“You Can’t Just Slash and Burn through a Cut”: Editor Michael Taylor on A Kid Like Jake
Michael Taylor has been editing the work of America’s independent filmmakers since 2004. Taylor has cut films for Ira Sachs (Love Is Strange), Rick Alverson (Entertainment) and Julia Loktev (The Loneliest Planet), to name a few. In 2017, he edited two films to appear at the Sundance Film Festival: Elvis & Nixon and Deidra & Laney Rob a Train. He returns to the festival this year having edited A Kid Like Jake, a New York-set drama starring Claire Danes, Jim Parsons and Octavia Spencer. In the interview below, Taylor goes in depth on how he broke into editing, his love of New York’s repertory cinemas and why he prefers characters to be “accessible” rather than “likable.”
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 first met Silas Howard while I was editing Liza Johnson’s Elvis & Nixon the spring of 2015. He was actually the first outside visitor to our edit room. We were maybe four weeks into our cut. We showed him a few scenes and he laughed. A lot! It was very encouraging so early on in the process. He kept talking about “ballers” – I had no idea what that meant until this year when I watched his web series of 10 minute comedy shorts called “Hudson Valley Ballers” – highly recommended! I thought Silas was charming and was happy to meet him again that summer on a crowded Chelsea rooftop – I believe it was his birthday – and he had just won a Guggenheim, so spirits were high.
Late in 2016 Liza moved to Los Angeles to take a teaching position at UCLA and to direct episodic TV such as Feud and American Horror Story. I had moved to L.A. myself – temporarily – as my wife was production designing out there. In April she and her husband Brock had a house warming party in Silver Lake and I ran into Silas. We got to talking and he mentioned he was directing a feature back in NY over the summer. I had followed Silas’s career over the past couple of years, including his episodes of Transparent, and knew Silas was the sort of director I wanted to work with. Which meant someone as interested in the nuances of character as well as story – who knows how to make scripted (by definition artificial) situations come alive. Silas sent me the screenplay for A Kid Like Jake, which was written by Daniel Pearle, adapted from his own play. For me that sealed the deal. These characters were vivid and complex – and I found their central dilemma crucial for our times. Since college I have always tried to work on projects which I felt fostered greater understanding between people. I remember well groundbreaking films such as An Early Frost, Longtime Companion and Philadelphia, as well as the more recent The Normal Heart. A Kid Like Jake had the potential to be one of those. I met with Silas in Silver Lake and we had a great talk about what the film could be – and then after a check in with Eric Norsoph, one of the film’s producers, I was hired.
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?
Taylor: Like most assemblies the film was way too long – maybe two hours and 30 minutes. Actually I’ve had longer assemblies and I remember saying to one of the producers I guessed the final film would be about 85 minutes (which it turned out to be). Of course, plenty of good films are two hours and 30 minutes. But in this case – thinking about the character development and narrative issues the film presented – I just had a hunch that was the right final form for the film. Of course, getting there is a complicated process; you can’t just slash and burn through a cut. But one of the first things Silas and I did was give a good hard look at where the storytelling might be lax, where pacing was slower than it needed to be, where characters seemed to be saying more than they needed to – essentially where we could make greater impact using less. We weren’t yet at the point of looking at the film and deciding what was absolutely essential – that would come later – but this got the film below two hours, which made it more watchable and made us see what issues remained more clearly.
We wanted to sharpen the central conflict between parents Alex and Greg and the world around them (how to find a safe home for their four year old boy Jake in the competitive world of New York City schools) and between each other (should they take the advice of their nursery school director and play up Jake’s “gender-expansive” nature in the round of school essays to come?). As the film develops this conflict ultimately threatens their marriage. We wanted the audience to feel the subtle shifts in Alex and Greg’s relationship acutely. Everything had to work towards that.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Taylor: I don’t really use any special techniques or processes – as far as I know – but I am very hard on dialog and performances. Even if it worked great on the page I feel every word spoken has to earn its place in the finished film. Oftentimes a line of dialog is necessary in the screenplay to convey how a character feels, but once actors like Claire Danes, Jim Parsons and Octavia Spencer inhabit these characters, then they often can say less verbally. In fact, if we kept all the dialogue we would have redundant moments and the audience would feel we are talking down to them. Performances are what make films live or die, and no matter how fine an actor is they very often need shaping. In fact, the better the actor the more this is often true; as great actors try things out on set, let themselves go into free fall sometimes, trusting that their director and editor will protect them.
Feedback screenings are essential to the process. I have rarely completed a film without four or five and sometimes have had as many as 10. These can range from intimate edit room screenings to projected “friends and family” screenings followed by a questionnaire and discussion to screenings composed of a more random audience with a discussion led by a professional facilitator. Generally we are looking for several things from these screenings. One, does anything not make sense? This is usually easy to fix. Two, how well does the film flow, how is the pacing? We generally expect to get higher scores on this with each screening. Three, how do the characters come across? Producers often want characters to be “likable.” Given that I find human flaws to be what drives both drama and comedy I prefer to seek “accessible.” A film where all the characters’ warts have been removed wouldn’t be very interesting. Yet if the audience has no every point to these characters that doesn’t work very well either.
