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“Make Choices With the Edit to Sculpt and Reveal an Inherent Truth”: Harrison Atkins on Emily the Criminal

Aubrey Plaza in Emily the CriminalStill from Emily the Criminal

A financially precarious temp worker effectively locked out of a stable job due to a minor criminal record takes a black market gig buying goods with stolen credit cards in Emily the Criminal. As its logline suggests, the film examines the gig economy and class structure in America, and editor Harrison Atkins discusses how he shaped the film to approach that film with anger rather than numbness

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?

Atkins: I’ve been working as an editor intermittently for some years between my own directing projects. I feel like, in my work as a filmmaker, I’ve developed a generally very intuitive and even somewhat subjective relationship with film language, so I think projects that want to hire me as an editor tend to have some familiarity with the work I’ve done before. In the case of this film, Aubrey Plaza is a friend of mine whom I’ve worked with in the past, so I was excited to jam on something with her again.

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?

Atkins: John Patton Ford, the director, had an ambition to make a “film that watches itself.” The heart of the film is obviously Emily’s experience, so we wanted to make choices that felt like they were emerging from the psychology and perspective of the character rather than feeling applied from the outside. I think there’s something to be said for just paying focused attention to what the footage is saying, and making choices with the edit to sculpt and reveal an inherent truth, as opposed to using the footage to craft something artificial and plastic.

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

Atkins: I’m wary of overintellectualizing and love to rely on my own instincts and intuition to guide my approach to an edit. Often my process for initially assembling a film can be kind of visceral, or even physical—choices that come from a gut level. Then what follows is another process of iteration and refining. On this film we used a metaphor that we were painting a mural: sometimes we were up close, concentrating on small details, but then we had to step back to see the big picture and judge how it was all fitting together, which helped us to see what adjustments were required for the deeper unity of film as a whole. At some point in the process, we made a breakthrough by going through each scene to make sure that we understood the idea behind every choice. We were always asking ourselves, “what’s the intention?”

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

Atkins: I made some short films, and then a feature called Lace Crater, which I directed and edited. That seemed to lead to me receiving opportunities to edit other films and work on TV stuff. The first feature I edited for someone else was Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline, which was nourishing in so many ways, especially because that edit was driven by our shared desire to really sincerely experiment with cinematic language, grammar and form. That film premiered at Sundance, which led to more opportunities. I also learned a ton from collaborating with Joe Swanberg on various projects over the years, including his show Easy on Netflix. In a complicated way, I’ve definitely been influenced by the sort of naturalism associated with low-budget American independent films of the last fifteen years.

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

Atkins: I used Adobe Premiere Pro, which is what I generally use for everything. I used to be a real surgeon on FCP7 and kind of imported my hotkeys and whatnot into Premiere some years ago. I’m so accustomed to editing with Premiere that I don’t have to think about the operation of the program at all; it’s all just muscle memory. As soon as I think of an idea, I’m already executing it.

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

Atkins: There’s a particular scene in the second half of the film that was a real beast. For various reasons it required dozens and dozens of passes to hone. We tried restructuring the scene in so many ways. It became clear that, rhythmically, there was very little wiggle room; if everything wasn’t timed perfectly, the momentum of the film would be affected. We kept asking ourselves, “out of the millions of possible permutations of this scene, how close are we to the best one?” Sometimes we would think we had it, but then the next day we’d watch it again and it would feel off kilter in some way. In the end it was brute force that got it to the finish line. We just refused to give up or settle until the scene was really in the pocket.

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?

Atkins: It’s a film rooted in questions about class and economic conditions in America, and I think in our initial explorations of the tone we found ourselves tapping into a sense of malaise that was sort of somber or numb, ultimately in a way that wasn’t quite right for the film. At some point we found, I think specifically by spelunking deeper into the character, another emotional space that had been on the tip of the film’s tongue. It was an anger, a kind of jagged edge to the desperation, and when we started to let that emotional sensibility invade the perspective and language of the film, things started to come alive in a totally different way. Overall, I’m proud of what we made; it feels slick and tight, like it’s been pressure cooked into the sharpest version of itself.

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