Art of the Cut is proud to present an interview with documentary film editor, Amy Overbeck.
Amy is the editor of a wonderful documentary that I just fell in love with, called The Biggest Little Farm, and I had to track her down for an interview. She has edited numerous documentary films including Lost in Woonsocket, Rock Prophecies, and Perfect Valor. She’s also worked on TV series Nightmare Next Door, Stolen Voices Buried Secrets, and Random 1.
This interview is available as a podcast.
HULLFISH: The opening narration at first sounds like a soundbite from an interview but ends up being voiceover that runs through the documentary from John Chester, the filmmaker himself, who was also one of the subjects of the film. Can we talk about narration and how it was written?
OVERBECK: The VO we approached to be conversational. So it’s almost like an inner monologue kind of thing going on. He definitely was aiming for it to be conversational but it wasn’t recorded in an interview format so we would write those lines.
HULLFISH: And were you writing those lines as you went like, “I need a bridge here” or was it more thought out ahead of time than that?
OVERBECK: It was very much in-the-moment when we were working on it. We were working completely unscripted. But the way these scenes are is that it’s verite or a particular animal interaction. The scene is what it is. And so I would cut together the scene from the footage and then I would see, “What more do we need to explain here for the audience?” Or “what kind of bridge do we need to get to the next subject?”
I would put a title card on the screen with a suggestion about the direction for the VO. And then John would come in and we would talk it through and we would riff and write the lines right there in the moment. Then he would hop in the VO booth next to me and record it and I’d put it in the cut and then we’d see if it was working.
Sometimes on paper it works better than when you actually see it in the cut. And we’d fiddle with it — he’d record some more takes and we’d work on it that way. So on a given day we might record maybe 5 different VOs or 10 or nothing. It was all dependent on what the scene we were working on at the time needed.
HULLFISH: Makes me think that Walter Murch said, “Every documentary editor should get credit as the writer.”
OVERBECK: I definitely felt a part of it. I was really fortunate that we had a great relationship of working through what was needed in the edit and I felt very much a part of telling the story.
This kind of verite is writing itself in the edit. We had ideas of scenes that we were lining up in a particular order, but then the details of how that scene would play out was all up to how it was edited together and how we worked together to weave that into the larger film.
HULLFISH: What was the schedule like? The film takes place over several years — multiple years. What was your schedule like as an editor?
OVERBECK: They got the farm in 2011 and I didn’t come in until 2017 and so I was there for about a year and a half and then I would say another maybe six months of remote editing when I moved back home — doing the end credits scenes or some very final tweaks. So it was about two years in total.
But I was able to keep a pretty regular schedule of 9 or 10 hour days, five days a week. I had to work around John’s farm schedule as well since he was trying to be a farmer and a filmmaker at the same time.
I did a Sunday through Thursday schedule so that he could have time to balance focusing on the film and focusing on the farm. I know it was a tough balance for him, but we made it work and all along we were aiming to submit for Telluride as our first deadline, and we met it. So we kept to our schedule pretty tightly from the start.
HULLFISH: And he’d been gathering information for those couple of years from 11 to 17 or when you started?
OVERBECK: When he started as a farmer, leaving his filmmaking career behind, he had no idea that he was going to continue making films at all. He knew that it was an interesting subject but when they were in the thick of having a really barren farm that they had to bring back to life, I think it was a little too daunting to think that he would try to make a film at the same time.
But as he went along he got to know the characters of the farm and so he did smaller shorts for Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. So he did Emma the pig and Greasy. He did one about Emma’s sickness and a few other ones and he won Emmys for them and they were well received.
So that gave him the confidence that he could really make a film out of this. So around year five is when he really started documenting the farm with the intention of making a whole film about the entire farm. So luckily he had been documenting small things along the way, but he didn’t really get serious about it until he brought me in in 2017.
HULLFISH: What did you temp score with?