We had several test screenings in NY, where we filmed the movie and were editing at the wonderful Goldcrest Post, and L.A., where our producers were based. We learned at our very first screening that the audience was aboard and understood the issues at stake, but they wanted to see more of one of the characters. We made adjustments but this concern remained. Luckily the producers had budgeted two second into days to get exteriors for the film as the weather changed and we were able to get some extra footage then.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Taylor: I’ve loved movies since I was a kid, but I never imagined I could have a career working on them. I worked as a print journalist initially out of college but I felt something was missing. I was lucky to find temp work at Channel 13 which lead to production jobs on variety shows and documentaries. After producing a documentary on the Amish with my first wife I was looking for other ways to keep working in film when someone suggested script supervising. I became a script supervisor; the barriers to entry – at least on low budget films – were low as few people really wanted to do this job. I was fortunate enough early in my career to run into people like Ted Hope, Dolly Hall, Christine Vachon and the producing team of Scott Macaulay and Robin O’Hara. These folks kept me busy on films by Ang Lee, Todd Solondz, Kenny Lonergan and Harmony Korine. In fact, it was working on Harmony’s Julien Donkey-Boy which made me realize I wanted to be an editor.
I already was at the point where visual storytelling – how do shots go together most effectively – was more important to me than continuity, and to this day I value script supervisors who can work collaboratively to support a director’s vision over note-taking. I learned the basics of editing at Alan Oxman’s Edit Center – still giving courses – and highly recommended! One of my first teachers was Affonso Gonsalves, who has edited recent films by Todd Haynes and Jim Jarmusch, as well as the ground-breaking first season of True Detective. I was so excited years later to edit Ira Sachs’ Love is Strange with Fonzie. I was lucky in my early years of editing that I could still make a good income script supervising. I cut three of my first four features for free, and I am always encouraging editors coming up not to feel “exploited” if they are offered little money at first. Those films – working with Esther Bell who now runs the West Cafe in Williamsburg, a great meeting point for filmmakers, and Michael Almereyda – were the final steps of my “film school of the streets.” I was thrilled when Kevin Asher Greene’s Homework was selected for Slamdance, and even more excited when we won best film that year. Now I really considered myself an editor!
My moviegoing habit has continued and I always try to watch movies, old and new, on the big screen – preferably projected on film. Luckily I live in New York where this is more and more possible these days thanks to the Metrograph and the revamped Quad. Years ago I read an interview with Elvis Costello where he admitted stealing or “borrowing” bits from the great history of music that came before him. I realized the same is true of film. Very often film editing is problem solving. Things don’t always go as planned on the shoot. How can we fix this given the materials at hand? Hopefully we come up with something fresh and original but to get there it would be foolish not to lean on and learn from our forebears: Fassbinder, Kubrick, Welles, Bunuel. More recently the editing strategies in Olivier Assayas’s films have inspired me to cut out everything that does not belong, and that you can do this in an aesthetically pleasing way.
Just as it’s important for actors to know their lines – giving them the freedom to act – so we editors should be able to draw on our kit bag of past cinematic experiences as we problem solve. “What would Craig McKay or Brian Kates have done?” Because I was fairly film literate I was able to cut films by formalists such as Julia Loktev and Rick Alverson. At the same time I enjoyed finding new ways to tell stories in films by Margaret Brown, Elizabeth Wood and Liza Johnson, which kind of brings me back to the beginning of this story!
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Taylor: From 2001 to 2016 my primary editing software was Final Cut, versions 2 to 7. In fact both of the features I cut which screened at the 2017 Sundance were edited on Final Cut. This is what The Edit Center taught until recently, and I really believe it was instrumental in allowing me to skip the stage of being an assistant editor and plunge right into editing. I started out working on extremely low budget films, and at the time Avid was still a $100,000 hardware-based product really only affordable by films with a budget. Of course, Apple stopped updating Final Cut in 2011. I continued to use the software because it contained creative features not yet in Avid. Fortunately for me Avid added these features around the same time Final Cut stopped working on Apple computers. I’m happy to say my last three features – including A Kid Like Jake – were cut on Avid, and I am very happy with the software.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Taylor: The hardest scene should have been an extended argument between Alex and Greg, but because the performances were so exciting and Silas’ blocking so strong it was actually pretty easy. Of course, as our edit progresses we finessed the scene, but the first version was pretty good. The hardest scene was an emotional turning point in the movie between Alex, Greg and Jake; we finally got it right (we hope) by stripping most of the dialog out and letting looks tell the story. The human face remains the most fascinating canvas for me.
Filmmaker: What role did VFX work, or compositing, or other post-production techniques play in terms of the final edit?
Taylor: Interestingly enough I have found some VFX compositing is now standard in the most naturalistic films – whether it’s removing booms from the frame or adding visual elements. I have been very fortunate in recent films to be assisted by Tom Knight, Jenirae Reynolds and Lauren Norby, all of whom are whizzes at compositing. It’s really great to be able to say to a director “don’t worry, we can still use this take” if the shot has the best performance but is visually flawed. I have to combine two takes in a two shot to maximize performances, but this is done all the time now. It used to be sound was the most malleable aspect in post production, but now we have affordable tools available to us on the visual side, which allow us to craft the best possible film.
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: In the end the film became its own organic child. The basics of the story remained, but as we finessed our central characters’ relationships with the other people in their lives – Greg’s therapy patient Sandra (played memorably by Amy Landecker, who Silas had previously worked with on Transparent), Alex’s mother Catherine (played by great Ann Dowd – who coincidentally had been in Homework all those years ago), single mom neighbor Amal (the terrific Priyanka Chopra) – the film came to be as vibrant and surprising as the city of New York itself, a place where you never know what’s around the corner.