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“We Wanted to Craft a Film That Wasn’t So Tightly Hewn to a Narrative Arc”: Editor Aaron Wickenden on 2nd Chance

A still from 2nd Chance by Ramin BahraniA still from 2nd Chance by Ramin Bahrani

2nd Chance, like Ramin Bahrani’s previous films, tells the story of a precarious person attempting to attain greater wealth and security. For his first documentary, Bahrani has investigated the story of Richard Davis, a bankrupt pizzeria owner who invented the modern bulletproof vest, only to embroiled in countless subsequent controversies. Editor Aaron Wickenden explains how the films of Werner Herzog influenced 2nd Chance and recalls the times he nearly ran over Roger Ebert and Michael Shannon.

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?

Wickenden: The path that led me to editing 2nd Chance is itself a story of second chances… and near tragic collisions. You see, to date there are only two people I have almost accidentally run over with my car. One was film critic Roger Ebert and the other was the celebrated actor Michael Shannon. These were separate instances and both took place in Chicago many years ago. And while I have no witnesses, both times, I contest to you, dear reader, that they just walked out into traffic. Ebert was jaywalking in front of the Siskel Center and Michael was crossing the busy Elston Avenue heading to Stanley’s Produce with his oversized headphones on. But the results were the same—a look of disgust that sears the mind and is hard to forget all these many years later. So in September 2020 when I got an email out of the blue with the heading “Ramin Bahrani Documentary” that detailed how Michael Shannon himself would be collaborating with Ramin (whose work I had been aware of via the fantastic Steve James film Life Itself about Ebert) on a hybrid documentary project, I thought to myself, “here it is, my second chance. This must be destiny knocking at my door.”

But, what does a man really know about his destiny? When you see the film, one of the first things you might notice is that Michael Shannon is not in the movie. What happened? Well, very early on in the edit, before filming with him took place, the team was grappling with how he might fit into this type of film. I showed Ramin a film I cut for Morgan Neville called They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead about the unmaking of Orson Welles’ final film. The film features Alan Cumming as a narrator of sorts, and I thought that perhaps something similar could work for this project. Ramin mulled over the idea and more or less came to the conclusion that adding Michael to this type of film would distract from the story. And with that, my hopes of clearing my cosmic debts were shattered.

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?

Wickenden: There are so many ways this story could have been told, and from the get-go Ramin was invested in bringing his own personal take to this material. To better understand Ramin’s aesthetics, a perfect starting place for me as an editor was to screen his earlier work. Prior to making this documentary feature film, Ramin directed a number of fantastic short films, some of which are docs. One of my favorites is a film called Blood Kin, which is available on Criterion. The film is ostensibly about a young man who murdered his father, but it hardly gets into the details of the crime at all. Instead, it becomes this profound philosophical engagement with the individuals impacted by the murder. So, early on, we talked about wanting to harness this type of metaphysical conversational approach in 2nd Chance as well. Doing that would mean structuring the film in a way that would allow for deviations from a traditional narrative shape.

It became crucial to build out our common language for the film, so the team spent quite a bit of time looking at documentaries that had non-traditional narrative structures. We kept coming back to the Herzog films Into the Abyss and Grizzly Man. On a macro level, we liked how both films used techniques like formal chapter cards and narration to be able to shape the content and steer the viewer through the material. On a micro level, we also loved moments like the one that occurs four minutes into Into the Abyss where a death house chaplain suddenly breaks down in tears as he talks about nearly hitting a squirrel with his golf cart. We wanted to craft a film that wasn’t so tightly hewn to a narrative arc that we couldn’t spend time having our characters muse about the nature of the universe.

I am fortunate to be friends with Maya Daisy Hawke, who was an editor on Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams and assistant editor on Grizzly Man. We met in 2019 when we were both mentors at the Sundance New Frontier Storytelling Lab. Prior to my cutting a frame of 2nd Chance, Maya generously took the time to Zoom with me and talk me through her process of working with Werner and developing her own style of narrated cinema on films like Unfated Yet and Little Ethiopia.

This was so important for me as an editor, because up until this point I had only worked on two narrated documentaries and I was searching for ways to help Ramin navigate his narrative process. Maya helped give me confidence in the liberating qualities of narration and how you can move the viewer wherever you want them to go while also helping to stir up bigger ideas.

So as we geared up for the edit, those were some of our artistic touchstones. And then we also knew that because of the subject matter, the movie should also be funny!

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

Wickenden: We were deep in editing on the film from late 2020 until fairly recently, and for most of that time the edit was done remotely. Ramin was in Brooklyn, I was cutting from home from Chicago, and our associate editor Alex Camilari (director of the Sundance award winning film Luzzu, which is Malta’s official submission for the Academy Awards) was based in Brooklyn as well. We all hated Zoom by this point in the pandemic but wanted to be in deep regular dialogue about the film. We opted for old fashioned phone calls and would sometimes talk for hours, and sometimes just for minutes, but it was enough to always stay deeply connected. This helped us immensely as we contemplated how to approach the narration.

One of the first things we discovered together was that the narration could be used to summarize elements of the story that we wanted to move through quickly. Alex and I would both draft rough ideas of what a narrator might say and then include those on exports of rough edits for Ramin. This gave him something to respond to as a director, and then Ramin would come back to us with new narration that he would record on his phone as temp. We’d cut that in, revise the scenes, export to Frame.Io for review and keep moving.