OVERBECK: We started with a fair amount of Planet Earth and some random tracks we found on YouTube. We knew that we wanted it to be cinematic, but what we were temping with was not quite on the level where Jeff Beal took it when he scored it.
I think some of that comes with confidence for both John and myself in what we felt we could pull off. We had moments where we are making it more cinematic and then others where we were holding it back maybe, but Jeff really took it to a new level with his score, a bit beyond what we were originally intending.
He proved to us that it had earned that, and it really made it much more theatrical and made it a film that I think many people watch and don’t always think that it’s a documentary because it feels very much like a scripted film and the music’s telling you that too. So I think the film really benefited from that.
HULLFISH: Were those decisions about the “cinematic-ness” of the music or the more toned-down stuff a question of tone? What it needed to feel like?
OVERBECK: Our approach was that if we’re going to have music, we don’t want it to just be background music. We want it to serve a purpose in the scene, because why do you have it if you’re not letting it help you punctuate a moment or the feeling of the scene? We chose tracks with that in mind.
There were certain moments in the film where we definitely felt like it was going to be a big musical moment and let the music carry that emotion through.
The way I edit a lot of scenes that I know are going have music is that I bring in the music pretty early to let it set the tone for me and help guide me on how quick my edits should be and to help me know that the edit is working.
Jeff only had six weeks to do the scoring at the very end. So I was working with temp all the way through and he was really working on it when I was getting it to picture lock. I was just finalizing the edit when he was starting, so he had my temp track to guide him but I couldn’t really mess with the edit too much to accommodate where he was taking it.
But he was really great about finding new moments of emphasis that we never thought of and it just worked really well. Overall I’d say we really used the music to help explain our scenes because especially for those “Planet Earth” kind of moments when you don’t have VO or dialogue really telling you anything about it, it’s really just the dance of the characters and the music that’s telling you where this is going. So it was a big part of it for sure.
HULLFISH: Talk to me about the storytelling of it. Structurally, you start at the end — you start with the fire. For anybody that hasn’t seen the film, there were horrible fires in California that threaten this farm. And so we start with that then you jump back and then you jump back further? I can’t remember what the exact structure was. How did you determine how you were going to tell the story?
OVERBECK: We knew that in order to get into the back story of how they got to the farm you need an idea of where this is going, and curiosity for how they got to this point in the first place.
If we just start off with them in L.A. (the farm is just north of Los Angeles) it might feel like, Why should we care about these people? Who are they? You maybe don’t have enough to go on to really care about anything.
So we wanted to tease-out where this was going. Our original plan was to start off the whole film with this utopian farm dream kind of scene of this magical amazing farm and then go into the backstory. But then when the fires came, I was editing the film.
It was the Thomas fire and then two other fires coming at us. John thought that the barn where I worked could burn down. It was a really dramatic time.
To be at a point where they had built that farm from nothing and it was this flourishing ecosystem and then one day a fire could just completely take that away was really pretty shocking. So we thought that it was a really dynamic way of getting that point across pretty quickly that they are going to get to this point where they’ve built something amazing but it could all be taken away in a second, and to have an appreciation for that.
So it felt like a good place to start — to create that curiosity and then move forward. Then, since they weren’t planning on documenting their journey, our backstory just had so much iPhone footage but we wanted people to know that this was going to be a beautiful film and not just somebody’s home videos, so that was part of it too.
There were a lot of different reasons that went into that.
HULLFISH: So at the same time that Molly’s trying to throw all her stuff into a car and gather up her son to escape the fires you’re also trying to evacuate with your edit system and media?
OVERBECK: Yeah. He had me take my computer home with me and I didn’t even know where I was going with it! We couldn’t take our server home but luckily we had LTO backups all over the place. But it was scary.
I think I had a drive of some proxy files. It was pretty scary there for a minute and it was really unique in that way too because I was living the experience that I’m also telling in the film.
