Experiments in Darling Killing: Director Nastasya Popov on Respecting the Edit in Her Short, Good Grief
Recently, as part of my writing process, I’ve started to read through the junk that gets mailed to my apartment. This endless, unsolicited mound, consisting of the local councilwoman’s campaign booklet one day and “The Real Yellow Pages” the next, could contain the spark of a story. Just a few weeks ago, as I was emphatically flipping through an alumni magazine, I came across an article titled “The Secret to Creating a Masterpiece.” Of course, I was curious.
Using AI to mine big data (I know exactly what that means), researchers at Northwestern had concluded that artistic genius is born out of periods of seemingly random exploration, followed by periods of intense focus on a certain style. Jackson Pollock and Van Gogh were cited as examples. Their work seemed all over the place for a number of years—printmaking, landscapes, dark colors—until each artist struck brilliance: Pollock when he arrived at his drip technique, Van Gogh with his application of brighter hues to sunflowers, starry nights, rooms in Arles. The researchers concluded that these “hot streaks” were dependent on the years of experimentation that preceded them.
The microbudget and short forms—which run on friendship, day jobs and guerilla-style everything—are a natural space for exploration in filmmaking . If we keep testing our instincts, we will eventually strike heat. It’s just science. And, in making Good Grief—the short film we shot pre-pandemic and which finally premieres online today—I learned a lesson (the hard way) about one of the most sacred phases of the exploration process: the edit.
In the final week of October 2019, when meeting indoors at Brooklyn bars was not yet a foreign concept, I was telling director and editor David Gutnik about the short I planned to shoot a few weeks from then. I wanted to picture lock the film over the course of two weeks, in time for a festival deadline extension in late November, and he was trying to talk some sense into me: “You have to respect the edit. You have to give it time.” How long, ideally, I asked—six months? As always, there is no formula, but he explained that because a short can be much more abstract in its arc than a feature, it might take more time than you’d expect. But I was stubborn—I kept asking what if, what if, what if? He agreed to help me try.
In the first week of November, we shot the film in nine locations over the span of three days, with an ensemble cast comprised of living legends and first time actors, each of whom made the work thrilling. But at the same time, I was already thinking about rushing to the editing suite, picking up in a few days and cobbling a cut together. I clearly wasn’t thinking straight at all—not the energy you want to bring to any creative work.
You might ask why I was naive enough to assume that a festival deadline is worth compromising the months of work that had gotten us to this point. Maybe it was my lifelong disdain for, and fear of, procrastination, which I had succumbed to during the edit of my previous documentary, Pickle Man. (One friend recently described the experience of setting out to edit her film as “walking through taffy,” which I found relatable and poetic.) Anyway, filmmaking, as with any art form or business venture, seems a delicate balancing act time-wise. There are moments when you must set Machievellian deadlines and be completely go, go, go—for example, telling yourself that you’ll have finished the movie within a year, or else you could find yourself reworking the script until the next ice age. But there are other instances when you must listen to your gut, loosen your white-knuckled grip, and accept that a bit of silence and space is your friend.
When you first view the footage, you want to be clear-headed… and well-rested. Because you, as the director, must decide intuitively, what you love, and what you hate. Darling killing will come later, but for now, just take it in. In my case, it was definitely a red flag that I was watching the footage for the first time and simultaneously creating the rough cut. Still, by late November, we had somehow achieved the impossible: we had locked the film in two weeks, gotten tons of feedback in the process, and finally sent it off to color and sound. We were going to make the extended extended deadline.
Why, then, was I losing sleep over the decision to keep or cut certain sequences that I had already sent into the vortex to be judged by a stranger and exchanging novel-length emails with collaborators, trying to convince myself that every rushed choice was one I could defend? Did I even like the film? I hadn’t given myself time to decide. As a director, having a firm grasp on vision is your job description. If you lose that grasp, which very much evolves at every stage of the production process, you sort of lose yourself, and it becomes much harder to try again, with enthusiasm, the next time around. Not only did the pandemic mess with every festival timeline that I had rushed to apply to—not to mention our very concept of time itself—but by February, pre-pandemic, I had already decided that I needed to try again.
So, over the next few months, I did, at a more sustainable pace. (Though something tells me that if I didn’t have to undo so much of my self-imposed editing PTSD, the film would’ve been completed earlier.) I rearranged scenes and shifted them about. I collaborated with a graphic designer who brought a textual element to the film that I thought I was willing to scrap in my haste. I reworked the opening with writer Tess Cohen, and our lead, Stella Baker, rerecorded from Australia. I made discoveries. I got frustrated. I tested another approach the next day. I worked with our composers over the scheme of a few months, rather than a few long nights. I searched, in earnest, for the film I wanted to make. Eventually, I found it, but not without some battle scars. Now that I’m in full-swing on my next project, my first feature, I find an odd sense of peace in knowing that respect for process, for experimentation, is non-negotiable. It’s critical, really. Because heat is bound to strike when we least expect it.
Good Grief premiered at Palm Springs Shortfest and the Hamptons International Film Festival 2021, winning the Suffolk County Film Commission Grant. It stars Stella Baker, Tracy Pollan, Peter Friedman, Catherine Curtin, Matilda Lawler, Matthew Lawler, Jasper Weinberg and Maggie Cohen.