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“Never Being Satisfied and Always Asking the Hard Questions”: Editor Joseph Krings on Winner and Love Me

On a white bedspread, a white woman holding a magazine and an Asian man look into one another's eyes.Kristen Stewart and Steven Yeun in Love Me. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Justine Yeung.

Joseph Krings (Galveston, Captain Fantastic) is the credited editor on two films at Sundance this year: the sci-fi animated Love Me, starring Kristen Stewart and Steven Yeun, and Winner, a biopic about Reality Winner, the imprisoned whistleblower who leaked NSA documents related to Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Below, Krings discusses both films at length, touching on the challenges of editing a film that is going to be heavily reworked in animation, finding the right balance between tragedy and gallows humor, and the peculiar VFX challenges of both films.

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?

Krings: This year, I am very lucky to be involved in two films! For Love Me, I was brought into the film as the cut was already quite far along in the process. A major thing to note about this film is that well over a third of it is comprised of motion capture animation. It was shot on video cameras with Kristen Stewart and Steven Yeun playing what would ultimately be animated characters. The filmmakers, Sam & Andy Zuchero, found themselves in a place where they sought help really finding and tightening the overall story and trying to lock down that story before starting the time consuming and expensive process of turning the motion capture data into animation. So, they sought trained and experienced “fresh eyes” to help them shore it up and take it through a series of feedback screenings with audiences to make sure the story was truly working. Once we got to that point, they went on to finish the film and all of its VFX and animation themselves.

With Winner, I was brought on in the middle of the director’s cut and stayed through to the end of the editing process. The director, Susanna Fogel, was in need of an editor, and I just happened to spend some time with another editing colleague who is a mutual friend, and he recommended me to her because he thought we were a good fit. He was right, as we hit it off right from the start, sharing the same vision for the film’s tone and pace, as well as a fondness for fried bar foods, and never looked back.

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?

Krings: Our goal with Winner was to inject energy and a dark sense of “gallows humor” to the proceedings, because that is a reflection of the personality of the real-life Reality Winner. It was there in the script and performances and direction, but it took a lot of refining and shaping to ensure we kept the right balance between tragedy and comedy that would be entertaining but also respectful of the dignity of our real-life characters and the tragedy they live through. As happens with many films, we found we had to drastically change both the beginning and the end of the film. Material that was always intended for the beginning of the film got thrown out in favor of a newer, simpler concept that made the story more inviting and intriguing to enter. We were then able to take that material we scrapped at the beginning and reshape the story at the end of the film.

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

Krings: It is just the age-old process of never being satisfied and always asking the hard questions about the work you are doing. We were always looking for ways to improve with the aforementioned tone and respect as our north stars. As with any film with a lot of voiceover, we had a lot of leeway to rewrite sections of the film as needed to give the right thoughts and information at the right time. So we did a lot of re-writing in the edit room. We had pretty regular small screenings of just a handful of people early on to help us expose our own weaknesses and prejudices before we expanded to a series of larger screenings, which further helped us gauge if what we were doing was working.

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

Krings: I did not go to film school but got introduced to film in college and knew that was what I wanted to do. After a couple of years writing and directing news promos and local commercials for a CBS affiliate in Lincoln, Nebraska, I took off to New York City with the idea of being exclusively an editor, as that was the part of the process that brought me the most joy. Knowing nothing of the film business and with no network, I just applied for jobs and wrote to any postproduction house I could find listed. I got a job at a boutique post house that specialized in advertising. I worked in the machine room to start and over eight years worked my way to editing national commercials for the big agencies.

My heart wasn’t in it, though, and so I sought ways to reinvent myself into a film editor. I had been a cineaste since college and was always going to the movies, new and retro, in New York, and that is what I wanted to do. I went freelance and would spend half the year working on good paying stuff and the other half doing work for little or no money that might lead to work in film. This led to doing a foreign film sales trailer for Momma’s Man by Azazel Jacobs. Doing that introduced me to the whole team on that film, and it was really my opening. Eventually I was doing some commercials and music videos with Aza and the producers Alex Orlovsky and Hunter Gray. That led to deciding to assist the fabulous editor Darrin Navarro during production on Aza’s film Terri, and one of the producers on that was producing a micro-budget film directed by Matt Ross titled 28 Hotel Rooms. I got hired on that to cut my first feature film! With Matt I went on the make Captain Fantastic! That whole transition took a few years, but it was well worth it.

