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Meet Darrin Navarro

Today we’d like to introduce you to Darrin Navarro.

Darrin, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
At some point during my teens, I decided that I wanted to make movies. This was the 1980s, and I was not only seeing most of the big releases that were coming out at the time, but nascent cable channels like HBO were making it possible for me to see smaller films, foreign films, movies that were intended more for adults and that I might not have bothered to see in a theater. I loved all of it, and once I had decided that filmmaking was what I wanted to do, and the realization began to settle in that what I wanted to do could actually be done if I pursued it, I never really veered from that path, even if the path itself didn’t necessarily take the route that I imagined at the time.

Writing had been my strong suit in school, so of course, I imagined that I would be a screenwriter and a director. The 80s were Woody Allen’s heyday, and for better or for worse, his work represented a lot of what I thought I wanted to be doing. When I got to the age where I should be attending college, no one in my family could afford to send me to a major film school, and I was also impatient to get started, so I attempted to make a short film on a shoestring budget, using money I got from my grandfather. That was going okay until I got to the part where you’re supposed to edit the film, mix the sound, make prints—post-production in general, basically— and I realized I had no idea how to proceed. I had never given post-production more than a passing thought and it bit me in the ass. That film remains unfinished to this day, but at least the experience humbled me to the point that I decided to get an actual education in filmmaking—whatever I could afford—so I began enrolling in film classes at Los Angeles City College.

There were classes in film theory, and the business of film production, as well as in the individual crafts involved in making a film—cinematography, sound, etc. The irony for me was that once I really learned what editing was, I found it to be the most exciting aspect of the whole process. It’s almost a cliche to anyone who actually knows it already, but that moment when you really discover and internalize the idea that the movie is made in the editing room is pretty mind-blowing.

During my time there, one of my professors told me that a friend of his was editing a very low-budget horror film that he had directed for the producer, Roger Corman. He needed someone to come in and file trims for him, which at the time was a basic task of assistant editors. This was 1987, and digital editing hadn’t come around yet, so everyone was still working with actual film. In the process of editing, the editor would inevitably wind up with dozens or hundreds of stray clips, anywhere from a couple frames to several feet long. These all needed to be kept organized so that at any moment, he or she would be able to find the exact piece they were looking for. That was my first job in the business. It lasted about two weeks, it was unpaid, and I was thrilled to have it.

After a couple of years of doing these low-budget exploitation films, my career as an assistant editor began to get some traction, and I finally started working at the studios in the early 1990s. If you manage to stick around in the business long enough, sooner or later you get the opportunity to work with some of your heroes. Sometimes this turns out well, sometimes not. In my case, it was the thing that eventually made my career. I worked with a lot of editors and some terrific directors, but ultimately my most important relationship turned out to be with the director, William Friedkin, who had done “The Exorcist” and “Sorcerer” in the 1970s—movies I had loved in my formative years—and in the 90s he was set up at Paramount, making large scale action and suspense films. I worked as an assistant editor on all of them, working directly for Billy’s editor at the time, Augie Hess.

In 2005, he made his first smaller-scale film in many years, called “Bug,” and when Augie passed on the film, Billy came to me and asked if I thought I was ready to sit in that chair. I told him, “absolutely.” I had recently edited another feature, a low-budget indie drama that had played some festivals. Billy knew this, even though it wasn’t important for him to see it; he hired me based on the relationship we had developed in the editing room over the previous decade.

In 2006, “Bug” played at the AFI Fest in Los Angeles, a festival that I regularly attended anyway. That year, I happened to check out a very small movie called “The GoodTimesKid,” made by Azazel Jacobs on an incomprehensibly small budget— something like $10,000. The thing was, I loved it. It reminded me of the true independent films I had seen in the 1980s from directors like Allison Anders and Alex Cox, directors whose values were more like punk rock than anything you could find in more mainstream movies. Aza had also edited the film himself, and in the Q&A he said it had taken him a year to do it. This was a 70-minute movie, and for ten thousand dollars, I knew he hadn’t shot a ton of footage. I walked up to him after the screening and told him how much I loved the film. I also said that if he ever felt like he wanted to work with an editor, I’d love to work with him and that I could probably save him some time. He said, not surprisingly, that he had in fact started to think about working with an editor, and he invited me to their after party.

