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“I Usually Prefer To Embrace the Rushes as a Whole”: Editor Hoping Chen on Drift

A Black woman wearing a black and blue one piece bathing suit stands on the edge of a cliff overlooking the deep blue sea.Drift, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Drift, the latest feature from Singaporean director Anthony Chen, follows Jacqueline (Cynthia Erivo), who finds herself struggling to scrape by on a Greek island after fleeing Liberia during the war. The daughter of a wealthy government loyalist, this new rough and tumble lifestyle is far from the luxurious life she used to live. When she meets Callie (Alia Shawkat), an American tourist traveling solo, she is charmed and takes a risk by forming a connection with her.

Chen’s longtime editor Hoping Chen discusses the process of working on this film, revealing many of his established cutting habits.

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?

Chen: I’ve been collaborating with the director Anthony Chen since 2008 when we both attended the National Film and Television School in the UK. I’m from Taiwan, he’s from Singapore, but we share a language (Mandarin). I edited his first-year short film Hotel 66 and went on to edit all of his features. In the two years at the film school, we became good friends. NFTS is like a mini film industry. The community I found there has been a support to my career.

Anthony has a great love for ’80s and ’90s Taiwanese New Wave cinema. I began my career as a screenwriter at that time; working with director Edward Yang and other filmmakers. The love and appreciation of the cinema of those years was probably a crucial motivation for us to work together.

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?

Chen: I usually prefer to embrace the rushes as a whole—which means not following the dailies during the shoot. I enjoy watching the rushes on my own and continually discovering what comes in the next scene. At the end of the first viewing, I almost always have a strong sense of how to cut the film.

Beyond the script, there is a new life within the rushes. It is created by the actors, cinematography, direction, sound, locations and what happens on set. I like to capture this energy and keep the rawness. There is something organic and mysterious in the process of shooting.

Working this way, I feel better able to capture the essence of the film on first viewing. Then I just need to be careful not to lose that sense I felt in the beginning.

However, with Drift, the edit started during the shoot. My editing team, the assembly editor and my assistant helped me to keep some distance from what happened on set but I needed to dive into work each day as the filming took place.

With Drift, it’s the mystery of this woman Jacqueline that’s absolutely intriguing. She wanders around a touristic island alone; we observe and feel her, but the real story is inside her head. The process of watching this film is the gradual journey into her inner world, past and present. It is a quiet film. The audience sees, hears and feels things rather than having them explained through dialogue. Keeping the viewers’ curiosity about Jacqueline alive is crucial.

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

Chen: I like to work the film from the beginning to the end. After the initial assembly, when time allowed I would start work each day by playing the film from the beginning and working through the timeline. It’s important to keep my mind inside the film and in the flow. I also run the film in my head when away from the editing desk.

When we had a decent enough cut, there was a phase when we tried to review the structure of the film. We used scene cards to examine the structure and identify inessential “fat” in the cut, also swapped some scenes and cut others.

During this process, we kept working on some of the more difficult scenes to find the best edit. The sound world was built as much as we could at the same time.

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

Chen: In my long previous career in Taiwan, I was a screenwriter first, then a documentary filmmaker, then a producer for several TV drama series. I became an editor when I went to the UK to study film editing. My idea was to learn the other half of the craft of storytelling—the craft in the editing room. Editing is the other half of writing. I love writing very much. But editing as a career feels very natural to me.

My love of watching films in the cinema since I was a child is also profoundly important. All the years of enjoying all kinds of films have made me believe that cinema is not just an entertainment. The way a filmmaker sees the world from a unique angle can sometimes miraculously fulfill and heal our souls. This is the beauty of film.

I believe there is also a special angle an editor can contribute.

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

Chen: We used Avid Media Composer 2021.

The shooting was in Greece. I’m in London. Of my two assistants, Waltteri was in Helsinki, and Malcolm in Paris. It was a remote editing job from beginning to end. Using Avid made the sharing process really easy and well organized.

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

Chen: Towards the end of the film, there is a scene when Jacqueline falls into a panic state in the bathtub and starts to tell her story to Callie. It was scripted with minimal dialogue, to support the violent flashback scenes in Liberia. During the filming, more lines were added to help tell the story.

As it was designed to be a nightmarish scene for Jacqueline, I didn’t want to let her tell the whole story at the same time. The impact of the violence in her memory and her vulnerable emotions in the bathtub needed to be unified. It was a struggle to find the balance. How much needed to be told in words and how much shown?

After many viewings by the producers and team members, we really needed fresh perspectives. In the last week of the edit we showed the cut to a few people. Among the fresh eyes, there was the fantastic editor Chris Donaldson. Chris helped us look at the scene in a new light. The edit finished smoothly after that.

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?

Chen: Drift was based on the novel A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik. For a long time, I didn’t think I should read the novel. Just after we locked the edit, a friend of mine bought me a copy. Reading the story felt different from seeing it played out in the rushes, a curious mix of the familiar and unfamiliar. The thought “I wish I had read it before” did occur once or twice. But I don’t think I would have changed the edit even if I had read the novel.

As for the new meanings the film has taken on for me—it is still too fresh and close to get a new perspective. I would need to see the film as part of an audience to find out.

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