The MEWShop Interview: Editor Andrew Hafitz

1 September 2016

By Elizabeth Belsky

Anna Gunn in Equity
In Equity, the new woman-centric Wall Street potboiler from director Meera Menon and production company Broad Street, shot after shot and cut after cut line up to reinforce a feeling of suffocating isolation. This is by design, according to editor Andrew Hafitz. The film, which follows investment banker Naomi Bishop (Anna Gunn) through a scandal-plagued tech IPO, is shot and cut with a cold, nearly clinical eye. From the first frames, the entire film seems intent on distancing the audience -- when we sneak up on Naomi for the first time, her back is turned; her defenses are down even as she steels herself for the gauntlet of the workday. The rest of the film follows this pattern: characters are observed coolly, and often overhead, even at their most vulnerable.


Some credit here goes to Hafitz, whose editing is a major part of what makes the film tick. “Meera’s a great collaborator, and I loved working with her,” he says. He describes the post-production process as having been “very producer-driven, with the producers quite involved.”


The film’s climax, the aforementioned IPO, also doubled as Hafitz’s biggest artistic challenge in the making of the film. Editing the sequence “became a question of finding the right balance,” he says. “How do we give value to time passage? [What we had] was top-heavy and then at the end of the sequence, the downfall was pretty well covered, but what happened in the middle?” Through collaboration with Menon and the film’s sound designer, Rich Bologna, and composers, Alexis & Sam, Hafitz was able to build the footage he had into a complex narrative set piece.

Andrew Hafitz

Despite these storytelling instincts, Hafitz didn’t initially intend to end up editing films. While his career has spanned documentaries, features, and a variety of genres, it has also spanned industries. Like many in the post world, the path to editing full-time was a journey of its own. “I had no idea this was going to be my life’s work,” Hafitz tells me on a phone call from his upstate New York home. “I had never conceived of a career in the arts.”

After studying comparative literature at Yale, Hafitz felt dissuaded from a career in academia, citing concerns about the politics of the discipline. Though many of his friends, even his future wife, were artists, he says he didn’t specifically foresee a future in film or any other artistic field. After a stopover in the publishing world, working as a copy editor, he took a job as a production assistant, where he “learned a lot about production” but quickly tired of the grueling on-set life. Not long after, though, he landed his first job in a cutting room, as an intern on a documentary edited by Juliet Weber. It was on that doc, titled Funny, that he met Christopher Tellefsen, ACE, then employed as an assistant to Weber.

“Chris is my editing parent, so to speak, and my greatest influence, and I will be forever indebted to just watching him work,” says Hafitz. “I learned so much from Chris. We’re very different people, and have very different backgrounds, but when I see something Chris has edited, it feels like home to me. His rhythm is undoubtedly not the same rhythm I have, but I sense something when I watch his work that feels very normal and good, very comforting.”


Bully
After Tellefsen edited Larry Clark and Harmony Korine’s Kids and recommended Hafitz to do an uncredited recut of Another Day in Paradise, Clark hired Hafitz to cut Bully and then Ken Park. Hafitz describes his collaborations with Clark as similarly fruitful. “I really, really loved working with Larry,” he says. “He’s a great artist, he knows what he’s after, and he allows the people around him to do what they’re good at.” Hafitz followed a similar path as his mentor again when Whit Stillman hired him to work on The Last Days of Disco (Tellefsen had edited Stilman’s last previous features, Metropolitan and Barcelona). Hafitz describes Stillman as a complex and meticulous worker, “one of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with and so funny to sit with.”

The Last Days of Disco
I ask Hafitz how he views dailies and takes on the task of approaching raw footage. “It really depends on the material,” he says. “What I really do is look at the footage and try to respond emotionally. You need to be alert, and your first viewing is really the most important. We don’t edit for second-time viewers. So that is the greatest challenge of editing: Being a first-time viewer over and over again -- or acting as though you are one.”

It’s a sentiment that, as it happens, bleeds into his advice for newer editors: the importance of keeping their minds fresh and perspectives open in the pursuit of storytelling. “You’re trying to channel the director’s vision -- hopefully they have one -- and if they don’t, then it’s got to be your vision,” he says. “It’s not just putting the shots together, it’s: How does the story unfold? Do we even need that scene? What if we flip the order?” Sometimes, he says, you end up with a film with multiple endings; when editing documentaries, which he recommends for young editors, you’re often piecing together a film that may not have an ending at all. “You never have the right shot. You have footage but don’t know the story you’re telling. And that’s why documentaries are shot and edited over years … if you’re going be a feature editor, cut a lot of doc. It really helps.”

Ultimately, Hafitz stresses the importance of flexibility and openness for anyone working in the edit room. He cites Naz & Maalik, a 2015 drama he cut for a relatively new creative team, as a triumph of that flexibility. “I’m really proud - it was hard,” he tells me. The director and cinematographer didn’t shoot many reverses or have a script supervisor. “I just got a lot of footage and amazing performances. It felt a lot like [cutting] a doc.” The film, available to stream on Netflix, follows two Muslim teenagers through a story that takes on homophobia, racism and Islamophobia in contemporary Brooklyn.

Equity is in select theaters now.