Jennifer Lame
Photo by Dan Adlerstein

Jennifer Lame: “I loved the puzzle of the process”

Short Profile

Name: Jennifer Lame
Place of birth: New York, United States
Occupation: Film editor

Ms. Lame, apparently your favorite scenes to work on as a film editor are very dialogue-heavy, character-driven ones — is that because they pose a challenge for you, or because they are easy for you?

Oh no, there’s always challenges, even when it’s “easier” for me. I think for every movie, I always find it kind of intimidating and there's something that scares me, because otherwise you're probably not doing a very good job. That's just kind of how I function through the world, I stress out about everything and then I make it through, and it's exciting. Working on a dialogue-heavy film like Oppenheimer, for example, definitely felt more comfortable for me than working on an action film like Tenet, because it felt like it’s more in my wheelhouse — but that’s all fake! That’s just what I tell myself because there are still so many challenges, there’s still that anxiety.

Is it your goal as an editor to make those dialogue-heavy scenes feel as thrilling as an action film?

Yeah, kind of! I mean, the funny thing is that when I signed on to do Tenet, I was really intimidated by the action elements because that's just not something I had done before. I started having to just imagine the cars in these big action sequences as people, giving each car a personality, and have them talk to each other; basically, treating them like dialogue scenes because I think dialogue scenes are that exciting, if that makes sense.

“You need a little bit of dark humor for it to feel like a journey. It has to feel as thrilling as a car chase, because otherwise, it’s just another fight scene in a movie that people are going to tune out.”

One scene that comes to mind is the big climactic argument in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. It had me on the edge of my seat!

Noah and I worked on that scene for a long time, we had different drafts going back and forth, and then I was on set that day, which was also super helpful. I think it was very important to work with the physicality of the action and the shots, the dialogue and the momentum is just making sure there was ebbs and flows so that it was like a roller coaster — so that it didn't fall flat, it wasn’t just a fight the whole time. One of my favorite moments is where they’re making fun of each other's parents, saying, “You’re just like your mom,” and then “You’re like your mom and my mom!” You need a little bit of dark humor for it to feel like a journey, like we weren't sure where it was gonna go and that made it a little bit dangerous. To go back to your last question, it has to feel as thrilling as a car chase, because otherwise, it's just another fight scene in a movie that people are going to tune out.

Noah Baumbach seems particularly skilled at that kind of fight scene.

Yeah, I feel so lucky that he was my first full feature editing credit! And I’ve worked with him on six movies since then. I loved his movies before I worked with him, so it was actually quite intimidating to do! But he loves the editing process, he says that all the time, that it's one of his favorite parts of making movies! I just feel so lucky that I got my start working with a director who is so passionate about my part of the craft. I learned so much from him, like how fun it is to experiment with the editing. With Marriage Story, for example, we would cut people off in the middle of talking or screaming, just using the editing to show the failure of communication in this family dynamic, you know, where no one is listening to each other. With Noah, it’s just a masterclass for editing and filmmaking.

What about working with a director like Christopher Nolan? He rather famously told you during your interview for Tenet that it would be the hardest film any editor has ever had to cut. Was it as difficult as he’d said?

In a way, what he said was kind of freeing because if I ever did feel stuck, I would think, “Well, he did say it was going to be hard, so I don't have to feel bad!” (Laughs) So it was kind of great that he said that! For me, it was the hardest movie that I'd ever cut just because it was so out of my comfort zone as we talked about earlier, but then on top of that, I had all this stuff with the backwards and forwards timelines and perspectives. It was incredibly just complex to kind of keep track of all that stuff.

Is it easier to craft a film around a very detailed and structured script like those that Christopher Nolan is known for?

Actually, working within a structure can sometimes be just as challenging as having the freedom to move things around. Chris is one of those directors that is very specific. He knows what he wants, he commits to it so hard, his scripts are specific and detailed… For Oppenheimer, everything is scripted, right down to specific sounds or montages he wanted to use. What’s tricky is that you can’t really move things around because you love it so much, and you want to make it as good and as beautiful as it is on paper, as good as he’s imagined. And that’s intimidating!

“I made a documentary that was meant to be 12 minutes long — but I had 40 hours of footage. And I really fell in love with the process through that. I loved the puzzle of the whole process.”

Did Tenet change things for you as a film editor? It seems like that was the film that brought your work to a wider audience.

I think Hereditary was the film that did that! It was a horror movie, something I’d never done before, and it’s hard for editors to change genres. When I took that film, I’d just come off of Manchester By The Sea. I thought Hereditary was just going to be a low-budget horror film with a first-time director, I didn’t think it would be such a big deal. But it’s actually what Chris Nolan saw that showed him I could work outside of my usual genres. So, of course Tenet was a really big deal, but that came out during the pandemic! Most people in America didn’t see the movie in cinemas. After Tenet, I actually really panicked about work, I needed a job and it was still the pandemic, and this huge movie that I thought was going to be a huge deal in my life, nobody could go see. So I’m really glad I got to work with Chris a second time on Oppenheimer.

Is exploring film and genres through editing something you’d always wanted to do?

I was always a movie nerd. Growing up, I would go to the video store every weekend and rent movies, I would just devour all the different genre sections, all the different directors. Then I went to a liberal arts film school, where you would make movies, you would write about movies, analyze movies, all of that. Eventually we got to our thesis and I made a documentary that was meant to be 12 minutes long — but I had 40 hours of footage. And I really fell in love with the process through that, because I could’ve made like 30 different version of the movie, but I ended up with this one version. I loved the puzzle of the whole process, so after that I pursued editing.

It’s kind of like that description of poetry: the best possible words in the best possible order.

Yeah, I think that’s really beautiful! And that’s the philosophical grappling I love to do about editing because if I think about that 12 minute movie… What if two people had edited the same movie? Would it be the same? Is there really just one perfect version of a movie? Does that exist? I love thinking about that and what it all means as a film editor, what our work means. I guess at the end of the day, I think my job is just to make the vision of the director come to life. That’s really my job from start to finish, just to be there to support this vision.