Film editor Nancy Novack C’87 puts it all together.
The premiere of Words From a Bear, a documentary she edited, at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival was hardly a once-in-a-lifetime event for Nancy Novack C’87. Her 20-year career as a film editor has ranged from big-studio properties like Spider-Man and Buffy the Vampire Slayer;to Spike Lee’s 2007 epic When the Levees Broke, about Hurricane Katrina (for which she won an Emmy); to the PBS series The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., which garnered her a Peabody Award.She’s had films at Sundance before, as well as the Tribeca, Venice, and New York Film Festivals.
But at noon on Tuesday, January 29, as excited crowds packed into the Library Center Theater for the first showing of the PBS documentary—the subject of which is author Navarro Scott Momaday, the first Native American to win a Pulitzer Prize (or any other notable literary award)—she still felt nervous.
Though films are often screened for test audiences before premiering, no one outside the movie crew had seen Words From a Bear. Weaving together images, music, interviews, and historical photos to tell Momaday’s life story effectively also was a scary challenge. “He’s 85 years old. How do you fit it into 85 minutes? You aren’t going to do one minute a year,” she says. “I was sensitive to knowing that this could be the ultimate documentation of his life and work.”
In the darkened theater the audience watched Momaday’s Kiowa ancestors roam the Great Plains with herds of buffalo. They saw the writer at Stanford University, where he was a doctorate fellow. They heard him tell the story of how he almost died rock climbing.
As the film ended and the lights brightened, the audience responded with a standing ovation. During an audience Q&A afterward, a Sundance tradition, someone asked Momaday, who was present, what it was like to watch his life on screen. He broke into tears.
Hollywood Reporter film critic Justin Lowe attributed the film’s depth to her editing. “Editor Nancy Novack corrals a wide variety of archival material that’s artfully arranged throughout the film,” he wrote. “Restored black-and-white photos of Momaday’s childhood and his resourceful-looking family members provide welcome visual highlights.”
It was at Penn—during a freshman-year English writing seminar on Alfred Hitchcock—that Novack first discovered her fascination with film. The technological limits of the time made the class stressful but honed her powers of attention.
“Back then I had no way of watching a film multiple times. There were only VHSes, and I didn’t have a player,” she recalls. “So I had to watch it closely the first time in class and take good notes.” But she loved dissecting Hitchcock’s scenes and determining what made them resonate. She went on to take other film classes—on topics including screwball comedy and the Hollywood star system—offered through the English department. Whatever the genre, she always focused on the editing component. “I recently found some old notebooks,” she says, “and on every other page, I wrote notes about the editing.”
After graduation Novack and her husband, David Novack EAS’86, now a film director, moved to New York, where he had secured a job as a recording engineer. He was based at Sound One Production House, where Novack eventually found freelance editing work on Awakenings, directed by Penny Marshall.
Until it closed in 2012, Novack and her husband would often bring students to Sound One for inspiration when they were teaching a seminar on film and sound editing in Penn’s Cinema Studies Program. “Stepping into a mix room with a movie theater-sized screen and standing right next to the boards really made me feel like this was a career that was in reach,” recalls Dylan Hansen-Fliedner C’14, who took the class in Spring 2012 and now works as Novack’s assistant.
Starting out as an editor, Novack’s job was to collect the dailies—the raw, unedited footage shot that day. She would develop the film, sync it to sound, and get it ready for the director to review. The work was tedious; some days she was dealing with 15,000 feet of film. It’s a task computers perform now. But it was thrilling to be on the front line. “I was the first person to see the scene. There was something so exciting about getting the machine going and watching the scene unfold.”
As her freelance career took off, she edited films for the History Channel and MSBNC about the plague, the war in Iraq, and cancer. In 2002 she was an assistant editor on Spider-Man. In 2004, she got a job working on an episode of the PBS multi-part documentary Broadway: The American Musical, narrated by Julie Andrews, by telling the director she knew “every lyric to every song in every musical,” she says.
It’s hard for people to grasp the role of a film editor “unless they have spent some time in an edit room,” Novack says. “We often take on the role of a writer, shaping the story from massive amounts of hours of footage,” along with more nitty-gritty responsibilities as a liaison with the sound team, the composer, the graphics team, and the post-production house.
What captivates her is diving into a topic and presenting it as beautifully and comprehensively as possible. “Editing a documentary is like taking a crash graduate-level course, so if it is a topic that interests me, I will choose it,” she says.
That curiosity also makes her attractive to directors, says Joan Kron, who hired Novack to edit Take My Nose … Please!, a film about plastic surgery. “I interviewed Nancy and liked the fact that she had no preconceived ideas or prejudices,” she recalls. “She was intrigued. She said, ‘I think this is a strangely important subject.’”
As her latest Sundance premiere fades in the rearview mirror, Novack is on to her next project: a film for PBS examining the two decades leading up to the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. “I’m very excited to delve into this history,” she says. “And I love documentaries. They don’t come in scripted. I love the freedom of painting the story myself.”
—Alyson Krueger C’07