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“The World Just Sounded Different 50 Years Ago”: Editors Peter Hagan and Lawrence Klein on Fairyland

A young girl wearing a brown vest and bucket hat sits on her bearded father's shoulders as a parade passes them by.Fairyland, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Based on Alysia Abbott’s memoir of the same name, Fairyland chronicles Alysia’s (Emilia Jones’s) coming of age in the ’70s and ’80s. After her mother dies, her father moves to San Francisco with the then-5-year-old Alysia and begins openly dating men. The film follows Alysia’s ever-evolving relationship with her father as she relocates to New York for college, travels to France for a study abroad program and eventually returns home to San Francisco.

Co-editors Peter Hagan and Lawrence Klein discuss how they worked together to cut Andrew Durham’s debut 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?

Hagan: I was recommended to Andrew [Durham, Fairyland director] from a mutual contact. I read the script and was immediately drawn to the material. The story of a father raising his daughter in a bohemian, artistic setting resonated with my own experience as a father working in a creative space with a young daughter. I felt I could help bring an authenticity to the experience of that story. When Andrew and I met, we hit it off and we were off and running from there.

Klein: I was lucky enough to have a relationship with Peter who bought me on, he’s the one who had the relationship with Zoetrope. I had a nice space to work at and the equipment as well as the life situation to be able to take on a very low budget film—also, 20 years of post-production experience doesn’t hurt.

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?

Hagan: I always try to bring honesty and authenticity to the stories I help tell. As an editor, honesty for me is about finding the moments when actors are able to tap into themselves and bring real emotion from their own lived experiences to the screen. This was especially important for Fairyland because Steve is an artist and frequently speaks to Alysia about the importance of honesty in his art. We wouldn’t be doing their story any justice if we did not make the same commitment to honesty in our creative choices. Then, we also needed to bring the world of 1970s/1980s San Francisco to life in an authentic way. The world that Steve and Alysia inhabited was a specific time and place. Hopefully, when people walk out of the film they feel like they’ve experienced a taste of what that world was like.

Klein: Well, personally, I’m not a fan of films having such protracted runtimes these days, so I try to trim down to the meat of the scenes; I always think the aim is to find the sweet spot of just enough and nothing extraneous. The goal of editing is always to tell the story by using each shot for as long as it will sustain interest. As for advancing the cut? We just meticulously brush away everything that is not essential, it takes concentration and time. We really just wanted the relationship between our leads to feel authentic and the emotions earned. We didn’t want melodrama and I think we got it there.

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

Hagan: To bring San Francisco to life, we spent a lot of time searching for the right music, sound and archival footage that would evoke that period and place. The main title sequence of the film relied entirely on archival footage and I think is a key sequence for bringing the world of Fairyland to life. The music, too, needed to be personal and idiosyncratic to this special group of people. We definitely wanted to evoke the great music that people remember from the ’70s and ’80s but not in an obvious way with songs that are still played on the radio today. Sound is particularly important for any period piece. The world just sounded different 50 years ago and we searched for the appropriate period sounds to layer into our environments and find ways to use different sounds as transitional devices across scenes and periods of time.

Klein: You gotta just try stuff. After assembly there is a ton of rearranging scene order, tailoring the performances, deploying some elliptical editing, and meticulous sound design. Interpreting feedback is challenging, trying to figure out the note behind the note because it’s not like notes are crystal clear critiques. It is a good mind game, trying to interpret what it is that is bumping someone out of the experience. 

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

Hagan: I started editing in high school on a very early version of Adobe Premiere. My high school had a small stock footage library and I’d cut archival clips from historical events to rock ‘n’ roll music mixed with random things I’d shoot at my school. I was immediately grabbed by the art of montage and the power of the medium to communicate by putting two seemingly anachronistic images next to each other with sound and music. I loved it right away and have been doing it ever since. From there, I moved to LA and slowly climbed the ladder from PA to assistant editor to editor. Along the way I took every opportunity to cut and learn. I would stay late after my shifts as a PA to learn the Avid during off-hours and cut as many scenes as I could once I became an assistant editor. I kept doing that until I got a shot in the chair.

Klein: Came up through reality [television], VFX vendors, Hallmark movies, WWE, scripted television, and independent and studio features while also making my own shorts and videos. Non-controversially, I religiously watch JFK and The Right Stuff when I need a reminder of how wonderful editing can be.

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

Hagan: Avid because it is quite simply the best.

Klein: Avid for long form—it is the correct tool for working it, I’m just more comfortable working on it, every pro job I’ve ever had [has] used it. It is a better record keeper. Premiere I like to do [for] music videos and shorts. I feel like I have an easier control of the image, and I can do wackier stuff more easily in it.

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

Hagan: Probably the gay pride parade that happens in the ’70s when Alysia is still young. For that, we mixed archival footage with footage shot by production. It was a technical challenge finding archival footage that would blend with our production dailies. It’s also a scene that’s more emotional or atmospheric than plot-driven. Those types of scenes can be tricky to land. Plot keeps the audience hooked. Scenes that are more emotional or atmospheric have to land feelings with an audience. That can be elusive and if you fail, the scene could be a real dud. To execute it was again about finding the right sounds, music and leaning into the honesty in the performances from our leads.

Klein: The part of the film where the main character travels, [as] it just had a lot of moving parts. I did it by just laying it all out and doing trim revisions until it had shape. There is no magic button, just concentration.

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

Hagan: VFX is an integral part of every film at this point. While this was not a “VFX show” per say, we did have several VFX shots. Probably the most profound use of VFX on this film for creative ends was the many shots we re-timed to extend or tighten moments. Retimming shots is the process by which we speed up or slow down shots in imperceptible ways to create the exact dramatic or comedic timing desired. We did this many times in the show.

Klein: Mostly cleanup work, wigs, painting out technology that didn’t exist when the story took place.

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?

Hagan: I try to approach every film as a student, and I have been enriched by working on Fairyland. Getting to know these real people and their experiences in this intimate way has broadened my own horizons and increased my empathy and interest in continuing to learn more about my craft and people’s experiences through it.

Klein: Well, being a period piece it had many details and accents that I found enlightening about the time period and subject. I think it was a window into a world that was very specific. The footage was much less voluminous than bigger budget films so it definitely made me have to really investigate every frame much more thoroughly and critically than I’ve previously had to. Initially I thought it was going to be a very different kind of film when I found out about what time period and subject matter it was dealing with but was pleasantly surprised that it was such a quiet and contemplative and quality film.

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