It’s a distinct choice to start a film about quilting by asking a question about trees. The documentary was directed by Maris Curran, but film editor Julie Caskey ’84, played an integral role in piecing together the footage filmed on location, the recorded voices, and the beautiful music sung by the quilters. Among other things, the film evokes ideas about the history of the South, gospel music, what it means to be an artist, religion, suffering, redemption, and thankfulness. While the film is ultimately the director’s vision, Caskey’s work is, in essence, like finding the perfect way to sew together a beautiful quilt. She joins together pieces of film in ways that tell a unique story and convey a director’s vision.From Art History to Artist
When Julie Caskey was a student at Tulane University, she admits, “I didn’t even know to be interested in film editing.” She was immersed in an art history major. “I loved art history. I loved art. I loved sitting in a dark room and seeing these amazing images.” She even spent her junior year of college in Florence, Italy, studying art and architecture. Today, she’s still looking at images, sometimes in a dark room, only these images are now moving, and she is the artist. As a freelance film editor for more than 20 years, Caskey works behind the scenes, mostly from her home in Berkeley, California. She combs through hours of footage and directors’ notes to help decide how images, voices, and music should be cut together or juxtaposed to tell the thread of a story. Her choices influence so much of what a film or documentary evokes.
To get to this point took some determination, and also a willingness to follow her passions. After Tulane, Caskey returned to Memphis and worked for the Memphis Arts Council and at the Alice Bingham Gallery. She spent two years learning to fly planes, thinking she might want to be a pilot. Eventually, she decided that she wanted to try something, and someplace, different, so she packed up her Honda and headed west. She was bound for either San Francisco or Seattle, but she knew someone in San Francisco looking for a roommate, so the choice was made. Although she continued to work in art galleries out west, she said that work never quite felt right for her.
She decided to go back to school and enrolled in a media studies program at San Francisco State University. That’s when she got an inkling that she wanted to be involved in film. “I didn’t know in what capacity,” she admitted. “There are so many directions you can go—writing, directing, producing. But I did know that editing is where the film comes together.”
She recalled her story while sitting in her editing studio, a front room in her house. It is modest compared to the million-dollar editing suites we sometimes see represented in “making-of films” about films. Caskey’s studio contains a desk that can also function as a standing desk, an ergonomic kneeling chair, two video monitors side by side, a small mixer, two external speakers, a stylus, and a keyboard. The desktop computer and backup storage drives that house the terabytes of digital film footage, music, and audio are tucked below the desk and might seem small when one imagines the many different stories they contain. She likes the flexibility of being able to work from home so that she can spend time with her husband, their nine-year-old son, and their dog, a friendly black-and-white Pointer/Brittany mix, who is lovingly named Rooster Cogburn, after the character from the book True Grit
She recalled a defining moment in 2001. “The most influential stroke of good luck I had was when I heard the editor Vivien Hillgrove give a talk called ‘The Spirit of Editing.’ I still have my notes from that lecture and remember how it hit me like a ton of bricks. The way she spoke of the art of editing and how to mine for stories in footage was inspirational. She talked about how she used real, not manufactured, sounds when she was the dialogue editor for Amadeus
to make the film more emotional. She explained how language can be used as music, like in The Unbearable Lightness of Being
where she and Walter Much used the din of Czechoslovakians talking in the background as sound design. She described how she would put photos up on the wall and see where her eyes went when she listened to dialogue. When I heard Vivien speak, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what I want to do.’ ”
At the time, Caskey had aspirations to apprentice with someone like Hillgrove, but she knew that was probably wishful thinking. And yet, months later she happened to be searching an online bulletin board for jobs and saw that Vivien was looking for an assistant. Caskey immediately called at 7 am on a Saturday morning, expecting to leave a message, and Vivien answered the phone. She got the job and worked with Hillgrove for a little over two years on three different films.
In addition to apprenticing with Hillgrove, Caskey practiced her early editing skills through several hands-on editing jobs, including an internship with the Oakland Unified School District, which had a TV station where Caskey cut together pieces of wobbly student-shot video of events such as the spelling-bee or jazz camp. “It was a low-stakes way to figure out how to find the story in a bunch of footage,” Caskey recalled. “I loved it and discovered that I was good at it. So I thought, ‘I’m going to keep going this way.’ ” After that, she worked for the television channel, Current TV, founded by Al Gore, which was pioneering “citizen journalism,” where people from all over the world could send in news footage. “It had higher stakes because it was for broadcast, and I had to make it look professional.”Finding the Crux of a Story
What was it about editing that finally made sense for Caskey? “It was a combination of hearing Vivien speak, working with her, and recognizing my own personality and strengths.
“Vivien’s passion for the craft was influential,” she recalled. “She was a woman working in a male-dominated field, and she defied all stereotypes.” Caskey explained a little-known fact: many of the first film editors were women. “In the first days of film, the men in charge would say, ‘That’s a woman’s job; they can sew those pieces together.’ In the editing rooms, it was all women. Eventually, the men caught on: ‘Oh, that’s a really powerful, influential job,’ and they took over editing.”
