“The Whole Team Really Came Together in an Amazing Way”: Editor Jeff Boyette on Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir
The late James Redford’s final film, Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir, follows the Joy Luck Club author as she unpacks her legacy and lineage, contending with chronic illness, intergenerational trauma, and her relationship with her mother. Editor Jeff Boyette describes the emotionally taxing experience of editing the film after Redford’s passing and the power of Tan’s story.
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?
Boyette: I ended up editing this film based on my long relationship with the director, Jamie Redford, combined with some accrued experience editing feature length docs. I meant Jamie 10 years ago when I was a staff editor at Remedy Editorial in San Francisco where he finished a few films. I was able to assist and do some additional editing on his projects, and then went on to edit a number of shorter projects for Jamie after I went freelance—DVD special features, trailers, that sort of thing. Eventually, after I had some experience co-editing and editing a few feature docs with other directors, it worked out that I was available when Jamie needed an editor to help finish his HBO doc Happening. It was a great experience for both of us. Soon after he asked me to edit his film Playing for Keeps, which turned out to be the launching pad for the Amy Tan film.
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?
Boyette: From the start we knew the central story arc was the evolution of Amy’s relationship with her mother. There are many other aspects of her life, but the relationship with her mother was clearly the impetus for much her writing and a major reason her work resonates with so many people. So I knew everything else had to be in service of that story. As we incorporated other aspects of her life we wanted to balance them against her experiences as a child, and her evolving connection to her mother. For instance she expresses a lot of anxiety about being in the public eye. This was a parallel to her anxieties caused by the high expectations her parents had for her as a child. And as she overcame these anxieties as an adult she was able to find more closure with her mother. Feedback viewings were critical to getting this balance right. Across the board when we showed the rough cut to people outside the team we heard that the least successful scenes were the ones that had the least to do with Amy’s mother. In a way this was a compliment that the core story was working so well it did not need to be buffeted with some of the other aspects of Amy’s life.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Boyette: Really we had an embarrassment of riches to draw from in the edit. In addition to the incredibly intimate and emotional interviews that Jamie conducted, we drew heavily from Amy’s two memoirs and a couple speaking events. We had both memoirs as audiobooks recorded by Amy herself. Her second memoir, Where the Past Begins, was our through line. I started with a chronological assembly of Amy’s interviews, structured around a story arc Jamie and I discussed on day one. I made a matching chronological assembly with all the interviews with other participants—Amy’s brother, her best friend, etc. Then we had an additional assembly for each memoir. Anytime we had a hole in the story, or needed a better interpretation we were able draw from the audio books—which Amy later rerecorded for us. Similarly we returned repeatedly to two speaking events where she recounts part of story in a different context. Again this helped us fill in parts of the story, while varying the way information is conveyed. Plus these events show us a different side of her personality and gave a glimpse into Amy’s real life. We don’t just see her speak at these events we also see her signing books, heading out to the car, little things that eventually combine to show the hectic pace going from event to event.
And throughout the process we were getting loads of archival material directly from Amy including tons of home video going back to the ’80s, and some from a family friend of the original Joy Luck Club in the 60s and 70s. I used this archival both to illustrate the narrative, but also to break up interview driven sections to a give little breaths of vérité.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Boyette: As a teenager I was obsessed with photography. Somehow that bridged over to taking a video class where I got a little taste of editing. That prompted me to go into the film program at SFSU. I kept gravitating towards editing and ended up with an internship at a post house doing mostly corporate video work, but also getting to meet and work with a lot of doc filmmakers including Jamie. And I’ve just built on those early connections for the last eight years as a freelancer. I have a ton of gratitude for each director I’ve worked with and they each have left a mark on my approach.
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Boyette: I worked in Premiere Pro. I learned to edit on Final Cut Pro. When Apple abandoned the old FCP, I quickly learned Premiere. I have worked in Avid a couple times, but the media workflow in Premiere makes way more sense to me given my background in Final Cut. Plus, there are a ton of tools in Premiere that I find much more intuitive than Avid. Adobe has been improving the software dramatically over the years, so I expect it will only get better.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Boyette: No individual scene stands out as a particular challenge, but there was a section of the film from about two-thirds in until the last 10 minutes that I spent in inordinate amount of time on. It is the section dealing with the later part of Amy’s career. Since we built the story around Amy’s relationship with her mother, we had to save some keys moments of closure until near the end of the film, but in reality a lot happened in Amy’s life after her mother passed away in the late ‘90s. So it was a delicate balance of saving the key emotional moments without making the chronology confusing. In the first rough cut, I messed with the chronology too much, thinking certain scenes had to play next to each other to make sense. Once I realized I could break up certain scenes without losing their meaning, I was able to make things work chronologically without revealing too much to spoil the key emotional climax. I guess this is a reminder to never hold too strongly to any choice even if it made sense earlier in the process.
Filmmaker: What role did VFX work, or compositing, or other post-production techniques play in terms of the final edit?
Boyette: One important part of post process that might go overlooked was the extensive touching up of the archival photos. We used around 150 stills. Some were quite old and had been damaged over time. We had someone do touch up work on all the digitized photos. That might seem minor, but it was a meticulous process and had a big impact on the visual quality of the film. And Jamie decided early on to work with an animator to create abstract visualizations of scenes that needed more than archival imagery. This allowed us to take the visual story telling to a whole other level.
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?
Boyette: It’s hard to answer that question without talking about the loss of our director Jamie Redford. Jamie died shortly before we finished our final cut. This was a huge loss on so many levels and it made the process of finishing extremely emotional, but also extremely significant for everyone involved. We were all very proud to be a part of Jamie’s last film and felt a special devotion to getting it done right. The whole team really came together in an amazing way. The process really reflected Jamie’s talent for bringing people together in a way that made them happy and excited to be a part of the work. Thinking back on this now has made me really appreciate the delicate human-to-human relationships at the core of what we do. Having a positive and supportive environment to work in makes a huge difference, and that has to be cultivated. And I know Jamie would be extremely proud of how the finished film turned out.