Post Production

ART OF THE CUT with Oscar-nominee Nat Sanders, ACE on editing “Just Mercy”

Nat Sanders, ACE was nominated for an Oscar and an ACE Eddie for Moonlight. He also won an Independent Spirit Award for his work with director Destin Cretton on the feature film, Short Term 12.

Nat’s other work includes If Beale Street Could Talk, The Glass Castle, and TV series Girls, Togetherness and The Biggest Loser.

Today we’re discussing his work on Just Mercy.

(This interview was transcribed with SpeedScriber. Thanks to Martin Baker at Digital Heaven)

HULLFISH: You’ve done three films with director Destin Cretton. How did that relationship start?

SANDERS: My first feature was with Barry Jenkins. We’d gone to film school together and it was just very clear that he was kind of the golden child of the film school and his talent and his vision and his voice was kind of there at a very early age. So for years after film school, we’d been telling him he needed to make a film and then he finally did in 2007. I’d been editing reality television and I was desperate to get to features, so I quit my job, moved myself to San Francisco, where we were shooting. Then I started editing some indie features but I really thought I was going to keep making movies with Barry and one was going to kind of roll into the next, and unfortunately, it took eight years for his second film to get made, which was Moonlight.

So at some point in the course of those eight years, I realized I needed some more directors to work with, so I started watching short films — a lot of short films out of Sundance and SXSW — and I saw one called Short Term Twelve that had won the jury prize for Best Short at Sundance and it was so raw and real and authentic and it just blew me away. It’s so good.

So I looked up the director and I happened to see also that he had edited the short himself which kind of meant that maybe there was an opening where he didn’t have an editor relationship already spoken for and I kind of found that a lot of times directors — for the most part they don’t really want to cut themselves — but they either didn’t know an editor or maybe felt like they didn’t have any money and whoever they would get for free wouldn’t have the same level of commitment to the project as they would themselves so they just did it themselves. So I thought maybe there was an opening.

I loved his work so I just sought him out and ran into him at next year’s Sundance and made a beeline up to him and just shoved my foot in the door and then about a year or two after that we made the feature of Short Term Twelve.

Director Destin Cretton on the set of Just Mercy.

HULLFISH: The director I worked with on my first feature film also started out cutting his own films so I completely understand. And sometimes they’re very good at it and sometimes that’s what they want to do.

But given the choice, I think it’s great to have a second set of eyes if nothing else.

SANDERS: Definitely. Yeah, that’s definitely the goal is that it can become this thing that would be better than either one of you could make on your own. You push against each other — them with their vision and them knowing the project better than anyone and you with your objectivity and your taste and between the two of you just kind of continually pushing against each other — making it this thing that becomes better than either one of you could do on your own.

That’s the goal and I guess I’ve been blessed that that’s been the case for me so far.

HULLFISH: I’m really interested in that as a lesson for aspiring editors to really take an active role and figure out which directors could you pursue?

SANDERS: When younger editors are looking for advice I always say things to that effect — talent is what’s going to carry you through when you get the job but you need to get the job first. I was just very lucky that I went to film school at the same time as Barry Jenkins and was able to see his talent and make sure that he knew that I wanted to edit his films and we started that relationship really early.

I moved to L.A. in 2002 and it wasn’t until 2007 when I worked on Barry’s first film and in those years I was really single-mindedly focused on features. But I didn’t have those contacts and there weren’t many opportunities that came along during that time, so I definitely understand that desire to really be working on the kind of projects you want to be working on and not necessarily seeing an entry.

For me, it’s almost the opposite of dating. In dating it’s to your benefit to kind of play it cool and not show too much eagerness or interest early on and just kind of let it happen organically and naturally. But what I have found going after jobs is that people want to work with people who are passionate and that want to be there. Directors want to be surrounded by collaborators who see their vision and appreciate their vision.

So I’ve always had really good luck with just pursuing the people who I think are really talented and just letting them know in no uncertain terms that I love their work and if they would be interested in working with me that I would love to be a part of anything they have coming up and just shoving your foot in the door.

