This week, GPP interviewed Aaron I. Butler, an Emmy- and ACE Eddie-nominated film editor and a Berkeley alum. After choosing against law school—something that he had spent his undergraduate years at Cal preparing for—Butler went headfirst into the industry as a film editor without any formal training. Seventeen years later, his projects include several notable documentaries, including the HBO feature “American Winter,” the CNN series, “The Sixties” (executive produced by Tom Hanks) and the PBS feature “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow.”
Butler’s latest feature film, “I Am Michael,” directed by Justin Kelly, premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. He is currently editing the feature film “In Dubious Battle,” directed by James Franco.
GPP: In previous interviews, you said that you spent your free time during college making short films. What were these projects like? Was there a project in your undergraduate days that went on to become, or inspired, a professional project?
Aaron: I went to UC Berkeley to study pre-law as an undergraduate, but in all my spare time I made comedy skits and satirical music videos, mainly to entertain my friends. During my senior year, I was getting ready to take the LSAT’s and my college roommate Scott Bonds asked me, “Why are you going to law school? Why don’t you go into film, you spend all your free time making movies!” It had never once occurred to me that I could have a career in film.
So I applied for internships at production companies around the Bay Area. I ended up getting an informational interview with Academy Award-nominated documentary director Bill Jersey at the Saul Zaentz Film Center in Berkeley. He asked if he could see some of my work, so I showed him one of the more serious short films I had done, an abstract and surreal music video set to The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields.” He loved it, and asked if I would like do a short documentary with him.
I was ecstatic, and the short film I shot and edited with him–called “Learning to Fly”–won numerous awards at film festivals and aired on PBS. I became hooked on documentary filmmaking, even though I had never imagined going in that direction, and Bill Jersey became an incredible mentor to me.
GPP: On your films, you have served as an editor, cameraman, director and a producer. Which of these do you enjoy the most, and which do you find the most challenging?
Aaron: Editing is my favorite part of filmmaking; it’s where the movie really comes together. But it’s storytelling in general that is really my true love, and each of the different jobs allows a different way of interacting with the story of the film. For instance, working as a producer allows me the opportunity to give feedback on cuts and help mold the big picture story.
I find directing to be the most challenging job, because it’s time sensitive. Whether it’s documentary or scripted, you often only have one chance to get things right, and you have to be able to quickly adapt to unpredictable situations.
GPP: Do you find that a project being nominated for an Emmy, like “American Winter,” and winning another award (“Best Documentary” at the Portland International Film Festival) has significantly shaped or changed the direction of your career?
Aaron: Yes, awards do make a big difference in your career. The amount of job offers I’ve received has greatly increased since my Emmy and Eddie nominations for “American Winter.” The quality of the projects I’ve been offered has also improved, and it would have been much more difficult to get my first scripted feature without the nominations.
GPP: Your filmography is made up of mostly documentary projects. However, your 2015 film, “I Am Michael,” is scripted. How did you come to work on this project, and how did your documentary background serve you in your role as the lead editor?
Aaron: Elliot Graham, the editor who cut “Milk” and is currently cutting “Steve Jobs,” referred me to the writer/director of “I Am Michael” Justin Kelly. Justin had also worked as a documentary editor and Elliot thought that our personalities would be a good match. He was right; Justin and I worked really well together. Our documentary backgrounds encouraged us to approach the editing of the film with a fresh eye, and we did massive restructuring and re-editing of scenes that took the film to the next level.
Having a documentary background is incredibly helpful for a scripted editor, because doc editors are used to creating their own scenes and story structure from scratch. A film’s screenplay and the final footage you end up with can often be very different, so having the ability to see where the story needs to be strengthened and knowing how to transform the footage into what you need is very valuable.
GPP: You are a self-taught filmmaker: you have never gone to film school or received any formal education in regards to your filmmaking. What was it like to teach yourself? Did you ever feel the need to go back to school during your career, or did you find that it was unnecessary?
Aaron: It was very challenging at the beginning of my career not having any technical training. My first documentary job required me to shoot with a professional Betacam camera and edit on Avid, so I had to come in to work on the weekends to read the manuals and practice using the equipment. Seeing the incredibly thick Avid Media Composer manual for the first time was very intimidating! But I asked the other editors at the company lots of questions, and put in as many extra hours as I could in order to get up to speed. Luckily I had made many short films on my own before that first professional job, so I was very used to taking a project from beginning to end, and it was just a matter of learning all the new equipment.
When it came to learning more about storytelling, my first employer Bill Jersey was really my film school. He taught me so much about how to shoot and edit, and about how to craft a powerful, emotional story. After working with him for 3 years I really didn’t feel the need for film school. I’ve been working in the industry for 17 years now and I never returned to school, although I do attend lots of seminars and panels to always keep learning.
GPP: Many of our readers are current Berkeley students or recent graduates trying to find their place in the industry. Do you have any advice for a student interested in creating documentaries or scripted work?
Aaron: Whether you want to work in documentaries or scripted, the most important thing you can do for your career is to make films, as many as you can, as fast as you can. Because the learning really only happens when a project is totally finished and you send it out into the world. Quality comes from quantity; it comes from practicing your skills again and again, no matter what job or genre in the film or TV industry you’re looking to get into. This can also help you hone in on what aspects of filmmaking you enjoy and what aspects you don’t, which is very important if you’re planning on having a career in film or TV. You can make your own films, or help other people make theirs, whether it’s student films or indie films.
The other important thing to do is network. Most jobs in the film industry you get from word of mouth, from references by the people you have worked with. So you have to get involved in the industry, go to events, join organizations, and take entry level film and TV jobs (lots of promotions happen from within companies).
Above all, study storytelling. Read everything you can about story and screenwriting, even if you don’t plan on being a screenwriter. Analyze movies, screenplays and TV shows to really understand how they work. Learn how a storyteller grabs an audience, holds an audience, and makes an audience think and feel. If you truly understand how story works (and, surprisingly, many people in the industry don’t), you will be invaluable to whomever you work for and your projects will be more successful.
One last thing to remember is that if you are feeling fear, you’re probably heading in the right direction. No matter what point in your career you’re at, you’ll be confronted with scary situations where you will doubt your abilities. But this means that you’re challenging yourself, that you’re doing something that is going to make you grow as an artist. Respect the fear, but don’t let it stop you from pursuing your dreams!
GPP: As you may know, GPP is hoping to bring Berkeley students to the 2016 Sundance Film Festival to meet and interview filmmakers. Your film, “I Am Michael,” was screened at this year’s festival. Have you been to Sundance before this? What is it like to have your own film being screened there?
Aaron: This year was the second time I’ve been to Sundance. It’s really a thrill to be part of such a prestigious festival. “I Am Michael” premiered in the largest theater at Sundance, and I was up on the stage after the screening for the Q&A portion. Many people came up to me on the street after that to tell me how much they loved they film and ask what it was like to edit it. After months and months of editing in a dark room with just me and the director, it was incredibly satisfying to have the movie out in the world for people to see and experience. For me, the greatest reward as a filmmaker is to know that people have been moved by your story. It makes all the hard work worth it!