Remembering the Life and Work of Editor Karen Schmeer
A Fellowship Created in Schmeer's Memory Continues Its Mission of Mentoring Up-and-Coming Editors
An image from the award-winning HBO documentary, Sergio.
It was that very palpable absence that Schmeer’s friends and fellow filmmakers sought to fill with a tribute that matched her generous spirit and outsized talent. As her friends tended a small memorial near the spot she was killed and mobilized to edit footage for a tribute service at Coolidge Corner Cinema, in Brookline, MA, where Schmeer had worked while an undergraduate at Boston University, Hessman says it soon became clear they needed to go one step further. The first Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship was born. “Karen was so helpful, to so many people, from assistant editors, to colleagues,” she says. “She was always watching rough cuts by people she barely knew. She was a completely giving person. We wanted to memorialize her but also come up with the right legacy, to keep her memory alive but also keep her legacy of generosity and giving alive as well, and we did that by creating a fellowship in her name for emerging editors.”
The First FellowSchmeer, a Portland, Oregon, native and granddaughter of Western landscape photographer Ray Atkeson, had spent much of her professional life after college in Boston, where she met many of her closest filmmaker friends. Six of them, including Hessman, sit on the board, which Hessman refers to “internally and affectionately as the ‘Schmellowship.’” Several more friends were involved in the selection process for the first fellow, Erin Casper, who was named in early March at South by Southwest in Austin.
Erin Casper, first Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow (photo © Tanya Braganti)
Like Schmeer, Casper is primarily a documentary editor and says she “fell in love with what happens when the footage arrives in post, when everything comes together.” She most recently edited Mona Nicoara and Miruna Coca-Cozma’s Our School, her first feature documentary. “The fellowship just felt like this perfect, natural next step after finishing that film,” she says. “It was the direction I wanted to head and I’m so grateful for the opportunity.”
Casper finds not just instruction in Schmeer’s legacy, she says, but a kind of inspirational virtuosity. “Her biggest achievement as an editor is definitely Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. It’s like a master class in editing. I’ve seen it several times and recently saw it projected; it’s an even bigger treat on the big screen. Considering the challenges – trying to tie all the characters together, and at the same time making it engaging and entertaining and also just beautifully meditative – it just completely blows me away.”
Fast, Cheap & Out of Control was a pivotal film for Schmeer, and Morris recalled during interviews when the film came out that it was Schmeer, then an assistant editor, who suggested the contrapuntal and fugue-like rotation between characters that he says saved his film. In an interview with an Oregon newspaper, Schmeer explained why she rose to the occasion. “There was a point where I was very concerned with where the film was going,” she said at the time, “and I didn’t want him to complete a movie that I didn’t like. We were kind of inundated with visual material, but we were losing sight of the characters, which are really the core of his film.” When the lead editor left the project, Morris gave Schmeer the chance to complete what she’d already set in motion.
A scene from Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, which Schmeer edited for Errol Morris
With Schmeer’s early lucky break in mind, Hessman says one primary aim of the fellowship is to help an editor at a critical point in his or her career. As any editor knows, that path can often include a prolonged apprenticeship across countless films as an assistant editor. Casper, who began editing on Final Cut Pro during journalism school, simply assumed she would be assisting for many years before she took the editing lead, despite those rare leaps like Schmeer’s early on in her career.
“One of my mentors prior to beginning the fellowship was Jonathan Oppenheim (Paris Is Burning, The Oath),” says Casper. “He assisted for a long time, maybe from the late seventies until the early nineties, when he cut Paris Is Burning. I’d also talked to a lot of other editors, especially in film, who had assisted for a very long time. When I started editing Our School, which was not just my first feature documentary but director Mona Nicoara’s as well, I had this luxury of really getting to think through the material and work with it for some time.” The two years she spent editing Our School gave her the space, and the confidence, to make better edit decisions, she says.
The fellowship will give her even more space, she says, though she will also continue to work. She is currently “teaching herself to use Avid” and editing a documentary for Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, the directors of Jesus Camp, working alongside their editor, Enat Sidi. “Enat is incredibly sensitive and smart and seeing her process is a privilege,” says Casper. “Editing can be so solitary, so it’s great just to sit with her and work through things and make decisions with her.”
Funding the FellowshipInitial fundraising and a large matching grant from an anonymous donor got the fellowship off the ground, but Hessman says she and fellow board members are particularly indebted to America Cinema Editors for its help developing and funding the fellowship’s core mentorship component. “ACE has been an incredible partner,” says Hessman, who worked closely with ACE Executive Director Jenni McCormick to set up the fellowship through the ACE Educational Foundation.
Casper, it turns out, will be at the Sundance Lab with one of her chosen ACE mentors, Jean Tsien, the editor of Shut Up and Sing (2006) and Scottsboro: An American Tragedy (2000). “I’ve had her in mind for a long time, so the timing worked out perfectly,” says Casper. “She’d seen a cut of Our School before we met, and I really liked her feedback. I just really connected with how she felt about editing.” The fellowship also includes a cash prize and a number of all-expenses-paid trips to film festivals and conferences aimed at editors, like those organized by ACE. In addition to attending South by Southwest with a full-access film badge, Casper has attended ACE’s EditFests in New York and Los Angeles and will attend classes at Manhattan Edit Workshop. “The biggest thing I’ve found when attending festivals like SXSW or conferences like EditFest, is that no matter your experience, everybody struggles,” she says. “It’s fascinating and cathartic to be able to endlessly discuss that struggle with my fellow editors. It’s a joyful struggle but it’s a hard one, and there’s so much to be learned.”
A still from Casper’s first feature documentary, Our School
Other fellowship perks include season passes to the IFC Center’s documentary series Stranger Than Fiction and DocuClub, where Casper can see rough cuts of documentaries in progress. There’s even an online gift certificate to Schmeer’s favorite bookstore, Powell Books, in Portland. Casper hasn’t yet placed her order but says Cut to the Chase, Bobbie O’Steen’s book with her late husband, editor Sam O’Steen, who cut The Graduate, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown and Catch-22, is at the top of her list.
Despite the similarities between Casper and Schmeer, Hessman says gender and genre were not a factor in the selection process. “The finalists were both women and men,” she says. “And Karen herself would want it to go to the most deserving person, whether they edit fiction or documentaries.”
The call for submissions for the 2012 fellowship officially opened yesterday. To download an application or to support the fellowship, go to www.karenschmeer.com. You can also follow Erin Casper’s experience during this year’s fellowship on Facebook.