“I need to know why a director wants to tell a story.“ Viðtal við Alain Dessauvage

Opposite me sits a man who is true to his talents and seeks out sincerity. Alain Dessauvage is a
professional editor from Belgium with an impressive list of 25 films on his dossier. He is back
around working with Lukas Dhont on his second feature, Close, which was nominated as the
best foreign feature at the 2023 Academy Awards.

Alain likes to take on projects that make him feel something from the first read but also stories
he hasn’t done before. “I need to know why a director wants to tell a story. If they wrote the
script; what compelled them?”
He mentions intuition more than once in relation to his work. To him it is the main ingredient in a
successful editor, along with being able to make a director feel like they can share their vision
freely and without judgment. “You will be spending months working and having a conversation in
the same room with that person, and if there is little or no connection, the outcome won’t be
good.” Alain likes to connect with directors on a personal level, to also be able to have an
engaging chat in between working. He may not share conversation somewhere over a beer with
every single one, but there must be a spark.

His mother brought home a booklet of available studies when he was 16 years old and
filmmaking piqued his interest immediately. “There wasn’t any kind of qualification you had to
have beforehand to attend this particular film school back then […] Which is a good thing,
because if you need to have a film background to study film there is a lot of people, like me, that
would fall through the cracks. I would maybe never have known that editing would become my
passion and my career.” From a range of study courses, Alain chose editing. “Maybe editing is
the least sexy part of the process, but then you have directors like Stanley Kubrick that say that
they only film so they can edit afterwards.”

Belgium is home to a small film industry which Icelandic filmmakers will relate to. Alain says that
there are probably around 10 editors there, including himself, working on an advanced level.
Alain was approached personally by Lukas Dhont to work on his first feature, Girl, by phone call.
They hit it off with their shared vision. At that time Alain was 45 years old and the DOP a similar
age, while Dhont was 25 and recently graduated from film school. Dhont wanted Girl to reach a
wide audience and needed seasoned professionals for his particular vision to be fulfilled. Alain
was then approached again for Dhonts’ next film, Close. “Directors tend to stick with people they
like, people they know […] and I said; of course I’m available!”

Girl was the first time Alain edited a feature that is shot in a documentary style. Lukas Dhont
likes to be able to improvise while shooting and do long takes which in turn demands a long
filming period. Close follows the same style. The adult actors in Close were timid when it came
to improvising, whereas the kids found it much easier.
Alain is not particularly fond of direct references for style, at least not for his films with Dhont.
The two films they have done together have a life of their own that is inspired from a wide range
of films, and yet nothing concrete.
“Classically shot films, like the ones I had done before, are relatively easy compared to Close
and Girl; where you have hundreds of hours of footage, which is all good, but it’s all different.”
He felt it was scary at first, but then found it liberating to have so many options to choose from.
“I asked (Dhont) once whether he would like to do a classically shot film, and he said: No, I am
not interested in that, and I don’t really think I would be good at it either.” The editing process for
Girl spanned five months, and for Close it was seven. Alain normally works three to four months
on a film. And now for some impressive calculations: “Close, it had 110 hours of footage, and
the film is 1 hour and 40 minutes, which means that there is about 98,5% of the material which
hasn’t been used.”

On analyzing what can go wrong: “There are probably a lot of bad films that could have been
made better if they were edited differently or over a longer time period. But there is certainly not
a good film which is badly edited.”

For the first rough cut Alain likes to go solo, so that when the director sees it for the first time,
there may be something fresh there that they hadn’t thought of before. Editor and director must
be on the same page from the beginning, to avoid any sort of micromanagement on the cut, and
to make time for productive discussion. As anyone who has worked in editing knows, the first
cut is always inherently bad. It will be too long and the emotional beats won’t hit right, that’s just
how it is. “You need time to come back to the edit multiple times, try it out different ways and get
opinions from different people.” To Alain, the most important thing is watching every take
available. He is not particularly fond, for example of being head of an editing department where
others do the work and he just has a final say.

They say that editing has hit home when it is unnoticeable. Stylistic choices are made in the
editing room just as they are made during filming, the ribbon is tied around the present which
then makes its way to a screen. Alain would like to be an Architect, could he not be an editor.
He recognizes the similarities in the two fields and compares them. “It’s quite similar in the way
that someone with a vision to build something hires you in to form it with them.”

And on staying curious: “It’s not because I have done like, 25 films that I can say ‘This is how it
should be done’ in the editing room. I still need to try it out, it’s still a bit of trial and error […] It’s
hard to say exactly at what point a cut goes from being a collection of scenes to becoming a

In describing his job to outsiders, Alain talks about how actors never see their bad takes, and
camera people never see the shots that were not 100%, and that’s all up to the editor to choose.
His job is “to make everyone shine, in a way.”

– Höfundur: Katla Gunnlaugsdóttir