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“This is the Story of Environmental Racism”: Editor Rosella Tursi on God Save Texas: The Price of Oil

An obscured person wearing a gray coat and red headwear looks across a street toward a backhoe and wooden planks.Still from God Save Texas: The Price of Oil. Courtesy of Sundance Film Institute.

Inspired by God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lawrence Wright’s examination of the contradictions and history of Texas, God Save Texas is an anthology series in which three Texan directors offer their own perspective on the state. The second of these, God Save Texas: The Price of Oil, is Corman’s World director Alex Stapleton’s examination of the history of the country’s energy sector and its relationship to her own family history, who arrived as enslaved people in the 1830s.

Below, God Save Texas: The Price of Oil editor Rosella Tursi discusses editing the project in COVID lockdown, the role home movies play in it and what she learned from the film.

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?

Tursi: I had been working with Alex Stapleton, the director of God Save Texas: The Price of Oil, on an FX series called Pride, for which she was the showrunner, and we really clicked right from the start. We were just always on the same page on how to shape the story arcs for each of the Pride episodes I was editing, and when it came time for her to choose an editor for God Save Texas, she asked me. I, of course, said yes immediately because I loved working with Alex, but when I stopped to think about what the film was about, I was concerned that my total lack of knowledge about the oil and gas industry would be an obstacle. Fortunately, the film was told through such a personal lens it really ended up being primarily a story about Alex’s family who, among them, experience several different impacts of the oil and gas industry on their lives and livelihoods as Black Texans.

Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were your goals as an editor?

Tursi: The goal for me always is to tell an emotional, impactful story that will engage the viewer. I started by editing individual scenes, and when I had gone through all the footage, I started by writing down each of these scenes on a Miro board, a tool I really enjoy using. Alex, our showrunner Meghan O’Hara and I started playing with the order. From there, I got a first assembly, but that was really just a jumping off point. The film just kept evolving. And then some unforeseen events took place, including the 2021 Winter Storm in Texas and the matriarch of Alex’s family getting her house torn down, and the film would need to change again. My goal was to always be open to trying new things and not being precious about the structure, as well as being open to scrapping entire scenes if they weren’t moving the story forward, something that can be slightly heartbreaking for an editor. But that is always what I strive for most—trying and sometimes failing at all the possibilities of documentary story structure.

Filmmaker: What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?

Tursi: The cold open was an element that went through many many iterations. We tried to be super experimental with it at one point, which was fun but didn’t land the way we wanted it to. For the longest while, we tried to open with a scene that I cut and recut dozens of times. It just never felt really good to me. Thankfully, as I mentioned before, Alex and I almost never disagree about what works and what doesn’t. Finally, she wrote a narration that just really, really resonated. My absolute favorite element of all the footage we had were the home movies from Alex’s childhood growing up in Texas. Home movies have such a magical quality for me, and I was excited about incorporating them in just the right amount. Including those home movies in the cold open literally brought tears to my eyes, and then flashing back to them in the very last scene also enhanced the storytelling in just the perfect way.

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

Tursi: God Save Texas was edited during the pandemic and was the very first project that I edited remotely from start to finish. In order to keep the collaboration going, I have endless screen sharing Zoom calls with Alex, who was mostly in Texas at the time. I also regularly exported scenes with a password protected link to my Vimeo, or for entire cuts we’d have the AE, Tonianne Fleig, upload the film to Frame.io. The workflow was new to all of us at that phase of the pandemic. But in the end, when we locked the picture, Alex was in New York, and we spent that last week of picture lock in my WFH space. For milestone cuts, we had feedback Zoom meetings with Alex Gibney and our executive producers from Jigsaw and HBO. I have to say, it was one of the smoother projects I’ve worked on. Thankfully, there were never any major issues with the cut other than it being an evolving piece.

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

Tursi: I was born in Montreal, Canada and attended Concordia University’s Communications program, graduating with a specialization in film. I pretty much knew from the start that I wanted to be an editor and have always been a major editing nerd, reading books about editing and just observing what my editing idols did and how they crafted their work. As a student, my goal was to edit narrative films, but after graduating my first (paying) job was as an assistant editor on a documentary film. The whole world of documentary films opened up to me. I fell in love with the genre because my brain is wired in the perfect way for documentary storytelling. I ravenously research every subject that I’m dealing with on every project, and learning all about something new is what keeps me fully engaged with the craft.

I worked my way from music television and then lifestyle shows to getting my first full-fledged documentary in 2004. Being in Montreal, Canada at that time, I mostly worked on National Geographic, Discovery or History channel documentaries until I moved to New York in 2016. NYC is the best place for me to be because there’s a virtual plethora of documentary projects to work on, and the people I’ve met here have been amazing collaborators. It’s very important to me to help tell stories I truly believe in and want told. I feel extremely lucky that I’ve reached the point where I can really choose what I want to work on.

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

Tursi: I edit on both Avid and Premiere Pro. I definitely came up working exclusively on Avid for the first 10 years or so of my career, and it’s really like second nature to me, so it’s my preferred system. That said, I have also come to really appreciate Premiere Pro, which is really great if you want to layer effects on a clip or rubber band the audio, but I do miss the ease of dynamic trimming and script sync, which are still better on Avid.

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

Tursi: The most difficult scene to cut thankfully ended up on the cutting room floor. It was shot atop the San Jacinto monument in Texas, and it was an incredibly windy day. I felt really bad for the DP, who was having a hell of a time keeping that camera steady. The worst part was the sound quality, because the wind was relentless. The only way I was able to make this work is that this was shot during the phase of the pandemic where people were masking a lot, and so I was able to use all the good audio and then find the right eye expression and gestures to work with it since I didn’t have to worry about the lips being in sync since their mouths were covered by masks.

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?

Tursi: Looking back on this process, I find it hard to believe that I ever felt unsure about being fully engaged with the story of oil and gas in the state of Texas. I just had not realized the full meaning of what this film would be about until I started looking at the footage. Seeing Alex’s family members in the footage really inspired me to connect with the story. Ultimately, this is the story of environmental racism, a subject I feel is woefully under-explored, and I learned so much throughout this experience. I am so grateful to have been a part of telling this story, and working with Alex on this project has meant a lot to me. It’s a big story told through personal experience. To me, that is the ultimate way to explore a subject like this one.

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