I did my first feature with Barry Jenkins. We premiered that at South by Southwest. I went to South by Southwest with the film and that was really mind-expanding — meeting so many other filmmakers. We were all around the same age — kind of in our late 20s at that point — people who weren’t waiting for permission to make movies — who, even if they only had $5000 were going out and making a feature. Obviously they were a little limited in scope for that budget but they were great. So I kept going to more festivals. It’s kind of like summer camp: you kept seeing the same people at each one.

There was a director there named Lynn Shelton who I’d struck up a friendship with, and she was about to go make another one. So I did a similar thing where I just shoved my foot in the door and told her I would love to be part of it if she was looking for someone. She was flattered but said, “I live in Seattle and I don’t have any money” and so I quit my job — I was working a reality TV job back in LA — and moved myself to Seattle for three or four months and worked for free on that one and did that several times.

Scene from “Humpday” directed by Lynn Shelton

Obviously not everyone can always be in the same position where you can afford to take work for free or to go to Seattle if that’s where your director lives, but I’ve always found that if you’re able to make a sacrifice and aggressively pursuing what you’re passionate about it tends to lead to good things.

HULLFISH: One of the things you also mentioned was that people are not asking for permission. They’re doing films on low budgets and that’s another piece of advice that I always give to young filmmakers is that you’ve gotta be cutting something. Whatever it is, you need to be honing your skills and sitting in the chair as much as you can.

SANDERS: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t think there are many prodigies when it comes to editing. It’s not like Mozart at age six composing symphonies. I think you need life experience and you need tons of experience in the chair. I’d be curious how it is for you, but I’ve found that on every single project I feel like I am better than I was on the one before it. You always learn something. You’re always adding to your toolbox.

I remember going back to my first feature with Barry. I was so young and at that point as far as scripted went, I’d only done stuff in film school and in film school all of us were so precious about our stuff. I remember on Barry’s first feature there would be times when I wanted to cut a line of dialogue that I thought wasn’t necessary or superfluous.

I remember being nervous to ask, “I don’t know if I can cut this line of dialogue.” It’s funny to think back to when I wasn’t even sure if I could cut a line of dialogue to getting to the point where now I know that’s a huge part of your job is making it as trim as possible. You just learn so much from project to project. It’s kind of crazy to think about where I was when I started out to where I am now.

HULLFISH: On this latest movie — I haven’t seen it — but I’m sure that not only are you cutting lines of dialogue but you’re saying, “Are you sure we need this scene? Can we just cut out these three scenes?”

SANDERS: Yes absolutely. I know for me — and I imagine for other people — when you start out as an editor I think you think that the craft of it — the aesthetics of your edits and making edits look really nice — is a big part of the job when in actuality that’s a really small part of the job.

Really, editing is so much about storytelling and you really are a co-writer with the director on the last draft of the script which is the edit. Instead of working with a blank page as the writers do, you’re working within the confines of what’s on that monitor, what they shot on set. But that really is what the job is.

In this case, it was ten or eleven months of the director and I just really, really meticulously going through the movie — first, primarily for performance first and getting each scene working the way it’s supposed to individually. But then really in a macro sense just continuously working on making the best version possible of the film and doing feedback screenings for strangers and seeing what works and what doesn’t work and then you go and fix those things and then you screen it again and you find some new things that aren’t quite hitting the way you want. You’re constantly working on refining the movie and making it the best it can be.

HULLFISH: Talk to me about the storytelling on the macro level and how you affected it with the director in post.

SANDERS: In this case, we had a subplot where the scenes really worked. It was a really powerful subplot about this case about Bryan Stevenson who has been a death penalty lawyer in Alabama since the late 80s. In the book, every other chapter is about Walter McMillian, which is the character Jamie Foxx plays in the film. Every other chapter is about all these other cases that have been part of his work over the past 30 years which involved a lot of minors being given life without parole and people with mental illness and mental incapacitation and all these other things.

Obviously, in this movie, we focus more on this one case, but his work with kids was really important to him and we had a subplot that was great, but as we were cutting the film, the film tells you what it wants and what is necessary and what’s superfluous and it became more and more obvious throughout the process that this subplot — while it was great — was just kind of a detour that we didn’t need to take.

