Archival footage, scenes differing in aspect ratio, a movie that tiptoes the line between documentary and fiction; for even the most established editor, these things could become a real headache in the cutting room. But for Eric Poydar, writer-director-editor of the faux-documentary Larry (the Actor), the challenge of seamlessly interweaving different forms of footage into a present day narrative about Larry (Lionel Mark Smith), an actor on the verge of giving up his livelihood, was met with a desire to tell an interesting story in an innovative and effective way.
With the short movie garnering a ton of buzz from festivals across the country, MM spoke with Poydar about the obstacles he faced in editing a faux-documentary, working with the late, great Lionel “Lonnie” Mark Smith and the universality embedded within the movie’s story.
Douglas Polisin (MM): Larry (the Actor) began as a genre-mixing feature length movie, but ended up as a short. How did the movie reach its end result and what editing choices did you make to reach this?
Eric Poydar (EP): Originally the film was a feature length, mind-bending, soul-searching flick that mixed faux-documentary with a more traditional—albeit trippy—narrative. My co-writer, Brett Portanova, and I were dead set on making it work, but after testing umpteen different cuts of the film, we just kept coming back to the fact that Lonnie’s brilliant performance was a standalone piece. Adding any other element to it, no matter how unique and interesting it was, detracted from the reality of the world Larry lived in. Since the trippy side of the film was intentionally fragmentary and relied heavily on the faux doc to feed its storyline, we had to shelve it for now until I can “fix it,” which will likely involve re-shooting someday. Fortunately, I think it’s better to have a powerhouse, performance-driven, mid-length film than an okay feature-length film that perhaps doesn’t resonate with as many of our intended viewers.
MM: The shooting of the movie only lasted a week. Did this make the editing process easier or more difficult?
EP: In our case, the tight schedule made it easier since we shot in sequence, and I think that contributed to making the film feel more organic as a whole. Also, I knew which areas we needed the most coverage on, so we developed a shooting plan that’d give me a number of choices for those situations once I was on the Avid.
I cut the film on a Mac-based Avid Xpress Pro with an Avid Mojo system. To achieve the film’s gritty look, we shot MiniDV with a Canon XL2 and easily captured all media without losing resolution using Avid’s DV25 codec. I had the ability to slice and dice the footage without ever going back to master tapes, which saved a significant amount of time. Then I took my media drive and corresponding sequences, hooked it up to an Avid Symphony Nitris and finished directly to HDCAM. Until I actually saw the film projected, I was terrified that it’d be a pixel party up on the big screen, but Avid’s vivid HD translation of the DV25 codec looked beautiful. With the extraordinary number of choices Lonnie gave me within each take, I was in a good spot from day one for post-production. It was only a week of shooting, but from an editorial standpoint the shooting ratio felt nice and high.
MM: How much time was spent going through archival footage and how did you decide what footage to use?
EP: To make the film’s final cut, the footage had to directly support the story we were telling. We combed through just about all of it and anyone who knows Lonnie’s body of work knows that’s not a small task. What I loved the most came from one of Lonnie’s old 16mm actor’s reel. I transferred the reel footage to MiniDV and captured it like the rest of our media within Avid. Since the movie’s aspect ratio is 16×9 and the archival footage is this real boxy 4×3, I used a great “rounded border” effect in Avid to take away the TV feel. Applying the effect rounded off the exposed 4×3 corners to create more of a cinematic aesthetic and made the edits between the 16×9 and 4×3 footage feel seamless. Whenever I had the urge to add more archival footage, I’d evaluate whether the clip actually moved the story forward and that would determine whether it made the cut.
The film’s structure revolves around the ticking clock of an unemployed actor waiting for the phone to ring, so as a motif, I wove in a scene about an interview that starts out promising and takes a turn for the worse. In addition to lending authenticity, the scene touches on a number of issues leading to Larry’s starting point in the film, and continues to run parallel with the arc of the film. I also used the archival material to emphasize big turning points. There’s a montage with a barrage of archival footage that hits when Larry comes to terms with what he believes his fate to be. I cut that piece together before I had even touched most of our own movie footage because it felt necessary to help me figure out where I was going with tone. Luckily, it seems to serve the film well, which is obviously paramount. There’s also an old commercial for afro sheen in there, which was just too priceless on too many levels to exclude.
MM: The movie is a real blend of genres: It’s a documentary and yet it isn’t; it’s a drama and yet a lot of the things Larry says are extremely comical. What effect does this have on your editing? Was it difficult to find a balance between the genres?
EP: It was a challenge to find the right overall balance. Since it’s a faux doc, the goal was to present a story that was organically developing even though the film is scripted and the mixture of drama and comedy is by design to an extent. The onus was on me to find the right combination of shots in the edit suite, but with Lonnie, I never had to fabricate a beat for comedic purposes since he was so patient with his delivery in every performance. I’d let the camera continue to roll well after getting the take and he’d give us a comedic gem in the form of something as simple as an eyebrow raise or a riff about gas prices being as high as the anatomy of a giraffe. If the essence of the scene had more gravity to it, he’d cap things off with an applicable Lonnie-ism, like “La dee dah.” Since a lot of that was linearly there in post, it already felt naturally placed to me, so in some ways it was more of a challenge to be mindful of the aesthetics outside the monologue that contribute to overall tone.
Since it’s really a one-man show, I tried to add some subtle stylization, particularly with music, that complemented the performance and hopefully feels like it was born within the movie versus laid over the top of it. I tend to mix audio and music along the way because it’s intimately tied to how the picture develops for me. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that by doing that, we achieved final mix without ever having to export the audio to clean it up. Since we captured clean sound on set, and Avid can easily handle a multitrack mix within the timeline window itself, we were able to layoff to our HDCAM without ever leaving Avid.
MM: Usually editors of a movie have an audience in mind while they work, especially when they know they’re working within a given genre. Since Larry (the Actor) is such a mix of genres, did you have a particular audience in mind while you worked?
EP: While the film is framed around a seasoned black actor in Hollywood who is at the end of his rope facing a tough decision, the film’s also about the crossroads we all come to in our lives and the choices we all have to make at certain points about whether or not to stay the course or move in a new direction within our own journey. While the movie certainly has a built-in audience, as storytellers we hope the film’s message of positivity in the face of adversity will be something that’s appealing to anyone, really. Assuming they can handle swearing. It is, after all, a mofaux documentary.
For more information on Larry (the Actor) visit www.larrythemovie.com.