June 17: Morning Discussion with Mary Sweeney

In Saturday’s morning discussion we heard editor, director, and producer Mary Sweeney (1953) best known for her collaborations with David Lynch. According to Sweeney, she has been a good editor for Lynch’s films because she adheres to the script and does not take liberties with it and does not ask questions about the meaning of the mythical elements in the films.

“David is poetic in his thinking of the cinematic language. Poetry is written in editing.” Instead, she relies on the film’s emotional landscape while editing. Sweeney says that the film needs to feel authentic and pull the viewer in through emotions. “Empathy and dreaminess are good traits for a film editor,” Sweeney said and continued that she had been a dreamer ever since her childhood. She received a catholic education and would empathise deeply with for example the stations of the cross.

Sweeney fell in love with editing while studying at New York University in the beginning of the 80s because she felt she was able to use many of her problem-solving capabilities in it, although at first, she felt that her editing was “pretty bad”. In her first job she worked under the legendary Dede Allen on Reds (1981). “I worked two floors down, so I never saw her.”

Sweeney said that at the time editing was understood as housekeeping: cleaning and tidying up, and hence it was left to women. When Allen started to gain respect for her work men wanted to get into editing as well.

Sweeney’s collaboration with Lynch started as assistant on the second season of Twin Peaks. Duwayne Dunham who had edited Lynch’s earlier films did not have time to edit the episode in which Laura Palmer’s murderer is revealed, so Sweeney got the job.

“There are no rules in editing. I recognised the need for logic. David’s logic, so not very logical,” Sweeney explains laughing.

Finally, Sweeney became the producer of Lost Highway (1997) among other films. She offered the idea for The Straight Story (1999) based on a true story to Lynch. “I was looking for projects that would go back to Elephant man side of David. I recognised
the stubborn character living in poverty from my own childhood,” says Sweeney who grew up on a milk farm in Wisconsin. She also wrote the script herself.

These days Sweeney teaches screen writing and would like to have more time for painting and directing short films. She was relieved that she was not asked to teach editing, as she finds that the trade is best learned hands on. “The deeper I went into editing the more I understood that the logic is not something you can study,” she said.

Photos: Hilma Toivonen and Susanna Pesonen.