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“We Learned to Lean into the More Lyrical Aspects of the Story and Let the Emotion Carry the Day”: Editors Michael Taylor and Jeff Betancourt on Nine Days

Winston Duke and Zazie Beetz appear in Nine Days by Edson Oda (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

In an alternate reality, Will (Winston Duke) carries the burden of choosing which among nine candidates has what it takes to be born into the world as a full-fledged human being. Nine Days follows these souls through a series of trials designed to determine who among them will receive the gift of life and personhood, and who must resign from existence once the nine days are complete. Editors Michael Taylor and Jeff Betancourt delve into the many screenings, cuts and reworks that went into shaping director Edson Oda’s  film.

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?

Taylor: I heard about Nine Days initially from my friend Lucas Joaquin, who is a producer of many excellent independent films, including Ira Sachs’s Love is Strange and Braden King’s The Evening Hour, which is also playing at Sundance this year. I contacted my agent Ricky Robinson at UTA and two days later got a text from producer Jason Berman saying he would like to schedule a Skype between Edson Oda, the director, and myself. Jason and I had met several years earlier when we appeared on the same Sundance TV segmenthe was there representing Sara Colangelo’s Little Accidents, and I was there with Love is Strange. I did the Skype with Edson a few days later, and Edson laughed quite a few times, which I took as a good sign. We talked in depth about the screenplay, which is one of the strongest I have ever read, and how he planned to translate it visually to screen. We also talked about the television POV images, which are a big part of the film, and which would need to be filmed and edited before we started principal photography. We both imagined I would need to be in Salt Lake City for the shoot, but at the time the budget did not permit it.

Betancourt: I was finishing another project when producer Jason Berman called me. Nine Days had a very compressed schedule and as strong as the initial cut was, the producers, Edson and Michael felt it might be helpful to have another set of eyes on the project. It was important that not only the cut be finished in time for Sundance but that everyone felt confident that we had tried everything we could with the footage. I worked with producer Jason Berman on the Netflix film IO so he knew my collaborative nature would be a great fit for Edson and Michael. He knew the three of us would make a great team.

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?

Taylor: My first editing on Nine Days was not the assembly, but the many little POV stories which populate the 30 televisions the main character, Will, watches throughout the film. We shot 9 days in Salt Lake City using our primary DP Wyatt Garfield, as well as nearly the same number of days with satellite shoots in Brazil and Los Angeles, and I had four weeks to get these POV images ready for live playback on the televisions. Eventually I needed to come to Salt Lake City to lock these sequences with Edson, and by the time we started principal photography in early August, we still had many POV and projection sequences unfinished. At this point I started assembling scenes from the principal shoot five days a week, and when they weren’t shooting Edson and I continued to edit POV and projection images needed further down the shoot. Eventually associate editor Zack Boger arrived in Salt Lake, and he was instrumental in finalizing the last group of projection images used in dreamlike sequences that appear in the film.

Once the overall assembly was done, my goal was to fine tune the story-telling, while bringing the film from four hours to under two. It was crucial to Edson and myself that the characters remain vivid and that their arcs be enhanced as we trimmed material out of the film.

One of our big goals was showing the humanity within Winston Duke’s character of Will. Winston gave a big, powerful performance, and we needed to find ways to get inside his character, so that we would better understand his actions throughout the film.

At the same time, we needed to balance Will’s story with that of his friend Kyo, played by Benedict Wong, and the contestants, Kane, Emma, Mike, Alex and Maria.

Betancourt: There were three elements we really tried to refine. Will’s character, the tone, and world building.

As Michael mentioned, our protagonist Will is a complex character. Winston Duke gave this amazing performance that enabled us to really hold back on some exposition and dialogue. He has a mysterious past and it was fun figuring out how much information to give the audience and what to hold back.

Tone was also tricky to refine. We did a cut where we held back some of the more lyrical elements that initially didn’t seem critical to the story but we found that by removing them the tone really shifted and became surprisingly dark. We were then able to add some of the elements back to find the perfect tone. Having two editors really allowed to experiment like this and to make bold choices.

