That's a wrap: Lepselter at New York's Sound One studios
That's a wrap: Lepselter at New York's Sound One studios

Making the Cut

In the late 1980s, Alisa Lepselter ’85 was just another New Yorker in love with Woody Allen’s films. She never imagined she would one day work alongside the famed director. Fourteen films later, she can’t imagine doing anything else.
June 3, 2012

In a low-lit mixing room in New York’s Sound One studios, Alisa Lepselter and two audio engineers are tinkering with the sound levels of a scene from Woody Allen’s new film, To Rome With Love. Set in a bustling café, the scene includes the clatter of dishes and silverware, scraping chairs as diners are seated, and the steady hum of multilingual conversations. Over the course of the next half hour , the three of them will watch the same stretch of film—about for ty-five seconds long—as they tweak the levels of background noise and amplify or moderate the actors’ lines of dialogue.

It’s January, five months before To Rome With Love opens in the U.S. Lepselter and Allen have finished editing the film, tightening a two-and-a-half-hour rough cut to a final length of just under two hours. Now, she’s moved on to additional postpr oduction work, including sound editing and mixing, color correcting, video mastering, and overseeing foreign translations.

“I have responsibilities a lot of editors don ’t have because Woody doesn’t work within a traditional studio system, ” says Lepselter, as the engineers rewind the scene again. “ We have a very small crew, so there’s very little turnover; we’re like a mini studio.”

Ever since she was a girl gr owing up in New Jersey, Lepselter has loved movies. She and her mother used to trek into the city to see a Cary Grant double feature at the now-defunct Regency on the Upper West Side, or Gone With the Wind at Radio City Music Hall. Years later, after she’d graduated from Duke and was trying to figure out what to do with her life, movies provided a welcome diversion. She especially loved queuing up with other New Yorkers to take in the latest Woody Allen movie.

“It was a cultural event,” she recalls. “You would wait in a line that stretched around the block.”

Yet even as she bought tickets to Hannah and Her Sisters and Radio Days in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Lepselter had no inkling that her lifelong leisure pursuit could become a vocation. And she certainly couldn’t have guessed that she would one day become Allen’s trusted film editor, working side-by-side with him on fourteen films and counting. 

After completing a major in art history at Duke, Lepselter moved back home and lived with her parents while saving up enough money to live in New York. She landed jobs as a photo researcher at the Bettmann Archive and as an auction-house assistant at Sotheby’s but longed for meaningful, soul-sustaining work. “Film had never seemed academic enough to me when I was a student,” she says. “Duke didn’t have a film department back then, and I didn’t know anyone who went on to film school. But as I was trying to figure out what it was that I loved, I started to think more seriously about film as a career.”

Her aunt, who had worked as an accountant for a film production company, encouraged Lepselter to consider editing. Coincidentally, her then boyfriend (now husband), Charles Roos ’85, bought her a copy of The Film Editing Room Handbook. “I didn’t know that I wanted to be a film editor ,” she says. “I just knew that I wanted to learn about the production end of things.”

Her aunt steered her to Sound One. Located in the historic Brill Building on Broadway, Sound One has been a hub of post production film activity for decades. 

“I brought my résumé and just started knocking on doors,” she says. “It was teeming with activity, and people were often looking for an extra set of hands. This was before digital editing, when you had to have people managing all that celluloid. You had room after room of people filing film trims.”

One of the doors she knocked on was answered by editor Craig McKay, who was working with director Jonathan Demme on Something Wild. McKay offered her an unpaid internship as anapprentice film editor. The workload was intense, but the perks were priceless. “I was so eager and had no pretensions,” she recalls. “I hadn’t gone to film school, and I didn’t see myself as someone who should walk in the door and be given a job. I was happy to learn. People are so grateful for that attitude. I did whatever was asked of me, and nothing was beneath me. And because I had a good attitude about the grunt work I was asked to do, I was also welcomed into the cutting room to listen to the director and editor talk about the film. The actual work I was doing was very low-level. But that’s where I learned about editing.”

After the film wrapped, Lepselter was offered other similar apprenticeships, and Sound One soon became a second home. “I fell in love with editing,” she says. “When I realized it was something I could pursue, I became very devoted to it. And I learned a lot about how to work with directors by watching all these different personalities. Some editors could explain themselves in a way that ultimately got them what they wanted. They were diplomatic. And some people weren’t cut out to be editors because they were too confrontational. You have to have the kind of personality that can work with the director to achieve the director’s vision; you can’t be fighting for your own vision. And that ’s something I’m okay with because I thought editing itself was so much fun.”

