Translated from Hebrew by Aryeh Naftaly
I first met Era Lapid in early 2001 while collaborating on the television drama I Am Purim (Assaf Bernstein, 2001). This was the first installment of a fascinating extended cinematic master class that has been running for almost 14 years straight between me – the student – and her. The discussions I've had with her about every one of the films we worked on together (as well as many others) since that first film have always added an eye-opening and meaningful tier to the way I think, see and hear cinema. Her total immersion in her work as well as her tendency to edit films without music until a very advanced stage have profoundly influenced the way I approach work on a new film. Every new film. My motto, which says that music is unnecessary until proven otherwise, would never have come to be if I hadn't met Era Lapid. In this context it's important to mention that many of her documentary works, such as Checkpoint (Yoav Shamir, 2003), My Name is Ahlam (Rima Issa, 2010) or Just Married (Ayelet Bechar, 2005) have no music at all.
Lapid's intense emotional involvement in the documentaries she edits focuses on the almost sisyphean effort to sift the most precise film possible from the tens or hundreds of hours of raw footage constantly dumped on her desk – the cheaper shooting and recording equipment become, the higher this number gets. This effort to attain perfection sometimes continues years after the film is released while she utterly ignores accomplishments, honors and accolades. In fact, if there's one thing I'm really apprehensive about in approaching this interview, it's the inevitable distress that the implied compliments I couldn't help interweaving between the lines will cause her.
There are many films which, after I finish editing them, I do a sort of soul-searching about the shots I used, the shots I didn't use. Scenes and other things. Not that I watch the films afterwards. I have a very hard time with that. Naturally, I watch them along with the audience at premieres. That's very important to me. But I'll never sit alone at home afterwards and watch a film I edited.
Why not? Take a little pride in your work.
You say pride, I say torment.
Torment which includes, and I say this apprehensively, things that have to do with the soundtrack?
Of course. Take Checkpoint for instance. There isn't one note of music. But there is a powerful sense of space, a lot of wind. To this day I feel it was a mistake not to pay as much attention to the sound as I could have. I thought the soundtrack should envelop the viewer much more, from all different directions. I mean, since the checkpoints we saw in the film are located at the entrances to cities, I thought one side of the stereo field should be urban and the other side, nature.
With the film itself serving as a sort of checkpoint?
Exactly. It's right in the middle and it experiences the two sides. And that didn't happen. That sensation, which I thought was so important, wasn't created. On one side, birds, and on the other side, a city.
I'm very impressed that you still berate yourself more than a decade after the fact.
Don't overdo it. I can't remember many of the problems of structure and working on the film any more. I'm always thinking about the problems with the last film I edited, but I'm haunted by blunders and things I can't get over years after the fact.
Perhaps this is the place to mention that Checkpoint is one of the most successful documentary films ever made in Israel, the only one ever to win the prestigious IDFA Prize, a film that has participated in and won awards in countless other festivals, aired on hundreds of TV stations all over the world and garnered excellent reviews – all this without the stereophonic dichotomy she fantasized about. Naturally, I dare not even allude to these details.
It's quite possible that the stereo effect wouldn't have worked at all.
Of course. Often these ideas which, intellectually, are so attractive, don't actually work. I remember, for instance, that when I watched the raw footage for My Name is Ahlam I noticed that the mother never stopped talking. I thought I'd use this element in the soundtrack sort of like Visconti in Bellissima (Luchino Visconti, 1951), when Anna Magnani takes her daughter to auditions and she talks obsessively, almost compulsively, about how her daughter is going to be an actress. Ultimately, when I tried this along with the picture, and I placed the mother's incessant talking under a few visuals, I realized she's basically saying the same thing over and over again. Like a mantra. And the main effect that created was discomfort. So yes, in the final version of the film the mother comes out looking strong and dominating and quite talkative, but the obsessive talking I wanted in the soundtrack just didn't work.
You talk about the process of viewing raw footage, and I wanted to ask: How do you approach editing a new film?
These days, as we all know, there are inexpensive cameras with almost unlimited possibilities, and the amount of footage that makes it to the editing suite is far more than before, which, by the way, only makes me happy.
