“Creative Storytelling Needs Rather Simple Tools”: Editors Tushar Prakash and Hendrik Mägar on Smoke Sauna Sisterhood
In Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, the hazy and intimate doc from Estonian director Anna Hints, a group of women bear body and soul for the camera as they engage in lengthy shvitzes and discuss their most personal thoughts and memories while worshiping the divine feminine connection they all share.
Editors Tushar Prakash and Hendrik Mägar discuss how they each approached cutting the film, with Mägar coming on during post-production to do the final edit.
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?
Prakash: It was through pure luck that I came onto the project. I was first asked to help the director navigate through the footage and to log it and sort it. Then there was a gap in the ongoing editing process due to the availability of the various editors, to keep the project progressing I was asked to join in as I was available and also able to understand the director’s creative vision due to my familiarity with the material. Those few months that I spent with the director on the project gave her the chance to find the language of the film at her own pace and leisure. The two of us were practically living with the project for 6-8 months, giving her the chance to experiment, explore various avenues and get to know the footage. It was a very dreamy process where the director would get dreams regarding the scenes and sequences and we could execute the ideas the very next morning.
Mägar: I joined the Smoke Sauna Sisterhood team halfway through post-production to do the final cut of the film. I had just finished editing Icelandic-Estonian co-production fiction film Driving Mum (dir. Hilmar Oddsson) by the same producers as “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” – Marianne Ostrat and Hlín Jóhannesdóttir. Driving Mum was my first time working with them. The creative process was a success on many levels – artistic approach, workflow, communication and of course the final outcome of the film. At that time director Anna Hints, editor Tushar Prakash and the producers needed a fresh pair of eyes to analyze the current state of Smoke Sauna Sisterhood to decide how to proceed. Anna and Tushar had been editing together for more than a year and were looking for an experienced editor to join the team and carry the film to its final destination. After presenting my editing analysis we understood that we are on the same page and this could be resourceful collaboration. The project was handed over to me and Tushar continued to support us from the backseat as he was familiar with the raw material to the finest nuances.
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?
Prakash: My biggest aim as a part of the editing team was to give the director the time and space to get to know the footage, to sort it and to map it, and to give her the ability to check out and to experiment with her ideas. And after I got to know the material and her ideas, my other aim was to find the style of the film from within the material, not to reshape it too much, but to use the minimal use of editing to keep the spirit of the footage. I did not want to impose too many editing rules over the footage, but to just keep all the powerful moments and stitch them together in the right order. I exactly felt that too many editing concepts and rules could damage the spirit of the film and the original vision of the director, this was our journey with the director for 6-8 months. But after working on the film for 6-8 months I lost distance to the footage and was not able to make key important decisions regarding keeping or removing scenes, and also I realized that I was not able to get the pacing of the film right and other such key factors were missing. So I felt it was time for me to hand over the project to newer hands, eyes and brains. However, I am very proud of the fact that the spirit of the film was formed during my intense work with the director.
Mägar: As I joined the team in the mid process I didn’t do any early assemblies. My starting point was something that could be called a decent second or third cut of the film which in the documentary film world can easily mean that the film has been in the editing at least for six months. I had an 85 minutes long film in front of me that had all the elements already in place but the overall viewing experience was not as good as the potential of the material was. Similar topics (beauty, shame, abortions, LGBT) were piled together next to one another and that’s why it felt edited and not organic. There was too much logic and you could feel the presence of the organized structure. I wanted to polish out the uniqueness and universality that the footage contained. The main goal of the film is to talk about taboos without shame and judgment. Many subjects become taboos due to our social background, beliefs or upbringing. But they shouldn’t be taboos—childhood traumas, being accepted, having abortion, gay/lesbian relationships are part of life and very much present in our society. If we don’t talk about those subjects then we can ́t learn from other people’s experiences and have to learn everything the hard way on our own. The aim was to create a warm and caring environment for the ladies where they can open up, share and heal together—sauna gives the framework for that. We started the editing process from fundamentals—the structure and pace of the film. The goal was to really focus on the emotional journey of the audience with its highs and lows. As this film deals with harsh real life topics that include suffering and shame it’s easy to exhaust viewers with the lows. Together with the structure work we got rid of quite many repetitions. Some characters were cut out and some new were brought in to serve the new approach.
