MM: Tell me about shooting on location in Savannah.
ED: Around Savannah, there were only five plantations to choose from. Of those five, only two fit our criteria, because we had to build the slave quarters and we needed fields for cotton. We had to have a “hero plantation.” Of the five plantations one became the “hero” and the others became the ones we visited on Nat’s journey of preaching. The “hero” one had a beautiful plantation house, which was as intact as possible. The more things that were historically intact and that didn’t have to be change, the more economical and the more authentic it was, because the film didn’t have the money for CGI to fix things or for large art department expenditures. This house had an adjacent area that the slave quarters could be built in, it had a corral for horses, and it had a barn that we used for the preaching area. We got a lot of use out this plantation. All in all it was “Southern gracious,” but we also needed a place that was in decay because this is supposed to be a plantation that the next generation landowner was not able to keep up, so we were able to do a transformation on this house.
MM: You’ve talked about the importance of the digital intermediate, or DI, in filmmaking today. Can you elaborate?
ED: The digital intermediate is the most important element of the whole shooting process. This is the part of the process that the cinematographer is most in danger of being cut out of. I see it as a union problem. The union should implement into its contract that the DI is to be part of the shooting process and that the cinematographer is to be paid for that process and be included in all aspects of the DI—otherwise cinematographers lose control over the look of the movie. That’s a deal-breaker for me. I have to see my movies all the way through. I shoot for the DI. When I’m shooting the movie I’m already planning how the DI is supposed to look, and I let things go in the shooting. In the analog process I would have grips take care of shadowing, or I would have had to make things brighter, but now I know that I can deal with that in the DI, I save the production money. I keep them on schedule. This film had a 27-day schedule, and unless you have a cinematographer who knew that process, that would not have been possible.
MM: Name some of the things you took into account for the DI.
ED: There were a million things. Every shot in the DI I manipulated to make it the way I wanted it when I was shooting. At night, trees would be way too bright because of our big lights, so I would knock that down. I would window black people’s faces at night because I wanted to keep the dark but I didn’t want them to disappear, so I’d balance that. Our wardrobe department didn’t have enough money to control all the clothes and make them warm enough. I essentially brought the whole film into balance while we were shooting. Nate didn’t realize things like, “That person’s clothes over at the end of the frame are catching too much light,” but I would log all these while I’m shooting. During the DI process I’m knocking off those things on my checklist as I go through all the shots. You would never know how bright the original clothes were or that the light was way too bright. Staying on schedule is the main way low-budget movies save money. For small movies, if you don’t hit it you don’t get it. Low-budget movies actually need the most experienced people working on them, but unfortunately they can’t afford it.
My Journey as a First-Time Feature Director
“My experience as an actor laid the groundwork for the filming of this movie. Putting the film together as a writer, prepping as a director: A lot of those skills came from watching the directors I’ve been attached to in other films—some of the very best, who were open, honest and selfless in allowing me to shadow them. I absorbed what I could from those willing to share. I always knew that I wanted to be a director, but I didn’t always have the audacity to ring that bell. I directed a number of short films, to put myself into a confident and secure headspace before I stepped into a feature. Once I got to the actual shooting of it, I deliberated daily over all the advice I’d picked up—things like ‘know what you want and know when you have it’ and ‘know when to rest—your health is your best asset.’”
– Nate Parker
Editor Steven Rosenblum
MM: Talk about the differences between script and final cut—especially with certain parts, like the multiple dream sequences.
Steven Rosenblum (SR): I’m not a great reader of the script. I’ll read the script once, but then I usually don’t read it again. I think some of those dream sequences were scripted, some of them less so. I’m intrinsically gut-oriented as opposed to brain-oriented. If something hits me, I just put it there. Those sequences were there in the script, but Nate always suggested that I shouldn’t pay much attention to the written word because all that mattered was what was on the screen. The images tell you what they want to do. It’s meant to be impressionistic. At the end, where Nat is hanging, I believe the look up to the angel wasn’t scripted, but I think that’s what he would have been thinking about.
