“We Decided to Start Editing from Scratch”: Co-Writer/Editor Don Bernier on Always in Season
For her feature debut, Jacqueline Olive examines the death of Lennon Lacy, a black 17-year-old who was found hanging from a swing set in his North Carolina home town. Though his death was quickly ruled a suicide by the authorities, his mother, Claudia, was understandably suspicious, given America’s long, far from resolved history of racialized violence. Editor and co-writer Don Bernier (whose recent credits include Charm City) spoke via email about how he worked on the project, which he first learned of in 2014 but didn’t officially join until last year.
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?
Bernier: I first met Jackie, the director of Always in Season, back in 2014 when I was consulting at a work-in-progress retreat. All of the projects were at various stages, from scene selects to rough cuts. But of them all, Jackie’s subject stunned me. At that time, the Lennon Lacy story wasn’t part of the film yet, but the other stories—especially the lynching re-enactments of Monroe, Georgia—were unlike anything I’d seen. I felt like the ability to dip into history from this present-day event was rich with storytelling potential. After consulting with Jackie on her assembly we kept in touch, but it wasn’t until 2018 that she asked me to edit her film. When she showed me footage of her latest addition to the film, the Lennon Lacy story, I agreed to come aboard. The immediacy of Lennon’s case, and the intimate relationship Jackie had formed with the Lacy family, cemented my initial draw to the broader story.
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?
Bernier: When I started on Always in Season, Jackie had been working on the film in one form or another for nearly a decade. She did have a number of assemblies, but after weeks of screening all of the footage myself we decided to start editing from scratch. This allowed us to see the raw material fresh, break free from things that weren’t working, explore new connections between the stories she’d filmed, and—most importantly—experiment. One of my early goals in the edit was to build the film around the contemporary Lacy story and pare down the other supporting narratives. I think that by the time Jackie encountered the Lacy family, she’d learned a great deal not only about the subject matter but about her own filmmaking style. As I witnessed in the dailies, her connection with Lennon’s mom, Claudia, and brother, Pierre, was stronger than any of the other characters she’d filmed to date. So, after we cut versions of each thread we began streamlining. We started with six different stories surrounding lynching and slowly shed three, leaving us with: Lennon Lacy’s hanging death in 2014, the Monroe re-enactments of the Moore’s Ford murders of 1946, and the mob lynching of Claude Neal in 1934.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Bernier: Because each story Jackie had filmed had its own unique power, cutting away characters was difficult. Each one could’ve sustained its own film. But as we screened internally and with small groups and consultants, the stronger connections became more clear. For me as an editor, the “dialogue” that emerged between these three discrete stories was a really rewarding storytelling experience. I love it when the material really starts to “speak” to me.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Bernier: I came to editing through an odd back door. Unlike many colleagues who made their way through film school, I got my first exposure to the medium at a small Midwestern art school’s experimental media program. Then, I took my first documentary course in grad school in upstate New York and was hooked on non-fiction film. Over the next few years, I taught production for a while and did a bunch of shooting here and there. But it wasn’t until I was assisting two fabulously talented doc editors in NYC that I found my niche (one of those editors, Toby Shimin, was our consulting editor on AIS). It was in the edit room that I really saw the stories come together and characters brought to life. In 2007, I left NYC and moved out to the SF Bay Area, where I found a diverse, vibrant, creative doc film community.
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Bernier: We used Adobe Premiere Pro to edit Always in Season. Our miracle-worker assistant editor, Julie Hwang, painstakingly migrated a series of old FCP7 projects to Premiere in a matter of weeks. Honestly, it was a toss-up between Avid MC and Adobe, but I’d had a good experience with Premiere on a previous film and so we went with it again. (And it never crashed—not even once!)
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Bernier: I think the most challenging section to edit were the Claude Neal scenes. Unlike the rest of the film, which is grounded in verite footage and interviews, the Neal story lives in 1934 and is purely historical. The challenge was to simultaneously weave Neal’s narrative into the larger film while allowing it to stand out as a separate storyline. We went through dozens of concepts, from a modern dance idea to a fully animated treatment. As we edited the other two stories, it eventually became easier to construct this one. In the end it was a truly collaborative section— crafted from a mixture of voiceover (from Danny Glover), historical photographs and newspaper clippings (created by our animator Scott Grossman), original music (scored by our brilliant composer Osei Essed), impressionistic cinematography (thanks to our DP Patrick Sheehan), and soundscape (perfected by our mixer Bob Edwards).
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?
Bernier: I’m still very close to this film as we just recently finished post-production. For me, new meanings emerge once the film is out in the world and begins a life of its own. I always look forward to watching that process for a doc I’ve edited. As far as new understandings about the film, l learned so much in co-writing and editing Always in Season. I think one of the most profound realizations for me has to do with time. Even though Lennon’s story is a contemporary one, Monroe’s re-enactments are a present day investigation into the past, and Claude Neal resides further back in American history—they’re all about today. This isn’t an historical documentary, but a film about how our collective past bleeds into the present.