When the structure got in place we moved on with “inside scene editing” and the style of the film. Working with style (story telling approach and visual style) is always a challenge in documentaries, especially when they are shot over a long period of time. In our case over six or seven years. Even if the scenes were heavily edited the aim was an organic feel. The whole film should feel like one long sauna session. This process consisted of analysis to make a list “what is missing, what is excessive” before digging into the raw footage to find the elements you are looking for. In the final cut of the film there is one seven minute long dialogue scene which I kept as it was. Everything else changed: structure, style, pace, focus, visuals etc.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Prakash: I took every scene as its own world and universe, with its own energy and spirit. I thought that if we can work within the world of every scene and see what the footage of that scene tells us, then the entire film will fall into place. Because the movie had been shot over seven years and the idea of the film had evolved over time, I felt that if we imposed a general ‘concept’ or overarching editing rule over the footage, it would destroy the organic nature of footage and would not allow us from using certain powerful moments that the footage had. So instead the technique during my editing stage with the director was to sort-mark-label every powerful moment that spoke to us, and then start placing them together in particular orders to see what narrative flow starts to form. In that way every sauna scene has its own style and energy, drawn organically from the material itself. What the crew felt during the shoot had to be trusted and preserved. During my editing process, I remember one screening that we had with the producer and our story consultant. This was our first cut viewing with them, the director and me had worked for many days and nights before racing to put it together for them to watch, and in the time pressure we had to find many creative solutions to certain sequences. That cut viewing made us all feel that indeed we have the potential for a good film and many of the solutions we found before that viewing have stayed in spirit and style till the final cut.
Mägar: The structure work and analysis took place mostly on paper. Every scene was put on a color coded card that included information about the scene: main topic, themes, characters, emotion, duration. Those cards were on the floor of the editing room for a couple of weeks to play around with the structure without spending excessive time behind the computer. For feedback we used Rough Cut Service (RCS) twice—once before I started editing and second time a couple of weeks before the picture lock. RCS provides editing feedback to documentaries from experienced editors and directors. Having those in depth conversations with Jordana Berg and Yael Bitton were crucial to reshape the film in such a short time—altogether we had 40 editing days.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Prakash: My participation in the industry has been in phases. Altogether I have been in the industry for 15 years. But this includes four years of education, sabbaticals, role exchanges, workshops etc. As a creative person I draw inspirations from history, philosophy, art, folklore and mythology. Everyday talks with people, friends and life experiences are invaluable. As for the craft of editing, I am very inspired by the work and ideas of Walter Murch and how he brought a very ‘European’ cinema mindset to the popular Hollywood genre. “The Kuleshov editing effect,” which is the foundation of the film editing technique is something that I keep coming back to not just in editing, but also in script writing. Because of my Polish Film School education, I am also very inspired by the Polish Documentary editors who were masterful in creating a smooth flow in the observational style of filmmaking, which was further used by Kieslowski during his early fiction work to create a mix of reality and fiction.
Mägar: I gained interest in films during my teen years. Back then I was more fond of the unique worlds with their own rules than stories themselves—from A Clockwork Orange to any crazy Emir Kusturica films. With some lucky coincidences I ended up working on the first film sets already during high school days as an assistant to a set designer. Going to film school was a logical decision for me as I didn’t want to study anything boring or just functional. I thought back then that editing would be much more technical cutting than creative storytelling—I learnt the opposite on the go and sometimes the hard way. Luckily my first tutor at the film school was Jüri Sillart, a postmodernist director and cinematographer who spoke so much in metaphors that I had to learn quickly and adapt to the new environment. The skill to adapt has become very important in my later career while working with different directors from different backgrounds and with their understanding of the creative process.
Sillart also emphasized a lot on the luck factor during my studies—if you want to be successful in filmmaking you have to have good relationships with fortune. I still think that it’s true and not just in film making, in any kind of collective art form. You ́ll need some luck or being in the right place at the right time with the right people to stand out as there are so many films produced, so much music released etc. Fortune and luck were at my side at the crucial time when I made the switch from short films to full length features. This usually takes years of being assistant to an experienced editor—you start with more technical stuff and as time goes by you might be trusted with some creative tasks as well. I was able to skip this part and jump straight from film school into editing feature films.
It was 2015, I was 25 years old and just received my diploma from film school. Meanwhile a team mostly consisting of my course mates went to shoot a feature film that got funded six months prior and I was hired as an editor. In the following year when the film premiered EFTAs (National Estonian Film and Television Awards) were established for the first time. With our first film The Days that Confused, we got six of those awards including Best Film, Best Director, Best Cinematographer and Best Editing. After that I became locally established enough that I was able to continue working mostly with long formats. Currently I have edited eight feature length projects including fiction, documentaries and TV series.
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Prakash: We worked on Adobe Premiere Pro. It was a system that was being used by all the editors on the editing team because it works across Mac and PC platforms and for its ease of project transfer. For my I chose that software also because I have worked on it through the years and know it very intuitively. With a film like this I did not want to work on a system that I did not understand.
