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November 10, 2016

SCA Alumni Stories: Sean Jarrett

By Eileen Kwon

With an MFA in Production, Sean Jarrett ’14 has immensely expanded his storytelling strengths and creative sensibility as a documentary editor. Jarrett recently discussed his beginnings as a filmmaker, the valuable emotional impact both documentary and fiction films have on audiences, and his experience in every editing job of learning “something technical, artistic, and something about life.”

What in your past influenced your decision to pursue a career in the film industry? One of my first major experiences was watching a documentary called Paradise Lost: the Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. I had never seen a movie like that before and it was a new and exciting thing for me. It was the realization that the everyday world was filled with incredible people and stories, and at times, life itself has the potential for being even more unbelievable than fiction. And when I say “unbelievable” I mean that as a positive thing that challenges our own perception of reality, and it’s the gold that I’m always mining for in any documentary film.

I was very much into fiction films as well, and for a long time the way I wanted to get into the industry was by being an actor. After my undergraduate studies, I got a job as a theatrical actor. On occasion, I would do some micro-budget films and even made a one-time appearance on a fairly well known sitcom. But for the most part, I was living the life of a struggling actor, migrating between jobs in New England and the Southeast.

In an attempt to get my career going, I drove out to Los Angeles. I had brought a small video camera with me and filmed things along the way. I was really just trying to document my experiences and capture my impressions of Western America, a place with which I was totally unfamiliar. I had gotten to know a little about video editing through some friends, so I was able to edit the footage in an attempt to make a kind of experimental documentary. What I found was that the process of filmmaking and editing was much more satisfying to me than acting. With acting, I always felt like I was interpreting someone else’s point of view, whereas with filmmaking, I was able to utilize something that felt very specific and personal to me. Not too long after that, I wound up at USC.

Could you share about how you got involved with Genghis Khan Conquers the Moon? How did you grow as a storyteller from your experience working on the short? After I graduated, I edited four student thesis films at USC, and Genghis Khan Conquers the Moon was one of them. At first glance, the major challenge on that film appeared to be the large number of special effects. In fact, the final third of the film was shot entirely in front of a green screen.  However, what that film ultimately came down to was crafting the story in the midst of all those special effects. I certainly learned a lot about the technical process of making an effects-heavy film. That experience was a great example of how an editor’s job is, first and foremost, to find a way to tell the most compelling story that makes the audience feel something, regardless of the genre you’re working in.

How did you become involved with Holy Hell, a documentary explicating Will Allen’s life in a cult in 1980s West Hollywood? What was your experience editing the documentary film, which premiered at Sundance in January 2016? When I was interviewing for the job, the director, Will Allen, sent me a trailer he had put together. After watching it, I knew right away that it was going to be a successful film. The material in of itself was once-in-a-lifetime type of stuff. It really was that same gold I mentioned earlier, in that he had access to things that audiences had never seen before and a story that was really unbelievable. Since Will was also editing the film, we worked very closely. It was highly collaborative and I think we both complimented each other well. We obviously come from different backgrounds when it comes to filmmaking. In addition to what I learned at USC, I had done some television work, so I was a little more familiar with the process, whereas Will had been cultivating his skills for over two decades making films for his cult. That being said, he really is a great editor and a very talented filmmaker. I learned a lot from him, especially in the way he constructs scenes, which I think he does wonderfully.

I think my biggest contribution to the film was helping him focus and shape his story.  That manifested in a lot of ways, but one way in particular was by helping him inject his own voice into the film. One of the truly awful effects of his experience was that he wasn’t used to having his voice be valued. A big part of my job was helping him to do that, either by scripting voiceover, or by finding other ways to articulate what was a very emotionally complex experience for him. I’m really thankful that he was so open to letting me be part of what was such a personal experience for him.

What are your views on the narrative merits of both fiction and non-fiction films? I think all films, documentary and fiction, have the potential to impact and affect someone deeply. Even if they aren’t necessarily films with a strong social message, they both have the ability to expose audiences to people, communities, and stories that they didn’t have access to before, allowing audiences to look at life with a new perspective. So, at their core, I don’t think they are fundamentally all that different.

What advice would you give to current SCA students? One of the best ways to learn and improve your skills is through the process of feedback. Being open to constructive criticism can be very beneficial and it can actually reduce a lot of your own fears and biases that you may have about your work. It’s also important to remember that criticism doesn’t define you as an artist. Weaknesses that you have now can be improved with hard work. It’s not about being a perfect filmmaker—it’s about figuring out the best use of the medium in your own unique way.