Editing & Music: An Interview with Three Editors at the Sundance Film Festival

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Music in cinema continually captivates audiences. Scores and soundtracks can become as renowned as a film itself and play a large part in an audience’s emotional engagement with a movie. Awards are distributed honoring Best Original Song, Best Original Music Score, Best Film Music, and Best Music Direction at multiple film festivals and award ceremonies. But music has also always been a fascinating subject for movies as well. Struggling musicians to sensational bands, and everyone in between, have been captured in film. The Sundance Film Festival is often the first venue at which these movies premiere, and this year is no different.

Filmmaker interviewed the editors of just three of the many films premiering at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival that revolve around and focus on music. All three editors were separately given the same questions about working on a film heavily embedded in music and they answered independent from one another. The questions and their responses can be found below.

God Help the Girl, screening in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition section, was directed by Stuart Murdoch, the lead singer of the band Belle and Sebastian, and edited by David Arthur. Murdoch developed the music for the coming-of-age movie over many years, which has allowed the film to now function as an “indie-pop musical.”

Michael Saia, the editor of Jeff Preiss’ Low Down, had a history with both the director and the film’s subject, the music of jazz artist Joe Albany, far before the film was realized. Low Down documents the life of Joe Albany — his music, passion, and addiction as described by his daughter, Amy. The film was inspired by Albany’s daughter’s memoir, Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales from Childhood. The film is in U.S. Dramatic Competition.

Song One, edited by Madeleine Gavin and directed by Kate Barker-Froyland, utilizes the true talents of singer-songwriter Johnny Flynn in their film. After her brother suffers a hospitalizing accident, Franny (Anne Hathaway) chooses to explore her sibling’s mysterious world in the Brooklyn music scene. Once there, she meets musician James Forester (Johnny Flynn) who not only enchants her but also helps her understand her brother’s life and injury better. Song One is also screening in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section.

Filmmaker: When editing, did the music influence the narrative structure or did the plot determine the music? Did the editing of scenes ever have to change because of the songs that were already in place?

Arthur: The music was definitely central to the narrative structure as Stuart wrote the songs first and then the script followed from them so the songs were always going to be the emotional core of the film. During the editing process, structural considerations were usually to do with story rather than music but this being a “musical” of sorts we also tried to be mindful of things like: how long will the audience have to wait for the next song and does the transition into each song feel natural? We experimented a bit with various second-act structures, trying the songs in different places to see how that changed the emotional arc of the film and even tried losing some songs to see how the film played without them (one song was cut from the final film).

Saia: Aside from the performance scenes – where, of course, the choices of music were pre-determined – the many scenes where records, radio, TV are playing presented a challenge to Jeff and me to find the right tone. What would the character be listening to, watching, connecting with at this moment of the narrative? Always, always, always, the story and the character drove the choice of music. That didn’t make it easy to decide but it did provide many blissful hours of watching monster movies, vintage cartoons and listening to jazz from both of our record collections.

Gavin: All of the above. There were times when the music directed the narrative and times when we had to forgo wonderful music for the sake of the narrative. Song One is the story of a relationship between a young woman and a budding musician – his music and her experience is a huge part of their connection. It’s also a story of about her coming to know and understand her brother’s life through the music he wrote/played and the music he loved.

One of director Kate Barker-Froyland’s ideas for the film was to show the world of music in Brooklyn and these performances added a lot of texture and a glimpse into a real and vital music scene. And [the performances] were all incredible, more than worthy of screen time. But it’s like every film; there is so much that has to be lost or to be restructured in the editing room. Painful as it was, we had to lose some wonderful performances by local Brooklyn artists because the story couldn’t hold a place for them. Song One is a musically driven film and we had to be very intentional with the ways in which music and story interacted otherwise it could become a laundry list of performances.  So we had to make some hard choices and cut things we loved in service to the overall story.

On the other hand, the fact that the central relationship in the film is with a musician meant that there were certain songs we knew were critical to the core of the story or were a necessary plot point.  Those songs could not be lost and had to be strengthened by everything around them. Sometimes that meant cutting scenes and music to make those scenes stand out more and sometimes that meant reordering events to turn that musical piece into a sort of climactic moment, but in any event that is what we had to do. Because ultimately I believe it’s pretty true that film is largely about structure, pacing being part of that. And with Song One, music is as much a part of the writing as the dialogue scenes. And music makes up much of the dramatic arcs in the film so they had to be positioned to do their job. 

Filmmaker: How would you describe your personal and professional connection to the music in the film? How did it develop throughout the process of editing?

