“‘Slow Burn’ Was a Phrase We Used Often”: Editor Abbi Jutkowitz Lizzie
Abbi Jutkowitz has worked as an assistant editor on a number of films since 2004, including Super Size Me, The Darjeeling Limited and X-Men: First Class. In 2016 she edited As You Are, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and she returned to the festival this year with the in-competition drama Lizzie. The film tells the story of Lizzie Borden, the Massachusetts woman who was tried and acquitted of killing her parents in 1892, and stars Chloë Sevigny as Borden and Kristen Stewart as her live-in maid and confidante. Jutkowitz spoke with Filmmaker before the film’s premiere about how she got her start as an editor and “feeling poignancy about a double murder.”
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?
Jutkowitz: Louiza Vick, my agent at Worldwide Production Agency, gave me the script and I was thrilled with it and the cast, and luckily she was able to get me an interview. Craig, the director, was already on location for pre-production so my interview was over Skype. I remember that the first thing Craig asked was how I liked the script. It was great how he dove right in; I like to do the same.
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?
Jutkowitz: My goal is always twofold and sometimes contradictory. I want to put on screen what the director has in their head, and I want to find surprises in the footage, or surprising ways to connect the footage, showcasing moments that might otherwise get lost. As the edit progressed I felt the always present undercurrent of empowerment coming to the fore, and we both enhanced it in some places and toned it down in others. There were moments that made clear declarations which we decided to cut, finding it more powerful to have the characters’ emotions simmer, but only boil over in rare, key moments. “Slow burn” was a phrase we used often.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Jutkowitz: It was all about honesty; viewing the cut with an unflinching eye. This manifested in many forms. From Craig and I to the producers, notes were always based on true gut reactions, not what we hoped would work but wasn’t.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Jutkowitz: I actually started early on working in the G&E departments of low budget features. I quickly found that production wasn’t the work or lifestyle for me, but first hand knowledge of the machinations of the set proved very valuable in post production. I was referred by a friend to a post production team that was working at Sound One in NY and as a post PA on a feature that was cutting there. I began to work a series of jobs with Shelly Westerman. She trained and mentored me and introduced me to so many people in the world of post production. All this provided me with a wonderful foundation–assistant editing involves a lot of skillful organization and communication, all done with the aim to free up the editor to focus solely on editing, but it is hard for assistants to gain experience with actual editing. Eventually I started working mostly as a first assistant editor and this is where I really got to work closely with editors to both learn and practice more of the art and the craft. I worked with a variety of fantastic editors through the years but one I worked with consistently was Kristina Boden. She always gave me scenes to cut and feedback that led me to have confidence in my work, and set me forward on the path of editing.
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Jutkowitz: I used Avid because on a feature where I knew I would not always have an assistant, I needed a system that in a sense does much of the work of an assistant. The organization and seamless transfer to other departments such as DI and sound was key, and I know Avid facilitates this with ease.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Jutkowitz: There is a scene towards the end of the film where Lizzie’s uncle John visits her in jail. There was a lot of dialogue in the scene, but being at the end of the film, we needed to keep up our momentum, and felt some beats needed to be cut. Finding which beats we could do without, though, was difficult. We went over the scene many times, trying multiple versions, which can sometimes make you lose perspective on what is working and good. In the end we struck the right tone, I hope!
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?
Jutkowitz: An element I would often take for granted is the sad loneliness contained in this story. The film is not exactly about experiencing sadness and loneliness, but virtually all the characters in Lizzie are lonely. What Lizzie and Bridget do can be described and thought of many ways–as an act of passion or hubris or empowerment, but it is also an act of lonely desperation. Feeling poignancy about a double murder certainly always catches me off guard after watching the film.