Absolutely. Because I try to see what's going on in the footage itself. I definitely know and hear what the directors I work with have in mind. I very much want to fulfill their wishes, thoughts and aspirations. But I have to try to make them fit in with the footage itself, to blend them together. The camera doesn't lie. It conveys the truth, and I think that's a wonderful thing. In filmmaking, unlike many other arts, facial expression can't lie. The camera rests on a person's face and you feel every nuance. In opera, if a 50-year-old woman sings the part of Sleeping Beauty, that's fine. What's brought across is her voice, her quality. The same is true of an actress's monologue in theater. In cinema that doesn't work. It has to be believable, which is why, especially in documentary film, with all the intentions and wishes you approach it with, there's something that comes together and takes place in the footage itself. Sometimes it fulfills the demands of the statement of intention and sometimes it doesn't. With the amount of footage shot nowadays it's easier to discover these cinematic secrets.
Are you talking about something that comes together during the shooting process or the editing process?
During shooting; the resulting footage itself. But you aren't always aware of it while you're shooting. The rushes, the footage that's shot, has what I describe as an existence and secrets of its own which I feel it's my job to bring out. At least to reach the point where the people I work with see what the footage has within it beyond their initial wishes and intentions.
You mean the filmmaker's point of view? The story and the narrative? The idea at the heart of it?
Look, for instance, in Life According to Ohad (2014), Eri Daniel Ehrlich, the director and cinematographer, took his camera and on each shooting day, from the moment he met Ohad, hardly took his finger off the trigger. That's how we got, for instance, a lot of footage of the path that leads to his parents' front door and to the elevator. Then we turned Ohad's repeating ascent and descent in the elevator to his parents' apartment into a kind of cinematic punctuation. In Sentenced to Marriage a similar thing happened with the shooting in the hallways of the rabbinic court.
In My Name is Ahlam, for example, the punctuation of the film is manifested by very pretty shots of scenery interwoven into the film. And a lot of people came up to me and said: Listen, the passing of the seasons in those shots of scenery is spine-tingling, is gives us a sense of the passing of time. Well, all those seasons were shot on one 15-minute cassette – out of 80 hours of rushes. And they're all from the same season.
In some of the films we've worked on together, and also others that you edited, the music, too, as I recall, played a part in determining the nature of those "punctuation marks."
I remember that in Sentenced to Marriage (Anat Zuria, 2004) the scenes of the hidden camera in the hallways of the rabbinic court, which originally had no sound, were given an alienated, unsentimental musical accompaniment which was the opposite of the powerful emotions present there. Music that was modern by nature, even futuristic. Every time the film went back to that "punctuation mark" we were given a reminder of how absurd the whole bizarre situation in the rabbinic court is, which is still functioning full-force in the 21st century.
When you start a new project do you watch all the footage? The tens or hundreds of hours?
I not only watch it, I write it down. I make all sorts of marks for myself about the feelings I had on the first viewing that I might not feel later on. When I watch the footage again while I'm working on it I want to know how I reacted to it the first time.
Do you watch it alone?
I watch it alone, but I welcome anyone who joins me. I watch everything from beginning to end. I write down anything that isn't in the minutes. A lost expression, a considered look accompanied by a certain silence, with no sound and no dialogue. These are much more important than any statement. I watch all the footage for the sake of these moments. Because you usually get the minutes and the dialogues printed out, and that's exactly the point that people can't understand when all they take into consideration is the dialogue. So many things happen just after lines, between lines, at the end of lines. In the hesitation, the confusion. I pile up the footage in my mind and start to organize it as a film. These are my first thoughts when I'm putting footage together for a film.
You mean the moments of silence, the poetic moments in which the viewer is given the opportunity to conduct a dialogue with the film, which are becoming rarer in Israeli films out of fear that the viewer will lose interest, will get bored…
On the other hand I'll quote Benny Nadav the filmmaker, who says: "I don't need silence. I work among the noise, because that's how the world is."
In the years before Israel had post-production studios, sometime in the mid-'90s, noise wasn't a choice, it was a technical constraint…
Are you kidding? You couldn't do a mix in Israel. The only mixing board we had had five channels, one of which was always broken. How can you work with such a thing? Nobody did mixing in Israel. Everyone went to London. Even I went to London a few times.
You did the mix for American Citizen (Eitan Green, 1992) at the holy temple of cinematic sound, Sound 1 in New York. How did you end up there?