You feel that story so much more. In some ways you feel like you’re telling your own story. So it was really important to have that understanding of all of it, I think.
HULLFISH: What were you cutting in?
OVERBECK: We were in Premiere. I started on Avid years ago. Then I moved to Final Cut. In the past, I worked at post houses where I had to switch between both on any given day, so my keyboard is the same wherever I go.
It really wasn’t until this project that I used Premiere extensively, but I was a big fan of Final Cut and the way it directly connects to your files. I just prefer it over Avid’s system of XF files. So I was happy to go back to Premiere to have that kind of setup.
I never adopted FCPX. I was a Final Cut 7 person, so it was pretty familiar to get into Premiere and then the media browser workflow really benefited us on this project since we had so much media that we wanted to access without having it actually in our project, so that proved to be a really easy way of searching footage and bringing it into the edit.
HULLFISH: As you mentioned, some of the cinematography is just gorgeous. And then there’s a lot of cell phone footage. Was there any concern about cutting between those and the transitions between cell phone and whatever he used to shoot the rest of it that looks so beautiful?
OVERBECK: There was. Our backstory had a lot of older iPhone footage where it was like four by three (aspect ratio). It was pretty rough, but it was a necessity. How are we going to tell the story of Todd (the Chester’s dog, who features prominently in the story) if we aren’t going to go for it and use that iPhone footage that they shot of him, because they weren’t planning on documenting otherwise?
So it was just what we had to do to stay true to the story. And as we went along — once they got to the farm, some things don’t happen when you have the (Arri) Amira set up on hand. When John’s walking around at night and finds a dead chicken he has his phone and that’s all he has.
I think that’s what really makes it real in a lot of ways for people — that that’s the new home video. I think people are clued into that maybe even subconsciously where when you see something that’s obvious that it’s iPhone maybe that emphasizes that this really happened in the moment.
But there were scenes too where we had great iPhone footage from that scene while there was also a great Amira footage from the scene and we had to try and blend the two. Our colorist, Walter Volpatto, was very sweet about it but he was also hating us because he had to make an Amira and an iPhone look like they’re all part of the same scene without pulling people out of the moment.
It was a process, but he made it all look beautiful. I think the scenes where we did that, most people probably can’t pick them out so well, and we’re lucky that a lot of phones now are shooting at much higher quality, so it’s getting easier but he’s telling us to not shoot iPhone.
It’s just the way it happens sometimes. When you’re documenting reality you don’t always have a huge camera on your shoulder.
HULLFISH: I’m friends with Walter on Facebook. I think that’s actually how I found you! I posted on Facebook about this wonderful documentary that I had just watched and Walter chimed in and said he’d done color grading on it. I think he said, “It was a labor of love.”
OVERBECK: Over the years on the farm they had so many different formats and all kinds of different things coming at him that he had to make it all look cohesive. He did a really great job cleaning it all up and making it look amazing. Because you don’t want it to draw you out of the moment.
HULLFISH: So they’ve been gathering some stuff for a couple of years before you got on the project. How did you start approaching the documentary? As individual scenes? Like, let’s just start by cutting a story about Emma the pig? Or, let’s do: coyotes slaughtering chickens?
OVERBECK: Since John started with the Oprah Super Soul Sunday shorts that he’d done, I had a couple of scenes that were at least attempted in advance. The style of those shorts ended up being a little bit different than the film. So I had to adjust those edits, but at least he knew that those stories were worth telling and they were engaging and people really loved them.
That’s what I had to start with. And then when I got down to the farm to start editing, we basically had walls full of cards everywhere. It was all in order of how they wanted to tell the film, but it was a lot. There were easily four very large bulletin boards completely filled with cards because they had so much happen over the years. So we started tackling it act by act and broke it down into years.
