“Some Moments Feel Like They’re from a Totally Different World”: Editor Tory Stewart on Conbody VS Everybody
Debra Granik, whose most recent work was the 2018 Sundance premiere Leave No Trace, returns to documentary with Conbody VS Everybody, an episodic series that marks her first entry in the medium. The series follows Coss Marte, an ex-convict who starts a gym with the aim of breaking the cycle of recidivism and fending off gentrification in New York City’s Lower East Side.
Editing the series is Tory Stewart, editor of Stray Dog, Granik’s 2014 documentary, and also a contributor on Leave No Trace and Winter’s Bone. Below, she talks about how the edit and the series evolved over many years and the time capsule qualities of the final product.
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?
Stewart: I’ve been working with Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini, aka Still Rolling Productions, since 2011, primarily as an editor as well as sometimes an assistant editor, producer, office wrangler—many hats! Some things that drew me to working with Debra and Anne were their intense collaborative spirit, storytelling adventurousness, commitment to the research process whether in service to narrative or documentary projects, and the knowledge that I would learn and grow by working with them. I’d been interested in both narrative and documentary as I started out in my career, and I think that was something that made me a good match for the way they work—I was eager to do both if I could. So far, I’ve been a second assistant, assistant, and additional editor on narrative projects, and an editor on documentary projects. I love editing, but I also love being on set, participating in the research and development phase and the organization and minutiae of assistant editing. Developing skills in and truly enjoying different stages of the process has been an asset on projects like Conbody VS Everybody where we were filming, processing, and editing throughout the course of the project.
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?
Stewart: One element of the film that we wanted to preserve was the humor and intimacy afforded by unexpected moments with the participants. The film has political themes, and the participants had various overlapping needs and hurdles presented by the challenge of reentering society after incarceration. As we cut down the many hours of footage, we tried to stay attuned to what gave the film texture, torque and specificity, embracing fleeting details and the deeply cinematic location of New York’s Lower East Side. Our goal was to underscore the challenges of reentry through the experiences of the Conbody team while avoiding falling into summary or didacticism. The narrative is propelled by the evolution and individual journeys of the participants who come in and out of the story at different times. We wanted to preserve and hone Coss’s growth as a businessowner and returning citizen as the spine of the story while allowing space to weave in new voices and address broader themes. It was a balancing act between intimacy and scope.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Stewart: A big part of the process of editing this project was the assembly stage. Debra and I reviewed material together throughout the filming process and also reviewed my selects strands and discussed those in depth before I cut together an assembly. The first assembly that we reviewed as a team was about 16 hours long and encompassed more or less all the material that we thought might end up in the final cut. Much of it was roughly chronological, but in some instances I’d already crafted some of the structure that I thought could be strong. The deep conversation that ensued about what was engaging and drawing us in, what themes were rising to the top and where that was happening most vividly and what felt potentially more tangential to the narrative was a profound point in the edit and, as it often is, the moment when what I’d been processing sometimes on my own and sometimes in concert with Debra started to feel that much more “real.” We noted and tried to retain as many of those moments from that first viewing that were called out as having extra power, layers, humor, etc. When you inevitably hit a stage of the edit where you’ve cut back so much that things start to feel flat, it’s a gift to be able to buy back some of those moments and feel their impact anew.
Working with consulting editors was also huge. In a longitudinal project like this, it can be a challenge to stay fresh to the material. Sometimes you’re so deep in it that putting yourself in the mindset of a first-time viewer is nearly impossible. I was grateful to be in dialogue with seasoned editors throughout the editing process. To get confirmation that what we were going for was coming through, or conversely, getting a suggestion to rework material or try cutting something that we thought was essential, helped keep us in dialogue with the film.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Stewart: I didn’t go to film school, so when I moved to New York I started interning and working as a PA, first as an art department assistant and later as a post PA before getting my first assistant editing job. From the beginning, I found the postproduction community to be warm and supportive. I’d been encouraged to take the six-week “Art of Editing” course at The Edit Center almost since I first set foot in New York, but I was nervous to take that much time out. Affonso Gonçalves, an amazing editor and mentor, encouraged me to take the plunge. It was a great experience and led to me working on Winter’s Bone and beyond.
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Stewart: We edited in Premiere after migrating the project from Final Cut Pro 7. I hadn’t worked with Premiere before and it allowed me to keep a lot of familiar aspects of the Final Cut Pro workflow. Over the years, a number of features have been introduced that were beneficial to a longitudinal doc like this, specifically the Productions workflow and the built-in transcription tools.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Stewart: One of the most difficult scenes to cut was an art gallery exhibition that included a live demo of Coss making a “prison burrito.” We didn’t have footage that set up the scene, so it needed to explain itself quickly. It involved a new and unexpected setting, more or less decipherable elements depending on a viewer’s experience with incarceration and also needed to highlight some difficulty that had befallen Shane, Coss’s friend and former trainer who had also made artwork for the exhibition. We needed to craft the scene as a story beat in the broader narrative but also showcase the layers of the exhibit itself and Coss’s participation.
It was a long shoot with many components, so we started with a cut that included every step of the event. Eventually we honed in on the main elements—Shane’s absence from the night, the interplay between Coss and the audience, and the information Coss shares about the limitations of prison commissary and the community-building he experienced around making and sharing food while incarcerated. We use voiceover sparingly over the course of the film, and this was an instance where we turned to it to add another layer of background information to the process of Coss making his burrito and sharing it with the gathered crowd.
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?
Stewart: I might need another six months to answer this question! I’ve been working on the project since the first day of filming, so my understanding of the film evolved alongside it. When we started this project we had no idea where it would lead—it could have ended with Coss on stage pitching his business idea and hoping for investment. I couldn’t have foreseen Coss’s evolution as a businessperson, advocate and father, the growth and shifts within the Conbody family, Coss’s brother Christopher entering politics at a time of equally unforeseeable national political shifts, nor something as life-altering as the pandemic. I thought the story was rich, nuanced, and engaging from the beginning, when it was one scene of Coss organizing and hoping to sell his old shoe collection.
To have been able to grow alongside and craft a film more novelistic and far-reaching in scope than anything we could have imagined has been a humbling and enriching experience. Even as filming began to stretch over years, I wasn’t prepared for how much the final piece would have the feel of a time capsule. It isn’t that many years ago, and yet some moments feel like they’re from a totally different world. I value that, informed by appreciation for detail but not necessarily preservationist in intent, we’ve ended up with a record not only of slices of time in all the participants’ lives, but in the history of an ever-changing New York as well.