The producer, Mark Rosenbaum, managed to get the studio at a huge discount during Christmas vacation.
And they say it's bad to be a Jew. What do you remember of that experience?
The first time I walked into Sound 1 I suddenly heard the heartrending yowling of a kitten. I said to myself, poor thing, how did it end up in a skyscraper in such an urban area? I followed the sound to help this poor kitten somehow. When I finally entered the room the sound came from there was no kitten there, just a technician who was playing the sound of yowling from a sampler into a tape recorder.
That's a great opening scene for a story.
That was the beginning. But first, a little background. The owner of the studio and the person who generously worked with us personally the whole time we were there was Elisha Birnbaum, an Israeli who emigrated to the US in the '50s and built the studio with his own two hands, which was used for mixing by Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Arthur Penn and many others. Anyway, on the very first day, after listening to what I brought from Israel along with the local technicians, what they call the scratch mix, Elisha called me aside so as not to embarrass me and said, "Listen, if this is all you've got, I suggest you don't waste the producer's money – take your things and go back to Israel." I said, "Listen, Elisha, I didn't come here to do American-style sound – that's just not going to happen."
What were they plotting?
For example, they wanted to get rid of twelve minutes of sound from scenes of a basketball game and redo it all using Foleys. The scenes were recorded with birds in the background, some in the bass range and some in the soprano. A real hullaballoo. Three months' work at least. But after Eitan Green, the director, also told them that we weren't interested in American-style sound, they gave in and I stayed. I worked like a madwoman. My first time in New York and I didn't see a thing. I went from where I was staying to the studio and right back. We came into the final mix with a hundred channels of sound. In the end, Elisha came in to listen and couldn't understand how we did it in such a short time. I told him that if knew how he'd send us right back to Israel because we certainly didn't do it the way Americans do.
Did you get a look at the other rooms while you were there?
Before we came back Elisha took us on a tour and we went into the mixing room where they were working on the movie Striptease (Andrew Bergman, 1996). Next to the console was a mixer whose faders move automatically – this was in the '90s, and after that I had nightmares about the faders moving by themselves. He had four assistants with him and a full house behind him. An effects editor with his three assistants. A music editor with three or four assistants. It was a huge crew. Elisha introduced me to them and said, "Look: she is all of you." More than being a compliment that was a testimony to the pathetic state of our sound.
What did you do back when you didn't have a budget to go abroad?
It all worked on pre-mixes. You squeeze four tracks onto one track and keep going. This required precise planning. If I put wind on a track I can't take it off later. I did quite a few mixes like that.
You even won an Academy Award for soundtrack design for Time for Cherries (Haim Bouzaglo, 1991).
Listen, I've always enjoyed working on soundtracks, but the sound quality in Israel was very bad. Only after visiting New York did I realize how little I knew. I didn't know what decibels are. I worked by ear. To me, soundtrack design meant trickles of color, like editing. But the quality, especially of field recordings, was so bad that you couldn't use music freely because then you couldn't hear anything. We constantly had to decide between music and field sound. It was nearly impossible to use both.
When did this start to change in Israel? When did you feel like Israel was catching up?
When I was working on Tears Fall by Themselves (Eitan Green, 1996), where there was a problem of field sound that we had to recreate. We had to post-sync almost the whole movie. But then D.B. Studios started to change over from being a music studio to a post-production studio. I think this was Gil Toren's second mix after Saint Clara (Ari Folman, Ori Sivan, 1996) and he came from the music world. The big change in Israeli soundtracks came when the big music recording studios got into post-production for cinema and television. But field recording in Israel can still stand improvement. The budgets are low, people pay less attention, the equipment isn't high-quality, and you pay a high price for this afterwards. Sometimes we people with normal hearing need the subtitles for the hard of hearing.
I want to talk about music a little. The obvious first question is: Is there a difference in your approach to the music for a documentary as opposed to a feature film?