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

Krings: I primarily use Avid Media Composer, and I did on Winner. However, I used Premiere Pro on Love Me because that is how the project was already set up. I started my career in features on the old Final Cut Pro until Apple unceremoniously killed it off. I prefer Media Composer for a number of reasons, from media management to the fluidity of its trimming function, but honestly a tool is a tool. They can all get the job done, and once you adjust to the tool you are using you figure out how to make it disappear so you can do the true work of storytelling, which never changes. I suspect I’ll cut a film with Resolve one of these days.

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

Krings: Because the answer is so long, I will only talk about Love Me here. The most difficult part of this was not a scene but the entire middle portion of the film because it is created with motion capture animation. This meant we had real Kristen Stewart and real Steven Yeun running around on a real set but wearing those weird looking motion capture suits collecting data so these very real actors could then be turned into animated versions of themselves. The directors shot this footage pretty close to how they would like the shots to look once they were animated, so we were able to cut it almost traditionally, but we always had the option to do something different than what was shot, which requires another level of imagination.

We knew we could just steal bits and pieces from many different takes and splice them together seamlessly in animation, so we were constantly making a new shot out of the pieces of multiple shots. It would make what looked like a Frankenstein’s monster of a shot, but we knew it would look like a “normal” shot once animated. We also were in no way limited to the dialogue they said on set, so this section of the film could be endlessly re-written with the directors voicing for the characters. And, unlike real ADR, we didn’t have to hide it. So, we might be looking at one body of Kristen Stewart with another head of Kristen Stewart, and her lips are moving, but it’s not her voice and it’s not in sync because we knew we could animate the face saying it. So in some ways the options were limitless, but the challenge was knowing that and still striving to do what was best for the story overall and not get lost in the weeds of possibility. We did it all by being wide open to experimentation but working closely and deliberately with one another to make sure a direction we were going was worthwhile.

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

Krings: With Love Me much of it is dependent entirely on VFX work. Real human actors on real sets don’t even appear in the film until the final third. Before we even get to the motion capture animation section of the film, the first act takes place on an Earth that exists long after humanity has gone extinct. In fact, the entire world is frozen. Our two main characters at this point are inanimate objects, one inhabiting a rapidly unfreezing earth and the other floating in space. Needless to say, that required a lot of VFX. The directors have a long history in VFX and, along with assistant editor Nathan Allen, would constantly be working up temp VFX for us to work with to give this world verisimilitude. I have never worked on anything so completely reliant on VFX. Still at the end of the day, we just had to have a good imagination and trust that the VFX and animation will at some point look great and concentrate on whether the story is effective.

On Winner there was the usual type of basic VFX for the most part, but one interesting thing on this one is they shot some very high frame rate footage with the intention of doing speed ramps on them so we could either start in very slow motion and then bring the footage to real time or vice versa. The terrific director of photography, Steve Yedlin, has worked out his own custom formula for how to go about changing the frame rates to keep everything looking perfect and smooth. We found that what we would do in Media Composer did not really always translate perfectly to the online the way he intended, so he had to spend some time fixing that, which is an experience I had never had before, but it came out looking good.

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?

Krings: Wow, save the hardest question for last, huh? This is really difficult to answer because the whole process is a series of micro-adjustments and your vision of what’s in front of you is always changing, but because it’s gradual it’s hard to remember where you started. With Winner I did have the chance to watch it again long after my job was done, and I was glad that I involuntarily laughed a lot and truly felt emotional during the emotional parts of the film. What I saw in this screening that I may not have been as aware of before is how much Reality refuses to open herself up to close relationships and the deleterious effect this has on her as a person. There is a scenario in which the way she pushed her mother away could have made her situation even worse, but luckily for Reality the unconditional love of her mother was very helpful in the end and becomes the emotional core of the movie. Ultimately, though, what I truly appreciate is that the film is not about Reality learning and changing, as many narratives are about, but instead is about us seeing that her actions are a result of her unique personality, which some would diagnose, and that if she were different or had learned to change she might not have done what she did. And the film asks the question, “would that be better?”

As for Love Me, the meaning of the film keeps evolving as the dialogue around both social media and artificial intelligence keeps evolving. Still, ultimately what is great about the film is that underneath all of that it is really quite simply about relationships and how tricky they always are to navigate. It’s about how we are socialized, often in gendered ways, to have certain expectations of relationships, but in a world with many choices at our fingertips, we all socialize a little differently based on what is out there that piques our interest. Most of us have a desire to connect deeply with other people, but in order to do so we have to learn to reshape our understanding of the world with that other person as opposed to trying to force fit them into our conception of the world. That is what I always saw in it and what I think will always make the film universal despite the non-human technological trappings of the set up.

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