Mägar: I have made all my feature films with Adobe Premiere. I started with Final Cut Pro 7 in film school. But a couple of years later they didn’t develop the software properly anymore so a switch became necessary. Adobe felt the easiest way to go back then as Avid felt so much different. I still use the base of my keyboard shortcuts from the Final Cut days although it has become rather customized by now. I have been rather satisfied with Adobe, especially the last two or three years where they have improved on the simple functions that film editors need more. All in all it doesn’t make a difference what software you use for editing because creative storytelling needs rather simple tools—it’s more about the ideas and creative decisions that make a good film.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Prakash: For me personally the first 15 minutes of the film were very difficult to cut, we were not able to settle on a good way to start the film, it seemed to have too many starts, and the mood was not set right before the first dialogue would come, it just seemed like the wrong note. However I was very pleased to see in the final cut Hendrik Mägar and Anna Hints took some very strong decisions and made the changes that fixed the “too many starts” problem, and also brought in a different story to start with that is the right note to start with. Also I was struggling to help the director make some tough decisions regarding some scenes that were important but just seemed out of place in the film, I would guess it would be because I lost distance to the project. In the editing process after me they were able to make the strong decisions to drop those scenes.
Mägar: With documentaries it’s always the beginning—the first 12 minutes. The amount of time and work that goes into openings is so much greater than with any other scene. There is so much to establish—“who? what? where?”—while keeping the style and audience attention in place. You can never forget how your film ends while building the beginning because you choose what kind of expectations the audience will have in the beginning. Of course you can play around with the expectations and be surprising at times but it’s important that the ending of the film will satisfy audience expectations in general. It’s easy to build an intense beginning with catchy music that captures all the attention but you’ll have to be careful not to ruin your overall style and have room to grow throughout the film.
In Smoke Sauna Sisterhood I had to take a couple of steps backwards to make the beginning work and make it more simple. The amount of music used was too big and that’s the danger with music in editing generally. Good piece of music makes any kind of edit work as it takes over viewers attention. At least we didn’t have to deal with a huge amount of backstory with Smoke Sauna Sisterhood that is always a second complicated topic to solve with documentaries. Do you put all the backstory into the beginning so that you don’t have to make time jumps or you establish a style that allows you to go back in time when necessary.
From the technical side there was one scene in the second part of the film that took place while whisking. There is a constant sound of whisking (wet branches hitting skin) throughout the dialogue scene. To make any dialogue cuts you had to match the pace and style of whisking to hide the cut. Whisking is not constant in movement and sound: some phases are softer, others harder and sometimes the strokes are fondled. So we tried to match whisking styles with the dramaturgy of the scene.
Filmmaker: What role did VFX work, or compositing, or other post-production techniques play in terms of the final edit?
Prakash: The color correction process of the film is vital because they had to match footage that has been shot over seven years, different cameras and seasons. Our color correctionist Sten-Johan Lill has the amazing ability to work with the material yet it looks natural, and exactly how it is supposed to look and not over processed. After the material went through his hands I was delighted to see the organic – primordial nature of the footage come alive and it highlighted the Chiaroscuro look of the footage, which highly compliments the viewing experience.
Mägar: We do have compositing shots with two t0 five layers in the film for the Old Mari character to create a poetic and mystical atmosphere. She is a spirit-like character who represents the past and introduces the manners from the beginning of 20th century. But those are rather simple composites of smoke layers on top of CU-MED shots. More importantly I would draw the attention to color grading. This film really needed a colorist with an emotional touch and understanding of the story. As the film takes place in a dark sauna room it would be easy to mess it up if you are too much of a technical-histogram driven colorist. Sten-Johan Lill nailed the task well while matching the footage shot over seven years with different cameras into an organic and warm atmosphere.
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?
Prakash: My biggest learning came from seeing the changes and additions that the other editors made to the cut. I was amazed to see how under my hands the cut had become removed from the lighter moments of life, I had made the cut too “tight”, too removed from life. But when Hendrik came to the project, it was amazing to see how he brought in moments of joy and life and bonding. Starting a scene or a short a few seconds or minutes before I was starting it to introduce some life and casualness to the atmosphere. I also learnt from him the wisdom to bring in professional editing consultants to help him and the director look at the cut objectively and advise them regarding some of the more challenging and tough decisions that needed to be taken regarding keeping or dropping scenes.
Mägar: As I joined the crew for the last editing session my understandings and meanings are on the screen and they haven’t changed much. Overall I spent 40 editing days to shape the film into the final version. I think that timing for this film to come out now in 2023 is spot on. It’s important to talk openly about those lively and humane topics while the political sphere in many places of the world is making backwards steps. It is ridiculous how a bunch of old men are making rules about how women should behave, what they can wear, what they can do in their lives and with their bodies. I sincerely think that if men would biologically be able to get pregnant we would have drive-in abortion clinics all over the place.