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Tone and Rhythm: Editor Hilda Rasula on American Fiction

Two black men sit and talk on a porch at night.Jeffrey Wright and Sterling K. Brown in American Fiction (courtesy of Orion Pictures)

Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction, a satire of the publishing world and modern race relations, stars Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, an English professor and novelist frustrated by what he sees as the literary establishment’s exploitation of Black stereotypes for profit. To prove a point, Monk adopts a pseudonym, writes a book steeped in tired and offensive tropes and jokingly sends it off to publishers. Much to his chagrin, the book becomes a massive hit. But before Monk can unmask himself, a family tragedy leads him home, where the financial needs of his ailing mother (Leslie Uggams) compel him to instead take the charade further.

Adapted from Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure and directed by Jefferson in his audacious feature debut, American Fiction strikes a balance between scorching social commentary and sensitive melodrama. For editor Hilda Rasula, ensuring that the film’s complexities could coexist meant finding ways to juggle disparate genres, tones and topics within the same story. “American Fiction is several movies in one: a satire about culture and race but also a tender family drama, a romance and an artist’s journey,” she explains. “I knew the biggest challenge in editing was going to be finding the tone and rhythm. Each storyline needed to work with the others in a way that felt fluid, natural and relatable—like life itself.”

Rasula was unfamiliar with Erasure before being approached to edit American Fiction and didn’t read it until after locking picture, but she says that finding “common ground” between herself and Monk wasn’t hard. In the character, who “juggles dualities within himself,” she recognized elements of her own mixed-race identity. Half Chinese and half Finnish, Rasula grew up in Los Angeles, Canada and France and has previously described the nomadic nature of her childhood as instilling in her a “built-in otherness.” 

An editor for film and television (whose projects have included Azazel Jacobs’s absurdist comedy French Exit and Joey Soloway’s Amazon series Transparent), Rasula also related to Monk’s frustration toward an entertainment industry, run by predominantly white gatekeepers, that imposes limits on his artistic expression due to preconceived biases. “Identity politics are such a major part of our everyday lives, but I would also say that part of the point of this film is that no one wants to be defined by external characteristics,” she says. “We want to be full humans when doing our work. We want to be in control of the story of our lives.” 

“Monk is somebody who has his inner life as an artist, but he’s occasionally constrained by the way the world perceives him,” she added. “That’s something any creative person, and certainly anybody who has brushed up against the thornier aspects of identity politics in the modern world, can relate to. He’s holding these different experiences inside of him: the art he wants to make, the work he does create, the way the world perceives him from the outside, the contrast of that with his inner life and his different identities as a writer, an academic and a member of his family.”

Beyond the biting humor of its satire, American Fiction features no shortage of poignant, even heartbreaking, scenes between Monk and his doctor siblings Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), who has cared for their mother since the death of their father, and Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), who has recently come out as gay. Spending time at his family’s beach home in Massachusetts, Monk also starts to date a neighbor (Erika Alexander), adding a romantic subplot to the story. Other moments, such as a sequence that playfully dramatizes Monk’s writing process as he imagines a showdown between two stereotypical “thug” characters (Keith David and Okieriete Onaodowan) debating their life of crime and overwrought family relations, allow American Fiction to flirt with magical realism and erupt into action. 

Rasula found it fitting—even “quietly subversive”—that, in editing a film about an artist who refuses to be pigeonholed, she was similarly able to experiment with genre. She came to see American Fiction’s literary satire as a “Trojan horse” within which the filmmakers could smuggle in a “quotidian, more classical family drama” about grief, aging and acceptance. “Sculpting those transitions from comedy to pathos and back again required a delicate hand and a lot of experimenting with pacing, but I think we found a tonal balance that feels really human and authentic,” she says. Rasula knew early on that American Fiction would live or die by its rhythm. “We needed to hone the comedy to provide high points of humor and color but also find ways to go into different, more dramatic palettes,” she recalls. “Monk’s living with the dichotomy of these two worlds, and he has this whole identity crisis that’s threatening to tear him apart. But, for the audience, it has to feel like life. Crazy things happen in life; something absurd happens to you, then something dramatic, something bad, something sad. Real human experience can turn on a dime, and we wanted to capture that.”

