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“There Was a Lot of Important World Building To Be Done”: Editor Sam Levy on The Starling Girl

A young girl with brown hair tied back in a low ponytail kneels beside her bed and folds her hands in prayer. Her eyes are open and she looks up.The Starling Girl, courtesy of Sundance Institute

Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen) is starting to feel out of place among her fundamentalist Christian community in The Starling Girl, writer-director Laurel Parmet’s debut feature. A 17-year-old girl living in rural Kentucky, the only person who Jem seems to relate to is youth pastor Owen (Lewis Pullman). However, as a married man, Owen’s “friendship” with Jem poses some serious problems—most of which will become the teenage girl’s burden to bear.

Sam Levy, the film’s editor, tells Filmmaker about his industry origins and how he went about cutting Parmet’s relatively lean first feature.

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?

Levy: [Director] Laurel [Parmet] and I were connected through a producer we both knew, but then as it turned out she was old friends with Lucian Johnston, the editor I was working for at the time (and also my good friend). Beyond that, we spoke at length about her script and just found a lot of creative and personal common ground.

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?

Levy: Not an easy question to answer briefly! I will say we both were happy with how our first cut worked emotionally (I should note we were highly sleep deprived at this point). We knew the film needed to be substantially shorter, though, so the goal became figuring out ways to cut the film way down without losing smaller character moments that helped keep the film alive and away from a kind of melodrama that would not have suited it. Along the way, we made a lot of little discoveries about what the film could and could not withstand in the edit. For example, Austin Abrams’ character, Ben, has a bunch of moments of comic relief that, while not essential to the plot, proved to be a necessary contrast to some of the more emotionally wrenching scenes in the film.

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

Levy: Again, it was a lot of experimentation. Despite needing to cut a lot of time, there wasn’t a lot of “fat” in Laurel’s shooting script which often made it hard to cut whole scenes. So while there were wholesale cuts and secondary threads of the story that were removed, a lot of the most time-consuming work began once we got into trimming moments from scenes we felt were already working. And—to answer the last part of the question—sometimes test audiences suggested cuts that neither of us had truly considered. So yes, feedback screenings were incredibly important to our process.

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

Levy: I’ve worked as assistant editor for a number of really great editors and directors. To name just a couple: I worked for Jennifer Lame and Noah Baumbach. The quality of Noah’s writing speaks for itself but seemingly rote tasks in dailies such as organizing and watching “stringouts” of line readings for Jen truly was a kind of Mr. Miyagi “wax on, wax off” training for gauging performance. The same goes for working with Lucian Johnston and Ari Aster. Their collaboration gave me a greater appreciation for true cinematic formalism. Ari’s ability to block complex scenes is incredible, so watching Luc piece these intricate puzzles together while articulating Ari’s visual design was an education unto itself.

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

Levy: Avid. It’s what I’ve always worked on. It’s the most fool-proof for project management when dealing with a lot of footage and bins as one usually does on feature films.

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

Levy: It wasn’t a single scene, but the opening ten to fifteen minutes took us a long time to get right. As the cut progressed, the rhythm of those opening scenes kept needing to be altered. This was a particularly difficult process because there was a lot of important world building to be done at the outset. I think we ultimately settled on the ideal balance, but because Laurel had spent so much time researching contemporary Christian fundamentalist communities, it took awhile to streamline the presentation of the community and Jem’s family without it feeling too rushed.

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

Levy: Like with so many projects, Avid Fluidmorphs were essential for tinkering with performance and also cutting time. Otherwise, it wasn’t a VFX heavy film, though little alterations and fixes always seem to add up nowadays in terms of a film’s total shot count.

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?

Levy: I don’t know if my understanding of the film has radically changed, but this being the first feature I’ve edited, I now have an even greater appreciation for what can be accomplished in the edit if you just keep plugging away and keep an open mind. I say that humbly—as a reminder to myself going forward. I think of all the times we could’ve declared ourselves done and how in pushing past that, even when our experiments were unsuccessful, it informed our work greatly. I’m extremely grateful for these little lessons along the way—many of which are memorialized in the final cut. I hope people enjoy the film and I’m excited to discover it anew watching alongside everyone at Sundance!

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