Editor Tom Maroney on the International Science and Engineering Fair Documentary Science Fair
Tom Maroney has worked as an editor on more than a dozen documentary TV series for the Discovery Channel, PBS, National Geographic, MTV and other channels. In 2017 he edited Nobody Speak: Trials of The Free Press, which premiered at Sundance and was released by Netflix. He returns to Sundance this year for Science Fair, a documentary in the Kids program of the festival. Maroney speaks with Filmmaker below about the film’s character-driven approach and how he and directors Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster sought to structure a film around a competitive science fair when “it was clear from the beginning that the competition itself was not the most compelling part of the film.”
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?
Maroney: I had worked with Darren Foster before on investigative projects, so I already knew it would be a great experience from a collaborative perspective, and focusing on high school science fair contestants sounded like a wonderful change from some of the heavier, social-issue or politically-focused projects that I have worked on. I liked that the project had a light, playful quality and that it would be very character driven, but would be portraying important, possibly life-changing research that high school students were involved in, as well as illuminating the challenges students from various backgrounds face in competing internationally. It also didn’t hurt that the offices we worked out of are just a couple of miles from my house, so I knew my commute would be incredible short!
Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were goals as an editor? What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?
Maroney: The competition gave the narrative an inherent structure but it was clear from the beginning that the competition itself was not the most compelling part of the film. If the audience is only focused on who wins or loses, then, to paraphrase Robbie, they’re missing the point of Science Fair. The main goal, from my perspective, was to get the audience to become as entranced, amused and invested with our subjects and their journey as I was. I wanted to give the audience opportunities to look at them, such as the moment when Anjali shows us her trophies in her bedroom, and opportunities to look with them, to bond with their experience, to see South Dakota through Kashfia’s eyes, to feel the hope and excitement of Myllena in packing for Los Angeles, to root for Robbie’s right to play outside the rules. With nine students and one teacher-mentor, creating space for them to be memorable and relatable, while continuing to feel a sense of narrative movement and fun, was a big part of the challenge.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Maroney: Everyone working on the film loved Myllena and Gabriel, the two Brazilian students, so we were all surprised their story wasn’t resonating when we showed early cuts of the film. The initial build of their intro package started with the setting, a far-flung corner of Brazil, and global issue they were confronting, the Zika crisis and its effects on Iracema, and then introduced Myllena and Gabriel by way of their work with Zika, backing into their personal stories. After tinkering with a couple alternate approaches, we settled on the character-driven approach that’s now in the film, putting Myllena and her family at the beginning of the sequence. Myllena truly jumps off the screen, visually and energetically. She’s fun, she’s colorful, she’s a badass on a bike, and the world she comes from is so different than any of our other characters. So once we got people engaged with Myllena, from there, we could present the Zika epidemic through her eyes, giving the audience a personal connection to the larger tragedy.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Maroney: I studied literature and narrative theory in college, and wrote, so I came to editing with a story focus, but I’ve always been technical. I learned to edit from a friend in San Francisco who went to Tisch and then began to teach myself from there. I’ve done plenty of television nonfiction, and was always moving towards doing documentary work. I love working with vérité and the natural rhythms of documentary subjects because there’s a naked directness that can be found in that kind of raw footage. But having spent time in television, I also enjoy working with a pop aesthetic, and the interplay between those two styles can be fun.
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Maroney: This was my first experience cutting on Premiere. As with most NLEs, there are many similarities and a few key differences. I’d still prefer to work on Avid, as Premiere got quite bogged down once the entire feature was assembled, but I’m not afraid to wet my feet in a new pond.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Maroney: The awards ceremony was one of the trickiest parts of the film. We had limited access to the room during the awards, the structure of the awards is very complicated, and the noise in the hall made it difficult to capture any commentary from our subjects. But this was also the climax of the film, in a way, the moment in which we learn how everyone did, so it was important for this moment to have emotional weight. Instead of ratcheting up the tension in this section, we used it as an opportunity to reflect on the importance of having an institution that allows aspiring scientists to mix and mingle, challenging and learning from one another.
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?
Maroney: I’m so happy I got to tell the stories of these amazing, super smart teenagers and share the science fair subculture with a larger audience. I hope it inspires more young scientists to push the boundaries of their own curiosities.