Organizationally, for the edit we had subject-based string-outs of all the usable shots for any given subject and we had over 75 subjects — we called them “fat cuts.” So we had a fat cut for cows and a fat cut for chickens and a fat cut just for Emma. So when I needed footage of one of those I would use media browser, dig into the project and pull up the fat cut sequence and then I would find the shoot on the timeline and then I could scrub through all the usable shots from that shoot.
HULLFISH: Then were you using something like pancake timeline function? How were you getting your fat cut into an edited sequence?
OVERBECK: I tried the pancake method for a little bit. I felt like I was running out of screen real estate. I like to use one 30 inch monitor, so at times that would work for me, but other times I was just copying and pasting into my cut.
Luckily with Premiere your sequence that you opened from media browser goes into your source monitor so it makes it a little bit easier to still look at your main film sequence in your program monitor to know where this is going in your timeline. So that worked out pretty well.
HULLFISH: Basically using the fat cut as a source?
OVERBECK: Yeah exactly. When there are so many shoots, I’m just not a fan of clicking through every individual clip. To have them trimmed down to the usable bits in the timeline was just really helpful. That said, we would have 14 hours of cows and you had to go find the shoot that you were remembering a random shot from and where was that on the timeline and go from there.
But overall it was a good system. We also had all of our fat cuts loaded into FrameIO, so we kind of had a cloud catalog, I guess you could call it. So if John had an idea of a shot that he was really wanting to use or something he could go find that even if he’s walking around the farm or something. He could go find that shot and post a little comment for me and then I would see the timecode and go into that fat cut and know exactly what he’s talking about.
HULLFISH: How closely did your end edit seem to match what was on those boards around the barn?
OVERBECK: I would say fairly close. There were definitely sections of stories that we used, but ultimately the structure changed a ton. It was very helpful as a starting point to know what stories we had to draw from. We discussed through all of those cards when deciding how to shape our acts for the edit.
And there were days with Act 2 where we would just stare at the board for an entire day — rejiggering scenes and then I’d quickly shuffle them around in my timeline to get an idea of if that was possible and talking through the ripple effects of one little change which would send off everything on the rest of the timeline. Is it really worth it? Is it going to screw up things later or is it something that’s worth doing?
And so we would play around with that a lot. Just reimagining what it could be to see where it would go from there. So it was a big part of our process.
HULLFISH: What was your first cut like? How long was the assembly?
OVERBECK: It actually wasn’t all that long. I want to say it was maybe around two hours, if I’m remembering correctly. We were really disciplined about it. We brought in Mark Monroe who’s worked on The Cove and Icarus — a lot of really well-known docs — and he really worked to keep us in line.
He was very adamant that we needed to keep to 90 minutes or less and that we needed to get to the introduction of Alan (the farmer’s mentor) within 10 minutes. So he had all of these goals throughout: where we should be at a certain time into the film and that really helped to keep us disciplined.
And John is a very disciplined storyteller. He doesn’t want people to feel bored and he wants to get on with the story. So I think all of those things came together to help make a really efficient cut.
HULLFISH: Did you guys do any kind of graphing of moods when you’re doing your structure of your scenes? Like, OK, we want to have a happy scene and then there will be a sad scene or a dramatic scene and then happy again?
OVERBECK: We did that a couple of times, especially with act two. We were conscious of the fact that we were really going through a roller coaster with ups and downs of the farm. It’s funny because this film is maybe a little bit unique in its subject because on a farm you can have something terrible happening and something really amazing happening simultaneously, so it kind of gave us the freedom to do a little bit of that jumping around in emotions.
It was interesting to see how quickly we could go between emotions and still have it work. We feel the need to stick to any theory necessarily just for the sake of doing it. It needed to feel right for the film and so we just kept playing with it to see where the emotions were going to hang the best.
HULLFISH: And did that also play into pacing? After a particularly sad scene or something that you would give the audience a chance to breathe with some beautiful pastoral shot?
