Michelle Tesoro is a Drama and Feature Film Editor based in Los Angeles. Her impressive list of credits includes ‘House of Cards’, ‘Fringe’, ‘The Newsroom’ and ‘In Treatment’. In 2011 She won best editing at the 2011 SXSW Film Festival for ‘Natural Selection’ . She recently finished her latest film ‘Shot Caller’ and is currently working on ‘When We Rise’ a mini-series chronicling the LGBT civil rights movement. She has crossed paths with the likes of Michael Mann, JJ Abrams and David Fincher to name but a few, and here she tells us how hard work and some chance meetings got her to where she is today.
Dublin Editors: What drew you to working in post production?
Michelle Tesoro: When I was 16 I took a summer filmmaking class at Columbia College Chicago, and later I went onto study film at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Our courses were quite varied, where you had to try all the different parts of filmmaking, and I just found that I liked editing the most. I thought it was the part where you can be most creative, and you have to most control of the final product. I also liked the quiet intimacy of the room, instead of trying to wrangle people and put out fires on set. That process felt more like 20% filmmaking, and 80% babysitting. 😉
Dublin Editors: What was your first professional job and what led you to where you are today? Did you start out assisting and if so, how did you make the move to Editor?
Michelle Tesoro: My first job was a Video/Film Librarian at Abkco Music & Records, Inc. in New York. It’s a music publishing company which owns the publishing and masters to a lot of big artists in the 60s such as The Rolling Stones, Sam Cooke, The Animals, etc. In the beginning my job was to log old Ed Sullivan performances and interviews. After 3 years there I was involved in the DVD production of some music films they helped produce: The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus and Sam Cooke Legend to name a couple. I also got to produce and edit a music video for Fatboy Slim’s remix of Sympathy for the Devil. Being at a small company allowed me to wear many hats.
My goal was to cut television and feature films, and at Abkco my hours were fairly regular, so sometimes I’d pick up odd jobs doing some assistant editing on a documentary, or editing on freelance projects in order to build a reel, and rack up some credits and get some experience. New York post production in the early noughties was a difficult scene to break into, and some of my classmates had found success in LA so I decided to make the move while I was still young. An editing professor, Lora Hays, recommended I apply to the ACE Internship Program. She put me in touch with some other former students of hers, Paul Barnes (Ken Burns’ editor), Marty Nicholson, and Peter Frank. I didn’t get the internship, but through these connections I got a job as an assistant on a pilot with Editor Peter Frank.
That pilot was ‘Saved’, written and produced by David Manson. It went for one season, but that is basically where my career really started. After that show wrapped I went on to do another short lived series with a producer and an editor from ‘Saved’, called ‘Raines’. There I met Ron Rosen. After we were cancelled, Ron and I left to do a pilot with Alan Poul called ‘Swingtown’. It was picked up for mid-season and wouldn’t start till October of 2007, so I was looking for a job in between. My friend Lisa de Moraes, the other assistant on ‘Saved’, had assisted Editor Lisa Bromwell (also editor on ‘Saved’) on this new HBO series ‘In Treatment’. She said they were looking for a 3rd assistant for Michael Ruscio (also an editor ‘Saved’). I got the job since they all knew me.
The whole time I was assisting, I kept editing. Again, like I did in New York, I picked up odd jobs, usually freebies or for low pay, to just get more cutting time and credits. I did a web series with my friends from New York called ‘Mimi and Flo’, I did a short with Rodrigo Garcia (a director/producer on ‘In Treatment’) for Make a Film Foundation called ‘Put it in a Book’. I did a lot of free stuff. We wrapped ‘In Treatment’ at the end of 2007, then the Writers’ strike hit, and the work dried up. Lisa Bromwell, however was doing this super indie movie with Sebastian Gutierrez called ‘Women in Trouble’. She asked for my help, and I assembled the editor’s cut, and cut these little photo/flashback sequences that are used as transitions in the movie. The timing worked out where when I was done with that the writer’s strike ended and I was back assisting on ‘Swingtown’.
Eventually, I got bumped up to editor for an episode on ‘Swingtown’ after my editor left for another show, and then again for the second season of ‘In Treatment’ when, again, most of the editors from the first season were unavailable.
That is how it all got started. I had to rely on all the contacts I had made while I was an assistant to get my next couple of jobs: The Beautiful Life (CW) and Fringe (FOX). I stayed on In Treatment until the end of its run. The HBO executive, Gina Balian, who worked with me on In Treatment, recommended me on ‘Luck’…I think. Then my career really took off.
