“I’m a Firm Believer in the Card Wall”: Viridiana Lieberman on Editing The Sentence
In 2017, Viridiana Lieberman had two documentaries premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival: I Am Evidence, a feature on police departments’ handling of sexual assault cases, and Love the Sinner, a short on the Orlando nightclub shooting of 2016. She begins 2018 having edited The Sentence, which premieres in competition at the Sundance Film Festival. The Sentence tells the story of director Rudy Valdez’s sister Cindy, a woman who received a draconian 15-year prison sentence for crimes committed by her deceased ex-boyfriend. Below, Lieberman speaks with Filmmaker about why editing “this film has become one of the most powerful experiences of my life.”
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?
Lieberman: The director of my previous feature introduced me to Rudy. To be honest, my first interview with Rudy was the greatest first interview I’ve ever had. He showed me some of his footage and I was so moved, I immediately started pitching ideas. We dove right in. We laughed, we cried and we continued to share stories on our walk to the train after. When I got home, my partner asked me if I got the job and I realized he didn’t formally tell me. Talk about a pit in my stomach. Thankfully, he emailed me shortly after to confirm the offer adding “I wasn’t sure if the telling you I love you and the hugs and tears were enough?” I think the factors and attributes that led me to being hired come down to that first night. Not just because a first interview is a step in the hiring process, but also because we were fearless in diving right in. Yes, we both had resumes, but that wasn’t why we wanted to work together; it was because of who we were and how we connected. This is an incredibly personal film and, starting that first moment, so was the process.
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?
Lieberman: After screening 10 years of footage, my immediate goal was to preserve the emotion. My first assembly was about three hours long. Not because I was trying to fit everything in, but because I realized that although there were peaks and valleys in the experience of trying to stay connected to someone so far away, the length of time also creates a life on autopilot. The repetition of day to day habits and holidays come and go, and the absence is so prevalent and constant that there’s an element of acclimation in this parallel reality of a waiting room. Some days are harder than others, but the world doesn’t stop moving. Cindy’s girls keep aging, her family has to keep working to support them and they have to grow. We wanted the audience to feel that, and that takes time. The challenge became cutting that total running time in half without losing that. My other priority was embracing that this story is completely filmed by Rudy’s hand. As a brother, as a son and as an uncle, it was just him and his camera. Whether he was spending time with his parents, interviewing his nieces or stuffing the camera in the windshield as he drove, we are experiencing this journey with him. It was important to acknowledge that, and it allowed powerful intimacy and kept us grounded with him while we travel through time.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Lieberman: I’m a firm believer in the card wall. A sea of index cards that allow you to troubleshoot your structure by plucking a tack from the board. The balance of the film was quickly visible by colored cards assigned to certain themes. We began isolating the most active moments throughout the years and focusing on how we would utilize aging and pivotal changes to mark the passage of time. We had feedback screenings that helped us confirm those emotional shifts still resonated while tracking so much time. We always wanted this film to be driven by emotion, not plot points. So as we closed in on a structure that felt strong from the feedback we were receiving, we took the time to step back and return some of the breath and some of that “waiting room” back to the film.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Lieberman: I fell in love with editing at my first spin of a dial on a VHS editing deck in high school. I loved shaping footage, mimicking the films I saw and making my friends travel from our favorite coffeeshop to the middle of the desert in one cut. In college I was physically splicing film and hanging it in literal bins. Not only did I love the craft, but that process has never left my mind as I now work on setups as simple as my laptop in bed. Out of film school I assisted on a few narrative projects and then began editing short form branded content for companies. On the side I was always editing narrative shorts to keep my creative muscle in tact and to keep the big picture dream alive. I began my documentary career filming both a record label trying to get off the ground and a lesbian musical trying to get to Broadway. Working on those projects led me to New York where I was hired as an assistant editor on the feature Back on Board: Greg Louganis. All of my work since has stemmed from that experience and that amazing team. The editors suggested me for various projects which lead me to edit I Am Evidence. One of the directors of that feature introduced me to Rudy. All my work has been rooted in the connections I’ve made. I take pride in my work ethic and growth as an artist, but I know how powerful relationships with my collaborators can be. To be honest, my greatest influences come from trying every aspect of filmmaking throughout the years. Along with editing, I’ve produced, written, directed, filmed and even acted along the way. I’m not afraid to admit that I’m not particularly strong in all these skills, but having those experiences informs my approach as a editor. I always want to understand what each collaborator was trying to achieve. Stylistically, I’ve always been more influenced by narrative films. It’s the storytelling rhythm, pace and choices in the films I grew up idolizing in my local movie theater that I still turn to in moments to remind me of what I love and encourage me to take chances. I wish I had been exposed to more documentaries earlier on; I’m still trying to catch up on a must-see list of decades of that important work. I’ll always chase a cinematic voice, experimenting and trying new ways into a story.