OVERBECK: Sections that were dense in information we wanted to do that. We called them “meditative moments.” You needed a moment to digest it and to almost experience what you just heard for yourself, whether it’s hummingbirds returning to the pond or — with Alan’s death there was a lot going on on the farm but we needed to pay respect to his passing.
We gave it some breath there but then we kind of eased into more metaphorical ideas of his passing. So we used watching an orphaned lamb being a metaphor for John and Molly being left alone by Alan. So it seems like you’re moving on to a new subject but you’re kind of still processing the news.
I think we’re able to achieve a seamless transition out of that where it just kind of flows into the next thing without the viewer really realizing it but still giving it its it’s due.
HULLFISH: There’s a section where Todd, the dog, is soaking in the nature of the farm. It’s right at the halfway mark. Was that one of those milestones that you were given?
OVERBECK: We were really using him as an example of how John learned to see the farm differently. He learned to sit back and observe things. He said, “Look at Todd. Todd is just taking in the whole world around him and he’s able to see all these things because he’s open to seeing them.”
So we were really using that as his teaching moment to John, so it had to come at a point where we’re about to see this ripple of things that he figured out solutions for on the farm, because Todd taught him this way of seeing. So that was the use of that.
We went back and forth as to whether to use it in that way. But ultimately it felt like the best way of describing this new way that John had decided to approach solving problems on the farm.
HULLFISH: Talk to me about manufacturing or building this story of Greasy the chicken moving in with Emma the pig.
OVERBECK: So we really just let that scene play out by itself rather than trying to explain what’s happening. We just let it be and the great thing about that is that it makes it very universal. I went to a screening in Berlin and everyone’s laughing at the same moment. You’re all just able to understand what’s happening there. So some of the things can just speak for themselves and just be punctuated by music.
It’s something I really had to learn in the process of making this film was how to tell those kind of stories. I’d never really realized how intricate the little turns of the head or all those little body language things that go into telling an animal story are so important.
There are many times where I thought I had a great edit and John would come in and say well you just need Greasy looking this way instead of just jumping right to this part and I would put that in and it would just make a world of difference in communicating what was happening in the scene. But for the average editor, it’s not always so apparent what needs to be done there. It’s definitely a learning process.
HULLFISH: That’s a great thought about freeing yourself of the ego of needing to come up with the solution, right? That someone else can provide that and you just say, “Great idea! Let’s do it!”.
OVERBECK: Yeah. You maybe don’t even realize that it’s not speaking everything that you wanted it to. Sometimes as editors we get so into our edits and somebody comes in and can rip it apart. Especially with this, I knew that he was the master of how to tell these animal stories and I don’t understand all the little noises and everything that each animal makes that are significant and it’s amazing the next level that it can take it to when you know how to tell those stories right.
HULLFISH: I’ve seen so many nature documentaries and i know that they’re manufactured. If you’re watching a hawk up in a tree and then there’s a fish that’s in the water and they start to build the fact that the hawk is gonna come down and get the fish. That that’s not the way it was.
OVERBECK: The beauty of telling nature stories though is that there’s so much repetitive action. So you have so many chances to capture these actions of animals. So Greasy going to sleep with Emma — they saw that he had been doing that every night. They would watch him when they didn’t have cameras and they said, “Did you know this chicken does this?” The footage that we used for that scene was from two or three different nights worth of footage. But he did the same thing every night. So it gives you multiple chances, multiple angles and that’s the way it was with so many stories on the farm.
We have so many amazing shots because we were able to shoot it so many different ways. It’s not that we had 12 cameras on them.
HULLFISH: That makes complete sense but of course when I watched that — because it’s the way you told the story — I literally thought they had a camera on the first time that he ever did it.
OVERBECK: Definitely. I mean that’s the amazing thing about it, right? But I don’t think it really takes away the magic too much to know that because maybe it’s even cooler that they did that every night.
That’s very much the truth of it. That’s why we have so much of the footage that we have is because so many things just happen over and over and over.
