Whether working on drama or documentary for film, television or online, Melanie Annan remains focused on her pursuit as an editor: digging into the finer details to help craft authentic stories. The AFTRS alum’s recent Academy Award nomination for her work on Three Songs for Benazir marked a major milestone for Annan’s already accomplished and prolific career, which includes credits on I Met a Girl (Netflix), Waiting for the Miracle to Come, Despite the Gods, High Life, Iggy & Ace (SBS) and more. Speaking to AFTRS’ Alumni Program Manager Christine Kirkwood, Annan shares her experiences attending the Oscars, reflects on the meaningful connections she made at AFTRS and explains why aspiring filmmakers should never give up on their dreams.
CHRISTINE KIRKWOOD: When you came to Sydney to study at AFTRS in 2003 you stayed in ‘the cottage’ on the AFTRS campus at North Ryde. How was the transition from Perth and how fondly do you look back on those times?
MELANIE ANNAN: When I found out I was accepted into the editing course at AFTRS I packed up and drove across the Nullarbor with my trusty coffee machine in the back seat. It was quite the adventure!
In those days AFTRS provided a six-bedroom cottage for interstate students to live in – right there in the parking lot! It really helped make the transition smooth and I won over the other housemates with that coffee machine. Living in the house was myself and Christopher Mill (MA Editing, 2004) from Perth; James Bagley (MA Sound Design, 2004) from Adelaide; Michael Lucas (MA Screenwriting, 2004) from Melbourne; Fiona Lawson-Baker (Grad Dip TV Producing, 2003) and Stewart Klein (MA Screenwriting, 2004) from Brisbane. We’re still friends today, so that’s one of the best things to come out of my time at AFTRS. I have such wonderful memories of the ‘the cottage’. Living on campus meant we could safely work late; wander over to morning classes with a coffee in hand, and throw awesome parties.
I hope to one day contribute to assisting students to relocate from regional or remote areas, so more creators benefit from the same kind of assistance I had.
CK: You recently mentioned to me that you got work due to a connection that was made through AFTRS at that time, how important has your network been throughout your career?
MA: The networking at AFTRS and the people I met there have been really important throughout my career. In fact, I met the directors of Three Songs for Benazir through a contact from AFTRS: Fiona Lawson-Baker – one of my ‘cottage’ housemates who was studying television producing is now the Executive Producer of Documentaries at Al Jazeera English. Her friends Elizabeth and Gulistan Mirzaei were moving from Afghanistan to Los Angeles, so she suggested we meet up for coffee when they arrived. We did have coffee and ended up getting on well. I cut two short documentaries with them, and we are working together on another short documentary now.
CK: I bet North Ryde feels far from Hollywood, where you recently attended the Oscars to celebrate the nomination of Three Songs For Benazir, which you co-edited. What was that experience like?
MA: Distance-wise North Ryde is definitely far away from Los Angeles, but with so many of my fellow alumni living and working here it feels like home. Tamara Meem (MA Editing, 2004), who was another editor in my year at AFTRS is living in LA too and we catch up often. She has just finished cutting WeCrashed for Apple TV.
As for the Oscars, yes that was a great night and one I will never forget. It was especially rewarding to be there in the same year as The Power of the Dog was nominated. It was wonderful sharing the joy with so many fellow antipodeans! Having grown up in Perth watching the Oscars on TV it was surreal to be there in person.
CK: Three Songs For Benazir captures the tenderness between newlyweds Shaista and Benazir, but the choices Shaista must make to build a life for his growing family have profound consequences. What did you take away from the story personally, and how did your emotions inform the edit?
MA: It was really eye-opening to see what life is like in the camps of Kabul, Afghanistan. Allowing people to experience the world with different eyes is one of the reasons I got into filmmaking, and it was certainly true in this film. I was moved by the warmth of the relationship between Shaista and Benazir. Myself and co-editor Christoph Wermke used those loving moments between Shaista and Benazir as the anchor of the film.
As I edit, I take note of what moments tug at my heartstrings, for example, the scene where the children are barefoot. I make sure to include anything I have had an emotional reaction to. Also, anything that really intrigued me, like the father putting on eye make-up, or the family cooking okra for dinner. Just normal day-to-day things. To me, they were little windows into their world.
