“The Silences, the Looks, Are What Mark the Emotional Rhythm”: Editor Fernando Epstein on Utama
Utama, the feature debut by Alejandro Loayza Grisi, concerns an elderly Quechua couple urged by their grandson to move to the city while their native land is ravaged by drought. The pace of life and the experience of time are major themes in the film, and editor Fernando Epstein discusses how this necessitated creative ways of depicting routine and delaying the introduction of a major character.
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?
Epstein: I am Uruguayan, and I have been editing feature films and documentaries since the year 2000. The Uruguayan co-producer of the film, Federico Moreira, proposed the project to me at an early stage, as he needed to fill the requirements for the coproduction fund that he applied for during the development of the project. On another hand, he knows my work as an editor, where a big number of the films I edited were directed by first-timers, which is the case of Alejandro Loayza Grisi for Utama. Furthermore, the film has a certain pace that is similar to previous films I edited, where the cinematographer, Barbara Alvarez, also worked. I guess this all added up to the filmmakers’ choice.
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?
Epstein: In every film I edit, my first goal is to find or understand or comprehend the inner purpose of the filmmaker. As an editor, I am a partner that he chose to help him find the best possible film out of the footage he was able to render, under a lot of pressure, after writing and developing the film for so many years. This purpose was really clear in Utama from the beginning. The script was well developed and the acting and the camera work were of a very high level, so that made things easier. With such strong elements in place, together with a clear vision from the director, everything flows and it enhances the enjoyment of the process.
The film portrays the routine of an old couple that is reluctant to change their habits upon the climate-difficult conditions where they live. To portray routines is always a challenge, because they are mostly composed of repetitions. The habitat, the environment where the film develops its story is astonishing; it is a unique place on earth, so that helped a lot. Only, to watch those routines is already an anthropological experience to the spectator, but only for the first minutes of the film. Then it is necessary to connect with the story and its characters and find a way to bring all the subtle changes that the script introduces within a rhythm that is compelling both with the purpose of the filmmaker and with the patience of the spectator.
Also, there is a kind of “western” intention on the way the whole film was shot. The silences, the looks, are what mark the emotional rhythm of the movie, much more than what is said. This was a beautiful challenge to me, and I was very careful in every scene to take this concept as far as possible.
The film being spoken in Quechua was a challenge itself. I don’t speak a word of this ancient language, so I needed to trust a lot in the director, who isn’t a fluent speaker either, to feel safe that the dialogues were correctly said. After seeing the footage 100 times, then you even start to learn to say some words, and that is a lot of fun.
Another usual challenge is the narrative structure, but I must say that in this film there was no need for major changes other than to find the right moment to introduce and bring the grandson of the couple into the story, as he is the one who moves the plot ahead.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Epstein: I like to make the first assembly alone and only then bring the director to the editing room. In this way I can “learn” the footage and have elements to discuss in depth with him. My second step will be to do the first cut mostly listening to the director without discussing, just pushing the buttons. In this way I “learn” about his way of thinking about the film and the footage he was able to produce. After these two steps, the game really started, the creative dialogue was born, and the process became a real pleasure.
But then, both the director and I started to lose references, so that is when an external aid is key. Alejandro’s father, Marcos Loayza, is a very experienced director, so his feedback to our second or third cut was very important, for example. Also, we were able to do one screening at the mixing facility on a big screen with some colleagues and friends despite the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. This is always a very important moment, much more for what you feel than what you see and hear. It is like a 360-degree sensitivity is turned on, which makes us feel in our stomachs what works and what doesn’t by how we perceive the reaction of the other people attending. These feelings are of utmost importance to being able to move forward at later stages of the process.
Another technique I also love to use is to “edit on the wall,” where we print frames from each scene so that we can clip them on a wall in the same order of the timeline and discuss without constantly watching the monitors. The first step for this technique is to decide which frame represents a scene best. After several weeks of fiddling with the shots, you start discovering different values for the same scene— narrative, emotional, rhythmical—so just the act of choosing a frame to print has a deep meaning in the comprehension of the whole. Normally, it is very useful to work like this when the narrative structure is at stake, but this was not the case. For Utama, this technique was useful to detect redundancy: sometimes two totally different scenes “tell” the same or have the same “value” for the whole even if the location and characters change, and then it is necessary to cut one of them out.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Epstein: I started to work as a professional editor right after I ended my university communications studies. I spent four years editing advertising and institutional videos at the time that the first digital editing systems appeared in the market. It was the end of the 20th century and I was a film lover, and my dream was to edit a feature film. But films were almost not made where I live. At that time in Uruguay, if one or two films were shot that year it was already a lot, and then they wouldn’t choose me to be the editor; I was too young and inexperienced. But we were a group, and my friends wanted to direct a film as much as I wanted to edit it, therefore we all needed to become producers of our own film. There was no other choice. As the shooting came closer, it was obvious that they needed to focus on directing, so the production task naturally came to me, and I embraced it. Since that first film, a slacker black & white 16mm film named 25 Watts, which won best film at Rotterdam Film Festival and traveled all around the world, I became an editor/producer. It got difficult sometimes to save the time to sit in the editing room while I was producing many films at the same time, but I had the strength to defend my editing trench, and I am so glad I did, as today I am more and more interested in editing and less in producing.
Influences, I can mention thousands, but there is the “six rules for good cutting” pointed out by Walter Murch that changed my way of thinking about the footage and the art of editing itself.
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Epstein: We edited Utama on Avid Media Composer. I had my first real job in the first Avid that arrived in my city. It was quite an expensive system, and I even became an instructor for the people that were selling the system locally. Afterwards I had to change to Final Cut in order to edit my projects, as it was a much easier and cheaper workflow, but when it got discontinued, I didn’t doubt it and came back to Avid.
I think that software is like a car. It takes you from one point to the other. No matter the brand and the specs of the car, you will certainly get to the same place. But the comfort, the pleasure during the trip—there is the difference. Even if the Avid environment is somehow more “bureaucratic” than other systems, this makes you work and organize yourself and the workflow in a more professional mood. Furthermore, there is this one simple tool that the Avid has, the Trim Mode, that other software tried to copy, but none could make it work, as far as I know, as fluently and organically as the Avid one does.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Epstein: There is a scene at the local council where the people are deciding whether to stay or to leave the place where they live. There were a lot of non-professional actors, speaking in Quechua, many times overlapping one another. It was terribly difficult to find the acting nuances, so both the director and I tried to find a way to construct the purpose of the scene, which is to have the grandson and the grandparent to watch and feel their confronted points of views in the mouths of other people. So we needed to trust that what they said was correctly said, and also we needed to find a more rhythmical way to cut in order to put both points of views together without losing very unique locals acting as themselves.
Filmmaker: What role did VFX work, or compositing, or other post-production techniques play in terms of the final edit?
Epstein: The Condor scene was quite a challenge. We did many versions and then checked them with the VFX artists that would compose the Condor. It went back and forth too many times. I think it came out well, but honestly, I am waiting to see it on a big screen to know myself if we did it right or wrong.
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?
Epstein: I am still not prepared to answer this question completely until I watch it on a big screen with all the elements in place. From what I recall in my heart, the film is extremely precise in its form, but also deep on the question that brings to the audience: who has the right to tell another person how to leave and how to die? I’m not sure what I will feel the day I see it, as I finished more than one year ago and never watched it again, but I am pretty confident I will love it.