Karen Schmeer, the brilliant local film editor whose work on Errol Morris's documentary The Fog of War helped win it the Best Documentary Oscar in 2004, died January 29 in a tragic accident, struck by a getaway car as she was crossing a street in Manhattan. She would have turned 40 on February 20.
Recognized as one of the best editors in documentary filmmaking, Schmeer also worked with several other filmmakers, including local directors Lucia Small on her My Father, the Genius (2002) and Robb Moss on his The Same River Twice (2003), as well as the late Hollywood legend Sydney Pollack on his Sketches of Frank Gehry (2005). Last year, she won the Sundance Film Festival's Documentary Film Editing Award for Greg Barker's Sergio.
Commenting on her death at this past weekend's Sundance Festival Awards Ceremony, Barker said, "I had the incredible honor of accepting this very award and standing here a year ago for the amazing work that Karen did on Sergio. . . . We look for meaning in tragedy, you just don't know what the meaning is. All of us, this community here — and it is a community — have lost a very great talent and a very dear friend."
Schmeer first became part of that community after graduating from Boston University in 1992 and taking a job with the Cambridge-based Morris as an intern. But it wasn't long before her editing talent made her one of Morris's chief collaborators. Not only did he thank her by name when he accepted the Oscar for TheFog of War, but he proudly acknowledged her decisive contribution to Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997), winner of the Best Documentary awards from the National, New York, and Boston film-critic societies.
I had the good fortune of meeting with Schmeer a few times some years ago and found her ebullient and self-deprecating. She was that rarity — a genuinely nice person. But she had real steel underneath, enough to confront filmmakers like Morris and tell them when they were going astray. She wouldn't compromise when it came to her artistic principles. That idealism made her one of the most respected practitioners of her craft. Her warmth, energy, and kindheartedness made her one of the most beloved.
"Incredibly modest, Karen would have been amazed, and probably appalled, to discover that she's an indie-movie celebrity, with tributes in newspapers everywhere, including the New York Times," says Phoenix film critic Gerald Peary, her one-time boyfriend. "I'd like to believe she'd be comforted to know that her friends have gathered in many American cities to speak together about this kind, wonderful, so talented person."