“It's my job to watch all of the footage and say, 'What's the heart of this? What are we trying to communicate? What's the most interesting way to tell it' ”
One of Caskey’s clients is Pixar, the animation studio. She’s editing a series of short non-fiction films called “Inside Pixar” that are available on Disney+. One is about a woman who works as a character designer at Pixar and who talks about working in a man’s field. Caskey and the film’s director, Erica Milsom, hope that her story can serve as an inspiration for girls. “I take that responsibility seriously. The field of animation, as well as editing, is often heavily populated by men. If there are young girls who are interested in these fields, I want them to see, ‘I could do that.’ That’s what Vivien did for me.”
Hillgrove also taught Caskey that you have to know the editing technology and software, but then you have to forget about it because that’s not what editing is. “It’s about storytelling,” Caskey explained. “The editor’s influence is huge. For instance, an editor might say: ‘I think that cutting from this scene to that scene will communicate x, y, or z in a much more emotional way than if we put it down the road at the end of the film.’ ”
Caskey knows a lot about music as well. She’s studied piano since she was five years old and has a baby grand piano in her home. “Music is so important to editing,” Caskey explained. “Not only in terms of pacing and rhythm, but also in terms of tone and setting a scene, either the absence of it or the use of it.”
Caskey believes she’s found the kinds of films that she likes to work on. Most range in length from three minutes to 15 minutes. In addition to short films for Pixar, and corporate work for Adobe, Google, and others, she prefers to work on documentaries, not scripted films. With documentaries, she explained, being an editor is almost like being a writer. “It’s the director’s job to go in and say, ‘this is what I think this piece is going to be about,’ but you never know what’s going to happen, what the person being interviewed will say, or what’ll be the most interesting and compelling thing. It’s my job to listen to and watch all of the footage, make lots of notes, and say, ‘what’s the heart of this? What are we trying to communicate? What’s the most interesting way to tell it?’
Watch the documentary While I Yet Live
, for instance, and you’ll see how she’s put together the elements in a fresh and creative way. “That film was a tremendous experience,” Caskey said. “It was only 14 minutes, but it traveled the festival circuit, and found a wide, international audience.”
A poster of the short documentary While I Yet Live, which Julie Caskey edited.
The Confidence to Pivot
Changing directions before landing on editing wasn’t easy, Caskey admitted, but she felt somewhat prepared for it. “Hutchison provided this amazing foundation that allowed me the confidence to pivot in any direction I wanted to go. The thing that I didn’t appreciate at the time that I do now, being a mom, is that I see how important school, the school environment, and teachers are, and how influential they are in formative years. It’s important that school feels like home and that you have the confidence that all of your teachers know you and care about you. I definitely feel like I had that at Hutchison, and I am aware that I am constantly trying to recreate that for my son. Hutchison was like a home in that I felt confident and secure.”
Her advice for Hutchison girls? “Be persistent. That’s paid off for me. I tried so many different things, and I would get into something and it wouldn’t feel right. It was embarrassing that it didn’t feel right. But then I went, ‘nope, I need to keep going and find something.’ And I landed in a very niche place, but it works. My advice would be to try to know yourself. Know your personality, know your limitations. Be connected to your ambition. And try to stay focused on that. It’s easy and tempting to get a job you understand and know how to do it, but it may not be satisfying.”
Although bittersweet, Caskey had the opportunity to work on a film as a co-director and editor. One of Caskey’s friends, Anna Kuperberg, is a photographer. When she learned that her wife, Carla Jean Johnson, had an aggressive form of breast cancer, she decided to track her diagnosis, treatment, and illness with photos and film.
“The film is called Eleven Weeks because it was 11 weeks from Carla’s diagnosis to her death,” Caskey said. “Carla approached the end of life in a very courageous, remarkable way, and Anna wanted to document this. When Carla was dying, she asked me, ‘Will you help me make a film about this?’ It was intense, because she was a friend of mine, but I think the message is that we have options in that situation, and she did it in a very beautiful way.”
Caskey said that she’s crossed three of her four bucket list career goals off: the first, working with Vivien Hillgrove, the second, working with Maris Curran, the director of the documentary about quilting, and third, working with Pixar. The fourth, “well, that one continues to evolve.”
“Hutchison provided this amazing foundation that allowed me the confidence to pivot in any direction I wanted to go.”
“The thing that I love the most about my work is that every project I work on is like this crash course in whatever subject it is,” Caskey said. “If it’s the end of life, it’s dealing with that subject matter. If it’s about being a female animator in a male-dominated industry, or veterans with PTSD, or the ladies of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and their quilting and their craft and what it’s like to be a black woman in Alabama in the ’60s, then I learn about those things. Even the corporate work I do is interesting because stories are stories. It’s about the human experience, whether it’s the work that you’re doing or how you’re surviving in this world. I get to take this deep dive into these different specific stories and immerse myself in them and then move on to the next one.”