It was important for Rasula to keep the film grounded in the situational reality of its characters and in the experiences of Monk. “When you’re working on a more human scale of events and plot, you need to find a way for the emotional impact to accrue over time,” she explains. “The only way you can do that, I think, is to have details in individual scenes land with some sort of strange specificity that feels real, authentic and human. Even if you’re working in a more comedic mode, it still has to hit. You’re trying to build a snowball effect of emotion and observation.”

Rasula cut American Fiction in Avid Media Composer, her preferred system. “Even in what would seem to be a very straight-ahead style of cutting, I ended up using split-screens for performance and pacing and certain manipulations to get a character to hold his gaze at the end of a shot for half a second longer,” she says. “I still use every trick up my sleeve to make the drama work, basically. There are always situations as an editor where you have to manipulate the footage, using all the tools at your disposal, to essentially force the footage to be what you ideally want it to be.”

Rasula saw herself as “sculpting the marble” of the actors’ performances. Together with Jefferson, she came to feel that her role as the film’s editor was to “analyze and agonize over these incredibly subtle decisions of what it means when a character has a very particular look in his eye and how that impacts the scene.” In honing Wright’s performance, Rasula says her work was about “finding ways for him to be broken up, changed or broken open by the experiences he’s going through” without reducing the nuances of Monk’s journey to direct sequences of cause and effect. “You have to watch change happen in him in really subtle ways, in tiny flicks of his eyes or ways that he’s softening or is finally able to laugh at himself for once,” she says.

“Any filmmaker or editor knows there’s an element of construction to performances, but it’s all about the raw material,” she adds. “Sometimes, actors give you raw clay, and other times you’re handed a brick of solid gold.” In that respect, American Fiction offered its editor an embarrassment of riches. Even smaller supporting characters, such as the family’s housekeeper Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor) and successful Black novelist Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), are afforded moments to stand out in the ensemble. As Rasula puts it: “If they’re good actors, they give you choices. The problem is the power of choice.” 

Cutting scenes after reading them on the page, Rasula often found herself “chasing the dragon” of what she’d read, what she thought it meant and how it had made her feel. “Editing every scene was about manipulating the footage to make it seem that way, to subtly draw that intention out of it,” she says. “Scene by scene, it’s a question of massaging, polishing and sculpting until that scene is wrestled into the right shape of what I’d felt when I read it originally.” 

Rasula’s biggest challenge involved dealing with the pace and structure of the film’s first act, which had to introduce Monk while conveying the film’s unique combination of humor, drama and insight. “We went around and around about the right pace of those scenes, figuring out what to lose and what to keep,” she says. Later, Rasula dramatically restructured the first act, changing how Monk was initially perceived by the audience, and incorporated a new scene from Jefferson that “set the audience up to be willing to go on this journey with Monk in a way they perhaps hadn’t fully been before.” 

Feedback screenings played an important role in shaping American Fiction. “Some scenes became much tighter as we went along, and we restructured the film, putting scenes in different orders to find the flow of the right character arcs,” Rasula explains. Other scenes were left on the cutting-room floor, while two new scenes, including American Fiction’s second scene and final ending, were added late in the process. 

“Ultimately, movies are nothing if not for an audience,” says Rasula. “It was the process of showing it to people that told us what the film needed to be; we saw where people were losing interest or finding a scene repetitive. It was about structuring, doing pace work within scenes and responding to the waves the audience is emotionally and intellectually experiencing as they’re watching the film by asking, ‘What do they need here? What makes sense for them to be feeling or thinking about next?’”

American Fiction premiered in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was embraced warmly by critics and won the prestigious People’s Choice Award. In reflecting on the film’s reception, Rasula admits that she’s been taken aback by how personally many audience members have responded to American Fiction. “Whenever you’re working on a story, it’s all about the characters in that story, and all you can do is get to the finish line with them,” she says. “The characters become so real and huge in your mind as you’re working. I’m always wondering, ‘Is this scene doing justice to Monk?’ Once it gets out to an audience, you realize it’s for real people in the world and can wonder what it means to those watching it. In the end, it’s about storytelling, what it means to create stories for other people and accepting elements of the stories of our lives: what we can accept, and what we can’t.”

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