“I Tend to View Myself as the First Audience”: Editor Michael Taylor on Deidra & Laney Rob a Train
Michael Taylor has cut more than 40 films since he entered the world of independent film editing in 2003. Taylor’s work has included Sundance premieres Entertainment and Love Is Strange along with other recent indies such as Elvis & Nixon and The Loneliest Planet. One of two features he edited to screen at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Deidra & Laney Rob a Train is the Netflix-financed second feature from Sydney Freeland (Drunktown’s Finest). Taylor spoke with Filmmaker ahead of the film’s premiere about his editing process, editing VFX shots and why he views himself as “an intermediary between the director and the audience.”
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the editor of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
Taylor: I was fortunate to be chosen to be one of four editors at Sundance’s annual Directors’ Lab in 2010. Sydney Freeland was one of the two directing fellows I worked with there. It’s an immersive experience for everyone involved. The directors chose three or four scenes from the screenplay they are developing, shoot each one in a day, and spend the next day editing. It’s a real trial by fire way for directors to test their material, ability, and limits. Sydney immediately struck me as someone who knew exactly what she wanted, and yet she was extremely soft-spoken and polite. She would be the one offering to get me coffee, for instance. As is true with nearly everyone I’ve worked with, there were aspects to Sydney’s scenes which did not always translate as she had hoped, so we had our day in the edit room to try to make the finished scene live up to her expectations. Unlike the real world, we had a steady stream of advisors (screenwriters, directors, actors, producers) visiting the room kibbutzing and giving notes, and I have to admit I was more nervous than Sydney when Robert Redford stopped by our room!
By the end of our time together “on the mountain,” as those who attend the lab call it, Sydney and I had found we had a real rapport, and a feeling of mutual respect. Sydney had been developing her first feature, Drunktown’s Finest, and when it came time for Sydney to shoot the summer of 2013 I was already committed to two other films. Harry Yoon became Sydney’s editor and he did a fantastic job. I was in Los Angeles for work in August and September that year, where they were cutting, and watched and gave notes on two different cuts.
My work on Deidra & Laney Rob a Train began last spring with a phone call from Sydney – Netflix had come on board to finance the film, and she wanted to know if I was available to edit. I was thrilled to have a second chance to work with Sydney, and as a bonus the film was cutting in Los Angeles, where my wife, Judy Becker, had just taken a six month long production design job on a television show (Ryan Murphy’s Feud).
Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were your goals as an editor? What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?
Taylor: I traveled in Salt Lake City in early July last year, a few days after Sydney had started to film. My amazingly capable and talented associate editor, Jenirae Reynolds, had already assembled the first few scenes and I jumped in. Whenever possible I like to view the assembly process as a collaboration between editor and assistant, and whenever possible I suggest “associate editor” as a more accurate title for the person I’m working with.
One reason I like working on location is the access you can have to the director. Sydney would come in once a week and we’d look at scenes together. We’d talk about the upcoming work, and her notes would help me take the assembly just a little closer to what she had in mind. After the shoot we moved to Los Angeles in August, where we began Sydney’s edit. Like so many films, the first task was reducing our two hour, 40 minute assembly to something closer to the final film. At the same time, Sydney had very specific aesthetic concerns. I felt Sydney had created a vivid portrait of a family and a community, a funny and sometimes dramatic movie, and I wanted to make sure we lost none of that in compressing the running time. At the same time, one of my goals as an editor is accessibility – what will this scene mean to an audience? What does this section convey? What does the film as a whole say? I tend to view myself as the first audience, and in some ways an intermediary between the director and the audience.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Taylor: We held a number of friends and family type screenings. We were fortunate to be working at Flash Cuts, a terrific facility in Atwater Village, just over the Los Angeles River from Silverlake. Flash Cuts has a ceiling mounted video projector, and on weekends we held a number of screenings. This was during election season so at least once we had to wait until a debate ended before we could start. We also held a more formal screening at Raleigh Studios, a bit closer to picture lock.
The Flash Cut screenings were the kind of things I’ve done before – we’ll have an informal discussion after the movie about various strengths and weaknesses, and from this Sydney and I would have a pretty good idea of what to focus on next. We tinkered quite bit with the beginning of the film, and it was good to be able to try ideas out on different people. We had narrative issues to solve in the last part of the film, and these screenings were invaluable in determining what seemed to work and what did not.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Taylor: I started out as a script supervisor, working with directors such as Ang Lee on The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman, Todd Solondz on Happiness and Storytelling, Kenneth Lonergan on You Can Count on Me, Terry Zwigoff on Bad Santa, and Marc Forster on Monster’s Ball. In the ’90s and first part of this century the New York production companies Good Machine, the Shooting Gallery, and Forensic Films kept me pretty busy.