Arthur: I’d known and loved most of the songs Stuart had written for the film for some time before working on it and during the course of the edit I became further attached to their deeper meaning to the characters. The tunes still pop into my head often when I am cycling or doing the dishes, say, and that is the sign of great pop music: it stays with you for life. I hope the same happens for audiences of the film and more people fall in love with the music of Belle and Sebastian as a result.

Saia: First, I was a jazz musician (drummer) before I was a film editor and second, my 25-year relationship with Jeff Preiss is grounded largely in our shared love of/obsession with jazz records, so the fact that I had the opportunity to make this picture with Jeff is nothing short of magic. Over the years that we’ve worked together, our record collections have become more and more similar. Sharing the differences in our libraries and the library provided to us by Dondi Bastone over the course of making Low Down, was an experience I’ll never forget and I believe was integral in making the movie what it is.

Gavin: For me, a big part of being an editor is allowing yourself to be seduced by the material so that you are inspired to find a way to engage a larger audience. If you don’t love the material – or find something in the material that moves you – how can you possibly help to make the story inspiring to others? So in the first cut of any film, I’m always looking for the moments that capture my imagination, or the theme that ties me to a character or those specific highlights that cement me emotionally to the film. Once you have that, you have a standard for yourself that hopefully pushes you to really try and elevate the material. In Song One, I had to find this on a story level of course, but I had the added advantage of working with music and this brought so many more possibilities in terms of connection. I love working with music and Song One was a gift because the music is laced into the fabric of the story.

I remember watching the musical numbers in the dailies each day as they came in and being blown away. It is that feeling that you want to remember and communicate even after weeks/months of editing. The editing and the storytelling is about preserving and protecting that and ultimately making the structure serve the goal of communicating that to a wider audience.

In terms of how my relationship to the music evolved throughout the editing, I think like with any film, as you start to shape the story and lose bits here, gain bits there, everything that remains takes on more significance. In that sense, I think as powerful as the music was in the first glimpses, it is more powerful to me now because we have created a shape for it to exist in that draws on its strengths. 

Filmmaker: When did you become involved in the film?

Arthur: I’ve known about the project for quite a few years because I worked with Stuart on music videos for the original God Help the Girl album, a girl group project including a lot of the same songs used in the film, as well as having worked on several short documentaries about that album. He also sent me the script at various points during writing it, got me involved in helping out on videos for the Kickstarter campaign and said early on he wanted me onboard as the film’s editor.

Saia: Almost 10 years to the day before shooting began, Jeff asked me to lunch and told me it looked like he would be directing Low Down and would like me to cut it. “Yes, of course yes…when?”

Gavin: I became involved in the film when I met Kate just a few weeks before the shooting began. I knew Johnny Flynn’s music a little and I had heard Jenny Lewis but I was coming in much later than the others. I had received the script just the night before and had read it a couple of times and loved it. Its sparseness was exciting to me because it was clear there was going to be a lot of room for invention. And in that first meeting, Kate was really impressive. It was obvious she was a serious director who was weighing all her creative decisions carefully and who had chosen the specific musicians with a lot of care. It was a great feeling to come on board a project with such unique musical talent and with such an interesting director. 

Filmmaker: What was your relationship with the composer of your movie like? Did it differ at all from other films you have edited?

Arthur: As well as having written all of the featured songs, Stuart was also the composer of the scored parts of the film so that was easy as we were in the same room. This was a novel way of working for me as usually you use temp tracks and scrape around for interesting potential music. After discussing a scene that could do with a transitional music cue for example he would often nip off home with a clip of the scene and work out some options on the piano and email them back to me. A lot of those pieces Stuart had worked out on his piano were later taken into the studio, coloured with other instruments and ended up in the film. It was really great fun working with Stuart and throughout post we also had producer Barry Mendel there as an invaluable and supportive collaborator.

Saia: Ohad Talmor is one of the most sensitive, brilliant musicians I have ever met. Not only did we collaborate closely and intensely on John’s performance scenes where the music was pre-determined, but when the music was extemporaneous and post recording was necessary, we – Jeff, Ohad, various players, and I – huddled in my cutting room with piano, trumpet, tenor, and made it happen. It was an amazing shared creative experience. Beyond that, I had the unexpected opportunity to play with Ohad during the course of the edit – a beautiful humbling experience which had a huge impact on me as a musician and I believe my work on Low Down, as well as rekindling my desire to continue my long ago study of music and percussion.

Gavin: I’ve worked on films where we have composers sending us music during the shoot and coming into the editing room regularly, and on films where the composers don’t touch the film until we are locked. In Song One, the composers (Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice) didn’t just write the score, they wrote the songs that are played by James and Henry in the film. The writing of that music predated my involvement, however, and because there was so little score as a result, I interacted with them creatively less than on most films.

