Documentary editor worked on two award winners at Sundance Film Festival

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Although he thinks he has a handle on how to deal with failure, and its importance, Joshua Altman has not had to worry about that lately.

Just 16 U.S. documentaries compete for honors at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival each January and this year Altman served as the editor on two of the award winners. His work on “Kailash,” which earned the grand jury prize, and “Minding the Gap,” which earned a special jury award, bolstered Altman’s growing reputation in the filmmaking community.

“It was a pretty unexpected ride,” said Altman, a 2003 Penn State graduate with a bachelor’s degree in film-video. “I didn’t go in with high expectations. I’m always just excited to be there and see how audiences to react to the films. I stayed until the end because both were in competition, but you never expect awards. It really is more about the process, the people who you work with to make films, and how much the audience likes the final product.”

When Altman moved to Los Angeles in 2003, he started working as an editor on reality television shows and added a variety of documentary work and even a short film, “Fresh Squeezed,” that he wrote and directed, to his credits.

In 2009, “We Live in Public,” which he edited, took home the grand jury prize at Sundance. “The Tillman Story” was on the 2011 Oscar short list for best documentary and “Bones Brigade: An Autobiography,” was No. 1 on iTunes upon its release. His writing and editing on “Code Black” earned that film the best documentary award at the LA Film Festival and was later adapted into a CBS TV series. He also edited “The Final Year,” an HBO documentary following President Barak Obama’s foreign policy team during its final year.

As a result, opportunities for editing work, largely based on referrals, provide consistent opportunities these days. That’s a good thing, and he appreciates that while seeking out additional challenges.

He’s collaborating with the Bing Liu, director of “Minding the Gap,” on a project he hopes to co-direct and Altman has several scripts that he’s pitching as well. Again, he appreciates the steady work editing has provided but he’s not afraid of challenges.

“Pushing yourself outside your comfort zone is a good thing,” Altman said. “It’s like that T.S. Elliot quote, ‘If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?’

“By the time got my third doc under my belt, I felt like people were reaching out to me. Still, I want to be pushing myself to do other things. Sometimes between jobs here you’re just swimming, trying to figure it out, and a big part of that is failure. I’m OK with that. It’s the same thing with writing. You get some notes, you improve, you do it again. If you fail, you try to learn from your mistakes then get back up and do it again.”

Altman has always been interested in films, something he learned at home where he had access to cameras and his father maintained “a bizarrely massive collection of VHS tapes.” He first thought about film as a career when his older sister returned home from college with a copy of a short film in which she had an on-screen role.

“I think that’s when I first realized you could really make films and make it a career, that it was something people did,” Altman said.

Altman, who was born in Staten Island and grew up in New Jersey, chose Penn State for the same reason as so many other students: “When I came there, I just knew.” He learned a lot about film as an undergraduate, and made some important lasting relationships.

“The program was great, and I was only getting part of it. I was just too young and too immature to fully embrace the time I had been given to experiment and learn until about my senior year," he said. "What really helped was some social growth and being around other people with the same interest. 

“The best thing was all the editing skills. With the resources and computers at Penn State, I learned to edit. When you get out of college you want to be a writer and director. But the editing skills were what helped me — and my wife, who I met in documentary class — to get jobs.”

Both he and Allison, who earned her film-video degree with a minor in history from Penn State in 2003, initially worked almost side-by-side in their first jobs in the industry. For the past few years, though, she has scaled back her work to focus on the family’s two children — Levi 4, and Quinn, who will soon turn 7. The family lives in Venice, California.

It was one of her connections, when she working as a producer and Altman was helping with notes on the project, that led to Altman’s work on “We Live in Public.” 

Writing remains at the core of all Altman's work.

“I write a lot, and doc editing is exactly like writing. You’re completing a show from scratch. You’re formulating the arcs, pulling out the narrative,” he said. “I can’t fix the way that a shot looks but it’s between me and the director to tell the story."

Last Updated February 19, 2018