“We Had Somehow Managed to Shoot a Solid Two and a Half Hours of Movie in Only 15 Days”: Editor Kern Saxton on Mope
Lucas Heyne’s feature debut Mope is based on the lurid case of aspirant porn star Stephen Hill (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and his best friend, whose porn name was Tom Dong (Kelly Sry). In 2010, Hill went on a rampage with a machete, a story is told in this LA Weekly story from 2011, forming the basis for this porn-milieu drama. Heyne called on his friend Kern Saxton to edit. Via email, Saxton described the challenges of cutting down two and a half hours, filmed in an improvisatory style, into a tight 105 minutes.
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?
Saxton: Lucas and I had been friends for several years before we shot Mope, so he had seen my previous film, Sushi Girl, as well as various trailers I had cut. We discussed the project quite a bit before it was even a finished script, but when I finally read it, I liked it so much that I practically begged him to let me cut it. I think he went with me because I said I’d do it for free if I had to!
The reality is that Lucas could have easily edited the picture himself, but he wanted a different perspective for this part of the process. He knew he needed a strong editor, given the documentary-like shooting style, but really wanted someone who would do things with the footage he might never have even thought of. He’s a very collaborative director in that respect, so I had a great deal of creative freedom throughout post.
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?
Saxton: The biggest challenge we faced with the edit was that we had somehow managed to shoot a solid two and a half hours of movie in only 15 days. Everything that had been in the script was pretty tight at that length, so it became a series of decisions of what we could lose without collapsing the narrative.
There was also the question of how much graphic nudity to include. Being that the film was set in the porn industry, based on a true story, and shot in a cinéma vérité style, we knew we were going to have to “show off the goods” at some point. We didn’t want to shy away from anything, but we also didn’t want to get so icky that it would take people out of the story. I think where we landed is still shocking, but without being distracting. The other important thing was that none of it be particularly titillating. We weren’t there to glamorize.
The trickiest aspect of cutting Mope was nailing the tone. The film essentially begins as an offbeat buddy comedy and slowly mutates into a bloody crime thriller. It has a wide emotional bandwidth. Sushi Girl was similar in that regard, so I had a good idea of how to properly balance those elements into a cohesive whole. Mope doesn’t really signal what it is at any given moment, and there are several instances where some people laugh uncontrollably while others seem utterly disgusted. I like to think of it as a litmus test to see how dark your sense of humor is.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Saxton: In terms of getting the runtime down, we really had to focus on the core of the story. The heart of the film is Steve and Tom’s relationship, so we tried a version excising any scene that didn’t feature either of them and built it back up from there. We found several scenes that repeated beats and only kept the strongest one. Our producer Kelly Hayes made a suggestion that jettisoned a large chunk of the film about 2/3 of the way in, which we initially thought was a crazy idea, but eventually realized that none of that stuff was crucial to the story and was just slowing down the back half of the second act. There was enough redundant information in the other sections that allowed it to work, and we were able to keep the more important moments from the excised portion by incorporating that footage into the music montages that separate each act. From there, we started showing the cut to various people whose opinions we trusted and further streamlined the film to its final runtime of about 105 minutes.
When it came to the graphic sexual content, we tried it a few different ways, with varying degrees of nastiness, but found that less is more in most cases. Some of the most affecting scenes in Mope are carried completely by closeups on the actor’s faces, forcing the audience to imagine what might be happening below the frame. We took a similar approach to the violence. Quick bursts of blood and guts were much more effective than anything more gratuitous, the devastation really being delivered through the performances.
The comedy was an even finer line, as it’s inherently subjective, but there was such a wide range of reactions to the humor that we just had to go with our guts at the end of the day.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Saxton: I became an editor mostly out of necessity. I graduated from the directing program at UNCSA School of Filmmaking and landed in Los Angeles like so many other young and hungry filmmakers, with big dreams and little idea of how to turn them into reality. I knew that I needed good material to shoot if I wanted to get anywhere as a director, so I honed my skills as a writer on a bunch of feature scripts and shorts that I shot with my friends in our spare time. All of this was no-budget stuff, so I would take on the editing duties as well. I had a solid foundation in both writing and editing due to film school, but it was my first decade in LA that really forged those skills. Eventually, I directed my first feature film, which I elected to edit myself due to time and budget constraints. I also ended up cutting all the trailers for Sushi Girl, which led to one of our distributors hiring me to cut trailers for their other films as well. That led to more trailers for other companies, which led to cutting commercials and eventually other feature films.
