Though his nomination for a Best Editing Oscar for Moonlight wasn’t as monumental as his co-editor Joi McMillon’s—she was the first African-American to receive a nod for the award—Nat Sanders’ collaboration with director and former classmate Barry Jenkins was equally instrumental in achieving the film’s breezy cutting style that offsets even its most brooding moments.
Speaking to a filled-to-capacity crowd at a post-production seminar held at the 2017 Newport Beach Film Festival in April, Sanders shared insights and anecdotes on the ins and outs of editing, using Moonlight and his working relationship with Jenkins as an entry point into a multi-faceted talk about his career path, creative process and the dos and don’ts of the craft he’s internalized during his time on the cutting room floor.
Read on for Sanders’ tips and thoughts on becoming a better storyteller; working in reality TV; quitting your day job; whether or not you need film school to build a career; how he cut a key scene from Moonlight; and, of course, that Best Picture debacle at the 2017 Oscars that now lives on infamy.
On The Most Exciting Part of Editing
“[Editing] is just re-writing something that’s already set in stone. It’s really the last draft of the movie.”
On Honing Your Storytelling Skills
“I wish I could say I have other interests but, especially in the last two years, I have not done very much outside of editing. Definitely cut as much as you can while you can. There’s really no editor who can cut an amazing feature at just 20 years old. It takes experience as you get better and better. It’s about refining your taste and realizing that, the longer you do it, the more the footage starts speaking to you.”
On Tapping Into Empathy as an Editor
“I’m sure, if you talked to a bunch [of editors], you’d find empathy, being observational. Most of us are wallflowers, preferring to spend time at the back of the party with the loners.”
On Balancing the Creative and Technical Aspects, and Politics, of a Project
“I probably learned the craft part first. Looking back on it now, editing wasn’t so much a profession. At first, because we’re so young and so protective of what we’d made, there wasn’t a lot of being honest with what we’ve made. It was pretty much just assembling what we’d conceived. We weren’t looking at weaker performances or trying to get the best roles from our actors. It was more about making what we’d already conceived. The craft was just shot reverse, L-cuts, how to cut a scene without ping-ponging.
Storytelling comes over the years and develops with taste. Politics, I’m still learning. Every project is different. You hope that everyone is on the same page, trying to make the same movie. You are always your director’s ally, trying to give them the best possible version of the movie—through their vision but always trying to show them how to convey that. Sometimes you’ll have to pretend you’re on your producer’s team but you’re always on the director’s side.”
On Staying ‘Til the Very End of Shooting For His Latest Film, The Glass Castle
“This one happened to shoot in Montreal, probably because it was 70 cents on the dollar. Pretty much every project I’ve done, I’ll be editing the first day’s footage on the second day so that, after about a week, I’ll have the first cut ready to show the director. The director will have a little time off set to recuperate and then we’ll jump into the edit. If we need to go back and add missing beats or insert shots then there’s that aspect. Or, you can look for performance or lighting issues. You just keep your eyes peeled early on.”
On Whether Or Not Editors Should Go On Set
“I hate going to set. You really are in the eyes of the audience if you’re on set, so you get a little tainted. Say an actor does something that makes the crew laugh—you’re way better off if you have the objectivity of only seeing what’s on the monitor. Every set I’ve ever been on, I’ve had a crew membercome up to me and say ‘Wait until you see this’. Either it’s hilarious or made everyone cry. Then, I see it and it got neither of those reactions from me.
There’s something about the camera that filters what happens through a very different lense. You’re very close with the director but, once you go to set, you’re nothing. Nobody cares you’re there; you’re less than a PA. Always in the way, there’s no reason to be there. Actors also have a weird relationship with editors—we kinda see them as larger than life and they’re also a little scared of editors because, you know, we see all their bad takes.”
His Longest, and Shortest, Cutting Schedules
“The Glass Castle was easily the longest. A total of 11 months of post. Barry Jenkins’ first—Medicine For Melancholy, also my first film—from the first day of shooting to when picture was locked, in editing, was [cut in] two months. [That film had a] $15,000 budget and a six person crew—all of us who had gone to film school together.”
On Quitting His Day Job to Become an Editor
“I had big dreams when I moved to L.A. that I’d work as an assistant editor on projects I cared about. It did not happen that way, at all. I moved to L.A. with no contacts and just sat in my room looking at Craigslist looking for jobs, waiting for something to happen. My standards got lower and lower until I thought, ‘Alright, I’ll take anything.’
I ended up editing for a show called Second Look where they took homeless people and gave them makeovers in Beverly Hills, like this was gonna change their lives or something. So, that’s where I started, thinking, ‘I’ll just take this one job.’ I was working nights on that job and my only contacts were from that job. I ended up in reality television for six years, so desperately trying to get into features.
Barry was my most talented classmate so when he told me about Moonlight, I knew I had to do anything to get involved. For Medicine for Melancholy, I quit my job, moved myself to San Francisco. It reached the point where I had to invest in myself and go back to reality TV after that. I was going to film festivals for Barry’s film, and that’s something I’d really recommend. I went to SXSW for Medicine and met a bunch of filmmakers there who were going out and making things. It was really inspiring to be around filmmakers who weren’t waiting to have money to make something. There really weren’t any other editors there so I was the only one meeting all these directors who often cut their own movies. I met the Duplasses this way, I met Lynne Shelton this way and I met Lena Dunham that way.”