Film editor David Brenner, who died in the middle of work on the Oscar-nominated “Avatar: The Way of Water,” never shied away from a challenge. Ahead of the American Cinema Editors Eddie Awards, directors Zack Snyder and James Cameron remembered Brenner and his celebrated career.
Throughout a career spanning more than four decades, Brenner worked alongside some of the most technically demanding directors in Hollywood, from Oliver Stone to Cameron. But whether he was editing an alien invasion in “Independence Day” or a Vietnam veteran leading an antiwar protest in “Born on the Fourth of July” (for which he won an Academy Award), he always found the humanity of his subjects.
“He committed himself to bringing human behavior to the screen,” said Brenner’s widow, Amber Dixon. “Being an editor is like being a god, because putting things together takes you out of a black-and-white paradigm. He could abandon his prejudices and put that into his art.”
Brenner began his career as an assistant to editor Claire Simpson on Oliver Stone’s “Salvador.” Stone remembers their first meeting well.
“He had a briefcase and a very nervous expression on his face,” he said. “It was in his nature to worry, but he always did a great job.”
Brenner ultimately worked on nine films with Stone.
“Of all my editors, I was the friendliest with David,” Stone said. “He never had the ego other editors develop. He never needed to be the only one credited.”
“He was always one step ahead of everyone,” said Zack Snyder, who worked with David on “Man of Steel,” “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Zack Snyder’s Justice League.” During the editing of that film, Snyder recalls, he added Rose Betts’ “Song of the Siren” as the background music for the scene when Flash enters the Speed Force. “When he showed it to me, I said ‘This is amazing! We should totally do that!’”
Brenner’s colleagues frequently describe him as a life force whose innate compassion and empathy made him both a skilled co-worker and a dedicated husband.
“David taught me how to center myself,” says Dixon, “When he would become stressed out on films, I could help re-center him. We had a give-and-take that was very beautiful.”
This extended to his parenting. Dixon, who had two children with Brenner, says that “he understood the psychological development of kids and what they needed to hear. As my kids have grown up, they have emulated his grace.”
“It’s the same thing as in the editing room,” she says. “It’s knowing the rhythm of life, learning when you can let go and having the capacity to forgive yourself and others, because it’s important to get back to grace as soon as possible.”
Brenner began work on “Avatar: The Way of Water” in 2017, at the suggestion of James Cameron’s co-editor Steve Rivkin. Due to the technical complexity of the film, Cameron issued a warning to Brenner at the start. “I said, ‘You’ll be useless to me for the first six months,’” he remembers, “because that’s how long it took me and my co-editors to figure out how to do it the first time. But David proved me wrong, giving me good scenes within three months.”
Brenner ended up taking on some of the most challenging scenes in “The Way of Water,” including Jake and Neytiri’s raid during the film’s climax. But Brenner never allowed the spectacle to overtake the storytelling.
“David fought for moments of performance that he thought were important to the character or the scene,” Cameron says. “He would remind me of little nuances of the actors’ performances so I would make sure to include them in close-ups.”
“I am saddened he didn’t live to see his scenes fully rendered,” Cameron continues. “But I know he would have been proud to have created some of the most memorable scenes in a film that fills people with a sense of profound beauty and hope, making them cry, and in some cases even helping them process their own feelings of grief and loss.”
Dixon agrees with Cameron: “The film shows what it means to have a karmic understanding of one’s place in the universe, and how to live a life in alignment with one’s values and, above all else, love.”
“He was the best editor there ever was,” she says. “I don’t care what anyone else says.”
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