In a storytelling sense, you’re kind of making tough decisions about what’s best for the film. On my previous film — If Beale Street Could Talk — the first act was pretty set and it stayed pretty close to what the script was. But after that, it’s not necessarily a cause-and-effect plot-driven film where things needed to go in much of a certain order at all, so the whole middle of the film was really kind of open to movement.

We had a big board of all of our scenes and we spent months where pretty much all of the individual scenes and the performances were pretty locked in. And it was just months and months of just looking at the board, moving things around, talking about the ripple effects of why that would be a good change or what that would negatively impact and trying it out in a cut and watching it. Showing people and trying out different versions. It definitely feels like writing.

HULLFISH: So you’re probably done with an editor’s cut within a week or two from the end of production?

SANDERS: I probably take a little bit longer on my first cut. I know that a good amount of it’s going to get tossed or that the director is going to see it and remember certain things that they liked but I’m too much of a perfectionist. I probably work too hard on my first cut. I push it as far as I can before showing it to the director so probably two weeks or a few days more than that if I can.

HULLFISH: What was the shooting schedule? Because the shooting schedule certainly makes a difference in how quickly you can get something done. If you’ve got a really short shooting schedule, sometimes that actually makes it mean that you need more time after the shoot.

SANDERS: That was definitely the case on this one. It was a thirty-five-day shoot and it was a long script. I think it was 130-something pages, so they were shooting about four pages a day. A lot of it is dense and just required a very subtle touch. Assembly for me is my least favorite part of the process.

It’s really important. Being the editor you are the eyes of the audience. You’re the person who is working on the film who wasn’t on-set and you don’t know that this shot took six hours to set up and get. And so you don’t have those attachments to it, and an audience member obviously doesn’t care how long or how short a setup was or how difficult something was or what was happening behind the scenes that day on set. So your job is to be the audience that is coming into it objectively.

Your first impressions as you watch the dailies are really important. The assembly is a huge part of the process. It’s very important but it’s also tedious. I love collaborating with the directors and so doing that work by myself is just a little bit lonely. I get more fulfillment and joy out of the collaboration part, so I’m always thrilled when the assembly is done and you’ve kind of rolled that boulder up the hill a little bit every day and you finally have gotten it up to the top, and then you can finally start the real work which is sitting with the director and making the film great.

HULLFISH: So 45 or so days to get to an assembly. That’s a small portion of the total schedule that you were on the movie.

SANDERS: I think it was 10 months from start to finish in total. So it was probably a total of another six or seven months at least of editing and then getting it to sound and all that.

HULLFISH: And on this one did you have a board up on the wall of the scenes like you did for Beale Street?

SANDERS: Yeah, we did use it a fair bit. We did have one up for this one as well. It’s helpful to be able to look at it visually, especially for the director or when producers come in it’s really helpful for them.

HULLFISH: Were you editing in Avid?

SANDERS: Yep. Early on in my career I was on indie features and I was cutting on my laptop with Final Cut 7, but these days everything’s Avid.

HULLFISH: What do you do as you’re watching dailies? Do you let them just flow over you? Or do you feel like you don’t have time to do that — you’ve got to be actively either selecting or marking.

SANDERS: What I first learned and was taught in film school was to take dailies in the first time without doing anything else — without taking any notes. Just allowing for those first impressions to really wash over you and to kind of feel the flow of where a performance is going between take one and take five and just feel the shift of and just really allow those first gut impressions to stick with you and see what really pops for you and sticks with you.

It seems like that keeps getting harder to do. I still do it every time. I still watch the dailies first time through and then the second time is when I’m really starting to make my choices about line readings and takes and what I’m seeing. So that’s the way I’ve always worked and continue to work but it does seem like with everything else that an editor is required to do these days — between temping the music on your first pass, temping visual effects and everything else — it does make it a grind as you’re going through dailies and that can lead to a lot of long days but that’s just the way I learned and it just seems like it would be hard to break out of that pattern now.

HULLFISH: Once you’ve done that kind of passive viewing, then what?

SANDERS: I’ve never done selects reels really. I did when I edited Lynn Shelton’s films. Her films were improv comedies — kind of in the Larry David Curb Your Enthusiasm model. It could even be a two-page outline for a full feature that just kind of tells you from point A to point B where each scene is going — kind of a hybrid, it’s got some documentary elements in how you have to approach it.

