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“Even if You Are Cutting a More Commercial Film, the Inspiration You Can Find From Obscure Films Is Endless”: Editors Jennifer Lee and Maya Maffioli on Master

Regina Hall in Master by Mariama Diallo.Regina Hall in Master by Mariama Diallo.

Master, the debut feature by Mariama Diallo, takes place at the fictional Ancaster College, situated on land once occupied by gallows poles during the Salem witch trials. Blending horror and thriller elements with a critique of racism and privilege, the film follows numerous characters as the college’s façade of gentility begins to unravel. Mixing genres and following a large group of characters means the film could have gone in numerous directions, and editors Jennifer Lee and Maya Maffioli discuss the various incarnations the film assumed throughout the editing process.

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?

Lee: There’s always a mysterious confluence of factors that lead to how and why you book a job. Connecting with the story is always paramount; it’s what makes me decide to pursue a job. And it was clear from the script that Mariama Diallo is a very eloquent writer. But once you’re at the meeting, it often boils down to chemistry. You discuss the story and in doing so you’re trying to suss out whether your mutual creative approaches to it are compatible. You’re also looking to connect on a really fundamental personal level. You can’t spend hundreds of hours locked in a room together trying to solve problems without having that foundational connection. So in the meeting you’re constantly looking for those clues that you’ll be able to collaborate well together.

Initially I was supposed to meet with Mariama and the producing team back in December 2019, but I got sick and had to reschedule. I wrote a silly apology note featuring pictures of Darth Vader and it delighted them. Honestly, I think that’s a huge part of why I got the job. I mean, did I speak intelligently about white supremacy, performative allyship, and my experiences as a woman of color and how they related to the story? Yes. Did I have the resume to get in the room? Yes. But I think I booked this job in part because Mariama could sense I was going to keep a good sense of humor as we tackled very heavy material.

Maffioli: I came onto the edit after Jennifer Lee, who had cut the film from the assembly right onto a pretty advanced cut. The film was coming from a stop-and-start production and editing process because of COVID, and Jenny had to move onto other commitments. I was then approached by Animal Kingdom through my agent—I had just finished another Amazon Studios production, Encounter, and my name was in the mix of potential editors to finish the film. I watched the cut and had a meeting first with the producing team and then with director Mariama Diallo, telling them my thoughts about the cut and coming up with a loose plan of action to bring the film to completion.

Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were your goals as an editor? What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?

Lee: For a long time the first assembly of Master wasn’t even a full assembly. Master was halfway through shooting in March 2020 when New York went into pandemic lockdown. We went remote for a few weeks while I edited half an assembly and started working with the director to refine what we could. Then the film went into hibernation along with the rest of the industry. Production did not resume until almost a year later in January 2021. And it was a very grueling shoot.

So by the time the whole film was in the can it was clear I had to be extra inclusive about what made it into the first assembly. Not just because Mariama and DP Charlotte Hornsby favored long takes and slow zooms, but because it had taken so much to just get to that point. So everything went into the first full assembly. It was almost 3 hours long. And when a cut is that long, the stuff that’s not working is really not working.

Maffioli: The film was using a dream-like logic in the cuts and structure, shaping the reality of Ancaster College as a psychological, heightened one, as seen through the eyes of Jasmine (Zoe Renee) and Gail (Regina Hall). The film constantly questions what is dream and reality and presents threats and ghosts of the past, nightmares and hallucinations. This style was very strong, but when I watched the film I felt that some of the narrative map got lost in this approach, and it left me with too many questions unanswered. My goal was to bring back clarity and streamline the film but hopefully keep the style—which wasn’t just a flourish—that held the meaning of the film.

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

Lee: There were some subplots and characters that we tried lifting out wholesale right away. A lot of the early restructuring work was guided by emotional or tonal continuity and creating more opportunities for the horror to play, whether it was supernatural horror or the horror of being racially profiled at an elite academic institution. At one point we did a completely nonlinear cut that felt very surreal and disturbing and stylish. We were lucky to have the time in the edit to try out that kind of experimentation. You always learn something from it even if it doesn’t stick.

Along the way we did a few friends-and-family screenings that were conducted online, followed by Zoom discussions. And also a few official preview screenings/focus groups as well.

Maffioli: I started by watching the first assembly to see what the original intentions of the script were and what had been omitted. Director Mariama Diallo and I started working remotely in different time zones, but she was happy to let go of the daily edit approach that had marked the first phase of the edit and to hopefully gain a healthy distance from the film (metaphorically and literally, as she was in New York and I was in Europe).

I started to comb the film reel by reel, giving her and the producers roughly one reel every 3-4 days. We would then discuss and she would give me notes that I would bring onto the next pass. It was a good way to get to talk about the film with Mariama (who also wrote the script) and get to know her thoughts and goals and why certain routes were taken and why other got abandoned.

