Monday, June 11, 2007

Swing Shift Series: Andrea Palpant Dilley

Writing vs. Editing
Andrea Palpant Dilley

When I was 23 I took a job at a local film company as a production assistant (PA), a starter position that involved stocking the fridge with soda pop, emptying the recycling bin by the copy machine, and buying Starbucks drinks for hot shot producers who wore tight shirts and talked on cell phones. I was a fresh college graduate with an English major and no technical know-how in the production business. My only relevant skill, my only remnant of dignity, was writing. I worked in the basement cubicle room called affectionately “the rat maze,” where once the CFO came down two flights of stairs to stand awkwardly by my desk and ask me to proof read his report. Writing had business value. I had something to leverage. So after a few years of writing and PA-ing, I worked my way into a producing position in the Nonfiction Division, where I started directing and editing documentary stories.

Director David Mamet famously said that a film happens in the edit room. It is arguably the most important part of the process, a very solitary activity that requires sitting in a dark room punching colored buttons for hours on end, not nearly as sexy a process as people outside the industry imagine it is. My editing in many ways is an almost opposite process to my writing. Writing is mostly a positive, constructive process of building up. Word. Metaphor. Plot development. Image editing is mostly a negative process of exclusion and cutting down, like sculpting. Cull. Cut. Splice. With writing I’m tethered to the internal life, laboring with memory and imagination. With editing I’m tethered to the external world, limited to what has been said and seen and shown. I can’t reimagine my characters, I can’t change the way they walk on camera the same way I can sift through verbs on paper, changing the lilt of things with a couple of key strokes.

I remember an old war veteran I interviewed for a documentary on Japanese American internment during WWII. He had been drafted to serve out of an internment camp, a formative, difficult experience which he detailed to me in an almost two-hour interview one winter day. Leaning forward toward the camera, he said to me before he said anything else, “I’ve never really talked about the war to even my family.” And then he told stories about young men trudging through dark forests in France, and it was the sort of thing I could never have written. It was meant to be told on camera. It was meant for the medium, the same way a poem is meant for the solitary white space of paper. The limits of the documentary medium made it singular and different than other mediums. The boundaries made it beautiful.

Andrea Palpant Dilley is a documentary producer and director and has completed In Time of War, an hour program on the Japanese American internment camps of WWII narrated by Patty Duke and broadcast nationally by American Public Television, as well as Sudan: The Path to Peace, a documentary on the current crisis in Sudan which premiered at the Amnesty International Film Festival in Victoria, B.C. Prior to producing Andrea worked as a freelance writer, interviewing among others NPR's Ira Glass and jazz legend Gunther Schueller. Andrea enjoys photography as a personal hobby.

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