Kate and I knew that with so much music already in the film, if there was going to be score at all, there wasn’t going to be much. We also knew we wouldn’t want the score to compete with the live music and that if it was going to be there, we had to find a reason for it to exist separate from the music already shot. In the end, we decided that a tiny bit of score could help us to track Franny’s internal arc in a way that the live music couldn’t. At that point, we started to temp stuff in.

We were close to locking by the time we figured out where we wanted score to fall in the film and at that point we began talking with the composers and brought on a music editor. We didn’t want to limit Jenny and Johnny by asking them to fit sounds into the areas we had temped, though, and wanted them to be free to try different sounds so we asked them to create long free-associative musical pieces. From those pieces, we all worked together to create the sparse score that exists in the film today. It was a much quicker process than in any film I’ve ever done because in most films score takes on a more prominent role than in Song One. 

Filmmaker: Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), edited by Dennis M. Hill and Sidney Levin, never cuts during a live performance of a song. Each piece, no matter how poignant or painful, plays out in full. How did you address live performance in your film?

Arthur: Several songs in the film were recorded live with a full band as Stuart wanted to capture that energy in the performance. When cutting the featured songs we had one outstanding rule: that the lyrics were the most important thing so we tried never to allow the cut to step on an important lyric in favour of pace, choreography or a great shot that might distract you from the lyric. It was often about simply seeing the character sing the lyrics, feeling their emotion and hopefully landing the song’s meaning.

Saia: Not that way, for sure. The audience in a jazz performance is a part of the experience and that was always paramount in our approach. In particular, it’s important that Amy’s reaction to Joe’s performance – her unique connection to his genius – is clear and resonant. Also, there tended to be other story elements playing out during these scenes, so Amy’s and other participants’ involvement is as important for the audience to experience as John Hawkes’ brilliant piano performance as Joe. That’s a long way of saying that we cut around the room pretty liberally in most of the performance scenes.

Gavin: Pretty much every song in Song One was shot as a live performance and we experimented with a number of approaches to the editing of those scenes. At one point we tried playing all of James’ songs as full pieces. It was interesting but we found that there was a line that was crossed at a certain point where we became so immersed in the song that we sort of lost the movie and became more of an audience at a concert.

Kate and I knew we wanted people to stay with Franny’s POV as much as possible and when we started to have too much of our own personal experience with the music, we kind of lost that POV. It was as if when we cut back to Franny and to the narrative, we were feeling, “What’s this story doing here? I was listening to the music!” That wasn’t going to serve the film. So we had to strike the right balance of not holding pieces so long that we fell out of the story but, at the same time, giving the music the screen time it deserved.

Early on, we had built one sequence where we played a piece of live music over a sort of montage of events (scenes we had cut out of the film) and when producer Marc Platt saw this early cut, he suggested we try that in other areas of the film as a way to extend the music without playing performances on stage to full length. It was a great idea and was the seed that led us to what is now one of our favorite sequences in the film.

Another thing we discovered in the editing is that when we used discretion and didn’t across-the-board play songs to length, we could direct the audiences’ eye more effectively by making songs that we chose to play long, mean something. James’ first performance is an example of this. It is long and the violin portion of that performance is to length (and does not cut.) It holds way past the time one would expect in a film. And we like that.

If you stay past the point that people think you should, you make a point; and then if you stay even past that point, you kind of tell people that this is intentional. I know Kate and I both love that sequence and producer Jonathan Demme, who has made so many music-driven movies, really encouraged us to go with our instincts. That is the one moment in the film where we felt like, as much as we want to be in Franny’s shoes, we also want to fall in love with James. His violin is like a wild wave that you ride and what’s great is that even though there will be people who feel it is too long, it doesn’t really matter because we came to the conviction that this is what it had to be. That was one really great thing about working with Kate. She always had her eye on what really mattered to her in the film but she was open as well. She was able to make a lot of hard choices for the benefit of the larger story and, once we had examined things enough to be sure of what was best, she never looked back. It’s a great quality in a director.

In terms of the editing of the live performances in general, we had a number of angles for James’ performances but we use very few of them in the final film. We go to Franny’s POV a couple of times just to sort of plant ourselves with her but largely we hold angles without cuts. Again, there is something about holding one angle for a long time that tells people that, yes, we want to do this. We are choosing not to cut. And I love how intentional that is. And in some ways it feels more live this way. Cutting can give the illusion of liveness but it can also give the sense that something was pieced together and we didn’t want that. Song One is not a movie with a ton of plot and, as such, certain conventions rubbed it the wrong way.  We wanted to make a film that was its own animal and I hope the way we approached the music serves in some part to do that.