That conversation began what, alongside Friedkin’s mentorship, has turned out to be the key relationship of my career. Aza and I went on to make three feature films together and two seasons of a show for SkyTV and HBO. He and I are embarking this month on our fourth feature together.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
The film industry is not a smooth road for anyone, and especially not for someone like me, who came to it with no ready-made connections, very little in the way of financial resources, and most of all, considers himself to be an artist and loses interest quickly in work that doesn’t feel like a sincere artistic pursuit.

More than anything, that last one has been the biggest struggle, and it’s been an obstacle of my own construction, really. I pretty much only want to to work on films and series that I believe in—not simply that I would want to watch, but that I would consider works of art that I want to see exist in the world; art that I think makes the world a better place to live in. And that desire often runs counter to economic considerations. Art can sometimes turn a profit, but when you prioritize the former over the latter, you can’t be too surprised that you spend a good portion of your life just trying to make ends meet.

Producers pick up on this, too. They love to work with people who are passionate about their craft and passionate about cinema in general, not only because that passion will often translate into great work, but because once they know you want that movie to exist for art’s sake, and for it to be great, they know you’ll work for less. They know you can’t stand the thought of working on something else that might pay better, but that you don’t personally believe in, and that translates into savings for them.

Please tell us more about your work. What do you do? What do you specialize in? What sets you apart from competition?
I’m a motion picture editor, but within the industry, you can just say “editor” and people will know what you mean. When I started in the business, back in the 1980s, you would say “film editor,” which was distinct from “TV editor,” because there wasn’t a lot of crossover work between movies and television; with rare exceptions, you specialized in one or the other. Nowadays, that’s much less true. That, plus the fact that almost no one uses actual film during the editing phase anymore, has made “film editor” an increasingly obsolete term.

The simplest way to describe what I do is that I watch all the footage that is shot for a movie and make decisions, both educated and gut ones, about which pieces should be used, in what order, to make the best possible film. In doing so, I’m weighing countless considerations: actors’ performances, mainly, but also narrative structure, pace, dramatic tension, photographic composition, camera movement, the spatial dimensions of the location, every quality that can be identified within a film frame. Obviously, the script is my primary template, especially in the early stages, but the reality is that we nearly always, eventually depart from the script in different ways. We frequently will rearrange the sequence of scenes; delete whole scenes outright; come up with new dialogue that will help the story, and bring the actors back later to record that dialogue and sneak it in one way or another. I’ll also do pretty extensive, if rudimentary, work with sound effects and music, laying the groundwork for our sound designers and composers to elaborate upon further down the road.

If I had to guess what I’m most known for, it’s helping to shape naturalistic performances from the actors. I think one of the misconceptions of audiences is that acting for a movie is like acting on stage, that the actor reports to work, delivers a performance, and that that’s what the audience sees. The reality is much more complicated: a movie performance is constructed piece by piece out of hundreds or thousands of takes, all of varying emotional tones, and often varying quality. Then those edited performances are often reconstructed many times over on the way to the finished film. In the movies, most of my work as an editor has been in independent films like “Bug,” “The Spectacular Now,” and “The Lovers.” In episodics, I’ve done mostly half-hour dramedies like “Mozart In the Jungle,” “I Love Dick,” and more recently, “Sorry For Your Loss.” The common thread among all of them is the importance of performance, and that’s certainly what I’m most proud of.

Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
Luck plays a role in how everyone’s life goes, and anyone who tells you differently is deluding themselves. Even people who work very hard can have terrible luck. And anyone who has achieved anything, if they’re being honest, will be able to identify dozens of factors in their lives over which they had no control but which nonetheless contributed to their success. I was born and raised in Southern California, so I was physically close to the business I wanted to be in. Even though I didn’t start out with economic advantages, I still had a family that was supportive of my goals and helped me however they could. Many people don’t have that luxury and have to rise above the skepticism and sometimes outright abuse of those who are closest to them.

Also, it’s important to remember that very few people saw the film that was my first edited feature. There was no guarantee that it would translate into more work. But Friedkin knew I had done it, and it was only a matter of chance that he found himself in need of an editor, for the first time in over a decade, a few months later. He could have had almost any editor in town, had he wanted to go that route, but the timing was right and he chose to give me a shot. Without that turn of events, I might never have moved out of the assistant editor’s chair, or maybe I’d have just changed careers.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
The two images with “PDX” in the file name can be credited to Nichol Lovett. The other two are selfies.

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