Writing, directing and editing are just separate phases of the same job. In order to be the best cinematic storyteller possible, you should be proficient in all three. They all inform one another. Being a sharp editor will help you be a more efficient writer and director, allowing you to see clearly and quickly what works and what you can discard. The edit is essentially the final rewrite of the script. As an editor, you have a lot of power to reshape the material, and your work really can make or break a picture.
Stanley Kubrick has probably been the biggest influence in the way I work. I did a ton of research about him while writing a script called Stanley Kubrick’s Moonshot Odyssey, a satirical take on the fake moon landing conspiracy theory. It takes place during the production of 2001: A Space Odyssey, so I did a rather deep dive into his filmmaking process. Kubrick was very hands on during every phase of production, from writing all the way through editing and the eventual release. He worked with small crews so he could control costs and took the time he needed to get things right. The production of Mope was organized in a similar manner, and offered us maximum flexibility throughout postproduction.
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Saxton: Mope was cut on Adobe Premiere Pro CC. I had migrated to the Creative Cloud from Final Cut Pro 7 when Apple released Final Cut Pro X and I was displeased with the changes. I hear FCPX is better now, but Premiere offers a ton of power and flexibility. I was also attracted to the seamless proxy integration feature for use on Mope, since the system I was working on was getting long in the tooth and I knew I didn’t have enough firepower to cut 4k ProRes 4444 XQ files natively.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Saxton: The entire film was a bit of a challenge because it was shot in a very loose handheld style that was designed to enhance the sense of spontaneity. From a technical standpoint, the scene that probably gave me the most trouble was the initial tour that Chris gives Steve and Tom of Ultima DVD. It was shot as a series of fluid walk-n-talk masters, both from in front of and behind the characters as they move around a labyrinthine porn studio. The pacing was deemed too slow to play it in one take as originally planned, so we chopped it up, picked the best parts from different takes and combined them. Because it was also a scene where the actors were encouraged to embellish their lines via improvisation, the takes didn’t all match up perfectly, and it took quite a bit of trial and error to mate the best pieces.
Filmmaker: What role did VFX work, or compositing, or other post-production techniques play in terms of the final edit?
Saxton: We used VFX sparingly, due to the realistic nature of the shooting style, and chiefly as a way to save time and money. There was one shot, where Steve slashes another character with a sword, that could not be filmed practically for safety reasons. We were spending quite a bit of time rehearsing the motion with a dummy stand-in, and we weren’t getting the results we needed, so I suggested we try to do it as two separate shots. I knew I could composite one on top of the other in After Effects and make it look like the sword was really coming down hard on the victim. We shot the plates quickly since we didn’t have to precisely coordinate the actors’ movements, and I was able to comp the selected takes right there on set in a matter of minutes. Once we saw how effective it was, we knew we could move on without worry. That quick comp is the same one in the finished film.
We also tracked in images on laptops and television screens in a few scenes, and replaced a DVD cover in the final shot. We had originally filmed using a cover that featured the real-life Steve and Tom, but decided after the fact that one with our actors’ faces on it would drive the point home more effectively. Rather than reshoot, we decided it would be more economical to just track in our design to the existing shot, and the results are rather seamless. None of the effects in the film are flashy, but intended to be as invisible as possible to maintain the realism.
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?
I think it’s a testament to Luke’s vision and our working relationship that the film turned out almost exactly as it appeared on paper, and how we had envisioned it in those initial conversations. It’s a much more streamlined version of the shooting script, obviously, but the elements and messages that resonated with me in the text translated pretty seamlessly to the screen. In that regard, I don’t think we stumbled onto any deeper meaning through the process, but I do think we were able to properly focus on what was there, and elucidate that for an audience. It still has the same cumulative effect to me, and I believe that kind of assurance of continuity is an important skill for a filmmaker to have.