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A Conversation with Luke Lorentzen from Mary Lampson’s The Cutting Room (A Work in Progress)

A woman in a black top and pink pants holds her face in despair in a deserted hallway.Margaret Engel in A Still Small Voice

The following conversation is an excerpted chapter from The Cutting Room, an upcoming book by documentary film editor Mary Lampson tracing the story of a woman building a life and career as an editor in an industry hostile to both women and independent filmmaking. Traveling over the decades through massive changes in documentary storytelling and filmmaking technology, the book revisits her work with some of the great talents of the documentary form while chronicling major technological changes connected directly to her brother Butler Lampson’s groundbreaking work on the development of the personal computer. In a moment when the conversation about documentary film feels all too focused on commerce, Mary’s book invites readers into a reflection that is both memoir and a rare account on the art of editing.

Mary Lampson and filmmaker Nancy Baker co-edited the Academy Award–winning documentary classic Harlan County, USA. She has worked with documentary legends like Barbara Kopple, Emile de Antonio, Ricky Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker. Recent projects include Trouble the Water (Tia Lessin and Carl Deal), Kimjonglilia (NC Heikin), The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield), This Changes Everything (Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein), The Islands and the Whales (Mike Day), The Bad Kids (Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe), Eating Animals (Christopher Quinn), Generation Wealth (Lauren Greenfield), Joonam (Sierra Urich) and A Still Small Voice (Luke Lorentzen).

Luke Lorentzen and I are sitting at my dining room table—not upstairs in my cutting room where, over the years, we have spent many hours together watching images on a computer screen and talking. Luke and producer Kellen Quinn are the makers of two films I have worked on recently, Midnight Family and A Still Small Voice. They have been coming to my house to work while editing each film. Why? Because I have been an “advisor” on both films. A Still Small Voice premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2023 and follows Mati Engel, a chaplain completing a year-long hospital residency at Manhattan’s Mount Sinai Hospital, as she learns to provide spiritual care to people confronting profound life changes. In the film, we are with Mati as she tends to her patients, struggles with professional burnout and engages in her own spiritual questioning. In my dining room with Luke, the questioning is more focused on our shared creative journey, the hows and whys of our collaborations in the edit and the profound changes it inspires. 

Lorentzen: Here we are. Where should we start?

Lampson: Why do you come here?

Lorentzen: Why do I come here?

Lampson: Yes, why? You and Kellen came here this time early on, and I remember it was winter… 

Lorentzen: It was March.

Lampson: Yeah, the lake was frozen. And I have this freaking awesome picture of you and Kellen walking on the lake with Charlie [Mary’s dog].

Lorentzen: Why do I come? Well, there are lot of layers to that question. 

Lampson: Do you think that’s because of the physical space?

Lorentzen: I think so. There’s a spaciousness to being here that comes from leaving my home, and a depth of thinking and of relationship to the work that can be found in coming here. I think I needed to remove myself from my life for a little bit and create enough space in my head that I could step into these other layers of the material. Coming here does that. There’s a certain tunnel vision or way of seeing and my sensibility is limited. I only know what I know; I only see what I see in the material. Coming here breaks that open. 

The first time I came was early on and Kellen and I came together for a week. The second time, when I was finishing the film, I came (moved) to Maine for six or seven weeks and lived and worked up here alone. I came to your house once a week and Kellen would join online. 

Lampson: I forgot that that’s how it worked. That makes perfect sense. It wasn’t one time.

Lorentzen: It was many weeks…

Lampson: …stretched out.

Lorentzen: And there’s an alignment of sensibilities, with each of us seeing the material in our own ways.

Lampson: It’s good there are three of us in a way. It feels that way to me. It’s this wonderful triangle and there’s not one dominant voice, not a battle.

Lorentzen: It’s not an argument between two people; it’s ideas passing in a circular motion. When you’re watching a cut with an audience, you can really feel them, even if they’re saying absolutely nothing. I think a lot of what we’re doing here is feeling each other’s reactions to things. 

Lampson: Okay, so we talk and talk, we look and laugh. We have lunch. It’s a beautiful sunset, you go home, or we go to bed when you and Kellen are staying here. But what actually happens that affects the next step of the film? Can you think of an example that gave you a thought? Or maybe the thought came later, when you read your notes, that helped you completely see and rejigger, if that’s the right word, a scene or a moment. What happens next? 

Lorentzen: Well, the first time that we came here, we still had two assemblies—one telling the story of three residents, one just material with Mati. I had spent more or less equal time with each of the residents when I was shooting, and I had a real attachment to all of the material. There was a real question of which path to go [down]. Once I was able to watch it with you, there was an immediate clarity that Mati’s material was the right direction, but I needed support with that. I needed to know that it was okay to make that bold of a shift. 

