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“A Portrait So Specific and Singular in Time”: Editors Katharine McQuerrey and Anthony Valdez on El Planeta

El Planeta

Amalia Ulman’s El Planeta is a modern day picaresque, following a young fashion student and her mother as they grift their way into small riches amid the backdrop of post-financial crisis Spain. The film explores consumerism, gendered expectations, and class with devilish humor. Editors Katharine McQuerrey and Anthony Valdez discuss bringing the city of Gijón to life and the difficulty of making a Skype call feel urgent and real.

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?

McQuerrey: I met Amalia through [producer and Filmmaker Editor-in-Chief] Scott Macaulay, who said she was looking for a Spanish-speaking editor, or an editor who would be interested in cutting a Spanish-language film. Amalia and I met in person at a small café in the Lower East Side to discuss the script and her process in making the film (she had already shot the film in Gijón when we met—so it was “in the can”). We also discussed Amalia’s work, and my work on both traditional narrative films, as well as my work with artists who were working with narrative form. I think we felt a kinship, so we talked about my coming on in a “supervising” role of sorts.

Valdez: My background as an editor is in video art, therefore Amalia and I have a lot of friends in common in that field. Amalia asked Marco Roso, from the collective DIS Magazine, if he knew any Spanish speaking editors in New York and he suggested me. Amalia and I had crossed paths many times but never met each other properly and she didn’t know I was an editor. We knew each other from living in LA and being a part of various art events. I once had to livestream a conversation between her and David Lynch.

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?

McQuerrey: I didn’t start editing until Anthony and Amalia put together an assembly edit. I watched all of the dailies while they cut, getting to know the footage, and then received the assembly cut. I then made a “pass” of the film, trying to bring out story, mostly the relationship and connections between mother and daughter and incorporate the city of Gijón more as a character. After my pass of the edit, Amalia and I went back and forth with Anthony making trims, refining scenes, adjusting music and scenes where we could. After our first audience screening some story points were unclear, and from that cut on, we focused on bringing out more story and emotion.

Valdez: Based on conversations between Amalia, Katie and I, It was important for the film to feel raw without getting too caught up on any conceptual dogma about realism or stylization. Specifically the dramaturgical and revealing nature of the wider and mid shots makes everything feel laid bare, and because I guess you could call the film a portrait or the two protagonists, of Gijón, of the artist and her mother, It was important that the film stay there, at that medium to wide perspective as much as possible. 

To her credit, Amalia as a director really planned for this, there was no “shot reverse shot” in the footage. Even in small spaces she got reasonably wide. From a technical perspective I wanted to avoid any cutaways or closeups that didn’t add meaning or reveal something. 

At the same time we wanted to avoid any heavy handed references to the editing itself—the way a conceptual video piece or French New Wave cinema does so well. I think as two people who make and edit video art, but consume a lot of film and narrative,  It was a godsend for Amalia and I to have Katie become involved. She was able to take our austere artistic impulses and refine them for film.

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

McQuerrey: We paper cut some of the longer dialogue scenes, we used jump cuts, both noticeable and hidden, we brought in “insert” shots, we reordered scene placements, and yes, audience screenings. After our first friends and family screening, it was clear where we needed to work on story and pacing issues, meaning most of the audience had similar issues.

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

McQuerrey: I had been a dancer and writer in college and thought I wanted to be a journalist (I thought it would be more lucrative and stable than being an avant-garde modern dancer!). After college, I continued to dance for small companies, and found a paying job writing script coverage and working in development. After working in development, I worked as an archival researcher for a documentary film and worked closely with an editor on a film about music. I loved seeing how much the film changed, and how editing so beautifully merged both writing and movement, music, dance, and it became clear to me that I wanted to pursue picture editing. In terms of influence, I have many, and I still feel like I am learning the art all of the time. I learned a tremendous amount from Joel and Ethan Coen, and with most directors I work with. I also attribute my ability to really watch and analyze movement and pay attention to rhythm to my years of dance study.

Valdez: The artwork of Ryan Trecartin is what made me fall in love with editing, I saw his work in school and was lucky enough to eventually work with him. His artwork is the editing—it’s chaotic and rhythmic like a music video—but is also as loaded, as any important philosophical text that requires multiple readings.

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

McQuerrey: We worked on Premiere, and it was because Amalia and Anthony both work in Premiere. It worked well for a low budget remote workflow during COVID.

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

McQuerrey: The longer scenes with no coverage, but longer dialogue, e.g. the Skype scene and possibly the dinner scene. Mostly because of the choices in dialogue and our lack of ability to control timing because of the limited coverage. If you have seen the film, many scenes are shot in their entirety in one shot, which gives the film the realism that makes it so beautiful. But this doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t edited! We often used split screen/picture in pictures and warp edits to control the timing of the dialogue. We also deliberated the final scene/end of the film, both endings were really powerful but put a slightly different emphasis to the story. We had gone back and forth and in the end, the ending is this ending! It’s hard when both choices are good… choices are easier when one is clearly wrong.

Valdez: For me the dinner date scene felt important as sort of a long shot—it needed to feel staccato and as awkward as those dates are, but there was no full take. Editing the scene with detail shots was easy enough but it lost its potency, so this was one particular case where I thought stylistically as a practical choice, to enhance the tone of the scene from a storytelling perspective, rather than a formal one.

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

McQuerrey: We used a number of “morph” edits for small fixes for timing and rhythmic purposes. Amalia often uses the “default” effects in a particular software, and she created very specific wipes and transitions for this film. It is rare to see wipes used in film, we mostly see them in highly stylized films, music videos or films like Star Wars. Ironically, because Amalia incorporates the “argot” of the software and uses default “choices” to a particular software, it doesn’t easily translate between softwares, and so what look like a rather prosaic effects, turned out to be the most complicated in terms of replicating from Premiere to finishing softwares.

Valdez: During one scene there is a conversation over Skype. The performances are amazing but because one particular actor is actually on Skype there was a disconnect in terms of cadence and energy. And although there are traditional cuts, Katie and I worked together to composite footage and erase jump cuts in a way that feels seamless.

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?

McQuerrey: These are GREAT questions. I read the script before COVID and I loved how Amalia addressed economic and gender issues in such an intimate, comedic and “artful” way. As we started cutting, the world was thrust into the pandemic and the film addresses so many of the issues that became glaringly stark during the pandemic. The feelings of isolation, economic insecurity and the fear and shame that come with that. I don’t think there’s a way to watch a film today without equating it to our current predicament, and the more I watched the film, the more I appreciated the way that it captures the issues in our society, not in any pedantic way, but with humor and empathy. Amalia had such a strong vision that the essence of the film was there from the start, but the more I watched the film the more humor I saw in it. Also, I’m an editor, so if you give me one or two shots to “cover”  a scene, and I feel trapped… I can’t manipulate the timing (except for “tricky” effects), but the more I watch the film the more I love the fact that it doesn’t cut. That the cuts that exist in the film are forceful and meaningful and that we get to watch human interaction happen. Filmmakers often attempt to achieve this, and Amalia has. I want to add that the beautiful sound environment that Toni de Benito created after we locked picture added so much life and context to the film and it was a joy to work through the sound edit and design with him.

Valdez: In El Planeta Amalia really created a portrait so specific and singular in time and place that it becomes universal.

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