In those cases, everything that kind of popped for me I would put in a long timeline. It would maybe be 30 minutes for what would end up being a two-minute scene, and then cull it down from there.

I did that a few times on Moonlight. When Mahershala Ali teaches Little to swim in the first story, Barry shot that very loose and kind of documentary-style, so that was a similar case where I made a long timeline of everything that popped and then just kept culling it down.

But for any traditional scene or dialogue scene, I really build it by watching it the first time through for those first impressions and gut instinct and then deciding on: “Oh that seems like a way to get into the scene.” I’m kind of formulating in my head: it’ll be really nice to stay a little more mediums up until this one line and on this line — where the scene kind of turns — that’s the moment where I feel like I want to go into close-ups and really kind of make that moment pop and really kind of highlight that beat. So I’ll be having those things in the back of my mind as I’m watching it the first time and then as I’m going through a second time I’m really kind of solidifying those choices.

For the most part, I’m building it from the top of the scene just moment-by-moment. ScriptSync is a huge help. In Avid one of our assistants will have gone through and I’ll have all my markers for every line reading. So that’s also very helpful as you’re building, especially with very dialogue-heavy scenes, it’s helpful to use that as a tool.

HULLFISH: Once you’ve worked with ScriptSync and have bought into the time commitment that it is for your assistants do you also find that ScriptSync is something you use working with your director?

SANDERS: Yeah absolutely. It’s hugely helpful especially for that first pass with the director. There might be a three week — sometimes four week — process with the director where we’re just sitting together every day and just going through the movie chronologically and either they like what I did and it stays or they had a different idea that they want to try or they remember a certain line reading that maybe rang more true for them that they want to try or one of my choices isn’t quite landing right for them on a certain line reading.

It’s just so helpful to have ScriptSync where you can just show them everything we have very quickly. It’s so much more efficient. It probably is not the most fun job for the assistants, but it makes a huge, huge difference and it saves so much time later for the editor.

HULLFISH: It’s also great for finding different audio line readings to play under different visual line readings that you like.

SANDERS: Absolutely. That’s one of those things I was alluding to earlier where I think at the beginning of my career — in the first couple of films I did — I didn’t know you were allowed to do that. I’d heard that you’re not supposed to mess with the sanctity of the performance and what they actually said, but as you go through the years and keep working on films, you see that you do that with ADR anyway.

So I’ve started doing that a lot, where for various reasons you might want to be on a shot visually whether it’s a long push on a character and it just has a lot of impact to hold on that shot and there’s one line reading that just isn’t great where they kind of didn’t quite nail this one line but everything else is great. You really want to hold on that shot. You don’t want to cut away for just that one line to the other character listening and then cut back to them. It just won’t be quite as graceful or have the same impact.

I’ll go back through all the other audio takes and the key is just that it kind of needs to be said, obviously, at the same speed and general rhythm as the line you’re replacing. I do that all the time. That’s just one example of why you would do it but if an actor has the perfect look on their face and it’s just the exact emotion you’re looking for visually but they didn’t say the line quite the way you wanted, but then there’s another one where they said it perfectly and either the camera wasn’t on them or that visual take doesn’t work — yeah, I do that all the time.

That’s become a huge part of how I work to just always make the actors pop and shine as much as possible. Performance is a huge part of an editor’s job. I’d say probably a third of the job is performance.

HULLFISH: To find those great performances, do you think it’s empathy? What do you think helps you find those performances?

SANDERS: It’s a good question. It definitely could be that. Some of it is taste and I think it’s just trying to stay true to what feels really real and true to you and obviously it depends on the film. It could be something where if you’re working on something grounded and subtle then you’re looking for more authenticity and truth and real voice.

Or if you’re working on something that’s more like a broad comedy then you’re not so concerned with subtlety or grounded-ness and you’re just looking for what makes you laugh. It’s definitely different depending on the tone of the film. I fall back to taste a lot. I think taste is a big part of an editor’s job. To a degree that’s not what you’re getting hired for is to apply your tastes to this footage and to make it the best version of it what it can be.

