Len Feinstein was born in Brooklyn, and raised in Levittown, Long Island, the famous original tract development where every house was essentially the same to cut costs. “My father bought one of the later ones,” laughed Feinstein, “where every third house was the same.”
Feinstein’s father was a graphic artist, his mother a housewife. Although he earned a degree in biology from Stony Brook University in the late 70s, Len’s primary interest was in the university’s small filmmaking department — more of a club, actually — one professor and about ten students. “They bought a lot of equipment in hopes of developing a film department,” Len recalls. “It was a good experience. One of the two women in the club went on to be the co-editor of J.J. Abrams’ recent Star Wars film. Another is now president of HBO.”
After graduating, Len got a job as a “can messenger,” taking film back and forth to the lab for a tv-commercial editing company in New York City. He worked there for six years, learned the mechanics of splicers, synchronizers, moviolas, flat beds, and left as a tv-commercial editor. That company broke up. Several of his co-workers became successful editing big time commercials. “I did some Revlon, a couple of Toyotas — remember ‘Oh What A Feeling’? Charley perfume ads… I didn’t particularly like the ad world, even though my father was in it. He was a frustrated fine artist, a painter, who had to do commercial work for a living.”
Len’s sister later married a famous modern artist about whom he later made a documentary, and his younger brother lives in Brooklyn — “still in rent control.”
“After the company broke up, a guy I knew there hired me to produce and edit some slick public relations pieces for some big companies like IBM. These were big budget productions mostly used for corporate image development within the industries, the stock market, and trade associations. They filmed people like Ansel Adams and Stephen Sondheim, the films were shown at trade fairs and conventions. I was still in my 20s. Then I moved on to analog video editing with time codes; that stuff is very hard to work with. I got a call from National Geographic after they saw one of my small independent documentary films. I did some short pieces for National Geographic Explorer.
“Then the digital revolution hit. I did my first digital editing in 1989 about the same time I started working with Nat-Geo.
“Then National Geographic moved to LA and I ended up moving to Los Angeles. My sister’s husband, Robert Irwin, is a well-known artist and I did a small project for him. Then another one featuring him, which has become a kind of classic in the art world called, ‘The Beauty of Questions.’ Bob’s getting old now but still quite active.
“I did National Geographic projects for several years until they moved their operation back to Washington DC. But through that experience and contacts I moved into editing Nova shows and American Experience for PBS.
“Lately there’s been a big increase in feature documentaries. The first one I did was ‘Darfur Now’ in 2007. I was nominated for an Eddie Award for that, and I won one the following year for a tv series. These projects take at least six months, sometimes much more. Depends on how much material I have to go through to begin with.
“I recently finished ‘Betting On Zero,’ a documentary about Herbalife, the pyramid marketing scheme that’s basically gone international. The film is about stock market investor Bill Ackman’s four year battle with Herbalife. It’s not released yet but has been well received at early film festival screenings. They’re still negotiating about distribution. I don’t know when it will come out.”
Film editors are paid by the hour or the day; they do not get residuals. Cinematographers, directors, producers, and actors get residuals, not editors.
Len is currently working on a documentary about the post-bombing Boston Marathon.
“The Boston Marathon documentary director lives in Italy and the producer is in LA. So the editing is done here in Boonville and at the end of the year we’ll finish it in LA.
“Once in a while I have to tell directors that something they paid good money to produce and direct just isn’t any good. Most of the time if they see what I’m talking about they agree in the end. It can get difficult at times. But if it’s bad, it’s bad and can’t be used. One time a director I worked with did two big shoots in Washington DC and New York. It took me three days each just to watch them and go over them. They were terrible and very tangential to the project. I had to tell him they were not usable. It was painful to watch the footage with him. I said, ‘I’m sorry, Ted, but I don’t think so.’ He finally realized it wasn’t any good. Sometimes I have to waste time editing stuff that I know will never be in the finished product. Maybe in the DVD extras. But still. That happens in almost every film: Stuff gets edited and never used.
“I also do one or two ‘Craft in America’ shows for PBS each year. Those have won a Peabody Award. They are good projects for me because I can use them as fillers in between the bigger productions. I’ve probably cut half their shows. I can do most of it right here at home.
