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“I Was Keen to Challenge Myself with Film Language That I Hadn’t Tried”: Editor Arttu Salmi on Sebastian

One white man is seen in profile while a younger white man looks at him.Ruaridh Mollica and David Nellist appear in Sebastian by Mikko Mäkelä, an official selection of the World Dramatic Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Seven years after the premiere of A Moment in the Reeds, Finnish-British director Mikko Mäkelä has followed up with the Sundance World Dramatic Competition Sebastian. For his second film, Mikko Mäkelä plunges the viewer into the life of a novelist who, first as research for his own novel and then for the thrills the double life grants him, enters the world of sex work. 

Editor Arttu Salmi, whose previous work includes the TIFF 2023 premiere The End We Start From and both the New Man and Degeneration installments of Dau, discusses the unique circumstances of editing Sebastian on two Avids and how he found the film in the 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?

Salmi: Although the director and I are both Finns based in London, we had never previously met. A couple of my friends had worked on Mikko’s debut film A Moment in the Reeds, so when the production reached out to me regarding Sebastian, I had already heard lovely things about him and the post-production of his previous film. The funding dictated that some of the key crew needed to be Finns, so that really narrowed it down if the production wanted the edit to take place in London. Aside from that, the script showed a lot of promise with a unique perspective, and I was keen to challenge myself with film language that I hadn’t tried my hand at yet.

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?

Salmi: The script cut was surprisingly long, and it became evident that some story elements needed to be dropped since the naturalism of the performance and the pace wasn’t too far off on a scene level. We
investigated how to pare down the first half of the film in particular and found promising cinematic language for using brief flashbacks as part of the main character’s writing process, which functioned beyond showing glimpses of his experience by enhancing the subjectiveness and ambiguity of the

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

Salmi: I try to adapt to the needs of each film, and if you haven’t worked with the director before, it can take some time to find the groove. Mikko often edits his own work and has cut for other directors as well, but we rather quickly found a way to speed up the process by working side by side on two Avids. I would focus on another section of the film while he was reviewing previous edits and trying out ideas to cut down his own dialogue or even restructure it. Often, we would then switch and refine those discoveries further. This allowed us to work efficiently within the limited edit time we had, give feedback to each other and flesh out new ideas. I found it refreshing, while acknowledging this was a unique set of circumstances and might not work in another film.

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

Salmi: I’m a film nerd who spent a disturbing amount of time watching films as a teenager, but I didn’t really consider filmmaking as an option until my early twenties. I worked as a cinema projectionist whilst completing a BA degree in editing at the Tampere University of Applied Sciences but wanted to push myself further and applied for the National Film + TV School in the UK. I had a tremendously exciting, demanding and fulfilling two years there, and met a lot of the future filmmakers I would end up working with after deciding to stay in London. Even though I’ve learnt from every film I’ve worked on and the people I’ve met along the way, I still draw heavily from that extensive pool of cinema knowledge, allowing me to be versatile with different film languages and genres.

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

Salmi: I’ve predominantly used Avid the past decade-and-a-half. In the end, it’s just a tool that allows you to execute your ideas and shape the film, but it’s also the software I’m most familiar with and therefore fastest on. There’s still an element in its original design emphasizing the old school “thinking before cutting,” rather than just quickly throwing clips on the timeline. I wonder if the chosen tool influences your editorial thought process, or can one just simply wield the tool to fit your own way of working?

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

Salmi: I can’t pinpoint one scene that was more difficult than others. Overall, the editorial challenge was the emotional flow of the story, and what elements are needed, what to emphasize at the expense of others. Often it’s about letting go of things that don’t need to be spelled out anymore and weeding out small elements that now seem to get in the way. Small character moments, pauses end up having a massive impact, whereas long dialogue scenes are reduced to the bare minimum, and it’s hard to tell in the assembly stage where that road will end up taking you.

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?

Salmi: The film is still in sound mix with only a few precious days left before it needs to be handed over for its Sundance premiere, so it’s difficult to be analytical at this stage. Perhaps the element of auto-fictitious writing and its link to the main character’s point of view and memory was something that was discovered in the edit, and which differs from what was written on the page. But how would you even write that in script form? I wouldn’t be surprised if that was Mikko’s plan all along but was something I couldn’t anticipate while reading the script.

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