Emmy-nominated editor, director and producer Vera Drew talked with The Scribe about her life with film, her love for storytelling, and even ideas about a possible future feature film.
Known for her work with Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who Is America?” and Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s Channel 5 streaming service, Drew was recently nominated for Outstanding Picture Editing for Variety Programming. Her job as an editor is more than sequencing shots and adding in fancy transitions. Drew glues stories together to give the visual content structure and continuity.
Scribe: When did you first start working with film?
Drew: I have been making stuff ever since I was old enough to hold camera—about six years old I’d say. After seeing “Back to the Future” for this first time. I remember my grandparents explaining to me what a writer/director does, and I immediately knew that’s where I wanted to end up. So it’s always something that’s just kind of been there. My first big job in the industry was on a Roman Coppola movie called, “Charles Swan.” Over the course of pre-production, I helped put together animatics based of Roman’s shot list. He liked my work so much that I was eventually hired as a line editor on the movie. That’s when I fell in love with editing—it helped that it was on a pretty cool set … I mean, I literally got to meet Bill Murray on that job and for a comedy-nerd from the Midwest, it was like I died and went to showbiz heaven. But it’s when I really saw how much editing is almost like the final draft at the script. From there, I got a job at Tim and Eric’s Absolutely Productions and climbed the post production ladder. I saw that the editors at Abso were, in a way, basically just writers who use Final Cut instead of Final Draft. So I saw it not only as an opportunity to learn more about the craft of filmmaking, I knew editing there would teach me how to direct and write.
What’s your favorite part about the editing/writing process?
My favorite part of editing is screening my first cut for the director/lead creatives. I know many editors who find it to be the most stressful part of the job, but I love it. It gives me such a rush—that make-or-break moment where your boss essentially is watching what they shot for the first time with you …. You either cracked the tone or you didn’t.
One specific time that comes to mind was when I edited “Kraft Punk.” For that show, they essentially shot three panels and a few days worth of documentary footage in D.C., I spent a week or two in the edit bay on my own putting together my editors cut. It was nerve-racking because the show only really had a rough outline as a script so it was really up to post production to weave that story together—like literally all the writing needed to happen in post. Not to toot my own horn, but I nailed it …. When I screened it for the director Eric Notarnicola and the showrunner Dan Curry, I could tell that I really put something together that not only I was happy with, but they were happy with. After that screening, we continued to make adjustments, get it down to time, and incorporate the parts of their vision that I may have missed. I am so proud of that show. It’s the first time I was ever credited as a writer and it was all because of that initial editor’s cut.
Did you attend a college or university? If so what was your experience like?
I went to film school …. I mean the answer I am supposed to give is, “omg it was great!!!” But honestly, I feel like it wasn’t worth the amount of debt it put me in. I learned a little bit as far as the technical aspects of filmmaking go. I got in there right as digital was becoming the standard for everything and I am grateful that I went to a school that recognized that film was dying and digital was the future. But I feel like it made me very confused as an artist. Being told what stories I could and couldn’t tell … blah. I mean, to me there is nothing sadder and more ill-advised than someone telling a 19-year-old filmmaker how she can make something that is “sellable.” The whole thing felt kind of gross. I ended up turning it into a good experience though. I ended up really leaning heaving into experimental filmmaking, found footage editing, and gross-out comedy, much to the chagrin of my professors. They’d teach me the rules and then I’d break them. Having that much free access to equipment was definitely a big perk so I just tried to make shit as much as I could. When people ask me if film school is worth it, I usually say that every filmmaker should have the safe space to make mistakes, learn their craft, and film school can be a good place to do that. It’s just definitely not worth 40,000 dollars a year. And to be honest, in the entertainment industry, your craft usually speaks for itself. No one has ever asked to see my diploma.
Did you ever have doubts about your career path? What kept you motivated when pushing through some of the tougher parts of existing and working?
