The Cutting Edge: Tips on Working Better With Your Editor, From the Sundance NEXT FEST 2017 Panel

Cinema royalty descended on Downtown Los Angeles from August 10-13, 2017 for another year of Sundance NEST FEST: from Quentin Tarantino, who received the Sundance Institute’s Vanguard Leadership Award and presented a 25th anniversary screening of Reservoir Dogs alongside Tim Roth and Michael Madsen, to Ava DuVernay, who joined director Justin Chon for a conversation following the Los Angeles premiere of his film Gook.

Actress America Ferrera represented the pioneering Latino-centered web series Gente-fied, for which she served as executive producer. Music, comedians and Sundance Film Festival-approved features like Bitch, Lemon, Dina and L.A. Times completed a four-day program that kept things, candid, casual and unconventional.

Rounding things up, this year the event’s educational component focused on the editing craft in relationship to the director’s expectations and vision. The Filmmaker Insights panel decoded the inner workings of both parties, director and editor, and how they come together for a unified purpose. In attendance were Janicza Bravo, writer-director of the uncomfortable dramedy Lemon; her editor, Oscar-nominee Joi McMillon (Moonlight); writer-director-star of L.A. Times Michelle Morgan; and her editor, John-Michael Powell.

Bravo touched on her background as a theater director and a stylist; Morgan referenced her experience as an actress and a writer for other people’s work; while McMillon and Powell reminisced about their days as assistants on reality television. Take a look at some bite-size wisdom from their conversation. It might change the way you look at the editor’s job, a crucial role that can make or break that precious short or feature of yours.

Michelle Morgan on Hiring John-Michael Powell for L.A. Times

“You should never hire an editor that you don’t want to sit and have a beer with. John-Michael and I have sat through many beers. I think if you are filmmaker and you know you are going to have a really strong point of view in the editing process, you need a partner. This is my first feature, so I didn’t have anything to compare it to, but when I met John-Michael, I was a fan to the work of his that I’d seen. My instincts told me we would work well together and that we’d hit it off. My lack of skill didn’t really get in the way. I knew everything that I wanted to do, I just didn’t know which buttons to push. It was a collaboration.”

Janicza Bravo on Feeling Safe and Unsafe in an Editor’s Hands

“It was the second time we’ve worked together. I forget exactly how we were introduced. Lemon is also my first feature and I made short films before that, which I edited myself. For the last short film, I wanted to work with someone on it because I thought, ‘This seems like a good time to try that before starting a feature that I don’t want to edit myself.’ We worked on a short film together last spring and then we worked on Lemon in the fall. I think that piece was our training wheels, or our very long first date. I was really trepidatious about working with an editor, having edited a lot of my own stuff. I feel really uncomfortable about that kind of exchange, because I can be particular, but Joi is also that. It just made sense and it fell into place. I think also when you do have a strong point of view and you feel so close to the thing that you’ve made, inviting someone into that is a delicate thing. She made feel really safe and also unsafe—the perfect amount of unsafe.”

Joi McMillon on Working with Directors Who Know How Edit

“I love a director who has knowledge of editing, because a lot of times when you’re working with directors who are also writers of the material, they can sometimes be precious about it, but Janicza was never afraid to cut something. I love working with directors who have an understanding of editing, because I feel like a lot of times when they ask me to do something, and I say, ‘I would love to do that but you don’t necessarily have the material to make that happen,’ they understand, while some directors are like, ‘Let’s just try it,’ and after spending four hours on trying it they’re like, ‘You were right.’ So sometimes we arrived at ‘you were right’ a lot quicker than other directors.”

John-Michael Powell on How Quickly L.A. Times Came Together

“Usually on low-budget indie stuff I maybe get 12 to 18 weeks if I’m lucky, depending on the budget. On [L.A. Times] it wasn’t a budgetary constraint. We got the first cut in the can, we watched it, and we were like, ‘Oh, it’s good.’ That’s rare. That doesn’t usually happen. At the first look of a first cut, you are usually panicking because you are like, ‘How do we save the movie? How do we make this work? It’s not what the script was.’ That was never the case with us. We finished the first cut, we showed it to producers, and everybody kind of just kept on looking around at each other. [We] went, ‘Wow, this just works.’ I guess we expected that panicking process, where you are going, ‘How do I make the audience care about the characters in the first 10 minutes?’ or ‘How do I get to that first moment when the story is kicking off?’ Those are the usual things you get, but we don’t have any of that, so then it became about finessing comedic points here and there. For the most part the story and the structure were all working. That’s the first time that’s ever happened to me in any of films I’ve worked on.”

