Editor Isidore Bethel Describes Working on SXSW Documentary Feature, What We Leave Behind


Isidore Bethel is an editor, director, and producer whom Filmmaker named one of the “25 New Faces of Independent Film” in 2020. We recently spoke with him about his work on the SXSW documentary feature What We Leave Behind. 

What We Leave Behind synopsis: At the age of 89, Julián takes one last bus ride to El Paso, Texas, to visit his daughters and their children—a lengthy trip he’s made without fail every month for decades. After returning to rural Mexico, he quietly starts building a house in the empty lot next to his home. In the absence of his physical visits, can this new house bridge the distance between his loved ones? Director Iliana Sosa films her grandfather’s work, gently sifting through Julián’s previously unspoken memories and revealing both the pragmatism and poetry of his life. WHAT WE LEAVE BEHIND unfolds as a love letter to her grandfather, as well as an intimate exploration of her own relationship with him and his homeland.

PH: How long have you been in the industry and where do you draw your inspiration from?

Isidore Bethel: I’ve been in the industry for nearly 30 years. Every project is so unique and so I draw inspiration from a lot of different sources. But mostly I try to find myself in any given project and start from there. How do I relate to the hero? How are his or her struggles and hopes similar to ones I’ve known? In particular for The Last Movie Stars I drew a lot of inspiration from my own family, which has grown along with the project as I’ve become a stepfather, a foster dad as well as welcoming a bio child – all while editing this project. I really understood the different priorities Paul and Joanne were juggling.

PH: What made you sign onto this project?

Isidore Bethel: I really loved the way Ethan talked about the project and the kind of story he wanted to tell – I knew the collaboration was going to be not just interesting and challenging, but that I would grow as both a filmmaker, and as a person –  in exploring these ideas of love, family, wild success, and personal failures. I was also intrigued by the challenge of making a film out of these lost transcripts and using Paul and Joanne’s professional work to bring their personal relationships to life. 

PH: How do you know if a film is going to get into SXSW?

Isidore Bethel: You don’t. Just keep your head down and your heart in the work and make the best film you can. Try to tell a story that is universal. Allow your audience to see glimpses of themselves in your characters. Make them laugh whenever possible. And don’t be afraid to let your heroes be unlikable sometimes. All that will make your work more relevant.

PH: Can you describe what it was like collaborating with the other pros (like the director) about feedback?

Isidore Bethel: Ethan is an amazing collaborator. He’s brilliant, engaged, passionate, curious and really articulate about his ideas. He’s also incredibly open to hearing my ideas and to the feedback we received along the way. We were able to really process feedback – not just react to it – because we had so carefully crafted everything. So when something wasn’t working, we could go back to the intent of the scene and overall emotional arc and discuss how to get to that, rather than just be reactive. The notes we got from our other creative partners were thoughtful and respectful  – and made the series better. Overall, Ethan created an environment where everyone felt heard, so we were able to both receive and process feedback really well.

PH: What were some of the editing challenges you encountered? How did you handle those?

Isidore Bethel: The sheer volume of material both from the transcripts, archival, the zoom interviews and the films Joanne and Paul starred in — and also the way each of these elements danced with each other — was hard to get my head around. And as always with documentary, there is no script — no clear path to follow. On day one, anything can happen. It’s like beginning a screenplay or a novel. There is always a way to overcome creative challenges (especially not knowing where you are going) — just make one decision at a time. Keep moving forward. Like a mealworm. Eventually you look behind you and you have a movie. 

PH: Let’s talk about your experience using Premiere Pro. What was that like? How did it help you accomplish your work?

Isidore Bethel: We love to work in Premiere Pro at September Club and in fact it’s the program we train all our editors on. We have a geographically diverse team working in multiple locations around the states. It’s so easy to collaborate with a diverse team in multiple locations.

PH: What advice would you have for directors on working with editors? 

Isidore Bethel: Editing can be a really thankless job – I mean, the Oscars pulled the category from broadcast which goes to show how little most people understand about the editorial process. Ethan really values editors as creative partners. He is open and generous throughout the creative process. And The Last Movie Stars really benefits from that. When you feel valued — like a creative partner and a co-writer — you give 200%. That’s my best advice. Treat your editors like the creative partners they are, not like button pushers. Don’t let your ego get in the way of good ideas, don’t be afraid to try things and fail. All that will make your film better.


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