Lepselter also brought her liberal-arts education to bear on her work. Her intellectual curiosity, attention to detail, and ability to collaborate with a range of artistic temperaments eventually brought her to the attention of veteran editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who has worked with Martin Scorsese for more than forty years. Schoonmaker was looking for an assistant editor to work with her on Scorsese’s adaptation of The Age of Innocence, and several people recommended Lepselter. When Schoonmaker called, Lepselter proposed that they meet, assuming that Schoonmaker was vetting a number of potential assistants. Instead, Schoonmaker asked when she could start.

“Thelma is a brilliant editor, and when I worked for her and Marty, it was better than going to film school, ” Lepselter says. Throughout the editing process, Scorsese periodically invited the crew to screenings of movies that he liked—screenings that occasionally included an appearance and talk by a fellow director, such as Elia Kazan. “Working on The Age of Innocence was my film school.” 

In 1996, Lepselter landed her first job as a lead editor when she was hired by director Nicole Holofcener to edit Walking and Talking. She hired an agent. By then, she and Roos had married. In 1997, they had their first child, and Lepselter wasn’t sure how she was going to balance parenthood with the grueling life of film editing. She took some time off to consider her next move in the film industry.

“Working on big-budget movies is all-consuming for the year that you’re working on it,” she says. “You don’t have any time for yourself. You’re working long, long hours, and you’re expected to be on call that entire time. You can’t even make plans for Saturday night, let alone a vacation. People used to ask me what I would do when I had children, and I always told them I would figure that out when the time came.”

As it turned out, Lepselter loved being a stay-at-home mom. When her son was nine months old, she was at a new-mothers’ support group when her phone rang. It was her agent, telling her that Woody Allen was looking for a new film editor and that Lepselter’s name had been suggested. 

“I laughed because I’d only done one film as an editor and I didn’t think I could seriously be in the running,” she recalls. “But I thought, gosh, wouldn’t it be exciting to meet Woody Allen?” 

“Everyone thinks that they know Woody, and he’s constantly getting requests from people who want something from him. I get that people are curious about him, but I don’t want to be a conduit for that. I’m very protective of him in a way that comes before my ego.”

In the recent PBS American Masters series documentary about Allen, his casting agent, Juliet Taylor, talks about the audition process for actors being considered for a part. Meetings between Allen and actors are usually quite brief—a fe w minutes of small talk at most. Lepselter arrived at Allen’s offices expecting to be quickly ushered in and out of a sleek, sophisticated setting befitting one of film’s most esteemed directors.

Instead, she walked into the office/editing room that Allen has maintained (but not modernized) for more than thirty years. They sat on a comfortably worn couch and ended up talking for about ten minutes, mostly about the technical aspect of editing. Lepselter had made the transition from celluloid to digital, but Allen hadn’t. “I’d been told that he would never switch, so I didn’t push it too hard,” she recalls. “I told him that it was just a tool, but a great tool, and he would probably like it.”

[Frank Fournier]

 

Lepselter knew that the encounter was designed to gauge Allen’s comfort level with her. “That’s how he hires people. Is it someone he feels a good vibe about? Is it someone he’d want to sit next to while editing his films, someone he’d be comfortable being with in close quarters?”

Lepselter thought nothing more about it. A few weeks later, her agent called to tell her that Allen wanted to hire her. “I had such limited experience as an editor that it came as a surprise. There were people who seemed much more qualified than me, but that’s not what he was going by. He was going by personality. He liked me, and that was it.” 

Through his assistant, Allen says that he chose Lepselter because “she was head-and-shoulders above the other editors I interviewed. She showed real intelligence and a great understanding and appreciation of film, and that was important to me.”

Upon hearing the news that she was offer ed the job, Lepselter felt strong, conflicting emotions—exhilaration about the opportunity to work with a director she had revered her whole life, but also apprehension about what it meant for her family. But the moment passed quickly. “How could I say no to Woody Allen?” she says.

As it turned out, Allen ’s prolific output meant that Lepselter would enjoy a more predictable and efficient schedule than she had on big-budget projects. “Since he makes a film a year, Woody doesn’t have his whole career resting on a particular film. There are other directors who have so much riding on the movie they’re working on that they never want to go home, wher eas Woody will look at his watch at 6 o’clock and say, ‘That’s enough for today.’ ”

That sense of easy familiarity took time, though. Lepselter was “incredibly nervous, for years. It took me awhile to become comfortable with him not only because of the respect I have for him as one of our most creative filmmakers, but also because he is very businesslike in the editing room.”

The pair’s first collaboration together was Sweet and Lowdown in 1999, followed by Small Time Crooks. “No one knew what was going to happen after the first one, but after Small Time Crooks, it was just assumed I wasn’t going anywhere,” she says. “It was never a conversation we had.”

A pivotal moment in their relationship happened during the editing of Curse of the Jade Scorpion, their third film together. “Woody wasn’t happy with some of what he was seeing in the dailies,” she recalls. “He took me aside and asked me my opinion in a way that revealed his reliance on me. That one conversation did a lot for my confidence.”