MM: The film starts as a period drama, but transitions to a kind of war film. How did you handle this shift?
SR: For a piece of this size, a $10 million budget is a shoestring—so there’s a slowness to the finished film that was almost required. There were certain occasions during production where there was literally no time or money to turn the camera around and get another angle, which means your editing strategies become different. Some people saw the film and said, “It seems a bit slow,” but it doesn’t feel slow to me—it feels very organic. It has a build. I wanted to go hard and fast at that moment you’re referring to, because it all pays off in a big way and gave the picture the release it needed. Not necessarily what the audience needed—but what the picture needed. It wanted to explode. But even when you look at that sequence when they’re all sitting in the barn, and there’s smoke all over the place, that was basically just two camera angles of the same take. That was all I had to cut from. I didn’t have a wealth of images to choose from. So even during those action sections, it does feel slow and dreamy and impressionistic at times.
MM: At what point did you enter the project?
SR: I was working with Jean-Francois Richet, based on the recommendation of Mel Gibson, doing an edit of a film called Blood Father; next I was going to work with Terry George on The Promise. I got a call from my agent saying, “There’s a script around, and the director wants you to edit it. It’s called The Birth of a Nation, and it’s about Nat Turner.” I wanted to do it but he said, “Well, they have no money.” So I said, “Just let me read it, and if it’s terrible, I won’t do it.” And then I read it, and I said, “Oh, man.” It just had everything I’m interested in, politically. Nate called me unannounced, and we talked for an hour. They started shooting, and my schedule worked out.
Nate is very charismatic. I loved working with him. He opened my eyes to a lot of things because of the nature of how he sees the world. When you’re in the editing room with a director, the single most important thing, aside from his talent, is, you know, can you eat lunch with him every day? Can you stick around and talk to him every day? Nate and I would regularly lapse in to hour-long digressions, even though we were supposed to be working. We had so much interest in each other’s lives.
MM: It’s such an emotional film. How do you approach that?
SR: I’m very instinctual when I edit. I’m very affected by the images, and if I get goosebumps when I’m editing, I know I’ve got something. The first scene I cut for the movie was what I refer to as the “dental scene,” a significant moment in the film—very tough to watch, but very powerful. I came in on the weekend to finish the scene, and I’m looking at and hearing the finished product—the chiseling of the teeth—and I said, “Oh, my God. This is a so potent.” I told Nate that he had something special there, and he said that I was the first personal to tell him that. Scenes can change throughout the course of editing an entire film, but that one stayed pretty much the same.
MM: Do you believe in cutting according to actors’ eyes and the rhythm of their blinking?
SR: Nate is a practitioner of that. I had to talk to Patrick Stewart when I was working on X-Men, because honestly, sometimes he went an entire minute without blinking! Nate understands that a blink is a lessening of intensity. He knows that in moments of unwavering intensity, people don’t blink. But it’s not completely true across the board. I’ve had Brad Pitt in a movie, and he blinks a lot; it sure feels intense. So really, I look for anything that can sustain tenseness, rather than tension, in a scene, and it just starts with the eyes. Nate’s got that capability. Leading men tend to have it.
MM: What was your experience cutting the film alongside Nate, who was a major role in every other part of the process?
SR: I generally go on location during the shoot, but they were shooting in Savannah while I was working on another film in Los Angeles, so I didn’t make it. But Nate was a really genuine guy, and I felt very at home with him. Cutting the material with him was fascinating because he had never done it before. He’s got an incredible learning curve. He wants to experiment, and I like to experiment. You’re working at a high level, but then suddenly you can spend an hour on some subject. We’d just branch off for however long it took, and it really told me that his mindset was, “I will do anything to make this movie great.” MM
The Birth of a Nation opens in theaters October 7, 2016, courtesy of Fox Searchlight. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Fall 2016 issue.