouts were 90-120 minutes long for sections that had to be 30 minutes each. I had less than a week to get each section cut down for content. There was no outline to work from, no script, and I had a general knowledge of the scream movies themselves. After watching the selects, my next step was creating my own outline based on the bites that were selected by the director. I didn’t know exactly what his priority of stories was, so I only cut out redundancies and bites that did not fit anywhere or offer some fun insight into the films. I reordered, cleaned up and created new story sections from random bites. When I was done, I sent the outline to the director so he could use it as a roadmap for his thoughts about the cut. I cut each section down to be about 15-25 minutes heavy. I always like to leave a lot of padding because it is easier to cut something out than to try to add story back in. This is especially true in documentary where you are actually writing the story in the edit. This gave my director a lot of leeway when it came to guiding the doc in the direction that he wanted. I also left markers where each story section started so that I could easily navigate my sequence while editing. 

The creative workflow on the project was a very healthy, collaborative one. We all have our projects that still give us nightmares because of the work conditions. I was allowed time to work with the cut, and then the director was given his time. After we felt comfortable enough with the cut, the producer would give his feedback. It was an open forum of creativity that really helped the project become the fun, pop culture documentary that it is.

Have I mentioned that I was also 8 months pregnant at the time that I was working at a network and cutting the feature documentary? Will power is a wonderful thing and it is what you need to survive in this business and grow in your career.

Until next time…

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