We are hopeful that the Oscar nomination helps to draw attention to the situation in Afghanistan especially now the US has withdrawn. Life at the camps has become a whole lot darker but as always Shaista is full of hope and he has loved seeing how well the film is going. The directors were able to screen the film for him over WhatsApp. I think showing the human side to war is especially needed in the world right now.
CK: You’ve worked with your cohort from AFTRS a lot through your career, but possibly none more than writer/ director/producer Luke Eve (MA Producing, 2004). Your collaborations include feature film I Met a Girl (now streaming on Netflix Australia and Hulu/Amazon USA), web series Low Life and High Life (winner, Best Digital Original Drama at the Content London Awards), and web series Cancelled (winner, Best Drama and Best Editing at the British Web Awards), which was such a hit that follow-up, Re-Cancelled, popped up not long after. What kinds of shorthand do you have with Luke now, when in the edit?
MA: Together Luke and I have worked on a feature film, five shorts, over ten music videos and four online series. So yes you’re right to say that a shorthand has developed over the years.
Editor and director is such an interwoven relationship in filmmaking. It’s no wonder that so many editor/director partnerships stay together for their whole careers. You both want someone you can trust and be vulnerable in front of. It’s also about having the same taste or take on the material but still being able to be honest if you feel differently.
Next, we hope to finish up some of the online series trilogies, so that would be Mid Life and UnCancelled (the third instalment of Cancelled/Re-Cancelled). I’m looking forward to working with Luke again.
CK: Before relocating to the US in 2012, you amassed a string of television credits in Australia including Bondi Rescue, Saving Babies, Marx and Venus, At Home With Julia and Go Back to Where You Came From. What are the differences you’ve noticed between filmmaking in Australia and America, particularly in post-production?
MA: When I first edited reality television in the states I was blown away by how big the support teams are. If I needed a character to say something there were two people just to search for those moments and they presented many options.
On scripted, it’s a matter of budgets being bigger in the US. That makes sense – it is a larger market. But the difference in post schedules is quite eye-opening. In Australia, you have half the time to do double the work. But then again, bigger budgets also mean they shoot more footage in the US that you have to go through, so in some ways, it all evens out.
CK: You came home to visit family in Perth during the pandemic, and ended up staying there for six months. The silver lining was that you were able to cut six-part dramedy Iggy and Ace, which is now streaming on SBS On Demand after appearances at France’s Series Mania and WA’s CinefestOZ. Tell us about that project and that period of time.
MA: I love coming back to Perth to visit family and friends and it is always an added bonus if I can work there as well. I wanted to be back in Perth for my Granddad’s 100th birthday in January of 2021 – even if that meant quarantining twice on the way, it was worth it. It was lovely to spend so much time with family and very cool to be able to edit Iggy & Ace. Working with directors Monica Zanetti and AB Morrison, and producers Hannah Ngo and Melissa Kelly was a great experience and so much fun. Editing in person again was a treat compared to all the remote work and Zooms in LA.
CK: What words do you have for current students or budding editors looking to find their way?
MA: Don’t worry if it takes you a little time to work out what you want to do or the type of projects you want to work on. After a while, you learn to trust your gut and let that guide you. I was always told it was smart to choose between drama or documentary and stick to one. But here I am still working on both and it’s going well. I’m more focused on the stories I want to help tell. I like to see things from points of view we don’t get to hear about much – that could be people in camps in Afghanistan to people living with a mental illness. Try a few things and take the time to find out what stories you are passionate about telling.
I would also encourage you to edit a lot of short films at the start of your career. I’ve edited over 30 short films, mostly because moving countries meant I had to have two starts to my career. Shorts or web series are a great way to meet directors and usually, you get the time to play around, learn and experiment which is so important. Also, shorts are often a director’s first film so they are telling the one story they are really passionate about. And that passion is contagious!
CK: What’s next for you?
MA: I am excited to return to Australia next month to edit a series. I also just completed a feature film called Four Ladies Dancing. It was shot in 1979 but then director Rocky Schenck “got busy” and the project was shelved for over 40 years. In 2020 the original black and white 16mm was scanned to 4k files so we could start the edit. It’s now complete and it’s quite a remarkable, mysterious film – and what a backstory to the production. Proving you should never give up on your filmmaking dreams.