Finally, world building proved to be an interesting challenge. Nine Days has takes place in a unique world with its own rules and mythology. We were constantly asking ourselves how much did we need to explain to the audience and how much could they figure out on their own. We experimented a lot with ADR and insert shots. We ran into an interesting dilemma. We found that the more we explained things the MORE the audience wanted explained. It was a never ending cycle and so in the end we had to trust our own instincts on what the audience needed to understand in order to get emotionally invested and how much would only raise more questions. We learned to lean into the more lyrical aspects of the story and let the emotion carry the day.

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

Taylor: Edson and I talked about each scene extensively, and we tried structural changes as we went along. Once the film was at a watchable point we started having feedback screenings. These were mostly made up of friends and family, and each one helped the film get to another stage. We felt the film was so rough at the first screening that we skipped having a questionnaire and only had a discussion afterwards. After that one we used a questionnaire to accurately gauge the audience’s response. Ultimately we held about 4 screenings in New York and 2 in Los Angeles. Editor Jeff Betancourt joined us for the last screenings and the last month of picture editing. His input as someone fresh to the film was invaluable.

Betancourt: During the first week I joined the project, Edson and Michael encouraged me to take stab at cutting alternate versions of various scenes. Not only did this allow me to learn the material in a meaningful way but it allowed them to view scenes from a fresh perspective. It can be a scary part of the process but Michael and Edson are not only very confident filmmakers but also very open to new ideas. It was a real joy. Once that first week was complete, Michael and I would take turns on the Avid. Experimenting. Discussing various approaches to scenes.

We held weekly friends and family screenings. It was a lot of work to pull them together but it really allowed us to hone in on the tone of the piece. You can really feel when an audience is engaged or when they’ve lost the emotional thread.

Inevitably, you can’t make every audience member happy or answer all of their questions but we could really focus on that emotional through line. The producers were very supportive throughout this process. Ultimately we’d gage the progress of the cut by how emotional the payoff was at the end of the film. The better the ending worked, we knew we had done good work building up to it and vice versa.

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

Taylor: I was a script supervisor for 17 years, working with directors such as Ang Lee, Todd Solondz, Kenneth Lonergan, Marc Forster and Julie Taymor on award-winning films. I realized at a certain point that I really wanted to be an editor, and immediately signed up for an editing class. It took a few years before I could support myself as an editor, but I was fortunate to have films start to be accepted at festivals such as Slamdance, Sundance and Cannes, and that led to the career I have now. Walter Murch has always been my biggest influence. I believe in combing through the takes over and over to find the best material, and I love it when I find something I wasn’t looking for. This is why I don’t use programs like Script Sync to find exact lines of dialog – I would rather jump to the lines myself, with the hope that I might find something else as well. The journey is just as important at the destination.

Betancourt: I was very very lucky early in my career. I graduated from USC film school and an actress friend called me and said a director friend was looking for an editor for a micro budget film. I knew how to use the Avid and was happy for the chance. I think I made little more than gas money and worked some 20 hour days… but it was well worth the experience. That film was Star Maps and the director was Miguel Arteta. It ended up premiering at Sundance and getting distribution. All of a sudden I had a career as an editor. I didn’t make much money for a long time but at least I was working. Miguel and I had a string of Sundance films that I will always be very proud of including Chuck and Buck and The Good Girl. I always consider those early films my real film school as Miguel and I really pushed each other and pushed the material as well. I learned to never give up until the emotion and story were really working.

I’ve been lucky enough to work on films Sam Raimi produced and I learned a lot from him. No matter what the scope and scale, Sam is always focused on characters and story. In the editing room, Sam always likes to periodically review the first editor’s assembly and the first director’s cut. It’s a small thing but it’s come in handy a lot. Sometimes you lose track of those early cuts and there is often great material there that has been forgotten. There might have been something fresh or honest there. It’s worth reviewing them especially as you get close to locking. Even if you don’t take anything from them, sometimes they are a nice reminder that you’ve been doing good work and are on the right track!

