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“You Learn a New Language From Scratch Each Time”: Editor Annukka Lilja on Ailey

Ailey. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Jamila Wignot’s Ailey explores the life of seminal choreographer Alvin Ailey in poetic manner. With a heartbeat as studied as Ailey’s jazz-dance that made him famous. Editor Annukka Lilja explores the seamless collaboration between herself and Wignot and her method of approaching documentary much the way she would a fictional film.

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

Lilja: The producer Lauren DeFilippo knew me through my longtime collaborators David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg, whose three feature documentary films I have worked on as an editor. I come from a European background and film education, and Lauren thought my aesthetics and approach to editing would be a good fit for the director Jamila Wignot’s vision of Ailey. During the interview when I first met Jamila, I felt we saw eye-to-eye about how to approach the film. Although we weren’t sure if our schedules would align, we kept in touch over the following year. Jamila would send me music or films that she found intriguing, and we’d have discussions about the aesthetics of films that we both appreciate. So when we found out that our schedules worked out, I felt we already had a creative language together.

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?

Lilja: I approach documentary as I would fiction film, letting the emotion, the visual style and the character development guide my editing. My goal for every film is to get the audience to connect with and to feel as close to the main character as possible. So even if a person has never heard of Alvin Ailey, I want the viewer to go on an emotional journey with him.

I also wanted to help fulfill director Jamila Wignot’s vision for the film. She wanted to explore Mr. Ailey’s interior world and have that guide us through his creative pursuits and events of his life. 

As often the case in documentaries, the footage could have allowed for several films and approaches. The elements we were working with were Mr. Ailey’s narration of his own life, the present day interviews with his friends and collaborators, and footage of choreographer Rennie Harris making a piece called Lazarus. Mr. Harris’ storyline mirrors our process of trying to get to the essence of Mr. Ailey’s life, and to understand the driving forces and the events that shaped his creativity. We wanted to show movement, dance, and the creative process, and Mr. Harris’ scenes gave us those elements. 

We used interviews with Mr. Ailey’s collaborators not as commentary but as supporting characters to his story. That is why we never introduced an interview subject until they became a part of Mr. Ailey’s life. This approach allowed for scenes to be built around Mr. Ailey’s collaborators, like Judith Jamison, who eventually took over the company at the end of Mr. Ailey’s life. 

What we considered a gold mine to Mr. Ailey’s inner world was what we called “the Bailey tapes.” In the years leading up to his death, Mr. Ailey is telling his story to his biographer, Peter Bailey. The mood is more relaxed and real, more raw and vulnerable than in Mr. Ailey’s numerous public interviews. I started the editing process by mining those tapes and editing audio-only sequences, and we used those sequences as the foundation for the film. As an example, Mr. Ailey would describe moments in his life in a poetic and descriptive way, and we used that to guide the visual approach. We used archival footage that allowed us to live in Mr. Ailey’s point of view. In the end, we pulled as much of the description as possible and allowed the visuals to tell the story.

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

Lilja: Working with Jamila was one of the most collaborative experiences I’ve had with a director. We would brainstorm through discoveries in the footage. Due to COVID, getting the archival we needed would often be delayed, and every new batch of essential archival would potentially alter the course of the film. The edit was a dynamic process with a constantly moving target, and Jamila was a part of it every step of the way. She had a strong sense of what she wanted from the edit, but at the same time trusted me to experiment and bring my voice into the cutting. When it comes to the edit process of Ailey, it’s hard for me to say where Jamila ends and I begin. It’s almost like there was a third entity involved—our mission to be true to Mr. Ailey’s voice, to serve and honor Mr. Ailey’s story and legacy. That was our driving force. 

Final feedback screenings with people who personally knew Mr. Ailey were crucial to make sure our portrayal of Mr. Ailey was one where they could recognize him. 

One of the biggest benefits of feedback screenings is watching a film in a room with other people. More important than the notes are the reactions of the viewers. The focused silence, the shifting in the chair, the laughter. All the subtle feedback you get from the body language. Unfortunately during COVID, this was not possible for Ailey. But our producers and executive producers Lauren DeFilippo, Amanda Pollak and Stephen Ives at Insignia Films would watch every assembly and rough cut, providing distance and perspective. We would also send rough cuts to colleagues. If many people had the same note for a cut, we would work through a solution for it. Also, our assistant editor and post supervisor William Bentley was an invaluable part of the edit team, and worked closely with me and Jamila. 

Every film has its own language, so you learn a new language from scratch each time. My editing process is similar from film to film. I like to come in with a blank slate, as a sort of first member of the audience. I let the footage guide me, I see the parts that speak to me, and start creating scenes out of those moments. There are countless hours spent learning the footage and reworking it, seeing which way it naturally wants to bend. There are months of discussions with the director, getting to know the director on a personal level, channeling them and your discussions into the cuts. Getting closer and closer to a shared vision. At some point you get so fluent in the language of the film that the process takes on a more intuitive, improvisational quality. Often at that point I feel like the film is making itself, I feel like a vessel, watching myself edit the film. There is a tremendous satisfaction and excitement in the work when I get to that phase. 

