“Do I Believe What I Am Being Shown?” Editor Justine Wright on Yardie
Adapted from Victor Headley’s 1992 novel, Yardie marks Idris Elba’s feature directorial debut. Beginning in 1968, when young D (Aml Ameen) witnesses the killing of his brother, the film’s action begins a few years later, when he’s now part of the trade that claimed his sibling’s life. Not only is D in deep, he starts seeing his brother’s ghost, and thoughts of vengeance aren’t far behind. Editor Justine Wright explains the difficulties of cutting together some of the film’s sprawling scenes and whittling down an initial assembly cut of two and a half hours.
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?
Wright: I had previously cut two short films that Idris directed. Two and a half years ago, I was contacted to say Idris was keen to direct a feature and would like me to cut it. We then kept in touch as the script took shape. I knew the film had the potential to be fresh and different. The Jamaican community in London is an incredibly vibrant one and one that you hardly ever see on film. Music has always been a very important element in the films I cut. I have always been a big fan of reggae music and knew the film could have a fantastic soundtrack.
Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were your goals as an editor? What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?
Wright: I enjoy working on films where the characters are interesting and there is a good story. To squeeze all of this in usually takes time. The first assembly of Yardie was almost two and a half hours long, so first off we had to figure out how to wrangle it into an acceptable length. Because the plot has to be served, very often the main casualties of an editing thinning process are the character depths. The challenge was how to keep both.
My aim with any film that I have cut is how to make the story feel “true.” In the case of Yardie, how to help show the turmoil inside the central character of D? How to use the scenes we had in a way that makes the appearance of the duppy (ghost) believable? This also means helping the audience to connect with D. We may not like all of his actions, but hopefully we understand them and don’t judge him too harshly.
Yardie has a brilliant energy and style, led from the top by director Idris and then through its costumes, production design and filming. I wanted to do the footage justice. Any reshaping is the secret of the cutting room.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Wright: We decided to pepper D’s memories of his brother’s funeral into the film to help give insight into his state of mind. I have cut a lot of films with flashbacks and was very aware that audiences quickly get flashback fatigue, so we had to carefully calibrate how much we could get away with.
Like the on-screen style, the reggae music is very groovy, and cutting a few of the montage sections in a slightly non-linear way felt right.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Wright: I was trained in a commercials editing company before moving on to cut feature documentaries. I think cutting documentaries has affected everything I do, as I am always asking the question “Do I believe what I am being shown?”
One of my favourite films of all time is When We Were Kings, as it proves you can have everything, great characters, thoughtfulness and funk!
Filmmaker; What editing system did you use, and why?
Wright: Avid. It’s what I first learned on. It’s second nature, I don’t have to think about it at all when I’m working. I love its stability.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Wright: The big party scene in Jamaica was very difficult but also hugely enjoyable, like a massive jigsaw puzzle. The footage is fantastic and I wanted to do it justice. The takes were very long and there were a lot of them. There was a lot of adlibbing and a lot of craziness. The extras are all amazing, with real energy and personality, and I wanted to get as much of them into the scene as possible. The scene couldn’t be very long though, so there was a lot of cutting and then re-cutting to find out what worked best while staying in sync with the music tracks.
The central funeral scene was also extremely tricky. I must have cut about 40 versions, trying to find it. It could have been a generic funeral scene but that never felt right. The scene didn’t work until it had a proper purpose, and that was to get into the mixed up head of D — to feel his distress, not just witness it from the outside.
Filmmaker: What role did VFX work, or compositing, or other post-production techniques play in terms of the final edit?
Wright: The film is set in 1973 and 1983, so most of the VFX were to do with painting out things that wouldn’t have been there at the time. It’s amazing how these can add up.
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?
Wright: Once again I take my hat off to actors who can make a character so unique and enjoyable. I think all the actors in Yardie do this.