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Sharon Zurek, 'Hannah Free' editor extraordinaire
by Jorjet Harper
2009-09-23

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Hannah Free, the story of a lifelong lesbian relationship, was filmed in Chicago late last year. Based on Claudia Allen's frequently produced play of the same name, it stars Sharon Gless and was finished just in time for a gala San Francisco premiere in June, thanks to the efforts of editor Sharon Zurek.

Zurek, owner of Black Cat Productions in Chicago, has worked on many independent features, short films and social issues documentaries.

Her LGBT projects prior to Hannah Free include directing Kevin's Room and working on Catherine Crouch's lesbian-themed Stray Dogs, starring actress Guinevere Turner of Go Fish. Zurek has also worked on mainstream projects, including producing, directing and editing commercials. She edited the detective drama Dirty Work, which was shot in Chicago; the 2005 film The Trouble with Dee Dee, directed by Mike Meiners; and recently she was post-production supervisor on Michael Keaton's The Merry Gentleman ( 2008 ) .

Zurek was in the midst of editing two documentary films when she was contacted about Hannah Free: "It sounded exciting, but I wasn't sure I could do it because I had other projects, so the timing almost didn't work." Fortunately, Zurek's other clients "were kind enough to let me put them on hold a little bit to work on Hannah Free. That's one of the nice things about independent filmmakers, everybody tries to work things out."

Zurek, a lesbian, was impressed by the project. "When you see the script," said Zurek, "the words just feel very familiar and natural. I really do think Claudia Allen's story and dialogue are terrific." And, she adds, "What lesbian wouldn't want to be editing Sharon Gless? It was a pure pleasure to be working with her performance. I would have to say that the performances in Hannah Free were very enjoyable to work with. Often it wasn't looking for the Moment of a scene but choosing between two or more equally good scenes that drove the story in the direction it had to go."

Generally in any movie, Zurek explained, the story is told at least three times: "when you write it, when you shoot it, and when you edit it. Because what you have on paper is not always what you get when you shoot it, and what you end up with in the edit room is pretty much your story, your final result. Filmmakers are sometimes afraid of that process, though some with more experience end up embracing it, once they understand the power you have in the edit room to make things work. I've done production and it's exhausting. In the edit room, you see that Moment. I love that. When you edit, you are working with what you have to work with, finding the best moments and pieces to make your movie."

Independent films don't usually have the luxury of doing an editor's cut, a director's cut and a producer's cut, however, and this was certainly true of Hannah Free. "We pretty much started with a first assembly, and then [ Hannah Free Director ] Wendy Jo [ Carlton ] came in," Zurek said. "As an editor, you try to get into the head of the director as quickly as possible, so I always consider it a success when I can anticipate what the director wants to have happen next, before they even speak. I think of myself as a facilitator. It's not my movie. I want to help them tell their story and hopefully bring some great ideas in."

There was a short window of time to edit the film, after a short three-week shoot in November, 2008; during the shoot Zurek's assistant, Justine Gendron, worked assembling scenes. At the same time, Sarah Plano worked as data wrangler, a necessary assistant on the set when shooting digitally rather than on film. "We worked on the trailer in December and started mid-January to produce an assembly edit," said Zurek. A rough cut was sent to Frameline, the San Francisco LGBT film festival, in March in order to qualify for this year's festival. "That's a pretty risky thing to do, but we had a great story and great performances," said Zurek. The festival staff must have agreed, because not only did they approve the film based on the rough cut, but also programmed the film for Closing Night, a coveted spot in the lineup. The final cut was ready in time for the June 28 premiere, on the evening of Pride Sunday in San Francisco. Sharon Gless made a personal appearance, and the film was introduced by Gless's friend Rosie O'Donnell, whom Gless had met when O'Donnell appeared in several episodes of Queer As Folk.

Editing Hannah Free had a close personal meaning for Zurek as well: "Being a lesbian, having been in a relationship with a woman for 20 years, and having lost her to cancer, it was pretty close. It gives us the validity that our lives matter, that we actually exist, and that there are many of us who go through this. So my biggest regret, of course, was that my partner wasn't here to see this movie. She would have been so thrilled to see it and be around during the creation of it. I know she would have enjoyed it as much as we did."

The grueling schedule was, nevertheless, a challenge for Zurek, music and sound director Martie Marro and director Wendy Jo Carlton. "We laughed, we cried, we didn't sleep much," said Zurek. "I think our biorhythms could keep each other out of despair. The friendships go deep, because it's very emotionally intense spending 60 to 80 hours a week with somebody over a period of months. When we're old and grey and bump into each other in the future, we'll just have to look at each other and there will be an immediate shorthand."

Zurek also credited producer Tracy Baim for her role in realizing Hannah Free: "This was her first time producing a movie, and she chose to allow us to do what we were experienced doing, and tried to stay out of the way, and as she learned what she needed to be doing, she was there, a quick study, asking questions. She's a great reporter, so she gets the facts and then she runs with them." Despite the pressure of such a short time frame to finish Hannah Free, Zurek was pleased to have been the film's editor: "Every person involved was vital in some way to the making of this film, and that doesn't always happen. It was a blessing, so you go with it."


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