“Chaotic Comedy and Intense Action”: Editor Zach Passero on First Date
Hearkening back to coming-of-age movies like Superbad, Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp’s First Date feels comfortingly familiar as both a thriller and a comedy. After buying a questionable ’65 Chrysler, Mike’s (Tyson Brown) first date with Kelsey (Shelby Duclos) snowballs into an epic night of cop chases, criminals, and cat ladies. Editor Zach Passero explains how they snipped a nearly three hour cut down while preserving the movie’s irrepressible personality.
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the editor of your film?
Passero: I came onboard after Darren and Manuel had edited a 2 hour 45 minute cut. They were looking to bring in some fresh eyes to tighten up the structure and dial the pacing into a more digestible running time for an audience. Lucky and Charles recommended I watch their cut to see what I thought.
I was instantly impressed with the scope of the film, and its spirit. It felt fresh, but comfortingly familiar, if only from my own high school adventures. In that assembly, I could see all of the pieces of a fun, juggernaut experience. What they had pulled off was impressive. I wanted to be a part of helping Darren and Manuel putting that vision out there in the best way possible.
Filmmaker: What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
Passero: Lucky and I are old friends and collaborators. I have been editing his films for over a decade. When he recommended me to Darren and Manuel as an editor, I was honored and excited.
Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were goals as an editor?
Passero: The initial assembly, while long, had these jolts of energy and life that made the film so fun—character moments, action moments, comedy, and an underlying spine of how a day or night can just take on a life of its own, especially when you are a teenager. Every character in the film is a piece of an intricate web of cause and effect, but the film is still Mike’s film.
I loved the challenge of helping dial in all of these characters, situations, and energy but making sure that in the end, it was still Mike’s film.
I’m also a sucker for that up-all-night, best-laid-plans-gone-wrong genre. It was a genre I hadn’t had an opportunity to work in. That was really exciting to me.
Filmmaker: What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?
Passero: One of the challenges was to preserve the sweetness of the central teenager-with-a-crush story while navigating it through the chaotic comedy and intense action of how life around him is out of his control. There’s a runaway vehicle feel that the film needed at core that the audience had be able to feel without losing that sympathy with Mike, nor the great comedy that was a large part of the story and characters. Those tonal shifts had a pretty delicate balance to be struck.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals?
Passero: From the get-go, these elements were there in the story. Even in the assembly I saw, there were large sections that just leapt to life with energy—the early awkward comic moments with Mike and his buddy, insane off-the-rails action moments like the final shootout.
The challenge became weaving the pacing and balancing out the characters and scenes while keeping the story moving forward—building the energy of that “ride” that you just have to hang on to until it stops.
I felt like a large part of this would come with getting the film into a nice, tight running time where you feel like more happens in less time without really losing any story beats.
Filmmaker: What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings al lowed this work to occur?
Passero: My first edit pass was what I call a “devil’s advocate” cut. Super tight; shorter than Darren and Manuel had ever wanted the film to be. Each scene ran on just the necessities and then moved on.
I always feel like this is a conversational way to shake the brain loose—look at the film in a different extreme that allows us to start to really assess what is working and what is needed versus what old ideas and expectations are attempting to dictate.
From there we sat down together and just really looked at each scene—moving through seeing what was necessary to tell the story, construct the characters and interconnections, and keep the energy moving in a way that would feel like the night probably felt to Mike.
What I love most about this part of the process is how it got the running time down by an hour without it feeling like less was happening in the film. No chunks of plot were lifted or lost, but so much more is happening in less time. It think it really plays to the manic energy of the story.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Passero: I’ve had the privilege of working with one of my best friends editing his films for over a decade. Lucky and I have known one another since film school. We worked on one another’s projects starting there, and that has continued since for almost 30 years.
I first started editing for him on Red. That was an experience that came to full fruition on The Woman. We’ve developed a creative collaborative shorthand over the years that continues to this day.
Fortunately, the group of friends in our collaborative universe has expanded over the years. From that, I’ve had the opportunity to edit other great projects with great friends old and new. It’s all something I’m really grateful for.
I’m always finding new influences to my work as an editor. The influences come from all types of art, not just cinema—fine art, music, and animation as well. But there are definitely staple influences—the editing in late ’60s and early ’70s cinema, especially the work of Dede Allen and Thelma Schoonmaker.
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Passero: I edited on Premiere Pro on a Mac Pro workstation. It’s my go-to. Premiere is easy to use, intuitive and un-convoluted. The workflow can be as simple or complicated as you want it to make it. The pipeline going to visual effects, sound design, and color correction is seamless, even when going outside of Adobe products in those areas.
And the Mac Pro is just a beautiful, trusty workhorse.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Passero: The most difficult scenes were the hilltop melee and the final car chase.
The hilltop melee is the first point in the film where things really take a dark turn. It’s also a little taste of the big action set piece that will come at the end of the film. Up until that point, the film has such a comic vibe, that making that tonal shift without it seeming completely out of character for the film was a challenge.
The final car chase just had so many elements careening toward their landing. All of the personalities of the characters and plot points or the film hauling ass to the finale. Trying to make sure they all paced out right was a lot of fun.
Filmmaker: What role did VFX work, or compositing, or other post-production techniques play in terms of the final edit?
Passero: There are a surprising amount of “unsuspecting” composites in the film, used to mix takes and performances of single characters. It was something that Manuel and Darren had fully embraced from the get-go. That was fun to get into.
All other VFX work was largely supplementation to as many practical effects could be done on set as possible. All of it was a nice mix.
The situation was unique. I have a bit of an animation and VFX background, so I got to do all of the visual effects work in the film—over 150 shots. What was nice was as editor, I could do the VFX pulls, work the VFX, and put them back into the scene to see how they were playing fairly efficiently. From there I’d make more tweaks and then send them out to Darren and Manuel for their notes.
During the edit, knowing how the visual effects would be approached on my end, it was easier to pre-visualize how long slugs or plates in the edit needed to be for pacing—instead of having to guess, conference, or leave too much leeway.
When we got to the DI, we were all under the same roof, so if anything looked out of place or wildly different once in corrected space, or just projected onto big screen canvas, I could go back up to my studio, adjust a bit, then send it back down to the DI. It was a really streamlined process.
Filmmaker: Finally, now that the process is over, what new meanings has the film taken on for you?
Passero: I think the thing that sticks out to me most now, with a little time and perspective, is the personality of the film. It feels strangely safe and endearing despite the criminals, insanity, and consequences in the story. Much like an all night adventure as a teenager might feel.
Filmmaker: 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 under standing that you began with?
The thing that struck me working with Darren and Manuel was just how meticulously they had woven the characters’ cause and effect together. The fun challenge was to try to take that and play those beats to their full strengths, without overstaying them—too much info, or too long of a scene or moment—just what was needed, and then moving forward. At times it was downright frustrating—we couldn’t just lift scenes or lines for pacing, they all had to be scrutinized to the necessity of information, but also vibe and timing. It was probably the most painful aspect of the process. But watching the film now, I really feel like each of those threads in the big web sings and hits just enough.