That was a very high profile show, that was tough to work on because Michael Mann is known to be difficult to work with. I survived that, and in fact, I’m not credited but I helped Michael out on a recut of Blackhat recently that was screened at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music). He also helped me get onto ‘House of Cards’: ‘Luck’ had gotten cancelled because of too many horses getting euthanized. But he told me about this series that Fincher was doing, and that he had recommended a bunch of people from the crew including me. That was lucky!
While I was on ‘House of Cards’ the producer who I mentioned earlier, Alan Poul, called me to see if I was available for season 2 of ‘The Newsroom’. That was great timing too!
At that point I had been thinking a lot about what I wanted my career to look like down the road, and I started to think about movies. I could’ve rested on my laurels and kept doing high-end TV but that doesn’t translate into a film career. I may have been working with a lot of big time feature guys, but they weren’t necessarily hiring me to cut big budget movies. I figured I had to get my feature career started, and I had to start small. So I started with a low-budget independent feature ‘Revenge of the Green Dragons’.
Slowly but surely I’m building that part of my resume up. I still love working in TV though. There is so much good writing in TV, so many interesting projects. The last TV I did was a ballet show called ‘Flesh and Bone’. After that I did another feature, ‘Shot Caller’. So I like to go back and forth. Now I try to focus on, “Is this a story I want to tell?”
Dublin Editors: You have worked on quite a few dialogue driven shows; from “In Treatment” to “House of Cards” to “The Newsroom”, how do you approach a dialogue heavy scene?
Michelle Tesoro: I look at the coverage of the entire scene – what angles the director has shot, etc. I try to remember what they are in my head. Then I read the scene, and I start marking in the script the “scenes within scenes”. Or marking where the dramatic changes are in the conversation. Also technical things like, do they stand up? Do they sit down? When/where is some important plot point revealed in the conversation? I’ll sometimes note if it would be nice to be wide, or where it would be nice to be tight. This is all a guide. Then I watch all the dailies in script order line by line, action by action, and based on notes from the director and my own comparison in performance I choose the best bits to make the scene from. Performance drives it though.
Dublin Editors: How do you approach a scene or sequence that is proving difficult or isn’t quite working?
Michelle Tesoro: Hopefully the director knows what they want from the scene, and they can communicate that. Then from there, you gotta create what you think it should be from what you have. If they don’t know what they want, God be with you. Be ready to compromise. Be ready to recut that scene till the end of time.
Dublin Editors: When editing a feature film like “Revenge of the Green Dragons” is your approach / work-flow /involvement different to working on television drama?
Michelle Tesoro: How I approach cutting the scenes is basically exactly the same. The workflow is different and my involvement overall is different. The editor is responsible for more from beginning to end – you are the creative head of that department. You have to weigh in on sound, VFX, color. More is expected of you. In TV because there are so many episodes, and the work is multiplied, in order to accommodate that kind of schedule, the Post Supervisor/Co-Producer has taken over a lot of the editor’s responsibilities on the mix stage, in color, and VFX. However, there are a lot of good Post Producers out there who still creatively defer to the editors in those departments.
Dublin Editors: Where do you look for inspiration and how do you stimulate your creativity when you feel blocked?
Michelle Tesoro: Sleep is very important, and exercise. I try to watch as many movies and TV as I have time for. Mostly, I go to the theatre (how refreshing, everything live!), concerts, art museums and gallery shows. I watch music videos on the internet. I play the cello, and I use what I learn in my lessons (rhythm, theory, phrasing) to help me in the cutting room.
Dublin Editors: What do you love most about your job?
Michelle Tesoro: Being creative! Learning new things. Creating something important and new with a group of people.
Dublin Editors: What is your biggest gripe about it?
Michelle Tesoro: Long hours working with narcissists!
Dublin Editors: What are your plans / goals for the future?
Michelle Tesoro: Keep being happy with what I do – keep challenging myself, keep learning. Try to work on projects that make more of a social impact.
Dublin Editors: What advice would you give someone trying to get into Editing?
Michelle Tesoro: Make sure you are not looking for validation. There is none! If you like to solve puzzles for the joy of solving them, this is for you! If you want to be thanked and appreciated for all you do, this is not for you. 🙂 Not for those with big egos, for in the end it isn’t YOUR film/TV show. It’s THEIR film/TV Show. Be practical and save your money.