NYFA: Hi Leander, would you mind telling us a bit about your background and what drew you to filmmaking and editing in particular?
Leander Sales: I was born in Winston-Salem, NC. I attended University of North Carolina School of the Arts for a year then decided to move to New York City. I was very restless and desperate to see the world. After living in NYC for almost two years, I moved to Florence, Italy for two years. While in Florence, I attended an Italian language school, Centro per Stranieri. We had to watch a lot of Italian films as a way to constantly train our ears to the language and appreciate some of the Italian cinematic classics. These movies were very fascinating to me. Being in another country, having to deal with another culture, taught me so much about myself. I met many Italians who had many questions about America, about me, about slavery, American racism, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, Jazz music. It was very rare for them to have an African-American living in Florence for two years. In fact, there was one other African-American living there for so long, about four years by the time I met her, Charlitta. She was an artist living there with her African boyfriend and we got together often to talk about everything under the moon. At some point, I came across a book, This Life, an autobiography about Sidney Poitier. I remember he wrote the best place to learn filmmaking is in the editing room. I had no idea of what an editing room was. I thought the director just went out and shot exactly what we saw on the screen. This made me very curious because I think Sidney Poitier is pretty smart and talented and if he said the best place to learn filmmaking is in the editing room then it must be true. I had not decided to become a filmmaker at this point but that phrase set off an insatiable curiosity. What is this editing room that Mr. Poitier says is so important?
NYFA: You started as an apprentice sound editor on Spike Lee’s School Daze. How did you land that job?
LS: I told my uncle, Ron Dortch, who’s a wonderful actor, about Sidney Poitier’s book and what he said about the editing room and my uncle told me he knew a sound editor. I bugged him to introduce me to him. His name was Rudy Gaskins. I asked him to let me sweep his editing room or run errands for him just so I could hang around his editing room. That didn’t workout because he was finishing the film he was working on and there was nothing to do, but he would keep me in mind since I was willing to work for free. What I didn’t know is that Rudy had gone to NYU with Spike Lee. A few weeks passed and I got a call from Rudy who was going to be working on School Daze and Spike would be looking for an apprentice sound editor. He gave me Spike’s office number. I called the office immediately and asked to speak with Spike. His office manager, Tracy Willard, told me to hold on and surprisingly, Spike came to the phone. I introduced myself and told him I would like to apply for the apprentice sound editing job. He told me to get in touch with Maurice Schell, the supervising sound editor. Tracy gave me the number and I called Maurice Schell and set up an interview. During the interview, he asked me what I had worked on and the room fell silent. I felt embarrassed. Maybe he noticed me squirming and searching for something to impress him. I said, “I’ve worked on nothing. You see, the last two years I’ve been traveling.” The entire fifteen minute interview, we talked about traveling, places he had traveled and places I had traveled. I think he spoke French because he had spent some time in France. I left his office thinking I wouldn’t get the job because I’d never worked on anything. I had no editing experience. A few days later, he called to tell me I got the job and it was a four month schedule and asked if I was available for the entire time. Hell yeah!!!! I was so excited! I was on time every day and didn’t mind working late. We were working at Sound One which has since gone out of business. I loved going to the Brill Building, 1619 Broadway, 7th floor. This is the building where Miles Davis met Duke Ellington for the first time. I met so many wonderful people in that building. After School Daze ended I worked on Full Moon Blue Water and met the legendary producer David Brown who is now deceased. After that movie, I got a call from Barry Brown, who had edited School Daze. He wanted to know if I was available to work on Do the Right Thing as apprentice picture editor. Hell yeah!!!!
NYFA: With Do the Right Thing recently celebrating its 25th anniversary last year, what opportunities do you see for African-American filmmakers that didn’t exist in 1989?
LS: More people are making digital movies and those directors and producers need editors. Filmmakers are crowd funding to get their movies made. There are reality shows and I know some African-American editors who are getting opportunities there. The are webisodes. There’s Netflix, Hulu and other internet companies producing original content and they all need editors. There are way more opportunities today.
What hurdles still exist for getting black voices on screen?
LS: There are still hurdles getting those stories on the screen. George Lucas couldn’t get a studio to back Red Tails, the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. He financed it himself. Selma is a great movie directed by Ava Duvernay, an African-American female director. Kevin Hart is building his brand. I’m very proud of Shonda Rhimes and what she’s doing on network TV. She’s a very talented writer/producer/showrunner. Lee Daniels’ new show Empire is doing great in the ratings. The Walking Dead has a very diverse cast. Ernest Dickerson, Spike’s former director of photography, directs some of those episodes. The small screens are more diverse than the big screen. Let me go in another direction for a minute. We have our first African-American president and Black people are under attack, especially Black males. For us, the question is bigger than Hollywood. We have to worry about returning home alive. We still have a long way to go.