Lampson: And you made that decision afterwards, right? Or did we talk about that?

Lorentzen: We talked about it. It was just so obvious once I was here and we were looking at the material, what worked and what didn’t. And when I was on my own, it wasn’t obvious to me.

Lampson: Obvious in my body language or in what you could just feel?

Lorentzen: I think what I said earlier: paying attention to what it feels like to show you the material. That sensation is so “loud” when you’re watching a cut with an audience that you can really feel them, even if they’re saying absolutely nothing.

Lampson: I have this thought, which is pretty deep in the way I think over the years and years of doing this, that the editor’s job is to be the eyes of the audience. Is that what you’re talking about?

Lorentzen: Totally. For the time that we’re here, you are an audience for me. Not just that, but there is an element of needing to experience the film through your eyes, to understand what needs to happen, what’s working and not working.

Lampson: And anybody can hit the stop button at any time and say anything while we’re watching. That’s our rule—radical for an editor who usually protects the “stop button” with a passion.

Lorentzen: There’s not really anything fancy to it. We’re not using big words or trying to describe big feelings. It’s sort of like a “yes, no, maybe” meter. 

Lampson: What do you do when you go away and you’re by yourself? Do you remember those moments? How do those moments affect the work that you then do?

Lorentzen: Well, I write down a list as we’re talking of the things that we are saying to one another, but I guess there’s a bit of translation that’s happening. A back- and-forth between the three of us turns into an action item or a to-do list, something that’s very practical. I’m not writing down, “Go on a long walk and think about this emotional alchemy.” 

Lampson: We would talk, then I would go away. You would do it, then we would look at it again.

Lorentzen: We would also look at material that wasn’t in the film. I remember the feeling so clearly of coming here with two different cuts—a real insecurity, watching you “watch,” sitting in your chair, arms crossed, staring at the screen. 

Lampson: I remember when we sat down to watch the first scene with …. I forget his name.

Lorentzen: Hap. Maybe the version that we watched together was five or six minutes. I think in the final cut it’s only three or four minutes. But it’s a long single take.

Lampson: Long! And I remember you were kind of apologizing and a little like, “Oh my God. It’s so long. Can you have a scene that long?” And I remember watching it and it was just like “Oh my God, that’s unbelievable.” And telling you that, I mean—I’ll never forget that moment, it was extraordinary. And now I think that it’s not just extraordinary, but a brilliant way to start the movie, because it teaches the audience how to watch the movie and be in a place which is supremely uncomfortable. It opens the door to whatever the right words are to let the audience watch the film. And it teaches you to listen. You hear all the little sounds, the little beeps. It looks like as if nothing’s happening, but there’s a ton of stuff happening in the silence and then Mati, towards the end, speaks and what she says is amazing.

Lorentzen: You said, “Don’t fuck it up,” and you laughed.

Lampson: When you came to me that first time, something told you, “I’m going to start the movie with this scene,” you had millions of scenes. What do you think that was?

Lorentzen: I mean, I wasn’t totally out to lunch, but it felt like a very risky way to start this film and I was very uncertain about it.

Lampson: But maybe it was just, like, anything you did would be risky, because it’s a risky film.

Lorentzen: But I remember your reaction to that scene clearly, that it was a moment of sticking your neck out, trying something really sensitive. 

Lampson: It makes you listen, and it makes you see. Some people would’ve started the movie with an establishing shot.

Lorentzen: I’m living the story when I’m shooting. I do everything I can to experience what I’m trying to film, quite fully living this story in a much bigger way over the course of a year, not 90 minutes. [Then I’m] sharing all of the pieces that I’ve collected, and you]’re] helping me step out of the part of the process that’s experiencing it into a new phase. 

Lampson: I don’t know that I’ve ever watched rushes quite like that before.

Lorentzen: How so?

Lampson: Just the incredible sense of really being there and witnessing. Maybe it’s built into the fact that it’s about death and all of that as well. Who wants to go there? Nobody. But somehow, I felt safe. I don’t know what your intention was. 

Lorentzen: There is a simple way that I think about it, which is the audience will feel there if I was really there, and if I was really supposed to be there, the audience will feel like they’re supposed to be there. There’s no way to cheat that—or if there is, I’m not capable of it. That’s really the daunting, almost existential part of my process that I’m dealing with now. Can I keep being there in this way? And if so, how do I find the joy in it while knowing that it’s this magical, indescribable thread of feeling and safety?

Lampson: I do think the cutting room is a place where the path of how ”it” gets there is laid out .