A turning point for me was working with Harmony Korine on Julien Donkey-Boy. This was an officially sanctioned Dogma production, so we were a tiny band of filmmakers. Each day we would go out and create some sort of chaos, working with the great Anthony Dod-Mantle as our DP and a cast which included Chloë Sevigny, Werner Herzog and Harmony’s grandmother. These were magical times for me – we often shot with as many as 10 mini-DV cameras, and suddenly anything and everything seemed possible. I realized I wanted to keep working on the film when it was done, but they already had an editor. My solution was to become an editor and find other films to work on. I called my good friend Alan Oxman, who had been cutting for Todd Solondz, and asked if I could sit in with him, and he told me about his editing school, The Edit Center.
I took my Edit Center course the summer of 2001, and starting in 2002 started to edit features, while continuing to script supervise for a few more years. I never worked as an assistant – just dove in. I cut three of my first four films for free, just to get the experience, and hopefully, some credits. Producers Anthony Katagas and Callum Greene, who I had script supervised for, introduced me to filmmakers Michael Almereyda and Kevin Asher Green, and I was off and running! Kevin’s film Homework, starring Issach de Bankole and Paz de la Huerta, won Slamdance in 2004. Michael introduced me to filmmakers Margaret Brown and Jonathan Berman, and soon I had cut Margaret’s film Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zand” and Jonathan’s film Commune.
Growing up I loved the films of Bunuel, Truffaut, Godard and Fellini, and later on discovered Fassbinder, Wenders and Herzog. I think I have always loved the more deliberate pacing of European cinema, and to this day I tend to be the kind of editor who likes to stretch out a moment rather than hurry past it.
As a member of the filmmaking community Sundance has always meant so much to me, and it was exciting when films I had edited started getting accepted and screened at the festival. Highlights for me so far have been Margaret Brown’s The Order of Myths (documentary competition, 2008), Rick Alverson’s The Comedy, (narrative competition, 2012), Ira Sachs’s Love is Strange, (premiere category, 2014) and Elizabeth Wood’s White Girl (narrative competition, 2016).
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Taylor: The Edit Center originally taught its students to use Final Cut Pro, believing it to be the future of film editing. Though AVID was at the time the established platform, it was much more expensive than FCP. I believe one reason I was able to skip being an assistant was FCP, as suddenly there were dozens of films being made with small production budgets and accordingly small post-production budgets. It was harder back then to make an $11,000 film (Homework) on AVID.
As I continued to edit I learned AVID and have gone back and forth between the systems. Even though Apple stopped updating FCP 7 in 2011, I continued to work with it, as it contains features which AVID has only recently introduced (such as the ability to turn individual clips and sounds on and off, invaluable for creating stacks of options for a director to see).
AVID has also recently become much cheaper to use. A few years ago they introduced a software version, so it’s no longer a huge investment for producers and editors to work on AVID.
I am editing my current film on AVID 8.5, but my last three were all FCP 7, including the two films I have at Sundance this year, Deidra and Laney Rob a Train, and Walking Out.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Taylor: Honestly, I don’t recall any one particular scene. Because the film is somewhat of a caper, and in some ways a struggle between right and might, our biggest concern was to “explain” how our heroines prevailed at the end over their foes. The original sequence of scenes as scripted did not quite do it, and we had to get creative. Our solution was to simplify. Strangely enough, less really often IS more.
Filmmaker: What role did VFX work, or compositing, or other post-production techniques play in terms of the final edit?
Taylor: Interestingly enough, even on modestly budget films these days, without superheroes, VFX and compositing can play a big role. There were considerable VFX shots in Deidra and Laney Rob a Train, from the simple ones (removing safety lines) to shots we needed to change for creative reasons. My last three films have all had considerable VFX work, and fortunately in each case I’ve had an assistant or associate editor who I can pass much of that work onto. These folks can often do excellent temp work for screenings and festival submissions, and later on coordinate with VFX houses for the final work. I’m capable of basic compositing work myself, but prefer to hand the off-line work off to others as much as possible so I can can concentrate on the more important concerns of story, character, pacing, tone, etc.
Filmmaker: Finally, now that the process is over, what new meanings has the film taken on for you? What did you discover in the footage that you might not have seen initially, and how does your final understanding of the film differ from the understanding that you began with?
Taylor: Largely because of Sydney’s casting vision, we ended up making a film that looks like America. Not the America Donald Trump sees, but the real America, made up of a broad range of colors and ethnicities. Although Deidra & Laney Rob a Train is a comedy, it stems from real problems of inequality in America. Deidra and Laney would not have to rob trains to get their mom out of jail had they been born to a more privileged existence, and their mother would not have been in jail in the first place.
Ultimately, the film is about what binds us together, not what keeps us apart.
The film was a delight to edit, because of the vivid performances of the actors – I can’t list any of them in particular because they were all wonderfully idiosyncratic. The characters are all fighting to be heard, and watching them find a place in their community was something to behold.