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Lieberman: I edited this on Adobe Premiere Pro. I will fully admit that I was an Avid purest and had solely worked on that system for quite some time. But for this project, the best option was Premiere, and I’m grateful I’ve had the opportunity to dive in and really see what this software can do. One of the biggest benefits was working from native files. We had a lot of varying frame rates and the workflow was seamless. I was very impressed by the immediacy of cutting. A lot of my organizing and marking strategies were quicker to navigate, and the different access points for effects made for faster application. There are strengths and weaknesses to all editing platforms, but I will say that I enjoyed working on Premiere and would absolutely use it again.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Lieberman: It wasn’t one scene that proved difficult so much as one sequence: Cindy’s case details. We faced the challenge of summarizing Cindy’s complicated case in a way that allows the viewer to understand what happened but realize this isn’t a film about innocence or guilt; it’s about sentencing. We have to move on to serving this sentence with her and her family. We probably spent the most time working on that sequence, troubleshooting the balance of the facts that need to be known and the emotional frame of consequences from multiple perspectives. A majority of our feedback screening notes and conversations amongst the team surrounded navigating that section.We solved it together, and once the details were set, I was focused on finding a cinematic approach to bind them. It was a difficult and powerful experience building that sequence. One of the first things I ever edited in this film is still almost untouched in the middle of that. I learned a lot working through that and it’s a critical moment in the film.
Filmmaker: What role did VFX work, or compositing, or other post-production techniques play in terms of the final edit?
Lieberman: From the beginning Rudy and I spoke about what we’d like to do with stills and/or using forms of tactile-feeling graphics. Initially we tried solely working with the home video archival, but we later realized the power of seeing Cindy frozen in time. Once we implemented photos throughout, we wanted to bring them to life in a subtle way. We found that adding a treatment that created depth and movement within kept our travel through time always moving forward and unstoppable. The other impactful post-production technique was sound mixing and design. Since we were highly sensitive to the fact that the film was riding in Rudy’s hand, the sound was focused to where he was and what he was hearing. Even if there was something happening outside of a car, if he’s sitting inside of it, we are also listening from inside of the car. The choices when to have ambience and when to embrace silence, when to hear the sync sound and when to separate, were intentional. Every element was by choice to better connect with the absence and reality of their experience.
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?
Lieberman: Not to sound overly dramatic, but in all honesty, this film has become one of the most powerful experiences of my life. I watched 10 years of the strongest family I’ve ever seen. To be a part of this has been an incredibly gratifying journey, both for the story and the people involved. This film is a time capsule of many things. Clearly, this family’s story is the powerful priority. But this was also a labor of love with a team of good people driven by the right reasons and passionate to do it the right way. Rudy was at the center of that, and I will be forever grateful for working with such a giving, supportive and fun human being. I was inspired and driven to give this story my upmost respect and my absolute best work, and this team gave me the freedom to explore my craft in ways I had only dreamed of. In the end, my understanding of this film didn’t differ from my initial introduction to the material because Rudy spoke his truth the first day I met him. Every frame of his footage reflected that, and I’ve never been so inspired to honor that in every cut. This film will always remind me why I make films.