Editor Azin Samari on Sundance Surfing Documentary Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton
Editor Azin Samari has cut everything from reality TV shows like The Bachelorette and The Hills to award-winning documentaries such as The September Issue. For her latest feature, Samari edited Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton, a documentary on the celebrity surfer from director Rory Kennedy (Last Days in Vietnam). We spoke with Samari before the film’s premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Below, Samari speaks about her previous work with Kennedy, her love of Thelma Schoonmaker and cracking the veneer of a media-savvy figure like Hamilton.
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?
Samari: I had previously collaborated with the director Rory Kennedy on two projects, and we have a great working relationship, so when she approached me about the project I jumped at the opportunity to work with her again.
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?
Samari: In the first assembly of our cut, Laird Hamilton felt very distant – we hadn’t quite cracked his veneer. He is very media-savvy and had told his story a number of times, so we really worked to find a different side of Laird. While Rory worked with Laird in the field, I worked with the footage. For this film to be successful, it was important that Laird’s natural charisma came through on the screen. He’s at the center of the film and has to drive it.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Samari: We spent more time on his childhood story, because it informs so much of who was and who he is now. We tried to stay in his interview a lot, and not cut away to footage or photos. He’s a great storyteller and so much comes through his face and eyes.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Samari: I fell in love with editing in college, and I loved Thelma Schoonmaker’s work. I was awestruck by the grace and musicality of the cutting. I wanted to edit scripted films, but I was on a path where I was working in television on non-fiction shows. That’s where I learned how to use Avid, and where I edited my first pieces. Then I had the great fortune to land at RJ Cutler’s company when he was producing a number of great documentary series – American High, Freshman Diaries, 30 Days. That’s where I really found my place as a documentary editor. I loved being left alone with the material to find the first cut, but was grateful for the collaboration – which is where the work really came together. RJ and I developed a great working relationship. After a few years of cutting docu-series for him, RJ asked me to edit The September Issue. It was a magical experience that totally took my career to another level. I have been influenced by every documentary director I’ve worked with since – Rory Kennedy, Liz Garbus, Jessica Yu. They all have very different voices, and all have shaped my approach to editing.
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Samari: We used version 6.5 of Avid Media Composer, for several reasons, but primarily because it would allow us to use Scriptsync. It’s the fastest way to find what you need in hours and hours of interview footage. It’s such an important tool and it’s no longer available to license with later versions of Avid.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Samari: The most difficult aspect of the film was not one scene, it was in balancing the past with the present day narrative. Laird has changed tremendously over his multiple decades of surfing and there was a big disconnect between who he had been and who he is now. And then we got a huge amount of priceless archival material very late in the edit. This would help us solve the evolution issue, but the material came to us terribly organized and on several different formats. It was a huge task just to sort through it, let alone seamlessly edit it into our cut at the time. The solution was to divide and conquer. I dug into reworking Laird’s past story and we brought on Charlton Mcmillan, an amazing editor, to take over the present day story for a few weeks. He came in with fresh eyes, and didn’t have to be focused on who Laird had been, but only on who he is now. He elevated the present day material and than, together, we gave it the heart and emotion it was missing. There were two parallel stories, and at that stage in the process, it made a lot of sense to have two editors tackle the two pieces of the narrative.
Mark Bailey and Jack Youngelson, writers and producers on the film, did a beautiful job of evaluating and evolving the two pieces, and helping stitch them together in the end.
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?
Samari: Laird has an amazing love, not just for the art of surfing, but for the ocean itself. He doesn’t believe in competing and being “the best surfer ever.” He surfs because be loves it and he loves being part of the water. I know so much more about the ocean than when I started working on this project. How waves are produced and how to know the shape of the land under the wave by looking at its face. Laird has totally changed what surfing is not just through technique but through science and engineering, and I took a lot away from that. I had always thought of Laird Hamilton as an extraordinary athlete – which he is – but he is also a scientist and inventor as well as an incredible environmentalist and lover of nature.