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“The Relationship Between Fiction and Non-Fiction Genres”: Editor Kimberley Hassett on Shirkers

Shirkers

We’ve already written about Sandi Tan‘s Shirkers, her debut feature documentary named after the long-lost footage from her 1992 would-be feature debut of the same names. Under the mentorship of the mysterious Georges Cardona, the college-age Tan and friends embarked on making a rare Singaporean independent film; this documentary revisits that film and tells the story of Tan’s life to date while on the trail of the elusive Cardona. We’ve also already posted an interview with early project editor Lucas Celler; here, we pass on the baton to editor Kimberley Hassett, who brought the film to final cut.

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?

Hassett: Last summer my friend, Maya Rudolph, approached me about a film she was producing called Shirkers. She sent over the teaser, and between the photography, music and tone, I’d never seen anything like it; I was blown away. The director, Sandi Tan, was looking for a finishing editor whose experience wasn’t limited to documentaries. Since I also have a background in fiction and fine art, and Shirkers is a film that engages with the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction, it was a good fit.

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?

Hassett: By the time I came on, Sandi and Lucas Celler had already completed a rough cut, so the lion’s share of the scene-work and all of the incredible motion graphics were in place. My task was to strengthen the overall narrative and heighten the dramatic tension throughout the film. When I watched their rough cut, I wanted to see an actual scene rebuilt from the 1992 version of Shirkers, so I asked Sandi for a copy of the original script. Reading it was my way into the documentary; it’s how I developed my own relationship to the story and its themes. I realized that both films (the original and the documentary) had a lot to say about death, rebirth and friendship. I also discovered a “shootout” scene in the original film between Sandi’s character, S, and her best friend, TB, where S is “killed” in the most playful way. I found the footage, cut it into the documentary, and this became the first scene I shared with Sandi. It also became a moment in the film that I felt we had to earn, and that gave me a specific dramatic goal that I could work towards.

Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?

Hassett: Before I even began cutting, I was able to attend a rough-cut screening organized by Tabitha Jackson from the Sundance Institute. Her detailed notes, along with those of the amazing colleagues she assembled, set the tone for my immediate goals. Leah Giblin from Cinereach also organized a separate screening later in the process, one which allowed us to gauge how close we were getting. Both screenings inspired major editorial leaps.

In the beginning, I would work mostly from home. Before I tackled any sequence, Sandi and I talked for hours about her intentions. She also sent me new narration dialogue every morning, which also helped structure whatever scenes we were re-working. In this way, Sandi was always present in the edit even without being physically there. Towards the end of the process it became necessary to work together more closely. This is when Sandi, Maya and I hunkered down and finished the film.   

Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?

Hassett: I received an MFA in Photography and Related Media from the School of Visual Arts in New York. At that time, I began editing at the Outpost in Williamsburg, Brooklyn – a post house for downtown artists. I was also cutting short films with the conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner and devouring anything and everything I could get my hands on, as I didn’t have access to cinema and art growing up in rural Alabama. While still at SVA, I remember watching Jeremy Dawson construct the quick-cut drug montages for Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream; I’d never seen someone working at that level. Another seminal moment was sitting in the Lincoln Plaza Cinema watching Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration. It was the first time I watched a fiction film that felt like a documentary, so raw and true to life. The relationship between fiction and non-fiction genres still informs so much of my work.

Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?  

Hassett: Sandi started the film in Premiere way before I began, so that decision wasn’t mine, but it also happens to be the system I used on the last two features I cut.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?

Hassett: The beginning of the movie was the final piece of the puzzle. Our challenge was in figuring out how to introduce Sandi’s character. The question we kept asking was whether to begin with her in the past as a child growing up in Singapore, or in the present, as a filmmaker living in California? We also had to balance her personal biography with the introduction of the mystery at the heart of Shirkers. In the end, we decided to open with Sandi as her fictional creation, S, lying in the grass, suitcase in hand, introducing the world of Shirkers through her character’s eyes. After many iterations, Sandi wrote the narration, and we constructed that scene on the last day of the edit.

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?

Hassett: There was a scene from the original Shirkers screenplay that really helped me understand the documentary. In the script, S always has a camera hanging around her neck, but she never loaded it with film. Without giving anything away, this helped me frame much of Georges’ psychopathy in the documentary. In the script, Sandi had written, “You don’t need film, just the action of doing that [clicking the camera] helps you remember.” For me, this speaks to the value of process in both my own work and in the story of Shirkers.  

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