“Balancing the Tone Between Quiet Subtlety and Flourishes of Style”: Editor Taylor Levy on Night Comes On
Jordana Spiro has appeared as an actor on Ozark, The Good Wife, Dexter and a number of other TV series. She makes her debut as a feature film director with Night Comes On, a film she also co-wrote with Angelica Nwandu, the founder of the Instagram-based company The Shade Room. The film tells the story of two troubled sisters: Angel (Dominique Fishback) and Abby (Tatum Marilyn Hall). Spiro hired Taylor Levy, an additional editor on the 2017 Sundance title Brigsby Bear, to edit the film. Before its five screenings at Sundance 2018, Levy spoke with Filmmaker about what drew him to the project, his years as an assistant editor and the stress of meeting a Sundance submission deadline.
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?
Levy: After trading emails and calls with our producer, Jonathan Montepare, I read the Night Comes On script and arranged a meeting with the director, Jordana Spiro. I connected personally with many layers of the story Jordana wanted to tell, so I was excited to meet her. We met at a cafe during a weekend off from production and we got along very well and found we had similar sensibilities. The meeting flew by as we chatted about all sorts of things and I shared my thoughts on her film and my approach to the editing process. My bedside manner and ideas on the script, along with my assistant editor experience with certain filmmakers, earned me Jordana’s trust. We both left that meeting with a good feeling, and the next week I was arranging to get footage.
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?
Levy: Jordana had created such unique and powerful characters in these sisters. Angel felt so strong yet intensely broken, and Abby so innocent in the wake of tragedy. It was clear early on that these two girls’ journey together was going to be the core of this film, and I wanted to honor them as best as I could. By the time we started cutting together Jordana and I had only met twice, so there were significant aspects of the film we didn’t have a chance to discuss. Tonally the film needed steering into a more nuanced place overall by scaling back moments or lines that stuck out as too dark or light. In a subtle film like this that would mean sometimes having to cut even the smallest facial gesture to preserve the feeling we wanted. There was a lot of detail work and a significant attention to sound to find the sweet spot. We didn’t cut too many scenes out entirely, but there were countless small moments that could swing the pendulum in certain ways. Balancing the tone between quiet subtlety and flourishes of style was delicate.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Levy: The most important part of editing is the process itself. You have to take it one step at a time and you cannot rush it. You must trust that all things will get your attention at some point. We always wanted to submit to Sundance, and that was putting a lot of pressure on our edit timeline. In order to be productive we had to put that deadline out of our minds and work as best and as fast as we could. Starting on the director’s cut we decided to get through one “reel” per week, and tried very hard to stick to that knowing full well we would come back around to everything in due time. We cut like that for a month before showing producers and our inner circle the film. Editing kept going for a few more weeks and eventually we had three feedback screenings. Between those screenings, some visitors to the edit room and a handful of web links we gathered a good amount of trusted notes to start honing in on our final cut.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Levy: I started my post career as an intern at Post Factory NY where I learned the technical side of editing systems and how client services worked. I also got to interact with editors, assistant editors and post supervisors. Simply being in close proximity to the people who were doing what I wanted to be doing was huge for me. I was lucky enough to meet Nick Houy while he was assistant editing on a film at Post Factory. We became friendly there, and he offered me a job as his assistant editor. After that project I had learned the AVID well enough to join the union and assistant edit for Terilyn Shropshire, Jennifer Lame, Olivier Bugge Coutte, Joe Beshenkovsky and Jacob Craycroft. All the while I would continue to cut when I could, and eventually earn additional editor credit on Brigsby Bear. My experiences working with those filmmakers are invaluable to me and undoubtedly shape my approach to editing. I also try to go see a movie in the theater once a week. Watching and discussing films still has a major influence on my work and life.
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Levy: I edited Night Comes On using AVID. I prefer to use AVID mostly out of habit.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Levy: One scene that was difficult to cut was the scene in which Abby is “smoking” with the other foster kids. It was covered in a pseudo-documentary style and involved four child actors smoking a prop joint. It was also shot with a few different variations on the dialogue and a lot of footage. We only had half a day to get the scene, so they rolled the camera for a full card at a time and the director would walk the kids through the scene, resetting constantly. There was a ton of material and a lot of unusable minutes to wade through looking for those random moments that cut together. It was hard to know what we had so we made elaborate string outs to be able to digest each line reading we had at our disposal, but we kept wanting to try new approaches. Every time we recut this scene we would have to re-watch all of the footage putting markers and pulling new selects of anything that worked in the direction we were trying that day. We eventually settled on the main pieces we liked most and built a structure around them.
Filmmaker: What role did VFX work, or compositing, or other post-production techniques play in terms of the final edit?
Levy: We had a very minimal amount of VFX for Night Comes On – around 30 shots. Most were removals and clean up shots. Our only designed VFX shots are our cell phone screens. Our amazing one-man band VFX artist Andrew Sherman designed those screens for us as well as doing all of our other VFX work.
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?
Levy: As I’m writing this, I am sitting in the mix stage so the process isn’t quite over yet. But I think Night Comes On is a really unique film that can touch on some very important modern issues. It’s rare that we get a film with these types of central female characters in these situations so I’m very excited to share the film. I’m also so proud for our two lead actors, Dominique and Tatum. They did great work and I never get tired of watching them. This film lives on their faces with a lot of silent moments, and crafting their performances is something I am very proud of.