“We still use 3x5 cards to organize scenes. It’s amazing. Even though we have some very advanced technology, we still use 3x5 cards on a cork board to outline the productions. It’s tried and true and it has not disappeared. [Len pulled out a 3 foot by 4 foot corkboard covered with handwritten 3x5 cards in various colors.] This board is my first hour. [Another board.] And this is my second hour. Then new scenes are added and re-sequenced. The rejected ones go on the back.
“Film is a completely different medium than text. Frequently just one or two shots can replace whole chapters in a book. People are pretty smart. You don’t have to explain everything. People will get it. Exposition can kill a documentary. People’s eyes glaze over. The film has to maintain your interest. It should work on an emotional and visceral level; it’s more qualitative than quantitative. I learned from my brother-in-law that it’s about quality, not numbers and amounts. But the balance is important. And you need to develop characters who help you tell the story to the audience. It’s story telling basically.
"One of the great things about being freelance is that I can take time off between projects. I love to travel. Mostly backpacking, low budget. I’ve been to Africa several times. And the Middle East and Europe and Asia. I’m getting older now and it’s harder and harder. I’ve had bedbugs and leaches and injuries and diseases…
"After my first — I call my travels ‘sabbaticals’ — I got a call from a friend who told me about a very hard project, a PBS show by Bill Moyers about a crazy guy named Joseph Campbell. Another editor had tried it and gave up. It wasn’t working out. There was so much of this rambling, almost incoherent material. Hours and hours of interviews. I had an assistant get some visuals to break things up a bit. It was just me, the producer and Bill Moyers. But Moyers had already moved on to other stuff. I spent six months going through hour after hour of that stuff. It was all over the place, a mess! My first cut was just audio, no visuals. It was a great lesson in organizing and story telling. At the end I didn’t know what people would think. Can anybody understand it? It turned out to hit a chord and became very popular. I have no idea why. Moyers made out like a bandit and I got paid by the week. It was called “The Power of Myth.” It was a big feather in my cap and helped launch my documentary career.
“Editors never get much credit; you’re supposed to be almost invisible. You need a good eye and a good ear for certain looks or shots or moments that you just have to grab and work into the story. It’s like if your brother comes home from a trip with 1800 photos and bores everybody looking at them all… I could do that in 20 key pictures and people would pay attention and remember it. Then you put the music over it. Piece by piece.
“One of my favorite projects was ‘Mona Lisa is Missing.’ That was very fun. It’s about the theft of the Mona Lisa painting from the Louvre in the early 1900s, set in France and Italy. Joe Medeiros and I shared the editing credit. He was the producer, director, editor, star (sort of). His first cut was way too long, and nobody liked it. Being his pet project, he couldn’t leave anything out. After some very unsuccessful screenings he came to me and we re-cut it. He had been Jay Leno’s head writer for years before he made that one movie. That was it. He did his own Monty Python-esque animations to illustrate things.
“I cut ‘John Brown’s Holy War,’ the famous documentary for PBS with Robert Kenner. Kenner is one of the best documentarians alive.
“Editing takes so much time that I have very little extra time to watch any videos for simple enjoyment. I’m burned out after a day of reviewing and editing.
“Once I went out to dinner in San Diego with my brother-in-aw, Bob Irwin. His bookie was with him and the bookie asked me what I did, and I said I was a film editor. This bookie said, ‘Oh! You’re a cutter,’ in that raspy accent of his. That’s the old Hollywood term for a film editor.”
Len moved to Boonville full-time three years ago. His wife, Susan Robinson, had been a script analyst for Creative Artists, the big talent agency in LA. “Then she began screenplay adaptations of books for a Hollywood producer. Now she’s written one novel and is working on another. She’s also currently managing the tasting room at Lichen Estate."
Len and Susan started coming to Boonville on vacation about ten years ago, renting at Sheep Dung Estates. “Then we met Anne Fashauer and became friends. Then we rented a local cabin for a year and I realized I could maintain my LA connections by a combination of the recently available high speed internet and the convenient Santa Rosa to LA airplane shuttle. For example, I spent about half the editing time for ‘Betting on Zero’ in LA and half here.
“I’m happy to be in Anderson Valley. I don’t miss the city at all. Not a bit. Most people I work with have no idea where Boonville or Mendocino County are. I usually just tell people I’m in northern California, wine country. And they say, Like Napa? No, Mendocino County. Some of them make a vague connection with marijuana or wine. But that’s about it. My wife and I really like it here. It’s worked out great."