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“Crafting Stories With My Head and My Heart”: Editor Amy Foote on Girls State

A diverse group of high school girls take a group selfie.Girls State, courtesy of Sundance Institute

Filmmaking team Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine follow-up their 2020 documentary Boys State, naturally, with Girls State, making its Sundance debut in the festival’s Premieres category. Much like their previous film, Girls State follows a diverse group of teenage girls across the state of Missouri who engage in a week-long immersive project that requires them to collectively construct a government from the ground up, which this time includes building a judicial branch on both local and state levels. With the project unfolding as Roe v. Wade threatens to be overturned, the girls also ruminate on how real-world legislature could infringe on their future rights. 

Editor Amy Foote shares her experience cutting the film, including her eagerness to work with the filmmakers and her excitement over watching Girls State with a crowd in Park City.

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? 

Foote: Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine reached out to me over email. We didn’t know each other previously, but were familiar with each other’s work and I was an admirer of their previous film Boys State. When they told me about Girls State, I immediately wanted to work together. An opportunity to work on a verite film, with a vibrant group of young women characters and with filmmakers that have a proven track record was not something I could pass up. 

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? 

Foote: In order to grasp what was really there in the footage, it was important to Jesse and Amanda that we create an assembly without using any of the interviews that they  filmed with the characters. The first assembly I edited was nearly six hours. After we  screened it together, it was fairly easy to chop out two hours and then the real work  began. Usually an assembly has too much of everything in it, so getting to the final edit is a process of experimentation. The goal is not only crystallizing each person’s story in the film, but also weaving together the themes that play out in the film in order for each of their stories to complement and build off one another in a way that  is emotionally satisfying and compelling. We ended up dipping into the interviews  and those helped bring the girl’s perspective.  

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

Foote: Amanda and Jesse are based in San Francisco and I’m in Brooklyn, so the majority of the edit was remote with some trips we both made back and forth. The time we spent in the same room was often some of the most productive time. During the edit,  I screened the film a lot and often had Peter Bowman, my assistant editor, screen with me so we could talk about it immediately afterward. Pax Wassermann was the consulting editor on the film as well and came on towards the end of the process with fresh eyes. That was so helpful. We also had feedback screenings with friends and colleagues that I do with every film I edit. They often prove invaluable. It’s then that I find out what is working for the viewer and what is not. 

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

Foote: My path to editing was filled with hard work, good luck and amazing mentors. I  started out as an assistant editor for Nils Pagh Andersen on a doc series by Jennifer Fox, and from there went to The Edit Center after which I landed my first solo edit on a low-budget feature that landed on HBO. The thing I love about editing is I get immersed in different worlds with different stories and I learn from every film, from every director, every collaboration and every screening. Every film is an interesting challenge and full of discoveries. 

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

Foote: I edit on Avid and Premiere. Avid is great for large projects, especially when you share sequences and bins with others on the editorial team. It is very robust. But I’m also happy working in Premiere as well. They both have their perks and their quirks, but for me, editing is much more about crafting stories with my head and my heart. The platforms are just tools to get me there. 

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

Foote: Some scenes came together and barely changed and some were more persnickety and had to be tinkered with until the very end. The biggest challenge of the film was balancing the election storyline with the judicial storyline. In contrast to Boys State, which was a straightforward, hard-charging election film, Girls State builds a judicial branch on the local and state level and it culminates in the Supreme Court hearing one case. It’s important to remember that this was the summer that Justice Alito’s alleged draft on Dobb’s was leaked that would overturn Roe v. Wade, so that was on  many of the girls’ minds. The governor’s race was the backbone of our structure and has a real arc with a surprising pay off, but the heart of the film to me was the judicial branch and seeing girls realizing their own power to make their own decisions about their lives. Weaving these very different storylines so that the audience stays invested in both was the challenge we faced. 

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?  

Foote: This is a great question and I’m really excited to be able to answer it again after I  watch the film with audiences at Sundance and beyond. While I’m immersed in the process of editing, there are so many things happening on so many different levels that I am unconscious of. Often I become hyper-focused on the particular thing I’m trying to make work. Sometimes I may intellectually know that something works but I may not realize why it works emotionally until I’m able to take a step back or  screen with other people. Other times, it just “feels” right and clicks emotionally, but I don’t always know exactly why. Choices are sometimes quite intuitive and may be happening even on the subconscious level. After the film is locked, many screenings later in front of audiences, there are always beautiful and energizing discoveries. So, I’ll get back to you on that.

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