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“From the First Assembly, I Knew the Film Was There”: Editor Lindsay Armstrong on Young. Wild. Free.

Two people lean in for a kiss, one wearing metallic eyeshadow. They are both dressed in all-black.Young. Wild. Free., courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Teenagers Brandon (Algee Smith) and Cassidy (Sierra Capri) form a perilous romance that rivals Bonnie and Clyde’s in Young. Wild. Free., director Thembi Banks’s feature debut. Filmmaker asked editor Lindsay Armstrong about her experience cutting the film, including the unexpected importance of VFX.

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?

Armstrong: Director Thembi Banks and I met and became good friends while working towards our MFAs in Film Production at USC. During our time there, we discovered that we share similar sensibilities, tenacity, and really enjoy working and creating together. In the years since, we’ve remained close friends and trusted collaborators. I’ve edited some of Thembi’s short films, such as Baldwin Beauty, which played at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020. I’ve also cut a few sizzle reels for Thembi, including the sizzle reel for Young. Wild. Free. 

From an early stage, Thembi and I discussed the film’s tone, themes, character arcs, musical identity, and sound in detail, so we were very much on the same page. When the time came to make the feature, Thembi trusted me to help execute her vision with care and precision. 

Production on Young. Wild. Free. initially began on March 11, 2020. Needless to say, the film was shut down after one day of shooting, and we were absolutely devastated. But thanks to the dedication and perseverance of Thembi and our amazing producing team, we came back together over 2 years later and made it happen! It was well worth the wait.

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?

Armstrong: I knew we had a very tight post schedule, so my goal was to keep up to camera and have a first assembly ready shortly after the last day of production. By doing this, I was able to view the film as a whole more quickly and start identifying what was working and what needed finessing. 

From the first assembly, I knew the film was there. There were such beautiful performances and a natural chemistry between the characters that allowed the emotional core of the film to shine through. I couldn’t wait to work with Thembi to elevate the film even further. However, the first assembly was quite long, so there was a goal to trim down the film while not sacrificing story or nuance within our characters and their relationships.

Moving from the first assembly to the final film, our goal was to really hone in on our lead character, Brandon, and get inside his head. We wanted to ensure that the audience not only understood, but was emotionally invested in his wants, needs, and struggles. Algee Smith gave such an incredible performance as Brandon, that it was really about enhancing what he gave us and using sound design and visuals as an entryway into his headspace.

Additionally, it was important for us to highlight the joy, freedom, and fun that Brandon experiences when he’s with Cassidy (Sierra Capri). We wanted to make sure the audience felt the shift in Brandon once she entered his life, in contrast to the pressure mounting around and within him at home. 

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

Armstrong: As far as trimming the film, Thembi and I analyzed each scene’s necessity in relation to Brandon and his journey. There were some wonderful scenes and sequences that worked beautifully on their own, but just weren’t necessary to move the film in the direction it needed to go. We missed a couple of these lost scenes at first, but eventually came to the conclusion that the movie was just as impactful without them. 

Since our post schedule was so tight, we were extremely close to the film and didn’t have the luxury of time to step away from it. We held a few friends and family screenings in LA, which were very helpful in gaining outside perspectives. Thembi and I always sat in the back during these screenings so we could watch and listen to the audience react to the movie. We discovered a lot about what was working, what made people laugh, and what shocked them, just by watching and listening to their physical and audible reactions. At each of these screenings we utilized written questionnaires as well as moderated discussions after the film. 

Sound design played an important role in our film and served as a powerful tool that we used to get into and out of Brandon’s headspace. Thembi and I spent a lot of time discussing sound and how it could be used to help set the tone and punctuate Brandon’s internal struggles. 

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

Armstrong: From a young age I was always involved in the arts — specifically in music and musical theater. Strangely enough, I’ve discovered that a lot of editors grew up playing a musical instrument or performing theater. I think it speaks to our proclivity towards such a lyrical and rhythmic profession. 

