‘Grey’s Anatomy’ editor flourishes in male-dominated film biz

Susan Vaill, the guest speaker at the next Women in Film networking breakfast, said she enjoys the vital, creative behind-the-scenes job on one of TV’s hottest shows.

By Ward Lauren / Special to The Malibu Times

Susan Vaill, the petite 33-year-old editor of the ABC hit TV show “Grey’s Anatomy,” is proof of the fact that while the film and television industry still tends to be male-dominant, there are many positions available in which women can not only succeed but even, as in her case, flourish. But they have to work their way through the male route first.

In a recent interview, Vaill, scheduled guest speaker at the next Malibu Women in Film Networking Breakfast Aug. 11, said, “I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve never felt any bias and never experienced any lack of work. There are a lot of jobs in the film industry that require physical strength that not all women have. Like me: five-foot two and a hundred-something pounds. I tried to work on camera and I was hurting my back too much. So I chose a profession that doesn’t require a lot of physical skill. Sitting in a chair all day is no problem for me; I learned that in film school.

“But the thing I love most about ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ part of what makes it the best job I’ve ever had, is that it’s the first time I’ve worked in a predominantly female environment.”

Her comfort level in this situation is reflective of her high school days at Westlake School for Girls, which, she said, was an extremely empowering, confidence-building experience. She found the all-girls school to provide a positive, nurturing and supportive environment. But starting in the film business, she worked with a male editor for several years.


“He was an amazing mentor to me,” Vaill said, “but we always worked with male directors and male producers. I was very often the only woman in the room.

“Then when I came to ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ way back working on the pilot, the show’s writer and creator was a woman and one of the executive producers was a woman, and the three of us really got to collaborating creatively. They took my opinion seriously like it hadn’t been taken before, and that was really an eye-opening experience, a very different atmosphere than I’d experienced on other shows.”

Vaill’s first venture into filmmaking was in the sixth grade at Webster Elementary School, where she made a Super-8 stop-motion animation movie.

The cast? “My Barbie Dolls and a shark,” she said.

Continuing her fascination with filmmaking, for her senior project at high school she made a documentary on rock climbing using an old VHS video camera. Her father acted as both cameraman and belayer, as they scrambled up and down rocks from Zuma Beach to Mammoth on weekends for a month. A friend in art class taught her to edit on tape. And she was hooked.

At Williams College in Massachusetts, where she majored in art, she began to study film history and theory.

“I think it’s funny that I needed to escape from L.A. to fall in love with movies,” she said. “I was just fascinated by film as an art form. So I came back for film school at USC, and I always knew I wanted to continue to edit.”

Her thesis film for her master of fine arts degree was screened in more than 25 film festivals and received several awards, including Best Student Short Film at the 2003 film festivals in Sedona and Malibu. She also made a short film, “Zygosity,” that was profiled in the influential film journal Cineaste. But editing always remained in the forefront of her career goals.

“I write and direct as well, but I just love editing,” she said. “It’s a really creative part of the process. It’s not just picture editing, it’s also dialog editing and music editing. So we’re not just editing what you see but everything you hear as well. And on ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ the music is such a huge part of the show; it’s a large part of our job, and we have a lot of fun with that.”

On seasonal hiatus with the rest of the crew from May through July, Vaill has been having her fun in the typical way of an ex-Malibuite. She now lives in Santa Monica and, while not rock climbing anymore, still likes to spend her off time outdoors, bike riding, hiking, running and playing tennis. She often visits her father, Ted Vaill, who lives in Big Rock.

But the new season looms and the first of August found her back at the editing table where she will be editing the show’s season opener. As shooting continues she will edit every third show. Each episode shoots for about nine days, she said, after which they have two days to finish the first cut. They then work with the director and producer on the “fine tuning,” so the total period in which she is involved with an episode is about a month.

“Usually by the time we’re in the last stages of finishing an episode, another one has started,” Vaill said. “At that point we’re not cutting so much as just making sure the visual effects are done, putting in the titling, finalizing the score, the music. We work pretty far ahead at the beginning of the season. They just finished shooting the first episode, which will air at the end of September.”

A good part of the fun of working on “Grey’s Anatomy,” a drama that centers on the lives of five surgical interns and their supervisors, is being able to work with the cast, “which is one reason I so enjoy television,” she said. “Feature films are also fun, but a lot of the time the crew is shooting in a foreign country and your editing room is on a studio lot somewhere. There’s very little interaction with anyone.

“In TV it feels more collaborative,” she added. “The cutting room is literally two floors above the sound stage, so we can go downstairs and talk with the director or cast whenever we need to. Occasionally, we need a cast member to come up to us and re-record a line of dialogue.”

And while working on any TV show has the enjoyable element of human contact, “Grey’s Anatomy” has the special cachet of being one of the hottest shows on the tube.

“It’s very exciting,” Vaill said. “Last season was quite a phenomenon. We started off and had done pretty well but it didn’t hit the huge level of success until midway through the season.

“Up until that time we were all in the ‘Grey’s Anatomy bubble,’ meaning we had spent all our time there working with each other six days a week, with very little exposure to the outside world. I felt like I didn’t know anyone other than people who worked on the show. So it was very startling at first, all the success.”

It has been especially exciting for Vaill because it is a show she has been working on from the very beginning. She worked on the pilot as an assistant editor, at a time when they didn’t even have a name for the show, didn’t have all the characters, but did have a great cast and a great writer, and everybody who worked on it just believed in it, she said.

“It’s been a real privilege for me to work with all the creative people and see the show evolve.”

Now sharing the cutting work with two male editors, Vaill said she feels it’s a relatively balanced atmosphere, although the writing staff has more women than men, the only such situation in TV. And the rest of the staff is 90 percent female.

“Just goes to show you can put a whole lot of women behind something and it can be a big hit!” she said.

Vaill will speak at the WIF Malibu Networking Breakfast, Aug. 11, 8 a.m.-10 a.m., at the Chart House Restaurant,18412 Pacific Coast Hwy. Fee: $10 member, $15 nonmember. RSVP Candace Bowen, chair, at 310.457.8664 or by email to candace@malibuonline.com

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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