HULLFISH: There’s a very funny — I call it an “answer cut” — of Greasy in the second Emma pregnancy: “Can you guess what colors the babies will be?” Can you tell me about that? Because that is a funny moment and it’s all in editing.
OVERBECK: It’s a great moment. I believe it was Jon’s idea. I have to give him credit for that.
HULLFISH: Explain what I’m talking about what the story beat was and why it’s funny?
OVERBECK: So Greasy, the chicken, has befriended Emma the pig and they’ve spent a bit of time together but Emma’s pregnant and so the joke is that Greasy’s the nervous boyfriend and Emma’s about to have all these pigs. So John is putting up a picture of Emma and Greasy hanging out together inside of Emma’s hut and he says, “I wonder what color the babies are gonna be?” or something.
The first time, Emma’s babies were all different colors. They were white and pink and black and everything, but this time all of the pigs come out red and Greasy the chicken is red. So pretty funny. And they actually had people in Q and As for the film asking “how is a chicken the father of piglets?”
Some people couldn’t wrap their head around that. But it was a great solution to a problem because this is Emma’s second pregnancy and the first pregnancy we really lived through the labor with her. She had 17 piglets and we didn’t want to have a repeat scene. We didn’t want to have to live through a whole other pig labor. That wasn’t where the story was. The first time, that was where the story was.
So with this one we just wanted to cut to the chase: she’s pregnant and boom, here’s the piglets and they’re running out of the house with her. So it just helped us to move forward in that story without showing something everyone knows happened.
HULLFISH: There’s another really interesting editing moment that I really liked — SPOILER ALERT — but there’s a very violent thing that happens with Greasy and it’s indicated with a very violent camera move.
I talked to David Wu, who is a Hong Kong action editor, and he said he needed to amp up the action of a fight scene where the Steadicam operator tripped and fell and he used the footage of the falling camera from tripping Steadicam operator in the footage to make a violent moment. You did a similar thing — I thought — with Greasy.
OVERBECK: Do you want me to give away how it happens?
HULLFISH: One thing that struck me was, you said somebody has given you these fat cuts of the best moments and I’d think that something like that action moment of a camera not pointing at anything would have been cut out of those fat cuts. You wouldn’t even know that it existed.
OVERBECK: So the fat cuts are essentially trimmed down to what’s usable, but we didn’t usually put iPhone footage in fat cuts. Though even in fat cuts, there were many times where I would find a shot in a fat cut and match frame back to the source just to see what else was there. So I’d always explore the options when I would find a shot I liked, just to make sure I had my in and outright.
But with the iPhone footage, we didn’t want it to all be mixed in with the Amira and the (Sony) F55 footage. So the iPhone footage was just organized by person and they were just clips, so I would just look at the thumbnails and find the one I needed in John’s folder. I’d bring it up and I could choose whatever in point I wanted.
So with that one I just felt like the viewer knows that it’s iPhone footage because he’s talking from behind the camera. And he had a flashlight that he was shining at the same time, and so there was this moment where he went to stop recording and the flashlight and the phone just kind of “did a thing” and I felt like it really helped to show his frustration in that moment.
We’re all very used to seeing iPhone footage now and the person holding it is a part of that too and if you know they’re feeling a certain way and then you see the camera do this violent thing you can kind of sense how they’re feeling, so it felt like an important way to do it.
And it allowed us to break away from the iPhone footage and then go to a beautiful scene of stars at night and have a more reflective moment and let the audience know we’re getting out of this scene now, so it kind of served two purposes there.
HULLFISH: Another place that I was struck about the pacing of it, was when the Chester’s have a baby, you see the change of age of that child rather quickly. Can you talk to me about pacing that out and determining how much you were going to show of this child growing up?
OVERBECK: That was tricky too because it’s John’s son. It’s the director’s son. So he was very sensitive of trying not to show off his son too much because he knew he might not have a good sense of when the audience is tired of seeing this footage. He wanted to just have him grow up already and move things forward.