HULLFISH: How do you choose what to temp with? What are you doing to try to come up with a temp library?

SANDERS: That’s also something that’s different from director to director. With Moonlight or Beale Street Could Talk, Barry doesn’t play any instruments, but he’s a musical savant. He’s really, really invested and interested in the music. So with him, he’ll probably give you a bin ahead of time with what he’s thinking for temping tone-wise and obviously you can branch out from that and find other things that are similar in tone, but he’s kind of setting the tone of what he really hears for the movie.

In that case Miles Davis was definitely part of it. He’s also having those conversations with the composer and with Dustin, who I just worked with on Just Mercy, such a subtle touch is required because his films are really, really raw and authentic and real. That’s always the goal — and emotional as well.

With his films, if you just go a little bit too far in one direction or the other it can either feel too heavy — where it gets overbearing so you’re feeling so much heaviness and weight of the emotion and drama — where if you go too far in the other direction it can feel a little too saccharine. There’s a risk of it feeling saccharine or sappy. Things need to be a little more neutral and not pushing too far one way or the other. You always know that you’re kind of looking for pieces that aren’t telling you what to think.

I used David Wingo’s score for Mud. It was another Southern story and the score had the right tone and it didn’t push too hard. So I used a lot of that. That was pretty guitar-heavy and for our movie, I knew that wasn’t right. I knew instrumentally it wasn’t right but it worked decently and then we swapped most of it out once the music editor came on after my first past.

It’s always different from film to film. I love working on music, and for me — especially for certain sequences — I can’t imagine cutting it dry. Music really informs. It really can help you see things especially in more montage-type moments to really kind of help you see how it should come together.

HULLFISH: That’s also part of feeling out the director, right? The Queen and Slim editor was saying that the director doesn’t like to have any music in her assembly and I’ve heard other directors say the same thing. There can be no music in the first assembly. There aren’t a lot of people because most directors want some clothing. I don’t want to be completely naked, right?

SANDERS: Yeah, I totally feel that too. I remember the few times I directed back in film school when it’s just such a nerve-wracking experience, watching your footage for the first time because you’re thinking about whatever mistakes you made on-set that gnawing at the back of your mind. You’re really hoping that you’re not going to feel those too strong when you watch the cut and you’re also hoping that the editor understood what you were going for and especially with a feature if you see within the first five minutes that the editor isn’t sensing your tone or vision or seeing things the way you were then you’re in for a long watch.

To also compound that with not having music in it that would make for a really long watch. For a director or really for anybody — when you settle in and the lights are turned down, it’s really hard to divorce yourself from feeling like “this should feel like a movie.” Even though you know you’re watching a rough cut, you know you’re watching a first cut or an assembly you still want it to feel like a movie.

So for me, I love working with music but I definitely understand the perspective that it’s really nice for the composer if you didn’t temp and they’re starting with a really clean slate where you don’t have attachments to these temp pieces. I’ll obviously do whatever the director wants.

HULLFISH: I’ve heard some differences of opinion recently with editors on watching the assembly. Did you guys watch the assembly all the way through? Some people say. “That’s just torture. We could only watch a couple of scenes and we had to start working.”

SANDERS: (laughs) Yeah. It’s different with every director. We did watch the whole film, but on his last film, Glass Castle, I think we just watched the first act. We started out with a pretty long first act and then we really needed to trim it down. So it was maybe the first 45 minutes of the movie that we start working on. I don’t think he watched the rest of my first assembly until after we’d worked on those first 45 minutes.

My experience is that that is more unusual. Usually, we would watch the whole first cut. I just put so much work into my first cuts because I just don’t want it to be a painful experience for the director and I really put a big stamp on the first cut and really try to make it sing. I don’t think I’ve had anywhere we felt too depressed afterward. There might have been one or two. But for the most part, they say, “That wasn’t near as bad as I thought,” which is what you want to hear as an editor afterward.

HULLFISH: Of course I’m not saying that the assembly is bad because of anything you did, it’s just that the director — seeing everything assembled for the first time — sometimes they just want to go a scene at a time.

One of the things you just mentioned in that discussion was that in one of your movies it was really the first act that needed a lot of work or that you needed to do a lot of restructuring. Everybody I talk to: it’s always that first act that’s the problem. Why is that?

