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“My Goal Is Always To Move People to Laughter or Tears”: Editor JoAnne Yarrow on The Persian Version

An Iranian-American family lines up on a dance floor. A mother and daughter stand in front of male relatives wearing tuxedos. The younger woman wears a green gown while the mother wears a red suit skirt ensemble.The Persian Version, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Leila (Layla Mohammadi), an Iranian-American girl, gathers with her family in New York City for her father’s heart transplant surgery in The Persian Version from writer-director Maryam Keshavarz. When a tightly-kept secret of hers is revealed, she grapples with the divided expectations from the two cultures she inhabits and comes to identify the parallels between her and her mother (Niousha Noor).

Editor JoAnne Yarrow tells Filmmaker about inheriting the project after its initial assembly by Abolfazi Talooni, “softening” Leila’s character and the most difficult scene to cut. 

See all responses to our annual Sundance editor interviews here.

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?

Yarrow: I had worked with director Jamie Babbit, who recommended me to [The Persian Version director] Maryam [Keshavarz] when she had to move editorial from London to Los Angeles. Producers were looking for a commercially-minded but indie-spirited editor. They wanted someone good with character work, strong on structure, and confident with having an opinion. Maryam also needed to trust this person and dive in quickly and deeply with them. I was fortunate enough that Maryam advocated and believed I was perfect for the job.

Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were goals as an editor? What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?

Yarrow: Because I inherited this project much later in the editorial process, I wanted to honor what was already built and working well. Abolfazl Talooni, the co-editor, did an incredible job getting the cut into good shape before I was even brought onboard. The strength of the first cut was evident and moved me to tears when I first watched. So it was more about not getting in the way and getting to the essence of the story. By working through questions I’d pose to Maryam, we were able to give clarity to the story. I worked on softening Leila’s character to help solidify her story arc, so the end has an emotional payoff. My goal is always to move people to laughter or tears. To help the audience relate to the characters they see on screen. In some cases, it was simplifying that helped us find the essence of the story.

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

Yarrow: By the time I joined the film, there had already been multiple screenings with audience feedback. Maryam and I worked through these notes. Being new to film, I offered a fresh set of eyes to areas of confusion. Some very simple approaches I took were intercutting very specific moments to help link different time frames. For example, when young Shireen addresses the camera after being given Vahid in the hospital, we flash forward to her as Leila’s mom. This brief intercut helps remind the viewer of her relationship with Leila. We understand the poetic scope and irony of the words spoken by cutting from her heartbroken over having lost Arezoo at birth to her future strained relationship with her daughter-to-be, Leila. It also helps ease us out of 1960s Iran and into present day with Leila’s re-centered story. Sound design, music, and VO also helped ease us in and out of different periods.

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

Yarrow: I started as a Post PA and remained stuck in that position for years. I began to assist on huge summer blockbuster films and finally found myself on an indie movie directed by John Ridley, where the editor stepped away. I was finally allowed to step up to the plate and take over a small re-edit. When Ridley had a series pickup for a new TV show, he hired me as an editor. Working under incredibly talented editors like Hank Corwin, Conrad Buff, Sandra Adair, David Rennie, and Bob Ducsay helped mold me in countless ways. I credit Hank Corwin for my approach to cutting, being limitless, fearless, and experimental. I learned professionalism, respect for others, and presence in a cutting room from Conrad Buff. My generosity towards my crew I attribute to David Rennie and Sandra Adair. My work ethic—Bob Ducsay. I can humbly say I’ve learned from my assistants as well. I believe everyone in the crew is essential and can help elevate the film with their passion.

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

Yarrow: We used Avid Media Composer. I’ve done all my projects on Avid, and using it here made jumping in late an easy handoff.

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

Yarrow: Because I wasn’t involved in the initial cut, the most challenging scene is when Leila runs into her ex at the grocery store. Because Leila is wearing a mask in that scene, we were able to rewrite what she was saying. Maryam had posed the question to me, “But why would Leila be running away from her ex if she still has feelings for her?” I suggested maybe she had done something embarrassing, like call her an obscene amount of times. We took that and ran with a re-edit incorporating this idea.

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?

Yarrow: This film resonated with me from the beginning. It’s three fierce generations of women fighting for their truth. It was about grace and forgiveness for me. In the current political climate, the themes amplified the astronomical strength of the Persian woman and women in general. I see their strength in this film, and I saw it working with Maryam, who fought so hard to bring this beautiful film into the world.

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