I'll give you an example from a feature film I edited recently, Policeman (Nadav Lapid, 2011). At first the movie wasn't meant to have music. At a screening of the rough cut one of the viewers said he felt like music was lacking, some kind of "musical presence," he called it. We tried to figure out what he meant and that led to us putting music in toward the end of the film, a Beethoven piece, where in a sense the drama is at its height. We placed it such that it overrides the dialogue and the action and puts them into the background, making them stronger but also farther away. This was different, I assume, than what that viewer had in mind and what we had in mind at first. I think we did the right thing. But what I'm getting at, beyond this specific example, is that this very thing can also happen in a documentary film. In other words, the difference in terms of the soundtrack isn't between a documentary and a feature film, the difference is between one film and another. Every film needs the solution that's right for it. You have to invent the soundtrack for each film from scratch.
Can you put into words your minimalist approach to music – to the use of music in the documentary and feature films you edit? From my experience with you, you almost always build the framework, and sometimes much more than the framework, without music, and only at the end, if at all, you consider adding music.
I like the sounds of nature. Birds, passing cars. And I don't mean sounds that are there to cover up cuts or transitions. Cars are supposed to pass by, and they, along with the other sounds of life, imbue a sense of existence and life and the world. I think that's wonderful. Some sound editors really don't like not using music since it gives them much more work to do. As a result, it often happens that music is used in the wrong way and it makes everything more superficial.
But still, when do you use it?
I want the music to be like the dialogue, like an actor, like the cinematography. It isn't meant to serve emotions that don't exist or create things that we weren't able to bring across in the scenes themselves, which is, unfortunately, a common use of music. The scene isn't touching enough? The encounter isn't tear-jerking enough? No problem, we'll just add music. We'll add music that shows the viewer how he should feel.
You could say the same about cinematography and editing.
It's true that it's possible and it's okay to use all the tools, but still I often get the feeling from films that I see that the music was used cheaply, it's exploitative and not intelligent enough, and that bothers me.
These things are very intuitive and can't always be explained in words, but I'll ask you nonetheless: When is it intelligent? Where do you draw the line between supporting something that isn't there and supporting something that is?
I'll answer you intuitively: It's intelligent when it isn't done crudely. True, it isn't always easy to spot the difference, and it's definitely subjective, but I don't want the music to be on the level of… I wouldn't use this word but I can't find a better one – pornography. In pornography you ostensibly see the same thing you see in erotica, in sex, but it isn't the same. I think one should avoid using music to reinforce what hardly exists in order to stimulate and arouse unnaturally. It should enrich other aspects. It shouldn't only be about emotion, it should be emotion plus other things. I don't want the music to flatten the scene down to one dimension, I want it to preserve its multidimensionality. There are elements that music can convey, gently, effectively and in a much nicer and more correct way than any other cinematic tool, and I welcome that kind of music gladly. But I'm always careful not to let simplicity come at the expense of giving the viewer his space, which I think is essential. Give the viewer room to interpret and feel what he really feels.
It's a fine line indeed between using of music to open the film up and using it to "guide" the viewer, perhaps even restrictive.
It's definitely a fine line. You're basically making the viewer think along the same lines as you, which begs the question of how deep he can go – you can let him go even farther than you, including to places that you yourself haven't thought of. And that's not only true of the music. Checkpoint, for instance, was fundamentally a film about an Israeli state of being, but at foreign screenings people often saw it in a much broader context. I remember director Yoav Shamir telling me about a screening in Sweden where they talked for an hour and a half and never mentioned the word Israel. Instead they talked about the use of force, about what happens at a checkpoint as a sort of play, theater, about cinéma vérité, about what happens to people in positions of power and the nature of man in general. These are broader places that I'm happy to reach in the films that I edit, and if there's music in the film that helps me get there, I'm very happy to have it.
You talk about restraint, about leaving room for the viewer's interpretation and avoiding the pornography of emotion, while the language of documentary cinema with all of its components, especially on television, is going in the exact opposite direction these days.
That reminds me of an exhibition I once saw in Paris, a massive retrospective of the painter Rothko. The exhibit begins with the figurative and moves on to the abstract. You see how he uses less color, how he uses less figurativeness, how he removes more and more layers until he reaches the point where he realizes he has nowhere left to go. And I, in the middle of the room, with this change and reduction of hues that I can't even put into words, started to shed tears, and the Parisians came over and surrounded me because toward the end I started really weeping. Strange to say, I felt like I was at a funeral procession. It suddenly struck me – as you may know, he eventually committed suicide and the story is all told there in his abstract way.