I thought we had lots of cute stuff that we left on the table, but we did just have to fast forward it because we were at a point in the story where we were heading towards the ending and we knew that we only had people for so long and we wanted to show them that this was going somewhere fast. We were going to speed along and really show you the big milestone moments. So it served to propel us forward to an even more magical time on the farm where everything is just completely working together.
Shortly before that we had shown how all the wildlife came back to help — spoiler alert — and so you’re just showing that quite a bit of time passed. Now we’re going to fast-forward and get to the end.
We knew we had multiple endings that we were working with, but they were all great and meaningful scenes, so we wanted to be judicious with them and show people that we’re trying to wrap it up, but we have some great moments for you.
That scene was also a big moment of passing the torch from Todd to their son as far as being the main motivator in their life. So it was really an important scene and pretty emotional.
HULLFISH: I don’t want to draw the curtain back too severely on the manufacture of a documentary, but to me it felt so real that the birth of the son is compared and contrasted to the birth of a calf. Is that something you guys came up with? Or did they actually happen almost simultaneously?
OVERBECK: No. They didn’t happen simultaneously. We were trying to find a way to bring their son into the environment without really breaking away from our primary farm story too much — keeping it centered on the farm.
We had this great scene where the crew is gathered around and really excited for this cow birth. And John was assisting the cow in giving birth and we felt like we could “double duty it” because we hadn’t seen John help a cow give birth. We saw him with the piglets but that was very early and easy stuff, but with this scene he was pulling a calf out of the cow, so it really shows his progression as a farmer.
Then you have this joyful scene with the crew gathered around, so excited for the baby calf, so it moves that excitement into the birth of their son. It kind of helps amp up that moment. We’re also cutting to shots of the newborn in between shots of new lambs and things like that so we’re very much orienting the son in this ecosystem he was born into. It kind of helped everything flow without having to have a whole bunch of lead up of Molly going to the hospital or something like that. You knew that she was pregnant before that. You see this calf scene and then she has a new baby, so it felt right.
HULLFISH: Want to talk about the process of editing the film?
OVERBECK: The process was just so unique in that I was editing in a barn — a renovated barn and very nice barn, but in a barn in the middle of the farm. I could look out my window and see sheep being moved between pastures. To be living in the environment that you’re telling the story about — I’m a big fan of remote editing but it was pretty amazing experience — and to understand your subject so fully. I went through a huge learning curve. I had to learn about regenerative farming and all of that to help tell the story.
I’d known John a Molly for 15 years — from before they ever went to California — but I had this new part of their life that I had to help tell and it took a lot to understand all the intricacies of what he wanted to tell in his story.
When I first got there he actually had me go out and do livestock chores with the livestock team and I was going to rotate between all the departments and everything just so I could understand the farm more fully. So I was doing that one morning a week but then one day I was helping hammer in electric temporary fencing. I came back and my hands were shaking and red and I said, “I don’t know if I can edit!”
So John said, “No more.” It was just a really really unique experience. If he was trying to explain something to me, he could take me out in the pasture and show me the soil or whatever it was. Or he would come in with a baby lamb and say, “Here. Can you watch this for a second?”.
HULLFISH: Since you had a great cinematographer available to you and you had the actual locations were you able to say, “I really need THIS.”
OVERBECK: Especially for scenery — trying to setup a scene, like drone shots going over to Emma’s location on the farm and things like that at a certain time of day — we did a bit of that we felt like we needed to orient ourselves on the farm. That was most of the shots I would suggest. Or sometimes where we just felt like we were lacking in story in a certain thing so we would have someone go shoot cow patties until we got the right shots of the flies.
Or I was able to articulate, “I think we need a certain angle with this setup in this way so that it’s going to orient people that this is the same scene that we’re trying to get into.” I could go out in the field with them and help figure out how exactly we should shoot it to have it mesh with what I already had in the edit.
