“These Girls Say So Much with their Faces”: Director/Editor Parker Hill on Cusp
Parker Hill and Isabel Bettencourt’s Cusp embeds itself with a trio of teenage girls, all sustaining best friends, over the course of a long, alcohol-sodden rural Texas summer. Relationships come and go, but cycles of systemic sexual abuse and misogyny structure the lives of its indefatigable protagonists. Hill, who also served as Cusp’s editor, discusses the project’s winnowing down, working with a consulting editor and learning to let go of footage.
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?
Hill: Impatience, stubbornness, and determination, I guess. Editing this film was in some ways a very long process, yet I still feel like we were just getting started. Isabel and I were a two-woman show on this film—for the longest time, there was no one else on board. I would edit our samples and teasers for various grants, and Izzy would gather things we liked and wanted to play with. At first we needed a 10-min teaser for a grant, then 15, then 30, then 40, then we got into the IFP Edit Lab and they required a full cut, so we just kept going from there. We wanted to work with an experienced verite doc editor, but so many editors we found were busy, and wouldn’t become available for 6 months or more, and we just didn’t want to wait. We knew the 200 hours of footage incredibly well, and it just made sense to us that we keep with it. We worked with an amazing consulting editor, Katrina Taylor, who really provided us with a structure to the process, and helped us hone in on the parts of the footage we were the most drawn to. In the final couple months of the edit we also worked with the incredibly talented Fiona Otway, who whooped my ass into shape and helped us clarify so much. This is a multiple character verite doc that also looks at a world and Fiona was instrumental in making the character’s stories weave seamlessly between each other and work together for the same 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?
Hill: As one of the directors of the film and the lead editor, it’s hilarious to think that the biggest thing that has probably changed from our first assembly to now is the amount that Izzy and I were in the film. The first cut had so much of our voices, and you could feel us trying so hard to steer the story because we were so worried no one would get the ideas that we saw. The second major cut had less of our voices but felt more like a survey of a topic, not a story. Throughout this process one of my biggest lessons was learning to trust the verite footage. These girls say so much with their faces, their expressions, their body language, their actions, and what’s more is that we even shot the film in an almost entirely observational way. It took many months, but we figured out how to lean in to that, and with the help of collaborators like Fiona, the film says so much but (hopefully) feels all in pursuit of a story.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Hill: It’s hard to pinpoint how the final film got distilled into itself, but there was one exercise that our consulting editor Katrina Taylor suggested we try that became very formative to our process. There was a time in the edit when we knew each girl’s story arc, but we had all these other scenes we loved that we wanted in the film, and felt that they said so much for the greater story. Katrina suggested that we make these long string outs in a timeline, separated by girl, one for “Moments” and one for “Emotions.” We watched them down together (over Zoom) and we learned so much. Some of these “emotions” were just, like, a girl staring into fire for 90 seconds, but it was so moving. This really taught us how each of the girls were captured, how they’re all different, how their actions and behaviors in some of these “not-so-plot heavy” moments showed so much about their character. This really helped us figure out what we wanted to use and what we could start to leave behind as we worked towards another cut.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Hill: I learned how to use Final Cut Pro in high school, and I’ve cut everything I’ve written or directed since. It’s just how I got into filmmaking. Some people picked up a camera, I’ve just been editing.
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Hill: We used Premiere Pro. It was incredibly easy and helpful with a multiple person team.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Hill: The most difficult section/scene of the film to cut was definitely the introductions to each of the characters. This part has probably had the most versions of itself. We wanted to introduce the three main characters in a roll-call fashion, which proved to be quite challenging. You want them to stand out and be individuals but the roll-call was meant to show that they’re a part of the same world and facing similar challenges. It took several iterations to get the right combination of clarity and personality into them. Fiona was instrumental in making these intros work. They’re also incredibly music dependent, and so we were collaborating with our composer, T. Griffin, in real time before picture lock to make this section the most of itself.
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?
Hill: So much of this process was just Izzy and I. We were filming with our subjects, then coming home and editing, and going back. So for a while the film was kind of getting made in a vacuum, which has its pros and cons–there’s definitely a purity to that process, but we were also attached to so much of the footage because we love the girls and had so much to say. The film has taken on a different meaning for me in stages as we’ve widened our team. Once we started working with other collaborators, I think the gravity of some of the subject matter began to sink in in a new way. Having to talk about the story with people that weren’t there and don’t know the girls like Izzy and I do has been so immensely informative to me. It’s helped me see how other people will see the film, how it’s my job at times to help people see what we know about the girls, how it’s also my job to let go, and let other people bring their own perspective to the story.