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“I Think a Lot of People Are Going to Able to Find Parallels to Their Own Love Stories”: Editor Robert Martinez on Lucy and Desi

Still from Lucy and Desi, directed by Amy PoehlerStill from Lucy and Desi

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz are one of the most beloved couples in showbiz history, and for many, it isn’t clear where the real people end and the Ricardos of I Love Lucy begin. Amy Poehler illuminates how those boundaries manifested and moved in Lucy and Desi, her documentary on the two stars. Below, editor Robert Martinez explains why he fought the urge to include extended I Love Lucy clips and kept the focus on the love story.

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?

Martinez: In 2020 I edited my first documentary, Frank Marshall’s The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart. After the success of that film I started getting a lot of inquiries for editing gigs, but I wanted to keep working with White Horse Pictures, who were responsible for bringing me on to edit Bee Gees.

When I discussed future projects with them, they thought I would be a great fit for a documentary on Lucille Ball & Desi Arnaz, but I wasn’t so sure. There is a huge responsibility when you take a role in telling someone’s life story, and I was concerned that as a male editor I might not be the most qualified person to tackle a documentary on arguably the most loved female actor in history.

But when they told me that Amy Poehler would be directing, all my fears went away.

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?

Martinez: My first concern when starting the edit of a film is communicating the director’s vision. Amy was very clear that our film was Lucy and Desi’s love story, and that became the guiding principle for me. I had to constantly check-in with myself to be sure that what I was doing was in service of their love story, especially when working with footage from I Love Lucy. It’s so easy to want include a clip from I Love Lucy just to highlight the greatness of the show.

I actually didn’t get a chance to talk one on one with Amy until the rough cut was already under way, but because she conducted all of the interviews I was able to review each conversation before our meeting and get a sense of what she was responding to and the aspects of the story she was most interested in.

We also discussed a need for the film to have a contemporary tone and a reason for existing at this moment. We found that reason in a collection of never-before-heard audio recordings that the Lucy and Desi estate granted us access to. The recordings were conducted by the writers of Lucy and Desi’s individual autobiographies. Neither of the books were ever published, but these recordings provided a key element that prior documentaries never had: the ability to hear Lucy and Desi’s story in their own words.

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

Martinez: Condensing the run time of the film was a long process. You could easily make a feature-length documentary of either of Lucy or Desi’s individual lives, so the initial approach me, Amy and our writer Mark Monroe committed to was to get everything on the table in our rough cut. Any personality vignettes, fun anecdotes or creative storytelling approaches we wanted to get feedback on were included, that way we could easily reorder or delete scenes that after the fact.

Because of this kitchen sink approach, our first cut was over three hours, and the notes process was tedious at the start. But once we had time to digest everything on our timeline, it was clear what scenes were working, and about a month later we had the run time under two hours.

I was also lucky enough to have in-person sessions with Amy and Mark to review scenes, audition ideas and figure out our structure. Lots of nasal swabs and KN95 masks were involved in making this happen.

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

Martinez: After working a variety of jobs ranging from high school yearbook photographer to janitor, I decided in my late 20s to return to college to get into the entertainment industry. The internships I participated in while attending Cal State Northridge naturally guided me toward work on documentary projects.

About five years ago I started working with White Horse Pictures. During my first year with the company I worked on the post team for Ron Howard’s The Beatles: Eight Days A Week and later got an opportunity to edit a few internal sizzles and trailers for Roger Ross Williams’ The Apollo and Ron Howard’s Pavarotti. After getting positive feedback, I was asked to come aboard as an additional editor on Pavarotti and later to co-edit Bee Gees alongside Derek Boonstra.

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

Martinez: I used Avid for the edit, mainly for the script sync function. It’s an incredible time-saving feature unique to Avid and a great tool for editing sessions.

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

Martinez: There isn’t a particular scene that comes to mind, but I believe the most difficult approach we took was finding a way to weave scenes from I Love Lucy into the narrative of Lucy & Desi’s life story. To do this we had to scour all 180 episodes of I Love Lucy as well, as the TV shows that followed I Love Lucy. There was lots of trial and error finding the right clips. Sometimes the comedy bits would run too long, but if we tried to truncate them they no longer made sense or lost their humor.

To this day the identities of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz are inextricably tied to that of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, so we wanted to walk that tight rope. One moment you see Lucille Ball, a hungry Hollywood actor working her way up from the bottom with her legendary work ethic, and the next moment you see Lucy Ricardo sneaking into Ricky’s act by wearing a crazy disguise. It’s much more fun to juxtapose the character and the person instead of lecturing the viewer that Lucille Ball has a different personality than Lucy Ricardo.

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

Martinez: When thinking about bringing a VFX element to the film, we wanted to be sure to create sequences that were in service of the incredible archival material we had access to. The majority of the visual elements in the film are black-and-white, which can sometimes lead to conversations about ways we can add color to the film. But we loved the classic look of the archival, so we focused on elevating the look by adding depth, texture and simple compositing effects like film burns.

We were very lucky to have the VFX team at Design Syndicate come on board. They were a Godsend. We had identified the scenes where we wanted to add VFX, and they not only knocked those out of the park but took it upon themselves to audition other sequence they though could be enhanced with VFX. I’m very grateful to them for not only lending their talents to the film but also their work ethic.

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?

Martinez: At the core the film is a love story but not a fairy tale, and I think a lot of people are going to able to find parallels to their own love stories. Dual-earner households are more common than ever and the wages earned are important for the family, but the work also holds great importance to the individual. Getting the right balance between the energy you’re giving to work and your family is a constant battle, so you can empathize with Lucy and Desi’s struggles and triumphs.

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