HULLFISH: A lot of editors — who are on feature films — will say, “I don’t want to be on the set because I don’t want to be influenced by my relationship with the actors, my understanding of the geography of the set. I don’t want to see any of that stuff.”
And yet you were completely immersed and knew the subjects very intimately. How did that affect your storytelling as an editor?
OVERBECK: I didn’t realize how much it would affect it, but as time went on I definitely got more in tune with the farm. The location of things on the farm was a big thing to kind of wrap my head around and how the farm works in general, so it made a huge difference.
I think it’s different probably than being on a set because a set you’re kind of lifting the curtain. It’s things that the audience wouldn’t otherwise know about. But when it’s a real story and a documentary you need to be in tune with it and I don’t know that I would have been able to get so in tune with it if I wasn’t there to begin with.
I’ve been working remotely with them for a while now and I think now that I know the farm so well, it’s actually pretty easy to be remote because I know where everything is there. I know how things work. But it took a while to get oriented to all that and understand how they rotated the animals and how the seasons changed things on the farm. There is a lot to understand there and every season it was like re-learning it too.
HULLFISH: The end part with the fires — the pacing of that and trying to kind of wrap things up as with the birth of the Chester’s child — you need to get things wrapped up and finished. Tell me about that last section of dealing with the fires.
OVERBECK: Well, we struggled with how to wrap up the fires. At first we were doing it in more of an epilogue form — some text on screen at the end before the credits, and it just wasn’t feeling like enough. It was feeling like too much of a throwaway, when it was a really big event on the farm. So we brought it back into the third act and it was a struggle to figure out how do we do this briefly enough but also give it its due. And so we brought in a few new beats that you hadn’t seen in the opening of the film to make it fresh.
So the trailer fire and now you see that when Molly is running around the house she also has her son there that she’s trying to evacuate with. Some things like that bring more gravity to the situation than you knew from the beginning of the film. But still we’re trying to get through this efficiently and we know that people have a sense of the scene already from the top of the film. So we just kind of want to remind them of the scene. Give these few new beats and then the funny thing about fire season is that you can be under siege for weeks at a time and then all of a sudden the winds die down and the threat just goes away just like that.
The way that we got out of that scene was very much the reality of the situation. Just one day you can go home and they were excited and relieved and had this moment of just laughing about how ridiculous they were when they were packing up to evacuate and there was just like a sigh of relief that kind of helps propel you into the more joyous ending you’re about to get into.
When we were doing it we were struggling with how to get out of it and how to explain the fire’s going away for people that don’t know how it goes. But ultimately we just had to say how it is and hope that people would be on board that how a fire wraps up is maybe not how you’d expect. It was true to the experience.
HULLFISH: And scary for you, I would think! You did evacuate with your computer?
OVERBECK: I lived a mile off of the farm, and I stayed home with the computer. We had our bags all packed but we didn’t actually evacuate ourselves. We kind of didn’t know where to go to be honest.
We had our walkie talkie from the farm with people that were keeping an eye out so we could hear if they saw something coming. We had our neighbors all keeping each other informed and so we just waited. But I could see the Thomas fire every night from my living room, burning on the mountain. One time I called the farm — because it was in the same direction of the farm — and I said, “I think there’s a tree on fire by your house.” But it was just that at night the flames on the mountain looked so much closer.
And the Thomas fire, at one point just really wasn’t actually blowing in our direction, but it was right there in our vision, so the ones that were coming us were the ones we couldn’t see. So it was a scary time for sure. It really made it even more so that I was experiencing everything that we were telling on the farm besides the rough early early years which I fortunately wasn’t there for.
HULLFISH: Amy, thank you so much for a wonderful conversation. It’s been a joy to talk to you.
OVERBECK: Thanks so much, Steve. I’m so excited to be a part of this and I’m flattered.
The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.