NYFA: What did you learn working as an associate and assistant editor on such films as Malcolm X and Crooklyn that you found yourself applying as the editor on feature length films like Get on the Bus and the documentary Hookers at the Point?
LS: Working on those movies taught me about process and shaping the story. Each one had its own process. We would spend months editing, then we would do test screenings for the studios. That’s when we would screen for audiences who would fill out a questionnaire and then do a focus group Q and A. I found that part of the process to be very interesting. I loved watching people respond to the movie. I’m always thinking how an audience is going to respond to the movie I’m working on. It’s like sending your child out into the world. I hope they find wonderful friends to love them.
NYFA: You’ve worked extensively as a film editor, but also have directed two of your own films that were well-received, The Life I Meant to Live and Don’t Let Your Meat Loaf. What themes or messages do you seek to get across in your filmmaking?
LS: Don’t Let Your Meat Loaf was about three young comics trying to start a comedy club and failing, but not giving up. I think it’s important to get up after falling down. We’re all going to fall, but we’re not all going to get up. I want to be with the people who get up and keep going. I try to surround myself with people who get up after failure. Those people who stay down sometimes want you down there with them to keep them company. Life is way too short for that kind of pessimism. By nature, I’m a very optimistic person. The Life I Meant to Live is about living your life to the fullest. Most people don’t enjoy what they’re doing. I’ve been lucky enough to have found something that I really love. I’ve been to Africa six times and I know exactly who I am. When I think of our history, I think beyond slavery because I’ve been to Senegal, Ethiopia and Eritrea. I made some great discoveries about myself while traveling in Africa. People would look at me and start speaking to me in their native tongue. That’s a great feeling. To me, it says welcome home. You’ll notice that I have a habit of drifting into very personal stuff that you didn’t ask, but I think filmmaking is very personal. I wouldn’t want to work with a filmmaker who didn’t have a point of view.
NYFA: How do the skillsets required to see a film from pre- through post-production differ from those required of editing?
LS: When I’m directing, I’m thinking about editing and sometimes run the edit in my mind while I’m shooting, then when I actually start editing, I have to be objective. I always show the edit to someone who wasn’t part of the process in any way. I’ve even shown cuts to Facebook users who don’t know me. It’s easier to be objective when I’m not the director. The skillset as a director is having a vision and being passionate enough to see it through to the end. The skillset as an editor is to be an objective storyteller.
NYFA: Both in your work with Spike Lee and other filmmakers, what is an essential lesson you’ve learned in your career as an editor that you continue to apply to your work today?
LS: Nothing is too precious. If it’s not working, then cut it out. Some directors have to live with the footage for a certain amount of time before they’re ready to reshape the movie. The editor has to be sensitive to that process and the director has to trust the editor because they both should be trying make the best movie the footage will allow.
NYFA: You’ve worked with both traditional film editing and digital film editing. What are the main differences/advantages/disadvantages you’ve found in making the transition to digital?
LS: I had no problems going digital, but I’m glad I learned on film because shooting film is expensive and it really forces you consider what’s essential to the story. Syncing the footage took way longer in traditional film editing. Syncing digitally is super easy, screening digital dailies takes longer because much more is shot. On the flip side of that, I love the fact that anybody can pick up a camera or cell phone and go make a movie. Sometimes when I’m watching the news and someone records some incident on their cell otherwise we would’ve never seen. Very empowering.
NYFA: What film editors and/or filmmakers do you personally look up to, past and present?
LS: I am thankful to the filmmakers who took the time to train me, Kevin Lee (not related to Spike), Rudy Gaskins, Tula Goenka, Barry Brown, Sam Pollard, and Spike Lee. I respect many people, but it’s different when someone takes the time to get to know you and teach you.
NYFA: In teaching digital editing at NYFA, what do you think is the most crucial element or theory for students to understand about the editing process?
LS: I think it’s important to start with something you are passionate about. Passion goes a long way. I think we’re all experts at something. I love it when a student invites me into a world they are passionate about. Most teachers like learning knew things.
NYFA: It’s often said there are three distinct phases in creating a film: writing the script, filming the script, and then editing the footage. How would you define the role of an editor and how central is the editor in shaping the final tone and feeling of a movie?
LS: No audience wants to see your dailies. They only want to see a story that’s gone through the editing process. That tells you how important an editor is to the filmmaking process. There’s something magical about editing. Along with the director or producer, we select the best performance, shape the story, then pace it. If the audience is talking about the editing then we have not done our jobs well. They should be talking about the characters and the story.
NYFA: What is the best way to learn the craft and what tools should every aspiring editor be familiar with?
LS: Working as an assistant editor to a nurturing editor is the best way to learn the craft. Learn Avid, FCP and Premiere Pro, Protools but remember those are only tools to show people the art of storytelling that comes from your soul.
NYFA: Do you have any parting advice for students and individuals seeking a career in editing?
LS: Live your life to the fullest and at the end of the day you may have something to say.