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“I Initially Didn’t Think I Would Be the One to Cut This Film”: Director/DP Luke Lorentzen on Editing Midnight Family

Midnight Family (photo by Luke Lorentzen)

In Mexico City, there are only 45 publicly operated ambulances for a population of nine-million-plus, creating a need filled by private labor. Luke Lorentzen, whose first feature New York Cuts premiered at IDFA in 2015, embedded himself with one privately operated ambulance run as a family business, tagging along night after night. Operating as his own shooter for Midnight Family, Lorentzen’s sophomore feature is a formally controlled, sympathetically embedded portrait of multiple instances of economic inequity (with car chases!). Via email, Lorentzen spoke about his work on the editorial side.

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?

Lorentzen: I’ve always loved every part of the filmmaking process and have edited my own student films since I was about 12 years old. With Midnight Family in particular, so much of the way I saw the story working had to do with my personal relationship with the Ochoas and the emotional rollercoaster that I experienced riding along in their ambulance night after night. I knew that at its best, the film would take viewers through some of the same emotions that I had found so powerful while shooting.

That being said, I initially didn’t think I would be the one to cut this film. Early on in the process, we hired a co-editor in Mexico City, Paloma López Carrillo, who worked closely with the material for about six months. She brought in a fresh perspective and showed me things in the footage that I initially hadn’t appreciated or picked up on. This was a fascinating process of distancing myself from scenes that I had such a specific memory of shooting to slowly learn how those events were actually affecting an audience. I eventually decided to take the edit back into my own hands for the final eight months of post and was able to use what Paloma had taught me to make the film I wanted to make from the very beginning.

Throughout this process, a specific connection developed between how I shot the film and how I came to edit it. After years of playing with our material, I developed quite a specific sense of what types of moments worked. And once I went back for our final shoot in January of 2018, I was able to sketch the film’s structure almost immediately as moments were happening in front of the camera. I would quickly scribble these scenes into this rough outline that I kept in my pocket on every shoot day. And so once that final shoot wrapped, I went back into the edit with a a sequence of events already in mind. In a matter of days, I was able to materialize what eventually ended up being the film’s final framework.

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?

Lorentzen: For those who haven’t seen the film, Midnight Family tells the story of the Ochoa family, who run a private, for-profit ambulance in Mexico City. They find themselves in a series of ethically complicated situations as they struggle to make a living off seriously injured patients.

As these dilemmas became the focus of the edit, I increasingly felt that this story’s richest elements were also some of its most subtle and delicate. It took three years of editing to finally push the more nuanced textures of the Ochoas’ world to the front and center of the film. They are very difficult characters to summarize in just a few scenes, and the central challenge of our story was to find the right collection of moments that would reflect my personal sense of who the Ochoas really are as people. Throughout the filming process, there were nights when I was very proud of their work and nights when I was far more skeptical. Initially, some cuts made their actions seem much too harsh, while other cuts sugar-coated too much. I knew the film needed to balance those perspectives and integrate them into one multidimensional, mind-twisting experience. It took dozens of cuts to finally put viewers into the heart of that dilema, all while recognizing the complexity of the context and systemic pressures at play.

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

Lorentzen: One of the big decisions we made early on in the edit was to strip the film of all music, voiceover and interviews. Our co-editor, Paloma, first suggested this approach. We wanted to craft the viewer’s experience with purely observational footage to create a first-hand, experiential ride. To encourage viewers to watch with their own sense of judgment, we chose to not rely on sound bites or music cues that would nudge one feeling over another. As a result, there are many different ways to process and react to the film, which I think resulted in something far closer to the everyday reality of who the Ochoas are as people.

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

Lorentzen: Editing is such an integral and important part of putting a film together and it’s hard for me to imagine not being very involved in every cut. When thinking of how a film of mine will work, I’m brainstorming both macro elements like structure and character development, but I’m also very concerned with very micro elements such as how scenes feel and flow.

I haven’t had the opportunity to help another filmmaker edit their film yet, but I’m looking forward to having that experience someday.

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

Lorentzen: I used Adobe Premiere. It’s a great piece of software, especially with some of the newer camera codecs that I used. I also traveled quite a bit while cutting and needed something I could have on my laptop. Almost the whole film was cut on a laptop.

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

Lorentzen: The story’s climax is the most heart-wrenching and complicated accident in the film. On a daily basis, the Ochoas are balancing their own survival as a family with the survival of the patients they treat. In this final accident, this tension comes to a head, and it tooks months of tweaking every single line in the film so that this sequence landed properly. We couldn’t dumb down or sweeten the reality of what actually happened, and it was a challenge to create an environment within the film where knowing the full details didn’t throw the Ochoas under the bus in the last few minutes of the story. The decisions that were made by the Ochoas in this moment were clear to me as a filmmaker, and I needed my audience to similarly understand why things happened the way they did all while maintaining empathy for them as people trying to stay afloat.

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?

Lorentzen: The film still feels very young to me. We are only just starting to get a wider range of reactions as we start our festival run, and I’m still discovering new elements of the story with each viewing. There were many different stories that I could have told with the footage I shot, and it took years to finally focus the film on a very specific narrative. There are dozens of fascinating details involving the Ochoas work, but so many of those anecdotes didn’t build towards an emotional climax. So much of the work I did in the final six months of the edit was to quite aggressively remove any scene in the film that wasn’t absolutely essential. And the simpler I made things, the more emotional the story seemed to land on an audience.

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