SANDERS: I think it’s because exposition is a necessary evil. You need to set up certain things so you can be invested in the character and the stories throughout the whole experience but it’s hard to do that gracefully and I think you probably have about 15 minutes where an audience will kind of allow for things to kind of be set up a little slow and the scenes don’t necessarily have to really be pulling them forward yet. They’re giving you an allowance to set things up. But after that, you need to start things rolling or they’re going to get bored pretty quickly.

It’s always the beginning of the film. I think it’s just because the exposition just is a little too long in the scripts. Once you get in and see it, you feel that it’s taking too long to get to the story and everyone feels that they’re not locked into the story until 25 minutes. How do we shorten that to 20 minutes or how do we make that 15 minutes?

On every movie, there will be that scene where you feel like, “OK, I’m in good hands” where you feel like you’re into the story and you’re ready to settle in and watch it. It’s always later than you want it to be so you’re always trying to find ways to move that up.

HULLFISH: On this movie what was that scene that you needed to be locked in by?

SANDERS: For us, it was the first scene between Michael Jordan and Jamie Fox. We start with the cold open of seeing Jamie Fox’s arrest and then we are with Michael B Jordan. He went to Harvard Law School then kind of eschewed all these big money opportunities to move to Alabama and chooses a life of helping poor, mostly black men, who’ve been wrongfully convicted. So we had that exposition and set up that obviously needed to be there and we need to see all those things. but the movie really takes off once the two of them sit together. I think it was maybe twenty-five minutes in after my first pass and we knew we wanted it around 20 minutes. So we were working out how we would lose five minutes before that.

Obviously, it’s not so cut and dry and mechanical to where I would just cut five minutes at whatever the cost but you just know that that’s generally where you really want to be, and so you’re just kind of always looking for ways to trim.

HULLFISH: You mentioned a storyline that got dropped. Did that get dropped in there or was that later?

SANDERS: We saw a way to really streamline some things in the beginning if we could have a day of reshoots. We had a scene that totally worked but maybe it wasn’t fully necessary and there was a way to kind of combine two scenes into one. I love working with Destin. He’s such a great collaborator and on all those things like that he really involved me on kicking those ideas around together and so the two of us kind of conceived this scene that would be a really perfect solve to really speed things up. We were already looking at a little bit of reshooting anyway, so we added this to the schedule and it really helped.

HULLFISH: Could you tell me what the scenes were and then what the scene is in the movie now that was reshot to tighten that up?

SANDERS: We reshot the introduction to Brie Larson’s character. She was not a lawyer but she was someone who was really passionate about death penalty cases and got involved in trying to pair people on death row with lawyers and find them representation and she was kind of the only person in Alabama back then doing this kind of work, so when Brian moved down there they got linked up and they started their legal center together.

She was kind of his entry to that world and so we definitely needed to set her up. But there were certain things that weren’t clear. It wasn’t clear that she wasn’t a lawyer. There were definitely pieces of information that weren’t clear — what the dynamic was between the two of them. You weren’t sure if he was her boss or she was his boss. When Brian first moved down he meets Brie when he tried to rent a room from an older white couple. The couple just knew that they were renting to a Harvard lawyer and then they see that he’s black they decide that the room’s not for rent anymore.

Then there was a dialogue scene back at Brie’s house. It was a lot of exposition and we decided that the racist undertones of Brian moving down to Alabama were very clear in other ways and so to have this one extra scene of it that didn’t move the story forward was maybe just maybe hitting the racism thing too hard, and we had clarity issues with Brie, so we just found a way to really streamline it.

Now Brie meets him at an office space that they’re trying to rent and the guy won’t rent them the office space and it allowed us to get so much more information out in a much more compact way and really helps speed that first act along.

The scene where Brian’s trying to rent a room was definitely good, but Destin and I are just really meticulous and it was just clear throughout the whole process that Act One just needed the most love like almost every other film. We got to the point where we spent so much time working on Act One and we knew we’d exhausted pretty much everything we could do with the footage and we knew we were going to have the opportunity to go in for at least a day or two reshoots anyway.