Lorentzen: Sometimes we would look at David’s (Rev. David Fleenor, Mati’s advisor) at sessions with his supervisor and you would sit there as you are now, with your arms folded, deepening my understanding of how he was being experienced by you. I could more clearly get a sense of what I had and what I needed to try and pull it off.

Lampson: Because I didn’t like David first. I don’t really know quite why.

Lorentzen: Yeah, that’s a perfect example. I have this relationship with David. Some of it’s in the material, some of it’s not. And for you to say “I don’t really like David” is a huge red flag, as somebody who experiences him with more complexity and care. And that I think was a moment of [realizing] “Something fairly substantial needs to happen bring Mary, and through Mary, the broader audience of the film, into him more deeply.”

Lampson: And is that when that whole thing of moving up one of his sessions happened?

Lorentzen: Mm-hmm. We added a whole second session early in the film. With him, again, it all seems so simple in looking back, but it was not. It was giving him a goal. We needed to know what David wanted. He wanted to be a sturdier supervisor to Mati. And it allows you to experience the scenes with Mati through both of their lenses. 

Lampson: She’s so strong. 

Lorentzen: She’s so strong, and if you just enter the film through her perspective, David becomes the antagonist. And it’s much more interesting when both of them have a point of view, where there’s validity to both sides of it. I think the film really started to elevate when there wasn’t a right answer.

Lampson: I thought it was amazing at the screening, the first screening that David and Mati were going to share the stage. 

Lorentzen: It was the first time that they had seen each other since the blowup in the film when David walks out on her. I was worried that certain feelings would bubble up on stage and somebody would get hurt publicly. I wasn’t sure that it was necessary, but there was no other way to do it without making somebody feel excluded. We walked them each through what it was going to be, and luckily both were up for being there together.

One of the things that I feel most proud of about the film is that both David and Mati see themselves in it and can continue to disagree with one another but support the story itself. You said something to me when we were cutting—I don’t want to get too philosophical about it, but if there’s a straightness to it, or an accuracy to it, or if it is doing each of them justice, these problems get solved. And I think that’s why getting David’s side of the story right felt so important.

Lampson: Yeah, because Mati’s so strong,

Lorentzen: If he was the antagonist, all these things would’ve come crumbling down on us, and my relationships with them would’ve crumbled too, I’m sure, or they would’ve felt taken advantage of.

Lampson: They (both) said at Sundance that revealing that struggle between the two of them made it a better and truer film in a way, that it’s good for the audience to see the kind of tension between the two pieces of the puzzle. 

Lorentzen: I think it was what happened and to pretend that something else happened is just not going to work.

Lampson: But she could have said “No, you can’t use that.” And if she could have, probably David could have too, because you would have honored that as well.

Lorentzen: When David watched the film the first time through, the first thing that he said was that it brought him enormous relief. I think he was really, really hard on himself through that year for not being able to supervise Mati more gracefully or with less emotion, I guess, less overwhelmed. And he remembered that moment of storming out the room as a huge failure of him losing it and giving into his overwhelm. And when he watched it back, he was like, “I was actually pretty clear in that moment.” And maybe he felt validated and was able to revisit these moments with a certain straightforwardness that I think the film was able to give him. That was cool to see. And I think Mati wanted the film to go even deeper into that conflict. I think it’s actually still the softest, most fragile part of the film. There are viewers who don’t think there’s enough context as to why things got so hot so quick. I got to a point where I was comfortable with it being surprising, a moment of emotional overwhelm, and not needing it to be too much more than that. But when I think about the imperfections of the film, the climax to that scene is where my mind goes.

Lampson: And you think of that as an imperfection?

Lorentzen: I guess it’s connected to a bigger feeling that I have about the film now, which is: It works. I think the intention with the sequencing into that scene works for a lot of people and not for everybody. And I think the film is also like that. There are people who are willing to go there and really experience it, and there are people who find it too much or even boring, or they can’t relate to the characters enough. The reactions are incredibly profound, more so than anything I’ve made. But there are people who don’t go there. And I think it’s a really important lesson for me, just being okay with that and knowing that to make something that lands deeply for some people—my target is not everybody, but I want to make a film that can reach widely, but I can see more clearly how the edges need to get filed off for that to expand further and further. And Mati does not have her edges filed off.

Lampson: She doesn’t want them filed off.

Lorentzen: And that’s what makes her so compelling to me. That’s why you keep doing it. Because it certainly is hard on so many levels, but that feeds you. You know what I mean? 

Lampson: I love the doing of it, the actual process of making something out of a big mess. And I love sharing that with you or anybody else, because that’s why it is something that feeds you, because it gives back to you and it sort of keeps that….. alive.

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