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

Taylor: After many years of being a loyal Final Cut user, I switched full time to Avid in the fall of 2016. I had used Avid on and off since the beginning of my editing career, but it was only in the last few years that Avid introduced certain features, such as being able to enable and disable video and audio, that made me fully comfortable with the program. I love the program’s capabilities and cannot really imagine using a different platform. (As I write this I am recutting a documentary on Premiere – it gets the job done, but it’s no Avid.)

Betancourt: I learned Avid in film school and it’s been what I’ve used ever since. It’s just second nature to me at this point and I know it makes the assistant editor’s job much easier.

During the final week on Nine Days we had four Avids going in order to finish temp VFX, etc, and the systems held up very well.

I don’t carry settings from show to show. I find each show presents its own challenges and I like that Avid allows you to customize what you require for any particular film. For most films I’m able to keep the Avid tracks from 16 to 20 max…but because of all the televisions we carried something like 80 audio tracks and Avid did a great job.

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

Taylor: The opening montage was most challenging, because we needed to learn information about a character who lives in the world of POV shots and is hardly seen after this, and the person watching the sequence. In the end, editor Jeff Betancourt contributed some great ideas on how to best balance the scene, leading to a day of very productive reshoots.

Betancourt: I agree with Michael. The opening really was one of the biggest challenges. We’re setting up the world and introducing two very important characters. Will and Amandaone of the people he’s selected.

How much information should we give? When should Will be revealed to the audience?

In the end we ended up finding a nice balance of mystery and set up…all while building an emotional, lyrical opening to the film. I thinks it’s one of the last things we locked.

We also had Antonio Pinto’s beautiful score so we knew we wouldn’t be able to mess it up too much!

Filmmaker: What role did VFX work, or compositing, or other post-production techniques play in terms of the final edit?

Taylor: This was the most VFX intensive film I’ve worked on. Luckily, I had associate editor Zack Boger as well as post production supervisor Kwesi Collison to keep a handle on where we were with each shot. Zack did a great job with early composites, and later on we received superb shots from our VFX supervisor George Loucas.

Betancourt: I echo what Michael says. We couldn’t have pulled off the VFX in the film without our amazing team. And many of the VFX are designed to be invisible. If you notice them we haven’t really done our jobs.

In the desert scenes, we had to ensure that we erased any sign of the real world. Tire tracks, cars in the background, insects…and by the nature of filmmaking we had to change what was playing on many of the televisions the characters watch.

These VFX aren’t “sexy” per se but were very much needed for you to buy into this world. The work was very demanding and I’ll always be grateful for our VFX team.

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?

Taylor: I actually came to better understand the film, and the arc of the central character, Will, while we were still filming in Salt Lake City. It came from a series of close-ups of Winston Duke, who plays Will, which we shot late one night. Those shots unlocked the whole film for me, and from that point on it was just continuing to develop that character through to the end.

Betancourt: As a filmmaker, I often strive for clarity. I often want to communicate specific ideas and emotions to an audience. But by the end of this process of cutting Nine Days I learned a lot about letting go.

By the end of the process, I was very happy with the amount of information we reveal about Will’s past and how it affects his every decision. Once I locked onto this, it changed how I viewed every line in the film and every interaction he has with other characters. If you watch the film carefully, almost every line has a multiple meanings…one for the character saying the line and one for what it reveals about Will. You don’t need to understand this during your initial viewing but I think it brings a real depth to the material.

That’s how the film works for me anyway…but because we aren’t explicate with the information we reveal, I think audience members will be able to enjoy their own emotional response. Each viewer will be able to take their own experience with them and I’m always fascinated by people’s response and interpretation. It’s very rare to experience this in modern American film. I’m so lucky to have been a part of this.

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