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“When You’re Telling a Story About the Future, the Conclusion is Itself Inconclusive”: Editor Conor McBride on Love Machina

A portrait photo of a middle-aged couple, a white woman and an African-American woman.Still from Love Machina. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Love Machina, the latest film by documentarian Peter Sillen (Benjamin Smoke) follows the couple Martine and Bina Rothblatt, who attempt to transfer Bina’s consciousness to a commissioned humanoid artificial intelligence to preserve their love for one another. The film is also the first feature film editor credit for Conor McBride who discusses the timeliness of the film and its subject matter, as well as how he balanced the need for the film to be simultaneously entertaining and touching.

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?

McBride: I had worked with Pete Sillen, the director, and Brendan Doyle, the producer, on some commercials. I had also cut a few of Matt Wolf’s short documentaries. When Pete and Brendan were looking for an editor for this project, Matt recommended me (thanks Matt!). I like to think they hired because I was a spunky, young upstart, but you’ll have to ask them.

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?

McBride: This film’s storyline has gone through many iterations. What started out as a film about a robot going to college is now a bigger story about the robot, the couple who created it and artificial intelligence writ large. My goal with any edit is to make it entertaining. We pushed the boat with some of the scenes that deal with pretty out-there subject matter to make them a bit dreamy or tongue-in-cheek. We wanted to have fun with the edit, and we want viewers to find it fun. On the other hand, it was important for Pete, the director, to have these lyrical moments that slow the film down. I think we have found a healthy balance between those two worlds.

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

McBride: Music was key to this film. We leaned into some supervised music tracks, either well known or not, to create these dreamy montages. Ben Mercer, the additional editor, helped shape an opening intro to the film that is an historic and sci-fi imagining of the relationships between humans and machines, our past, present and possible future. Our protagonists are amazing people who have achieved so much, but their dream of digital consciousness is (as of yet) still, well, a dream. We worked closely with T. Griffin, the composer, to create a score that carefully balances this wonder and wackiness. Hopefully the viewer doesn’t feel our hand too much and we let them imagine “what if?”.

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

McBride: Documentary is my first and only love. However, when I moved to New York from Ireland, I started out as a commercial editor. That’s where I cut my chops as an editor. I work on a wide variety of edit projects. I’m always inspired when I work with artist friends on their art projects. It gives me a whole new way of seeing video, hearing audio and thinking about story in non-traditional ways.

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

McBride: We edited on Premiere because it’s what I prefer to work on. C41 Media, the production company, was also fitted out with a Premiere set-up, so it was a no-brainer. In the last year, when Ben Mercer came on board, we worked in Premiere Productions so we could all work simultaneously on the project.

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

McBride: We have had a variety of endings for this film. When you’re telling a story about the future, the conclusion is itself inconclusive because no one knows what’s going to happen. Pete and I, having worked on the film over a few years, were in a rut as to how to wrap the film up. We had the great opportunity to work with Brian Kates as a supervising editor in the past 6 months. He helped guide us through a mood shift and clarified message for the film’s conclusion.

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

McBride: We have these archive DV tapes scenes that pepper the film throughout. We worked with Native Foreign to come up with DV/VHS-style chapter markers to introduce each scene.

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?

McBride: Oh man, there is so much I did not understand about this subject when we started. It’s been so interesting to witness the universal growth in understanding of AI, in tandem with my own, while making this film. It took me a good year to wrap my head around “the singularity!” I also turned my nose up at sci-fi before this project, and now I know it’s the only way we can imagine our future. While there is a lot I did not know at the beginning of the project, I always knew it was going to be a human story at its core. I think that’s the film’s biggest accomplishment. And now I’m excited to see it with a live audience to find out what it means to everyone else!

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