We spent a ton of time trying to fix it with what we had before the reshoot and we made it the best it could be, but it wasn’t quite up to our own very high standards.

I love working with someone that is as much, or even more of a perfectionist than me. For me personally, I don’t want to work with someone who’s OK with settling. I always want to work with someone who’s always looking for an A — who’s always looking to push things even if it’s a path of more resistance to try to do what’s best for the film.

HULLFISH: There’s the evolution of Nat Sanders — from not realizing that you could cut a line to “let’s just reshoot this.”

SANDERS: (laughs) That’s part of the job. It took me a little while to realize it but I love that part. I went to film school thinking I want to be a writer and that’s kind of how I got in to film school was with some scripts that I’d written in high school. better.

But the very first time I edited it I fell in love with it and it was pretty obvious I was much better working with other people’s material than my own. I thought I wanted to be a writer and that’s always been a big part of my filmmaking identity so I feel like I get to really work that through by being an editor.

HULLFISH: Talk to me a little bit about how writing is like editing.

SANDERS: I feel like it is. It’s definitely more of the revising portion of editing as opposed to the first draft when it’s a blank page. And you’re using your total imagination and you can kind of go anywhere. Obviously you can’t completely change it. And I look at it more like you can make things probably a letter grade better. So if production delivers you a B, you can turn it into an A. It really is about maximizing the strengths, minimizing the weaknesses.

HULLFISH: Anything more on your collaboration with the director? How did you collaborate? Was it a lot of show and tell? Did you guys talk over things a lot?

SANDERS: It’s been a really great evolution working with Destin, my director on this film. This is our third film together and the first one was Short Term 12. On his short film version of Short Term 12 he cut everything himself so when we worked on the feature, it was his first time working with an editor and at first, he was very protective and hard for him at first to give up control of the keyboard and so we started from that place where I kind of needed to show him that I could do it and that I really understood his tone and his vision. But now our relationship has just bloomed and it keeps getting better and better all the time.

Production is so crazy that there’s not time to have the full collaboration during that part of it, but during the first week, we really would talk on the phone at the end of every shooting day and have long conversations about what we’re seeing. We’d talk much more about the macro things of what we were seeing.

Dustin really wants his actors to feel invested so he’s in the habit of telling them “the scripts not ironclad.” If there are certain lines that you want to put into your own words, let’s try that. So things were kept a little loose — especially with someone like Jamie Fox who is a great improviser and he’s really funny. Obviously this movie is a drama. But anytime you can make things more human, that’s always a good thing. As I was working through that footage the next day, it just became really obvious that the stuff that was really popping was the stuff that was sticking to the script, especially in a legal drama.

There were certain pieces of information that if you kept things loose that were getting lost. Just details about Walter — who Jamie plays — like the fact that his jury on the original trial was made up of 12 white men — that little bit of information you want to have in the film. But in a lot of takes, that bit of information was slipping through the cracks. It just became really obvious that the best stuff was when they were really locked in on what’s in the script, and so I told him that. He’d been feeling that, but then hearing that second voice telling him that really set in his mind that they needed to stick to the script on this film.

Also, Rob Morgan who is incredible in this film — he plays Herbert Richardson, another inmate on death row — His character has severe PTSD from Vietnam and has a speech impediment. So he had some physical and voice things that he had to play and he was doing a great job of really giving us different shades. In one take it might be really subtle, how far he was going with that, and then going to the other range of trying to go bigger with it to see how that felt. That was another case where, after day one, Destin and I talked through what was ringing true for us, and in this case, it was keeping it more subtle and grounded. Destin gave me a lot of input about those things and it just made me feel really valued. It’s just been a great collaboration.

HULLFISH: I heard the DGA podcast from the director of Marriage Story, which was edited by Jennifer Lame, and that director said, “Every director needs a buddy And he said, my editor is my buddy.”

If you can make the director feel like, “I can’t imagine doing another film without this guy because he tells me you know we should stick to the script and that we need to tone it down or tone it up,” those things are valuable to a director that gets you the next job. Not to make it about commerce…

SANDERS: I think that’s a side benefit. The goal is obviously to make the best film possible. It varies with every director. Some really open the door for you to have that voice and that input and with some, maybe the relationship’s not there yet and you don’t feel like you have the space to be that honest yet. One of the things I love about Destin is that he’s harsher with the material than I am. He loves honesty and bluntness and so you don’t have to sugar-coat things.