Bravo on “Urine-Soaked” Nature of Lemon

“It is a comedy, but I didn’t direct it like that and it’s not really performed in that way. I think there are definitely moments of obvious humor, but the actors took it very seriously, and I took very seriously. I think my tone or humor tends to be that: ‘If it’s funny, great, and if it’s not, that’s also OK.’ There is a sourness throughout the whole movie as well, something maybe morose. I don’t know if I said this to Joi, but to some of the other people working on the movie, we talked about this urine-soaked sensation. That reflects the palette and the color.

Humor is not the most important part for me when editing. It’s about the feeling and the color and making sure that the feeling and the color are the loudest. And if it’s also funny, that’s great. Certain things that I think are funny about the movie, nobody laughs at. I feel that if it were a movie with ‘banana peel stuff’ then you really got to lean in on that, but it’s not It’s so much about tension, discomfort and stress. The big thing is that my work is stressful. I want it to feel bad, uncomfortable and upsetting.”

Janicza Bravo presents her feature Lemon at Sundance NEXT FEST, at the Theatre at Ace Hotel. Courtesy of the Sundance Institute / Photograph by Ryan Kobane

Powell on the Joys of Working on Independent Features Without Assistants

“Some films I have the luxury of having assistant editors who are helping me put together projects; sometimes I don’t. On L.A. Times I did not. I was doing all the assistant work while editing. We were cutting at the same a time as production. I would get dailies, media-manage everything and organize. I came up as an assistant editor, so I have that tool in my tool belt. It’s not a big deal. I’ve gotten used to cutting low-budget features, which I really enjoy because I can just fly. I get the media and I just go to work. I really enjoy working with other editors, but there was a nice proximity to the footage on this one where I could just go and my thing. This is the first feature I’ve ever done on Adobe Premiere, and there is a lot of back and forth in the projects I do, and here I was doing everything on the fly and I would get notes. It was so much easier to just be like, ‘You need me to crop out that tree in the background? No problem.’ I’d spit it over to After Effects, paint it out. [Michelle] could sit around and play on her phone, and I’d go, ‘Look, no tree!’ With a feature you are under the gun to hit deadlines, so that released some of the stress. It becomes a tool that you can utilize and you don’t have to stop to communicate; you just move. You don’t have to go, ‘OK, we are looking for x amount of things. You do this and you do this.’ I can just do it. In five minutes I can be done with the shot and be back at it, focusing on the things that are really the most difficult, like scene work.”

McMillon on the Benefits of Editors Being Invited Early in the Process

“I love directors who invite the editors on the script stage, because I feel like a lot of times there are problems. A lot of times the producer would say to an editor, ‘There is not really an arc to this character, or this story has a pothole in it.’ A lot of times and for us as editors there is nothing we can do at that point. When you are working with a writer-director who invites you into the fold early on and talks to you about character development and story points, you are able to communicate: ‘Yes, this is definitely going to work’ or ‘I don’t think you need this scene. You can skip and save money and focus on something else.’ I’m currently working on a project in which literally every deleted scene is one that I suggested that we cut. So yeah, I was right [laughs].”

Powell on Specificity Being a Director’s Best Quality

“The greatest thing an editor can have from a director is specificity. When your director knows what they want and they are going for what they want, it makes the process of editing a lot easier because you are not trying to find the movie in the edit. The director already has the movie. That was fortunately our experience on L.A. Times. Michelle had such a specific tone and she wrote the screenplay, and that expedites the editing process.”

Morgan on Not Being Precious with Her Own Scenes

“For whatever reason, when I’m editing myself, it’s just another character. I can look at it very objectively. I never pick anything out of vanity. It’s about the best take, it’s about the best performances, and that includes the other actors. I would say that I’m not precious about anything that I make. I feel like I know other writers that get really hung up on a line or scenes when they have no place in the overall story and you can see that when it’s a whole thing. People would be like, ‘No, but we have to keep this, because we need that scene, because I love it so much.’ I’m just like, ‘Fuck it. Throw it all away.’ If it’s not servicing what we are doing there is no use for it.” MM

Sundance NEXT FEST took place August 10-13, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.

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