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The Art of Listening: Discovering the Rhythms of a Picture Edit

American Woman (photo by Ken Woroner)

I’ve had a lifelong love of music. I’m immersed in it most of the time, whether at home or on the street listening to headphones—I’m listening to Apple Music on shuffle play as I write this. I always hear the melody and instrumentation first, and can hear a song dozens of times before I even begin to notice the lyrics. I suppose this is why, as a film editor, I see film dailies first as image and second as dialogue being spoken. Image always trumps text for me. I’ll notice small movements in an actor’s face well before I hear inflections in their dialogue. Plus, image is more immutable than sound. Whereas dialogue can be easily swapped out for another take, or even re-recorded at another date, the glint in an actor’s eye or the timing of a smile may only happen once. It’s my job to notice it.

For editors, dailies are where we start to find the magic. As time goes on, we collaborate with directors, and the film continues to be shaped, refined and improved. But it always starts with the dailies. A few months ago, I realized I could put a name to my approach to the first cut of a scene: “listening to the footage.” This is true whether I cut a film from the start—getting fresh dailies every day, assembling the first version of the film, then working with the director through the picture lock—or if I am brought in to recut a film. It’s the same process of listening to the footage and paying attention.

I had just started a recutting project when, trying to make a scene feel more natural, I went back to the dailies bin. There’s nothing unusual about that—I was hoping to discover something the previous editors may have overlooked. And there it was: a woman in the corner doing a slinky dance to a song that had just come on the radio. She was dancing in the previous version, but not like this. And across the room, her boyfriend, shirtless, gaping at her, eyes full of life, mouth open in a huge grin. It was a very carnal—and real—moment between both characters, and I realized I could use it to drive the scene. Suddenly, this moment in the film had energy, momentum and a purpose, as we could now emphasize how the other characters felt as the dancing woman glides into the arms of her lover. I realized I was listening to cues from the actors themselves. Not listening in a literal sense—I had the sound turned off—but trusting the actors to guide my cutting choices and patterns. Rather than trying to create a scene externally, shaping the footage to fit a predetermined concept of the scene, I was cutting from the inside out, letting the footage tell me why the scene belonged in the film. I was working on this scene late at night and couldn’t wait to show it to the film’s director, Semi Chellas, the next day. She was excited I had found something new, and together we worked to polish and shape the scene. Suddenly, we had a new way in to her material. It was there all along; it was just a matter of listening closely to the visuals. The film, American Woman, premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, and the exceptional actors who guided me are Lola Kirke and John Gallagher, Jr.

I understood then that a well-directed film with a strong cast and screenplay will have these kinds of moments scattered among the footage. It’s just a matter of listening for something genuine. It’s a more holistic approach to judging performance and takes, and it can guide you as you first construct a scene. From these moments, the whole film comes into being.

One of the most exciting parts of film editing is the dailies phase. You are getting untouched, virginal footage every day, like a snowy field without footsteps. I imagine it’s like a gorgeous set is for a production designer, before any actors set foot on it. For most of my career, I’ve watched dailies without consulting the script—trying to figure out from the camera angles and performances what the scene is supposed to be, and how it fits into the larger structure of the film. The audience isn’t going to have the script either, so I need to create something that makes sense from the pieces I’ve been given. I do consult script supervisor notes to see whether the director has any favorite takes or special notes, but usually it’s just me and the footage. Once again, I’m relying on the actors and the camera angles to tell me what the scene is all about. After I’ve done a first assembly—essentially a first look at what the film could be—the director joins me, and together we craft a film that comes as close as possible to the director’s original vision, while leaving ourselves open to surprises that ultimately may make the film even better.

In Guy Nattiv’s Skin, Jamie Bell plays a heavily tattooed white supremacist who has broken ranks with the movement. In one sequence, he’s forced into a car, en route to commit an unspeakable act of violence. (If this was a mob movie, this would be the scene where the undercover cop has to prove his loyalty by killing a gang member who has strayed.) Guy (who won an Oscar this year for his short film Skin—similar themes but different storyline) and director of photography Arnaud Potier gave me plenty of angles and takes to work with, including some piercing close ups as Jamie steels himself for what is to come. But in the end, a three-shot with Jamie boxed in by Daniel Henshall and Louisa Krause worked best. The actors were working together beautifully. The performances were telling me I didn’t need the close up. I saw a man fenced in by the world he was trying to leave behind. It was an incredibly physical performance, and the best moments jumped out, even after Jamie was flung from the car and forced to confront the darkest of evil. Of course, once Guy joined me in the cutting room the scene got even better, as he heard things in the footage I hadn’t noticed the first time. He was listening to the footage as well, but in a different way. As much as I love the dailies phase, it’s that 10 to 20 weeks or so I spend huddled with a director that I love the most. 

Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is also built around a central performance, in this case Awkwafina playing her first dramatic leading role. A film about a Chinese-American woman coming to terms with her Chinese grandmother’s impending death, Farewell is actually very funny because Lulu has a great talent for showing how members of an extended family relate to one other. In person, she’s also one of the most hilarious people I’ve ever met, so naturally the film footage was imbued with humor from the start. Our challenge editorially was to keep Awkwafina grounded, dealing with the sudden news of her beloved grandmother’s terminal illness, yet at the same time a lively spirit, someone we would enjoy spending time with. She couldn’t be sad and gloomy all the time. So, whenever Awkwafina showed that special spark, I knew that was the take to use. In one scene, she exercises with her grandmother Nai Nai, played by Shuzhen Zhou. It’s a oner, so it was really just a matter of finding the best take. In one take, the actors and Anna Franquesa Solano’s camera were perfectly in sync. Everything was just about right. This was Lulu’s first choice for the scene. But in a slightly messier take, Awkwafina bends over and asks “slap my butt?,” which makes Nai Nai laugh. We knew we needed to find humor with Awkwafina wherever we could, so ultimately Lulu chose that take. We were listening to the footage.

In Silas Howard’s A Kid Like Jake, a Brooklyn couple struggles with how best to present their trans, gender-expansive four-year-old to kindergarten admissions officials. (The couple is struggling financially, so a bribe is out of the question!) Alex, played by Claire Danes, goes through a gauntlet of emotions as the film progresses. Once again, Claire’s dailies made it easy for me—I’d watch for that extra bit of reality, where she was actually struggling against herself, a human being overwhelmed by a world she wasn’t prepared for, and that’s the moment I would use. It might be a certain smile while showing a pregnancy test to her husband, played by Jim Parsons, or a look in her eyes as the couple begins an epic fight. Another character, played by Amy Landecker, is mid-divorce and building up the courage to admit she never wanted children. Sometimes I felt Amy’s vulnerability more strongly in a wide shot rather than a close up, and those were the ones I kept coming back to. Film acting—take after take, words and actions constantly being repeated—is very much like the way a musician makes a record. Sometimes, the most magical moments only happen once or twice. It’s our job as film editors to listen for those moments. As is always the case, the film continued to improve once Silas joined me in the cutting room. We had wonderful producers, but sometimes we were encouraged to use closer shots, even if they lacked the magic I had first seen in the footage. There would be a back and forth, and eventually the film was finished to everyone’s satisfaction. It’s a collaborative medium.

I’m always looking for actors to surprise me, to take me somewhere I didn’t think I was going to go. Morgan Saylor did that time after time in Elizabeth Wood’s White Girl, an almost feral performance in terms of energy and timing. That was a fun film to assemble. Morgan had so many great moments in her dailies it was sometimes hard to choose. I would just keep listening. Morgan appears in Bryan Wizemann’s forthcoming You Mean Everything to Me, and once again we had so many choices—she is fully present in just about everything she does. The trick is finding the pieces that enhance her character’s range the most. Some of Morgan’s best moments convey sadness when you think she’s going to be happy. It’s a counterintuitive move but works wonderfully in the whole of the film. Bryan and I took turns editing the film and finished it together. After my time away from the film, I found Bryan had heard things in the footage I had missed the first time around.

All this is true in character-based documentaries as well, maybe even more so. When I was recutting Holly Morris and Anne Bogart’s The Babushkas of Chernobyl, I came upon footage of Valentina, one of a trio of three women who have reclaimed their homes in the nuclear fallout zone of Chernobyl, who has decided on this particular day to go fishing. The foliage is glorious, and the blue water sparkles like Valentina’s eyes. She’s enchanting, and I knew right away this sequence had to open the film. She would be our way in. I’ve always believed that footage has to earn its way into a movie. When I listen carefully, it usually tells me if it belongs. This is nowhere more true than in documentary, where the shooting ratio is often much higher than on a narrative. 

