Racialicious Crush Of The Week: Sonia Gonzalez-Martinez

By Andrea Plaid

Sonia Gonzalez-Martinez. Image provided by the interviewee.

Sonia Gonzalez-Martinez. Image provided by the interviewee.

When it comes to film editing, it’s about the cut, and this week’s Crush, Sonia Gonzalez-Martinez, is one of the most respected–and coolest–editors in the business.

Gonzalez-Martinez has worked with director Byron Hurt (the award-winning Soul Food Junkies) and Vin Diesel (yes, that Vin Diesel), among other directors. Here’s the Diesel/Gonzalez-Martinez short called Los Bandoleros, a prequel reuniting the Fast And Furious crew:

Los Bandoleros from Sonia Gonzalez-Martinez on Vimeo.

Gonzalez-Martinez is a director, too: she helmed the documentary, Bragging Rights: Stickball Stories, about the sport dubbed “the poor man’s baseball.” She’s currently directing comedy shorts for T&A Flicks, a production company she co-founded, as well as running her own production company, LaSone Studio.

And did I mention she’s a gracious and great interviewee? She took time out to answer a few questions about “the invisible art,” the effect of digital technology on editing, and how race and racism can creep their way into the profession.

I’ve heard film editing described as the ‘invisible art” because the best editors make the movie/TV show/webisode seem seamless. But, like literature, it’s the editor that shapes the film.

I’ll address the invisible aspect. In cutting together scenes, the editor tries to anticipate how the audience will collectively want to see and feel the film and, in editing, emulate the “witnessing” experience, placing the audience in the scene like a fly on the wall. When cutting a breakup scene, for example, the editor has to choose between staying on the person giving the bad news and the person receiving the bad news. The editor definitely has to put themselves in a position to feel the emotions of the scene and act as the audience, cutting to whom they want to see in any given moment. In narrative work, the editor firmly places the audience within the emotional experiences of the characters, to the extent that the audience feels like it’s just them and the characters (not the editor). In documentary, the skilled editor will take mounds of information, context, backstory, statistics, and all other information and distill it down to a cinematic experience, taking factual evidence and shaping it into a story with the twists, turns, and reveals often found in narrative/fictional stories.

Are there editors, especially editors of color, whose work people may recognize though they may not know the person by name?

Editing is supposed to be unobtrusive so the audience won’t recognize their work, unless the editor works for a filmmaker who has a consistent style. It’s the director’s work then that the audience will recognize. For example, editor Sam Pollard frequently cuts for Spike Lee, and it’s Spike’s style that drives the editing, even though Sam is the first to make his imprint on how the film will be shaped. Editor T. Woody Richman (one of Michael Moore’s editors; Trouble the Water; How to Survive a Plague) is an amazing storyteller/editor–he’s super-talented at shaping verite footage into an engaging narrative where the audience is constantly asking, “what’s going to happen next?” Editor Carla Gutierrez (Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers, Reportero) is deft at taking very dense information and making it cinematic.

You’ve worked with directors like Byron Hurt (Soul Food Junkies). How do you choose which director to work with?

The editor/director relationship is such an intense experience; it can’t be emphasized enough how much they both have to like each other and respect each other’s opinions. The directors I’ve worked with (that have chosen me and I, them) have similar sensibilities, and where we differ is where the best work is done because it’s often the result of both digging deep and coming up together with the most creative and intelligent solutions. When choosing to work with a director, I look for “the captain of the ship”–a creative leader with a strong and sound vision for their film. Since the editor develops such a close relationship with the material, it’s very hard not to get possessive of the shaping of the material. Editing is like a house of cards–for as invisible an art it is, there is a very conscious decision that goes into each and every cut. One thing leads to the next, as a result of intense planning of structure, both within a scene and with the overall structure of the film. The structure of the film is the design of the cinematic journey that the editor and filmmaker give to the audience. The director and editor should be on the same page of what the journey will look like.

How has digital media impacted your work as an editor, if indeed it has?

I came into editing in the early 90s as an apprentice editor. It was pre-digital and everything was still cut on film. The apprentice/assistant relationship to the editor was very different. These days, sadly, the assistant is relegated to more media management than learning how to edit from a more experienced editor. When I was an apprentice for Sam Pollard on Spike Lee’s film, I’d sit with Sam as he cut on the flatbed. My job was to keep the film pieces he cut out organized in a physical bin (which looked like a hamper with hooks). As he would go back and forth on editorial choices, my eye was trained to anticipate what he would want and have it ready in hand for him. For example, if he was cutting an emotional scene in Jungle Fever, I would anticipate he may want the close-up on Wesley Snipes listening to his wife as she rejected his gift of flowers or have ready a wide shot of the two of them to show that they are having an argument in a public place. Both of these choices I had ready for Sam. Sam was–and still is–an incredibly generous editor who loves talking about filmmaking, editing, and the construction of a good story. He often gave me “homework” of films to watch, and we’d talk about it.

The present digital landscape doesn’t really allow for this dynamic between editor and assistant. The assistant can’t really “see” what the editor is doing in the same way because digitally, it all goes so fast. Assistants often teach themselves the mechanics of editing and storytelling. It’s not worse; it’s just not as intimate. Because editing is an intuitive art, most assistants do find the storytelling editing that works for them. The other side of digital editing I’m not crazy about is the fast editing we’ve become used to that was pioneered by MTV. It’s a trend I resisted for a loooong time but eventually had to capitulate to because it became the way viewers got used to seeing media. Nowadays, my struggle is to trust staying on a shot.

How have –isms and –phobias–like racism, sexism, etc.–impact your working as an editor, if they have?

I’m Puerto Rican from the Bronx and Washington Heights, from a working-class background. In spite of that, I have to say I have not encountered racism or other -isms. I’ve been lucky to work with smart folks who just want a good story executed. I also take what I do very seriously and conduct myself as professionally as possible so no one can ever say, “She’s too ghetto.” I had to learn this as an assistant coming up where I have to admit sometimes I was a little too “ghetto” or provincial, giving attitude to editors who would ask me to do overtime at the last minute, me giving them the eye-rolling, teeth-sucking, and all of that. I had a white editor firmly tell me to chill with the attitude; I think we both implicitly understood the attitude he was talking about. I definitely chilled; I was very aware I was repping Puerto Ricans in that editing room. A kind of unfair responsibility white people never have to shoulder, but one I took seriously. I didn’t want to rep my family poorly, either, understanding I was experiencing a career none of us had previously imagined. On the flip side, I am a light-skinned Puerto Rican and did not experience the nuanced racism my black or darker-skinned colleagues experienced. A black female colleague of mine who was also an assistant was constantly second-guessed and felt that she had great difficulty and resistance making the transition from assistant to editor. People of color sometimes become the de facto representatives of the social ills of society; anytime there was big news of a person of color committing some crime, it would make the editing room a little more uncomfortable. I guess that’s any office in America, right?

Check out the rest of the interview on the R’s Tumblr!

Sonia Gonzalez-Martinez will talk about her work as a film editor and filmmaker at Maysles Cinema in Harlem, NY, on Tuesday, April 2, at 7:30PM. Check here for tickets and more information about the event.