“The Subjects in Our Film Brought a Lot of Life Back to My World”: Editor Hannah Buck on Searchers
Dating’s complicated arc during the pandemic has been lovingly captured in Pacho Velez’s documentary Searchers. Whether on Grindr, Tinder, or any other app, the question “what are you looking for?” varies from person to person amid the chaos of mid-COVID New York City. Editor Hannah Buck addresses the challenge of introducing the director as a subject of the film and the value of mediated experiences.
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?
Buck: In 2019 I was the consulting editor on Pacho and Courtney Stephens’ film The American Sector. Over the course of that film we got to know each other’s process and collaborative style. We worked really well together and I think when you form a good collaboration it makes you want to make more work with that person so that lead to this project.
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?
Buck: The film is about people looking for connection through online dating apps and from the first assembly it was palpable how the film could mimic the feeling of swiping from one profile to the next, so that is something we wanted to maintain in the final cut.
In terms of other goals, we knew early on that the film would be chaptered vignettes of people with minimal editing happening within each chapter. We weren’t sure if we would return to any characters, or have everyone appear only once. Given these potential formal constraints one of the big questions we dealt with was how to structure a meaningful arc without relying on a plot or much of a storyline.
I also knew that if Pacho was going to be in the film, which we were discussing but were yet to shoot, then that would raise questions as to if and how that would work within the film. Would this be what drives the arc of the film? Would Pacho’s scenes be similar to our other characters or different? Would there be voice over, or maybe he only has an off camera presence?
Another interesting takeaway from the first assembly viewing was how it positioned me as the viewer. Because the film’s subjects are shot looking directly into the camera, with an overlay of the app profile they are browsing, it gives the viewer a sense of being inside the app looking out. There were moments where I felt I was the person in the profile that was being assessed and judged and it made me experience a kind of self-consciousness that was interesting. So that was something I wanted to explore more through the edit.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Buck: The footage could be broken into two initial categories. These categories were essentially “action” and “reflection,” and this in part determined the structure our first assembly. The first half of our assembly was people using the apps; browsing, setting up profiles, writing messages, and the second half was people reflecting more on their experiences; anecdotes about dating, how the apps make them feel, that kind of thing. Essentially this gave us a starting point to develop a thematic arc. Beyond these two main categories, we had grouped a lot of different topics, from sexy stuff like one night stands, sex parties, and Viagra, to the plethora of references to dogs in dating profiles. The edit was ultimately driven by the emotional experience of the film, beginning with a hopefulness, potential, and excitement about finding that special someone, and ending with… well, a glimmer of hope.
One of the trickiest things to get right was the balance of Pacho’s character in the film. It’s always challenging when the filmmaker is a character in the film but this is made easier when the director is open to the process of trying different things, which Pacho was. We tried various things—there were cuts that had voice over but we found that it really didn’t fit tonally with the rest of the film. We knew having Pacho in the film could provide a journey or forward momentum for the film but we didn’t want to be heavy handed about it. We tried various cuts with very little of him in the film and the feedback was often “we want more.” We tried to fulfill this by finding off camera dialogue, questions that revealed something of Pacho’s character but were more like breadcrumbs than obvious exposition. Together with this we included shots of Pacho in b-roll as he was out recording sounds in the city. I think this helped us avoid him coming across as a disembodied, mostly audio voice.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Buck: I taught myself editing through an interest in video art and I think that has remained an influence through my work in film. I got into documentary filmmaking when I cut Terence Nance’s film Triptych. I really enjoyed pairing my interest in video art with storytelling. That first film was a particularly chaotic process, which I loved, and where I learnt to trust my instincts, but I later learnt to organize the chaos better through assisting some very experienced editors. I think mentorship has been an incredibly valuable part of my career and something I will always try to engage with and provide for others.
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Buck: I go between Avid and Premiere but this project was fairly straightforward in terms of material—no archival, not a lot of different sources or elements. I find I can move a bit quicker in Premiere for a project like this. I was also working remotely with Pacho sending projects back and forth and Premiere made more sense for that.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Buck: The most important scene with Pacho was his first direct to camera appearance. This is when the audience meets him for the first time and realizes that the filmmaker will also be a subject in the film. As they say in the dating world, first impressions count! It was important that he came across as likeable and more importantly, vulnerable like the rest of the characters in the film. It can be incredibly challenging to relax and be candid for the camera when you are also the director and thinking about what you need for your film. The results can often seem rehearsed or forced the more you attempt it. We ended up using the earliest material we had of Pacho for this reason. It was the most natural and I think audiences are very attuned to anything vaguely scripted. I also liked that he was a little self-deprecating, a quality I think goes a long way in any kind of personal film.
Filmmaker: What role did VFX work, or compositing, or other post-production techniques play in terms of the final edit?
Buck: The subjects were filmed as they browsed profiles on their dating apps. When I received the footage it came as two synced camera layers—one of the interview subject, and one that captured the app screen as they were using it. This overlay would record all the profiles that they were responding to. This was a useful element to have, and we explored different ways of using it. What did it mean to see the profile layer versus seeing only the characters narration of the profile? We tried cuts where there was a lot more visible information in the overlay and we noticed that it could interfere with the audience’s ability to connect with our characters, so we stripped it back significantly. I also found it helped pronounce poignant moments in the film by having it come and go at specific moments. For example, this was helpful in teasing out those moments of self-consciousness I mentioned earlier. When that overlay layer is absent and the subject is looking directly at you the audience, it helped create that sense of you yourself being evaluated. The opening scene is one of my favorites in the film and I love the way that the character really leans into the camera and it sets this tone of being looked at for the rest of the film.
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?
Buck: We started collaborating on this film in early 2020. By mid-March we were in a pandemic and the idea of meeting new people, going on dates, or even seeing our friends and family very quickly got put on hold. The subject of our film—connection or lack thereof—quickly became a major theme for many more people across the city and across the world. New York felt very different and I felt very disconnected from the people in the city and life around me. The streets went very quiet for a period, everyone’s faces were covered and we were trying to distance from one another. So I was thinking a lot about connection and the need for it throughout making the film. I found that the material really bought me closer to the city during this period. The subjects in our film brought a lot of life back to my world. I found so much humanity in these characters and it reminded me of what the city is like. While we all miss those face to face interactions, this mediated experience of these other humans was really important for me. I think the apps (and films) provide that for a lot of people, regardless of whether it ends up in a real world connection or not. Sometimes the mediated experience is enough in and of itself.