I received an undergraduate degree in Psychology, but also minored in Music and Media Arts at the University of Arizona, which is where I first discovered my passion for the magic and power of editing. I decided to pursue it further by attending USC and receiving my MFA. While at USC, I learned from some amazing mentors, such as the late Norman Hollyn, the late Robert C. Jones, and Reine-Claire Dousarkissian. The late Bob Jones’s advice, “cut to what you want to see, when you want to see it,” is a simple, yet brilliant piece of advice that I call upon often while editing.   

After USC, I moved to the Bay Area and worked at Pixar Animation Studios as an assistant editor, where I learned under some incredible editors — Axel Geddes, Catherine Apple, and Anna Wolitzky, among others. I credit my keen attention to detail in sound design to my time at Pixar, where I not only learned about editing, but also about story and structure from some real masters. 

I eventually moved back down to LA and started my journey as a live action film and TV assistant editor. Over the years, I worked with immensely talented editors and gained such valuable insight and knowledge on each project I worked on. But I specifically grew as an editor while working with Tyler L. Cook, who let me cut scenes on each show we worked on together.

Early on, I had been given the advice to cut anything and everything I could get my hands on. So for about seven years, I was consistently editing side projects, be it short films or low budget indie features, while working full time as an assistant editor. This could be quite challenging and exhausting at times, but with each project, I gained more tools and became a stronger editor. I also got to meet many talented collaborators along the way.  

My big break as an editor came on Jenny Han’s series, The Summer I Turned Pretty, which was an incredible experience and opportunity for me. I’ve been cutting full time ever since. 

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

Armstrong: I cut this film on Avid Media Composer. I learned Avid very proficiently during my time at USC, so that’s the editing system I am the most comfortable with.

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

Armstrong: Sometimes a character’s introduction needs to be so memorable that it shifts the world of the film and the audience’s expectations. Cassidy’s introduction was certainly one of those instances, which made it one of the more challenging scenes to cut. We wanted the audience to feel the danger and electricity of her character, as well as sense Brandon’s intrigue as soon as she walks through the door.  

I also needed to carefully balance her actions against the many hilarious improv lines from the store owner, Ali (GaTa). Additionally, choosing the right music for this introduction was a big undertaking as it was such an energetic, pivotal moment.  

Thembi and I went back and forth on the length of this scene, but ultimately decided that this moment was worth living in. We wanted the audience to have the time to take Cassidy in, feel the wildness of the moment, and experience her magnetic pull. It was an incredibly fun scene to edit, but was also one that I felt a lot of pressure to get just right!

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

Armstrong: VFX played a big role in this film, and actually a larger role than we initially anticipated! Most notably, the ending of our film has quite a few complex VFX shots. We needed to know how these shots would look and how our choices would affect timing, so we turned them over to our VFX team fairly early on in our post process. They were able to turn these shots around pretty quickly, which was helpful in putting the ending sequence together.

My assistant editor, Brandon Marchionda, did an incredible job with our temp VFX, and actually ended up doing some of our final VFX as well. He also handled all of our VFX tracking, which was quite a large undertaking. We couldn’t have done it without him.

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?

Armstrong: Truthfully, the process is only very recently over, so I am still processing all that this film has become for me. But part of my process as an editor is doing a lot of prep work ahead of the first day of production. On Young. Wild. Free., I attended the table read, had multiple conversations with Thembi, and took detailed notes every time she expressed her vision or intention with a scene. We also communicated daily during production. Thembi remained very true to her vision and was clear about the story she wanted to tell. Because of this, when it came to the edit, I always had a good understanding of the film and its emotional core.

Ever since I first read the script years ago, I felt this was an important and unique story that needed to be told. Similar to Thembi, I grew up on coming of age films. So it was an honor for me to edit a coming of age story told through the lens of young, Black teenagers being rebellious, having fun, taking LA by storm, and trying to navigate the complexities of life. Though I’ve seen the film hundreds of times, I still get emotional every time I watch it.

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