How Editing Can Help Create Powerful Storytelling


Field Notes Interview #33: Jillian Ezra, Storyteller

Right off the bat, Jillian Ezra will tell you she’s not a filmmaker, producer or editor exactly, yet she does all of these things under the umbrella of being a storyteller. And a lot of how she captures stories is through the art of editing.

Through her craft, Ezra distills meaningful experiences into short films while keeping the mood, experience and subject powerful and intact. Her production company Ezra Productions help people get to the emotional core and essence of the story they want to tell through editing, and part of that process is finding the right soundtrack.

We chatted with Ezra and how she cultivated her filmmaking voice, and how music plays a large role in her attention to detail in the editing process.

M: When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?

JE: I don’t know that I’ve ever had the thought, “I want to be a filmmaker.” I’ve always been an entrepreneur. I started a shot girl company while I was studying economics at NYU but thought I should do the smart thing and work in finance after college, so I got job at Lazard Asset Management in New York. This was around the time of the financial crash, so I was grateful to have found a job in finance when people with 10 years of experience were willing to take my position just to stay employed. I enjoyed the newness and the challenge of finance but the type of work I was doing was mundane and could be easily automated by a computer one day. I was reading a lot about the practical applications of behavioral economics as well as Daniel Pink’s “A Whole New Mind,” which espoused the importance of developing your right brain in this day in age. Pink posited that all of the jobs that could be automated or even done by less expensive workers abroad would eventually be shipped there, and the value of the commodity of American labor would come down to creativity and strategy, such as constructing systems that could be implemented in poorer countries. I wasn’t being challenged intellectually at my job, and disliked being in a cubicle all day. 

Whenever I could, I traveled to exotic destinations. In college I studied in Florence and Sydney, traveled around Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. I loved learning about new cultures, meeting new people, and learning about how different people viewed the world. I also loved seeing the beautiful and interesting sights. I brought a camera with me everywhere, and snapped photos of any moment I thought I’d want to remember later. I took photos of things I thought were so beautiful, I couldn’t bear to leave them behind. I liked to photograph things in the most beautiful way possible, so I’d shoot things from different angles and distances to do justice to exactly how beautiful they were in real life. I was able to look back on those photos when I was back in “real life” and I got to re-live all of those experiences, which was incredible. There were some situations that a photo alone couldn’t capture. Things like a wave crashing against the rocks, receding, forming a wave and then crashing down again. Or the scene of a baby cats feeding from a mama cat on the blue and white steps of a Greek home. So I started taking videos. 

In 2009 I was able to purchase my first Mac computer. I was obsessed with learning the new programs—I built a website with iWeb one day when I was sick, I categorized all of my photos in iPhoto, and I learned about iMovie. I needed more footage than I had to try out all the features in iMovie and to be able to tell a cohesive story, so I shot some footage of my cousin, her husband and her son over a period of a week. I watched the videos in iMovie and put together my first “Day-in-the-life Film” for my cousin. It showed all of the eccentricities of her four-year-old son–everything he did that captured who he was as a child. It showed him beginning for juice and milk even after his parents had walked away, it showed him sliding down the stairs on his butt, one step at time, because he was too small to walk down each stair individually. It showed his adorable way of learning the ABCs as he would skip over dozens of letters and continue on in his own rendition of the ABCs song. I set the video to “Sweet Disposition.” My cousin called me after watching it and she was in tears. She said it was the greatest gift she had eve received–a living time capsule of her son that she could re-live anytime, anywhere. I showed it to others and they agreed. How had nobody thought about offering this type of service to families before? I did some research and discovered that one or two individual videographers were doing this, but nobody had taken it to a commercial scale. A friend of mine who worked in finance offered me my salary to pursue the video production full time, but I didn’t like the idea of owing anything to anyone. I kept making the videos for families on the side. When I filmed, I fell in love with my subjects. When I edited, I got to know everything about them, every movement and every phrase. It was incredible to interview the parents about what they wanted for their children, how they chose the names of their children, how they met, what each child was doing and saying all the time, etc. I felt like I was giving each family a gift of a lifetime that would provide comfort in times of need and, and that I was helping people see the beauty and blessings of their lives through a cinematic lens.

So to summarize, I don’t really see myself as a filmmaker or a director or a producer or a DP or an editor, although I can do all of those things. I see myself as a storyteller, a facilitator, and a consultant and a marketer for our corporate clients. Scorsese and Tarantino are filmmakers. I’m not that fancy.

M: What’s your favorite part of filmmaking?

JE: I’d say my favorite moments come in the editing process. Editing is this incredibly powerful storytelling tool that allows you to combine your intellect with your creativity, and the possible results are endless. When I used to do more of the filming myself, I loved it when I would get a shot I knew I could use one of those unexpectedly beautiful and touching moments. With families, it’s all about filming and filming and waiting for the beautiful moments to present themselves. So when they come, it’s so rewarding. I feel so lucky to be able to do what I’m doing.

M: What do you think defines a filmmakers voice?

JE: I think people’s experiences, their views on life, their moods, their preferences, and the art they admire defines their voices as artists. I guess it’s just how they choose to tell stories. Some people like having more control than others, so their films will be very logical, others like to suggest and let viewers  find their own interpretations. 

M: Do you always have a clear vision in mind when filming?

JE: With corporate clients, yes. Especially with big budget projects, the client doesn’t want to hear “We’ll just feel it out day of. Just let the cameras roll and see what happens.” I’d love to try that with a willing corporate client. But typically the value we provide to corporate clients on top of movie-quality video production is in the discovery and execution of key marketing messages in a way that inspires and moves their target audiences to action. So there’s a lot of research and planning that’s involved. On the other hand, I usually only have a suggested shot list (if any) and I like to work with the DP to figure out the best way to tell the story we are trying to tell. 

For the family clients, I make sure that I understand why they’re making the video and what they hope to get out of it, but the beauty of those videos is in the unexpected. You can’t plan how life is going to unfold, you just watch it. When the videos include interviews, I’ll definitely make sure to have those questions ready beforehand.

M: Are there ever any happy accidents when filming?

JE: Always. Part of my job is turning accidents into advantages. Accidents can provide some of the best broll. 

M: What role do you feel music has in film?

JE: I’ve always said that music is just as important as film in the overall project. It helps set the mood–it’s like the river and the ecosystem that carries and influences the boat we put the viewer into. It really takes film to the next level.

M: When do you know you have something ready to show the world?

JE: Never. I remember learning that was normal early on. I think I read an interview with a female director a while back and reading that same question and going, “Oh man, I’m going to learn the answer because I never feel like my work is ready to show the world!” There are always changes I want to make. But the woman in the interview basically said that the film is ready when the executives force her to hand it over. I try and use the 80/20 rule. It usually turns into the 99/1 rule, but who’s counting?

M: How do you think music can be misused in film?

JE: When a track is thrown onto the timeline haphazardly because SOMETHING needs to be in there to make an otherwise boring or awkward piece interesting. When budget and time constraints dictate the kind of music you have to use, and you’re not finding anything that fits the mood and the quality of the film, and you use something that doesn’t bring the film to the next level. 

Of course it bothers me when filmmakers use music illegally. The artists that create the songs we use in our films work SO hard and they usually make the least amount of money as a percentage of the budget. I believe in acknowledging people for their hard work, and paying people as a sign of respect, at the very least. This even goes for music I listen to personally. I’m not a saint, I just relate to the plight of the musician.

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