Every director runs the gamut. I’ve had other directors at the other end of the spectrum where you kind of have to say very softly and kind of let it sit for a week and then maybe after a week of very softly suggesting something the director will have sat with it and gotten more used to the idea. It’s always different with every director but I love having that level of input and trust and respect from the director so it’s just a side benefit and that can solidify those bonds to where they want to keep working with you in the future.

HULLFISH: Is your next project with a director you’ve worked with before?

SANDERS: Yeah. My next project is with Destin. When we were nearing the end of the edit on Just Mercy he landed the job on this next Marvel film with their first Asian superhero and it’s called Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. It’s going to be set in Chino and there’s kung fu so it’s going to be a very different challenge from what I’ve done before. We’re going to start shooting that next month.

HULLFISH: So, you started this relationship by approaching a short film director at Sundance and that led to you editing a Marvel movie? Nice. Anything else you want to talk about? Maybe your most challenging scene or the scene that you’re most proud of?

SANDERS: Overall in the macro sense this film was really about the overall storytelling sense. During the feedback screenings, we would all be sitting in the back row just feeling the energy and the impressions of the audience. Comedies are easier to do that with. It’s really easy to see “Does this joke get a laugh, does it not get a laugh?” And if it falls flat then you cut it. It’s pretty obvious that something isn’t working about it.

Grounded emotional dramas are trickier, so I was really just trying to feel the energy of the audience. There were two particular spots in the film where I was seeing a lot of people shifting in their chairs. I saw the same two spots in multiple screenings where I was seeing a lot of shifting in chairs, a little coughing, and just these signs that we’re dragging in those moments. So I really focused on those two sections and made sure that they were as trim as possible. I found ways to pace them up where I could.

In one of the two spots, in particular, it was in the middle of a 15-minute section where we didn’t have any music. So I found a couple of places to put temp score and we tried that and it really helped. In all the screenings after that, all the shifting stopped. Then in the other, it was a really big courtroom scene and that was another one where I was feeling some people rustling and getting a little restless and Tim Blake Nelson at one point is on the stand and we needed to convey something really subtle which was that he hadn’t looked at Walter McMillian — Jamie’s character — at all.

He was the one who had originally put him behind bars. He’s coming back on the stand and his intention is to not tell the truth, but it’s unclear whether he’s going to do that or not. He hasn’t looked at him the whole time. That’s a difficult, subtle thing to convey.

We normally would not underscore a dialogue scene. We would use music more for transitional things and moments, but in the middle of a dialogue scene it would not be our usual choice to put score, but I just saw that to really highlight this beat and really kind of define what’s happening by using a really subtle piece of score. I don’t know if I would try it on my own with every director, but because Destin just makes me feel so respected and valued I knew that I could have the freedom to try using music. So I worked with the music editor, and I found a really subtle piece of music that didn’t push hard. It didn’t tell you what to think, but just kind of existed and was very neutral.

We presented it to the director and he was at first resistant to it, but very quickly saw that it really highlighted that beat.

Overall storytelling is definitely cutting scenes and dialogue and finding ways to make it trim and move as quickly as possible but it goes down to the micro of being as subtle as curating the audience’s experience through the whole thing. Making sure that there aren’t moments where you’re dragging and making sure that a subtle piece of information is getting conveyed, and if it’s not then using a tool like scoring to help highlight that. Going to the micro of individual beats like that to the macro of making sure that the whole thing is tight and the best version of the film.

HULLFISH: That is some great wisdom right there. Matt, thank you so much for your time I really appreciate you spending so much time with me. I think people are going to have gotten a lot out of this conversation.

SANDERS: Oh thank you so much. I love talking editing and it’s a pleasure to talk with someone who really knows the craft and I had a great time talking with you.

Art of the Cut book cover
Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors

To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish or on imdb.

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.

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Steve Hullfish has been producing and editing award-winning television since the mid-1980s. He has written six books, and edited four theatrical feature films (including two Number One New Movies in the US). He has lectured…