I think the biggest thing editing has taught me is to be comfortable with the fact that at the start of the process, you don’t know what the hell you are doing. You have to be open to what the film wants to be, and let the footage lead you.

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

Lilja: The industry is all about who you know. I went to film school in Helsinki, Finland with a focus on editing narrative and documentary films. Toward the end of my studies, I moved to NYC. Two documentaries I had edited in Finland, Summerchild and Paradise – Three Journeys in this World, screened at U.S. festivals, where I met several of my future collaborators. New York City is just a small village when it comes to filmmaking, and you end up all knowing each other and working together. New editors: when the pandemic passes, don’t skip the filmmaker mixers!

My influences are mostly in narrative film, in the films I grew up watching. But none of my influences consciously affect my style of editing. They all add up to my overall aesthetic sensibilities, and I think what I respond to in a film I like is similar to what I respond to when I watch raw footage. Something subtle that feels real, something abstract and evocative, a moment that gets enhanced by letting time play it out. A moment when an actor or an interview subject forgets that they are on camera, and they get carried away by the emotion of the moment, and they carry me in with them through the power of that emotion.

Music is as big an influence on my editing as film. I have found that most editors are also musicians—it’s hard to find an editor who doesn’t play an instrument. I find music to be similar to film as an artform. They are both bound in time, and they both deal with pacing and rhythm, harmony or dissonance, tension and release. All of which are elements that add up to emotion.  

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

Lilja: I used Avid. Usually by the time I get on a project, it is already set up in a system, and I’m happy to use any system. I do enjoy editing on Avid because it’s sturdy, it supports a huge project such as Ailey, and sharing sequences with assistant editors and other editors is fairly effortless. That being said, I think it’s safe to say that all editors of my generation sorely miss Final Cut 7, and that I’m not the only one customizing Avid’s settings to recreate the user friendliness of Final Cut 7. Apple, why oh why did you discontinue it?

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

Lilja: Presenting Mr. Ailey’s most famous work, Revelations, was a challenge. It was the springboard for his career, and a piece that is still being performed every year by his company, so it is of extreme importance to Mr. Ailey’s story. Throughout the film, we were looking deeply at the sources of his creativity, and in early versions of the scene, we had Mr. Ailey narrate the inspiration and the design behind each section of Revelations. Mr. Ailey drew inspiration from sources like sculpture and literature, and we were trying to explore those sides of Mr. Ailey. But that approach to the scene always interrupted flow of the overall film. We ended up using a scene with Rennie Harris talking about Mr. Ailey’s concept of Blood Memories to launch us into Mr. Ailey’s childhood memories of the church and to his meditations on how those memories sparked him to make Revelations. Jamila and I wanted to allow the dance to speak for itself and show uninterrupted segments of Mr. Ailey’s choreography. Thus far we had seen Mr. Ailey being influenced by dancers like Katherine Dunham and Lester Horton, and this scene shifts Mr. Alvin’s place in the world to someone who influences and inspires others. As we move from one section of the dance to the other, we introduce several of his collaborators who talk about how seeing Revelations changed their lives. The scene also serves the purpose of portraying the beginning of the Ailey company. 

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

Lilja; We made a choice of keeping the graphics simple. There are so many elements in the film that creating another complex visual device would have felt like a distraction. We had access to a large volume of gorgeous and expressive stills of Mr. Ailey and his company, and we wanted to create enough space for each photo so that you could absorb that mood or moment in Mr. Ailey’s life. 

There are times in the film when we visually layer periods of Mr. Ailey’s life by superimposing faded footage, attempting to create a mood of Mr. Ailey looking inward as we dive into his interiority and into his past and his creative sources. The sound design also gets a layered and faded quality in these moments. 

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?

Lilja: I don’t think the meaning of the film changed for me as we got to the final version of the film. But during the process of editing, I was often focused on the micro world of specific moments in Mr. Ailey’s life. Seeing the final film, I can see the bigger arc more clearly, and how driven Mr. Ailey was to leave a strong legacy of lifting other people up – and how far reaching his influence has been on people.

It’s remarkable how a film comes to life for me once the picture is locked and I finally have the luxury of watching it as a viewer rather than a creator. Suddenly, I experience the film with all my senses – it’s almost like I can smell it. Seeing the film with Daniel Bernard Roumain’s gorgeous score, Paul Hsu’s nuanced sound design and the online editor and colorist SJ Smith’s glorious elevation of the footage had me weeping every time I watched the film after they had worked their magic

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