Oh gosh, I mean … all the time. This business is not easy at all, especially for someone who is trans and really likes making weird shit. Even this year, despite having all the success I’ve had, I spent a good chunk of it wondering if I had made the right call in sticking with this film and TV stuff. It’s hard hustling for work and when a lot of the #metoo stuff was coming out, I was really feeling like I was a part a machine that was too ugly for me. What keeps me motivated is remembering why I do this. I love storytelling. Really, the only thing that makes me feel complete is creating things, and this is the way I best know how to. I usually find myself feeling doubt when I am working on something that doesn’t align with my values or is something that I wouldn’t watch—I’ve been fortunate enough to not experience this a ton in my career. It’s cheesy, but I find when I trust my gut, follow my heart, and collaborate with people I respect on projects that I believe in, the doubt completely slips away. Also, having a cute dog to spoon after a hard day on set helps a lot.
You’ve directed a few music videos like, “I Want To Break Free,” by Russian Red and, “World is Mine,” by Phils Pills, how does that process differ from working on shows?
Music videos are a blast to direct because they are kind of the last place where I get to really utilize those experimental/art film muscles from college. The process of storytelling in a music video is much more freeform. You really get to be artistic and do weird stuff. “I Want to Break Free” was amazing because for that Russian Red just came to me and said, “I wanna shoot a video where I get sucked into a giant plate of spaghetti.” So that’s what we did, and then some. I went full weird with it—time loops, overlays, dreamy gold tinsel, glitter bursts. I really feel like I found my voice on that video in a way that I hadn’t known it before. That kind of experimental environment really helps you grow as an artist.
TV is much more regimented—there are more moving parts. More planning. More people. And I like that a lot too! It’s different but in a great way. Especially the writing aspect of TV. I just had the opportunity to write on a new series, and it was really fun world-building and developing characters over the course of one season. And now, seeing it come to life as we shoot it is has been incredible—none of that is possible without the sheer amount of people and planning that goes into making a show.
You mentioned in an interview with Slashfilm that you’d like to make a “carpenter-esque film about gender dysphoria” (gender dysphoria is the term used to describe the feeling of disconnect from assigned sex characterics for transgender people), do you think we’d be lucky enough to see something like that be put into production any time soon?
Haha, I hope so! I have it written. It’s a feature. It’s a really good idea and wouldn’t take that much money for me to pull off. It’ll be awhile I think before I get the chance to make a feature film, but I think this is what will ultimately be my first. It’s honestly a lot more than just the quote from Slashfilm. I kinda built my own psycho-horror cinematic universe with it, while also telling a grounded, slice-of-life story about my trans experience. That’s all I’ll say for now. I promise you’ll get to see it some day and in some form.
Do you have any advice for young creators? What piece of advice do you wish you heard when you were younger?
I’ve been asked that a lot lately. Patience is important—both when it comes to working with others but also patience with yourself. In America, we are so focused on the idea of young excellence to the point where I think I thought I was going to be this like Mozart-like overnight success story in my early 20s. And the truth is, finding your footing in this industry takes time—you have to meet the right people, make mistakes, find your voice. You gotta have a healthy mix of ambitious drive to reach your goals and the Zen calm of knowing you are right where you need to be at any given moment. It’s often easier said than done.
I’d also say—and this more for people who wanna write and direct—play the game. Kiss the asses you need to kiss. Do what you go to do to get to that point where someone lets you direct or write or whatever, but never NEVER let anyone tell you that what you are creating is wrong or not-sellable or unmakeable or whatever. I feel like early on I let so many jaded old timers in this industry fill me with those kinds of doubts, and I regret ever letting it affect me. If you have an interesting story to tell and a way to tell it that people haven’t seen before, then do it. And don’t apologize for it. Life is too short to copy the career of someone else or meet the expectations of someone who isn’t ready for new art.
Editor’s Note: Vera Drew continues to work with Absolutely Productions, creating shows like “I Love David” and “Tim and Eric Quiz”. The Creative Arts Emmys were held Sept. 8 and 9. Drew did not win the Emmy losing to “Last Week Tonight: The Waxed and the Furious.”