When I was working with Swiss director Nicolas Steiner on his documentary Above and Below, I felt that the film needed stronger introductions to each of the characters, whose interlocking stories form the film’s narrative. If we cared about the characters right from the start, we would enjoy and appreciate their stories more as the film went on. I went back to the dailies, and I found moments where the characters revealed themselves. For Dave, the desert loner, it was his campaign against fire ants, a great metaphor for survival, which was a struggle each of Nicolas’s characters was facing. Nicolas embraced this search eagerly, and we were aided by all the sifting though material the main editor, Kaya Inan, had done.

Margaret Brown’s Peabody Award–winning documentary The Order of Myths had a whole range of special challenges. Margaret’s film documents Mobile, Alabama’s unique spectacle of separate “but equal” Mardi Gras celebrations—one by the white community, one by the black community. Given that a few of the white subjects in the film were just one step away from Jamie Bell’s character in Skin, it was hard to know how to best present them. Should they be scary? Should they be so absurd that we make fun of them? I would look for the most plain-spoken, earnest explanations, trusting that the audience would be there to challenge them. Even though Margaret and I omitted the most ridiculous moments, we couldn’t avoid presenting much of the white Mardi Gras as a celebration out of time. I was listening all the time, even when I wasn’t in the editing room. One day, I picked up a free weekly paper that had a cover story about the last documented lynching in America. It was in the early 1980s, just a few decades before, right there in Mobile. I argued that we couldn’t do a film based around institutional racism without including this incident. Margaret agreed, and a smash cut to a black man hanging from a tree, shortly after a respected member of the white community had celebrated the durability and tradition of Mobile’s famous oak trees and their deep roots, made the point. Documentaries are all about listening because you never know where your subjects will take you. As we were filming, we learned about an amazing connection between the queens of the white and black courts, and that led the film into a chilling sequence about America’s slave-trading past.

Another time I listened to an actor through his footage, it ended up changing the scene in a dramatic way. I was cutting Adam Rapp’s second feature, Blackbird, which featured Paul Sparks and Gillian Jacobs as a couple on a heroin-fueled downward spiral. There’s a lot of poker in the film, and at one point Paul’s character is out of chips but still wants to stay in the game. Characters played by Michael Shannon, Dallas Roberts and Stephen Adly Guirgis all look expectantly at Paul’s character, Baylis. At this point in the script (and as shot), Dallas suggests Paul “throw Froggie (Gillian) into the pot.” But there was something in Paul’s expression, in his struggle to decide what course to take, which led me to believe the scene would be stronger if we cut Dallas’s line and let Paul come up with the idea to sacrifice his girlfriend without being prompted. It was a big change, and Adam and I went back and forth on it for a while, but in the end we let Baylis bet everything on Froggie, with sad results.

Sometimes, listening to footage leads to something truly surprising and magical. Working in Austin with Margaret Brown on her first documentary, Be Here To Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt (Palm Pictures), we often listened (literally) to cassette recordings of phone calls between Townes and the late journalist Bill Hedgepeth dating to the early ’70s. The sound was fuzzy and distant, but the content was great. At one point, we heard Townes working out the lyrics to a song he was writing. Margaret said it sounded familiar, but she couldn’t quite place it. Maybe it never got finished. I was staying in a couple of rooms off the University of Texas campus with our cats Tuffy and Punky, mattress on the floor, Sony CD dream machine right by my head, making sure I woke up in time each day. I had just bought the Townes album Nashville Sessions at Waterloo Records and put it in the player the night before. I woke up to Townes singing:

At my window / watching the sun go / hoping the stars know / it’s time to shine
daydreams / aloft on dark wings / soft as the sun streams / at day’s decline
Living is laughing / dying says nothing at all

Townes had finished the song after all! I was so excited about the discovery, I rushed to our edit room, where I combined parts of the phone call with the finished song and a few blurry shots of trees out a moving car window. Margaret liked it so much it became the opening of the film.

I did a lot of listening that summer. As archival footage of Townes rolled in to our edit room, I would go through it with Margaret like panning for gold. Margaret’s film is composed of many small moments adding up to a bigger whole (François Girard’s Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould was an inspiration). We were listening for flashes of Townes’s character wherever we could find them—it might have been the way he adjusted his glasses before a radio interview, or smiled as smoke wafted by his face in an ancient VHS recording, or a longer than usual pause before answering an interviewer’s question. Sometimes, the spaces between the words are the most revealing.

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