Alex and I are both pretty fast editors, and that worked to our advantage on this film because we could present and then change tacks on how to approach scenes pretty quickly. For example, at one point I thought it might be compelling to begin the film with Aaron Westrick telling the story about how he was shot. There were things about that introduction that were compelling, but ultimately that scene was better starting the second chapter of the film.

On a technical level, one trick this old dog learned on this project was something called Avid Fluid Morph. It’s a visual effect that allows you to hide jump cuts in your interviews and has been around for at least a decade as part of Avid’s suite of VFX, but I never had a reason to use it before. Typically on other projects I might keep the interview subject’s master interview off screen for as long as possible (as long as it isn’t disorienting to the viewer) and then cut to it for the most emotional or emotive moments.

This technique allows the editor to drastically condense what someone is saying in their interview while also giving the editor the ability to showcase all types of cinematic footage. But on this film we wanted to create a very different type of tone and lean into the testimonies of our interview subjects. So the Fluid Morph effect allowed us to avoid having to cut away from our interviews so often. Of course, it helped that our interviews were easy on the eyes because we collaborated with the incredible DP Adam Stone.

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

Wickenden: As an alienated, blue-haired high school kid in Scottsdale, Arizona, I was really into whatever “alternative cinema” I could track down at our local Blockbuster video store. I became a huge Stanley Kubrick fan, and when I learned that he began his career as a still photographer for Look magazine, I thought that was the path for me. So I went to the University of Arizona to study photography in 1996. Things started to take off, and during the summer between my junior and senior years I went to New York and interned for both Richard Avedon and Annie Liebovitz. I turned twenty-one that summer and I was assisting on set as Annie shot things like Venus and Serena Williams for the “Got Milk?” ad campaign and Dick was shooting Annie Lennox for her Peace album.

It was an incredible time, and at the end of the summer Dick offered me a studio manager track job with his studio. It was an incredibly tough decision at the time, but I decided to go back to school and keep my focus on filmmaking. When I got back to Tucson I discovered that my friends were listening to this fairly new radio show called This American Life. We would get together and drink wine and listen to the early shows, which featured stories like “Hands on a Hardbody.” I became hooked on documentary storytelling and wanted to figure out how I could do it.

So I started applying regularly for an internship with This American Life, and after a few attempts I got a call back from producer Starlee Kine, who informed me that I was a finalist. I thought to myself that if I moved to Chicago it would show them that I was really committed to working for them, so I moved across the country, only to learn that they did not select me for the program. But at that time Chicago was full of This American Life rejects just like me and we all started hanging out together. Through that community of artists and storytellers I learned about Chicago’s Kartemquin Films. As an organization, they are probably best known for making Hoop Dreams but have launched and fostered generations of talent, including Bing Liu when he made Minding the Gap. I applied for an internship with Kartemquin in 2002, and that really kicked off the whole kit and caboodle.

At Kartemquin my desk was across the hallway looking into Steve James’ edit bay. I could see how much he enjoyed the challenge of editing, and I quickly learned that this is where so much of the storytelling in documentary film was happening. I fell in love with the craft, and in a sense Steve became my mentor. We worked together for about 10 years, and during that time he moved me up the ladder as we went from project to project. The last film we cut together was The Interrupters, which premiered at Sundance in 2011 and went on to win Best Documentary at the Independent Spirit Awards.

After that film I sort of put out my shingle and started cutting feature docs for other filmmakers. One of the first films I cut in that period was Finding Vivian Maier, which was nominated for an Oscar. That film put me on Morgan Neville’s radar, and we began working together in 2014. To date, I’ve cut five features for Morgan: Best of Enemies, Won’t You be my Neighbor?, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, Roadrunner, and a film we’re finishing up now. Between these projects, I’ve been fortunate to be able to collaborate with so many talented directors and teams and I hope to continue to do so. The best is yet to come!

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

Wickenden: For this project we used Avid Media Composer. These days I often switch back and forth between Avid and Premiere depending on the preferences of the director. When I started planning the edit, Ramin had just finished editing The White Tiger and he had cut that in Avid. We thought that it would be good to leave the door open for him to cut on this film as well, but we didn’t end up needing to do that.

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

Wickenden: The opening of this film was incredibly difficult to land. The challenge was to bring our lead character, Richard Davis, on stage in a compelling way while also making it clear what the story was going to be about. So many of our early attempts at the opening misled the audience into thinking this was going to be the biopic of this eccentric man who invented lightweight concealable body armor. That’s really just the point of departure for the type of story Ramin wanted to tell. So we knew we needed to bring the viewer into the film in a different way.

One of the vivid stories that Richard tells in his interview is about how all of time on earth can be broken down to a struggle between armor makers and weapon makers. Whether it’s amoebas, dinosaurs or humans, there is a constant battle that goes back and forth and back and forth. We realized that this anecdote helped put Richard into a much larger context and added the grand timescale that was needed for us to grapple with big conceptual ideas in the film. Then the next important element was to bring in Ramin’s voice as our narrator and quickly establish what type of role he was going to play. This opening salvo of narration was crucial to get right and took months of ideating before we landed the right mix of information and poetry.

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?

Wickenden: This film gave me an incredible opportunity to try new approaches and collaborate with a master storyteller like Ramin. As an editor, the meaning of the film really begins to shift once it’s out there in the world and I get to experience the film with an audience. That phase is just about to begin. Unfortunately, we won’t be gathering together in Park City this year, so I guess I will have to see what people say about the film on Twitter.

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