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“The Ending Was Always Clear for Us”: Editor Emma Backman on As We Speak

A young Black man wearing a white t-shirt and hoodie sings into a microphone at a recording studio.As We Speak, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Born and raised in the Bronx, rapper Kemba guides viewers through some of the largest issues involving rap lyrics, freedom of speech and the First Amendment in As We Speak, the directorial debut of J.M. Harper. Looking at cases both in the U.S. and internationally, Harper’s documentary poses insightful questions about who is protected, or perhaps left vulnerable, by these legislative battles.

Emma Backman, who previously collaborated with Harper on a series of commercials, discusses her experience cutting the film, which served as one of her first major feature-length projects as an editor.

See all responses to our annual Sundance editor questionnaire 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?

Backman: I had worked with the director of As We Speak, J.M. Harper, on a few occasions over the last 4 years. Mostly on commercial work, which is a lot about quickly coming up with lots of ideas to get the best out of the idea, visual editing, montage and heightened sound design and not much dialog. Jason asked me about my interest in the film one year prior to us starting the edit. He was in the works of getting the funding for it and we didn’t really know when it would happen. Around mid-January 2023, Jason called me saying they had a green light and asked if I could move to New York and start editing the film in March. First of all, I’m forever grateful that Jason asked me as I don’t have much experience with features nor with documentary editing. I had cut one feature doc about a Swedish band, Roxette, for the director Jonas Åkerlund in 2015 and helped out Daughters, Natalie Rae’s film that’s also in this year’s Sundance U.S. Feature Documentary selection. 

I think Jason wanted me on this film as he had a very clear vision of tonality, and tonality is a lot about the choices we make to tell the story in pacing and sound design. He trusted my instinct from the work we had done together previously where every frame of a 60-90 second edit matters and SFX and pacing can say so much in a short amount of time. He wanted to translate the same feeling to the documentary as we had done in the past with shorter formats. 

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?

Backman: When I received the first pieces of footage, I quickly gained confidence that the stories are captivating. Jason is a genius when it comes to visually capturing the different people in this film in different, very thought-out ways. 

It was mostly a question of how we travel through the story. In the film we keep the places that Kemba visits intact so we don’t jump back and forth geographically. We are on the journey with him. So then the question was, “How does it make sense emotionally to go from one place to the other?” Is the audience “there” mentally for this next chapter? Have we laid the foundation for the audience to really digest what’s to come? Do we need to swap cities around? 

It was really helpful when Gabriella Tessitore, a brilliant editor, came into the process at the end of the film. Coming in with fresh eyes she asked questions that made us swap scenes around that heightened the film a lot. 

The ending was always clear for us. My goal was to preserve the tone and not lose that in the long process of editing a feature.

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

Backman: I got footage in as they were shooting and I started assembling as I got it in from each city. Jason started to come into the edit fully when he was done shooting and we knew what the focus was each day as he always had given me feedback early in the morning so it was ready for me. 

I worked with sound design in a very refined way from the beginning, which helped us see the vision of the end product quickly and if it would work or not.

Towards the end of the edit period we started to have test screenings which gave us very insightful feedback. 

Working with Jason is very collaborative and based on mutual respect, which I like working with directors the most. Then you can craft something always in service of the idea and no ego involved. Jason is an incredible editor himself who has very impressive work under his belt. He always knew what to do next and when he didn’t know, he was confident we would get there and knew the steps we should take to do so. To have a clear voice like his is extremely helpful when climbing the huge mountain and venture into the unknown of a feature edit where you don’t always see the top. We reflect, talk and refine in order to bring that 90 min together in a way that feel effortless.

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

Backman: I started my career assisting Christian Larson, a brilliant director who is also an editor. He gave me the chance early on to be on big shoots and edit different kinds of films. From there I got more opportunities and worked a lot  with the Swedish production company New Land in Stockholm, for example. I moved to London and finally landed with my edit home which is Cabin Edit. Cabin has offices in L.A., N.Y. and London. And my partner lives in Berlin, so I’ve been traveling for work the majority of the last 5 years or so.

I was a dancer growing up, so anything music and movement related I’m drawn to. I love to watch everything from slow architectural videos, old energetic Hype Williams music videos, documentaries, fashion films. Anything with a good sense of rhythm, really. I think storytelling is a sense of rhythm too. I’m getting more and more interested in narrative. As We Speak bleeds into narrative sometimes. I’d love to edit more of that. 

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

Backman: I used Adobe Premiere. I don’t edit with other software than that. 

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

Backman: The biggest challenge was the opening. How do we set the tonality which is so important for the film and at the same time clearly establish what the film is about in the first couple of minutes? The big question for every filmmaker was also there for us. During the process of editing the title sequence and intro, which by an early stage was a longer montage of the Bronx, the director and I understood we needed more to set this up in a clear way. We kept some of the montage in a much more concise version and then we did some clever sound editing to work with Kemba’s part, after which the audience understood the threat he was under right away. 

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

Backman: We didn’t do much VFX work at all. Jason kept any surreal feeling in-camera and we didn’t need much clean up except for some signs. We did build a solid sound design base for the offline edit, as we knew we might have to admit that version to festivals and sound was incredibly important for the film. 

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?

Backman: Themes in films reveal themselves—hopefully—during the edit. With every month I got a deeper understanding of it. So today, I listen to conversations in the film in different ways.

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