There is a predictable rhythm to their work. Lepselter usually receives a new script in the early months of a new year. Casting and shooting take place over the spring and summer, and editing and postproduction transpire in the fall and into winter. Dailies are sent to Lepselter after each day of shooting. She begins to envision how the film will look and makes some preliminary notes about the tone and pacing of the mo vie. A comedy will have a different rhythm than a drama. But the editing itself doesn’t begin until shooting is wrapped.

Unlike many directors, Allen likes to edit in sequence, from the first scene of the movie through the closing credits. The first rough assembly takes about three weeks—“at that point it is very raw,” she says—and then they begin the more laborious process of deciding what scenes and takes should stay and which should go. They also begin considering what music the narrative suggests. During the time she has worked with him, Allen has only commissioned original music for one film; the others have all featured soundtracks that are careful compilations of songs that Allen and Lepselter select together.

“Woody is an accomplished musician and has particular ideas about the soundtrack of his films,” she says. “He has such a huge selection of jazz music that we used to just see what he had in his collection. But not every movie wants a jazz score.” With the availability of digital music, and Allen’s venture into international settings for his films, the musical landscape has expanded. One scene in To Rome With Love, for example, sent Lepselter in search of Italian pop songs from the 1970s. 

Fourteen years after she was hired, Lepselter is a trusted member of Allen’s inner circle, and the two of them have developed a deep level of mutual respect. As part of that circle, Lepselter says she feels a strong obligation to honor Allen’s need for privacy. When pressed for details about a specific conversation or collaborative moment, Lepselter makes it clear that she is not comfortable talking about her boss. “Everyone thinks that they know Woody, and he’s constantly getting requests from people who want something from him. I get that people are curious about him, but I don’t want to be a conduit for that. I’m very protective of him in a way that comes before my ego.”  

She will say that despite the strictly business nature of their relationship—they’ve never socialized outside of work, for example—their sensibilities are well-matched. “When we were working together on To Rome With Love, there was a scene that had me doubled over with laughter. I had to stop and catch my breath. Woody just waited for me to pull myself together and said he hoped other people would have a similar reaction to the movie. He does occasionally make a sublimely funny remark, and I get the feeling that he can’t help but be funny even when he is not at all trying to be.” 

Allen says Lepselter “is everything I could have wanted in  an editor to work on my films.”

She concedes that they don’t always agree about the way a particular scene should be cut, and she will push him to a certain degree, “but I can sense when enough is enough. And he’s eager to have that back-and-forth. He sometimes has less patience than I do with the actual editing process, which I probably find more enjoyable than he does.”

Allen says he appreciates that Lepselter understands what he’s after, citing her keen sensitivity to the material. “She has worked closely with me for years, wherein we’ve tackled many difficult problems that a lesser editor would have been lost trying to cope with. She is everything I could have wanted in an editor to workon my films.”

Allen has been nominated eighteen times for an Academy Award and has won three, most recently a screenwriting Oscar for Midnight in Paris. Lepselter has been nominated by the American Cinema Editors Guild for her editing work on  Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris, and while she is flattered by the recognition from her peers, she says that, like her boss, awards don’t motivate her.

Lepselter says she has no immediate plans to look for work with other directors. “Woody might be the least neurotic person I have worked with in this business,” she says. “Maybe that tells you something about this business. He is low maintenance and approachable, the opposite of a diva.” 

Should Allen decide to stop making movies, she says she could imagine working with up-and-coming writer-directors, as she did with Holofcener on Walking and Talking. She also keeps an eye on new talent such as Lena Dunham, who gained critical acclaim for her quirky, independent film, Tiny Furniture, and whose new show, Girls, airs on HBO. Lepselter says she could also envision segueing in to the production side of films. 

Regardless of how long her partnership with Allen lasts, Lepselter says she can’t imagine a more ideal professional situation than the one she’s in. She has summers free to spend with her family. Each year brings a new project that she helps shepherd from start to finish. And she’s become an invaluable colleague to an artist who is both wildly creative and reassuringly even-keeled.  

“I know it might look like I have a charmed life right now,” she says, “but I worked hard for so many years, and it worked out for me in the end. I saw a lot of people who weren’t cut out for it. I remember learning at a certain point that I didn’t have a reputation for being very nice, and I was shocked. I realized that as I was walking around the halls of this building, I had an intense look on my face because I was always very hard-working, and I wasn’t stopping to chat at the water coolers. And the editors that I worked for appreciated that.

“So it may have seemed lucky that I got the job with Woody, but I had a lot of years before that where I pounded the pavement. I always stress that to young people—the right attitude will get you far.”