In this first phase I was mainly rearranging the scenes, sometimes reinstating scenes from older cuts. I would only recut scenes if I wanted to repurpose them, but at this stage I was without much care for length and rhythm. I also concentrated a lot on reshaping the opening, which is always the toughest (but also the most fun) to cut.

We then watched this completed cut and started working more closely together, with more granular notes, and more focus on shortening the film and tightening the pace. By the end, we lost about 8-10 minutes from that initial cut while also managing to reinstate some storylines. The “chapters” structure also got slightly changed in this phase—they used to mark the months passing and now they are more thematic. I also kept in a lot of the great work that was done before, and some scenes are left almost untouched—for example, the scene where Jasmine dances at the frat party are Jenny’s work and I love how she edited that scene.

In terms of editing techniques, I tried to keep in line with the fragmented dream logic but to structure more linearly to allow the story to flow better. This is also a multi character story—a two-hander—so there is a bit less freedom than you would have with a single point of view.

We did one online screening (a link) with friends and family, using anonymous questionnaires (I find them very useful, even with friends and family, as people really give unbiased opinions) but I also followed up in person with a group of friends in the UK. I have a core group of friends, mostly filmmakers, I tend to screen my films to, and should credit them as my coeditors!

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

Lee: My biggest influence is my past life as a comic book editor. Film and comics are both sequential storytelling mediums elevated through collaboration. The job of a comics editor is not unlike producing. You’re working with story at every stage, starting from the script. You’re watching it come together visually and checking if the intention of the story remains clear. And you’re constantly troubleshooting storytelling problems and learning to fix them as early in the process as possible. You’re in a state of constant creative negotiation with insanely talented people (and the quirks that go with them).

Creatively, comics are a medium that often distills story to its most essential and evocative. You only have so much room on the page. The visual grammar depends on the audience connecting what happens from panel to panel. As with film editing, you’re constantly asking yourself if people will understand the beat based on what you choose to show or omit.

So those are all skills I reinforced through almost 10 years of editing comic books for Marvel and DC. When I was ready to leave comics, I thought about how I could keep using those skills and keep telling stories. The answer was editing film.

Maffioli: I came up in the business working as a post-production runner in London and then, after doing an MA in film editing, through years of cutting small independent films in the UK (shorts, documentary, art films). Then Michael Pearce, a director I met at film school and whose short films I had cut, made a feature film that I was lucky enough to edit (Beast, 2016). The film was well received, won a BAFTA, and was the springboard for a lot of people involved (both behind the camera and in front, most notably the main actress Jessie Buckley) to get noticed in the industry.

As an editor, my biggest influence comes from watching art house and world cinema: seeing unique and individualistic ways of filmmaking inspires me when I approach my own work. My idea is that even if you are cutting a more commercial film, the inspiration you can find from obscure films, the narrative and aesthetic solutions, are endless. In terms of editing, one of my biggest influences/inspiration is Nic Roeg, and me and Mariama talked a lot about Don’t Look Now as an influence, but also of Dario Argento’s Suspiria.

I also work as an edit consultant, mainly advising on first or second features by European filmmakers, and this is also something that inspires me a lot. To see the unpolished work of new and emerging filmmakers and be able to discuss their films with them is a great source of ideas.

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

Lee: The edit started in-person, then went remote and stayed that way. We cut using Avid installed on virtual machines with shared Nexis storage. We remoted in using Jump Desktop and used Pac Post Live to stream and video conference simultaneously.

Maffioli: I cut on Avid, but now I can also say we cut Master on Zoom, WhatsApp, and FaceTime too— and Skype! We used an online platform called PacPost where you can edit while screen sharing, but for most of the edit I was in Italy with very poor internet, so I was just exchanging bins with our amazing AE Zaineb Abdul-Nabi, who would then either screen or upload on Moxion for Mariama and producers.

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

Maffioli: There is a big narrative reveal in the film, so I won’t say it to avoid spoilers, but it needed a lot of work and different versions had to be tried out. As often is, it wasn’t just about making that scene work, but about the build up to it.

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?

Maffioli: I didn’t read the script of the film prior to cutting, as the process was in this case different than the normal one. I can only say what I saw in that first cut I watched and how I left the movie. I think the movie shifted towards a more character based film—I think that’s the original idea in the script too, but the cut I saw had cut out a lot of characters and characters relationships. Amelia (Talia Ryder) used to leave the film much earlier, the friendship between Gail and Liv (Amber Gray) was more sketched and I enjoyed bringing back even little side characters like the dinner lady at the beginning of the film or a couple of extra beats with the group of girls who become Jasmine’s friends. Not al the characters were reinstalled though: for instance, Gail used to be in a relationship, and that never came back. This human landscape is what I understand to be the key to enter the world of Master, a reality that is equally frightening and delicate, vulnerable but cruel. But then again, that first cut I saw helped me understand the core meaning of the film and its bigger reflections on the horrors of history.

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