Today on Art of the Cut we’ll be hearing from Andrew Mondshein, ACE, who edited the recently released Netflix production, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – a film based on August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
Andrew has had an illustrious career, editing since 1984 on films like Desperately Seeking Susan, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Sixth Sense, Cider House Rules, Chocolat, The Mummy, and American Made. He was nominated for ACE Eddies for The Sixth Sense and Chocolat, and for an Oscar for The Sixth Sense.
HULLFISH: When I was looking at your imdb page, there are two movies that I’ve actually got a bunch of clips for because I’m working on another project of my own — almost a hobby thing — I’m doing a documentary series based on what is “reel” and what is “real” about the movies. Two of the movies I’ve looked at are American Made and The Mummy.
HULLFISH: A real-life story, and then — “What’s true about mummies?” How much of the archaeology, how much of the science is real?
Looking at your filmography, you’ve got a stellar career of great movies. What made you the right editor for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom? How did that happen? And why do you think you were the choice?
MONDSHEIN: Interesting question. I know that Denzel and Todd had worked with other editors and Denzel had a different editor on Fences. I had not been interviewed for that. I heard from both Denzel and Todd that an editor they’d worked with — Hughes Winborne — had recommended me. He had come on to American Made at that time — when it was on pause for a little bit — and I actually worked on something that he had worked on. So we’d crossed paths and spoken but we’d never worked together on a film at the same time.
Apparently, he gave me a recommendation and they called me to interview with George Wolfe who directed it.
I live Upstate — an hour and a half outside of the city — and I was coming back from a farm with groceries and I get a call and I answer the phone and I hear, “Hey, Andy it’s Denzel.” It was in that inimitable voice. And I was like, “Hey Denzel. How you doing?” I pulled the car off the road he said George was interested in interviewing me for “Ma Rainey,” an August Wilson play they were adapting.
Todd Black, who’s his producing partner, also got on the phone and we started talking.
An interesting digression is that I had worked on a film very early in my career — the second film I had cut — a film called Power that Sidney Lumet directed, which was Denzel’s second film.
MONDSHEIN: Actually I think it was my third film. So we had some commonality. And in that discussion one of the things that came up was that that was actually the first film that had ever been cut on a non-linear editing system. So I have this little small footnote in film history as the first editor to ever use a nonlinear editing system on a film.
HULLFISH: What system?
MONDSHEIN: The system was the Montage. I was working with Sidney Lumet. He had done 230 live television shows before he was 33, before he directed 12 Angry Men. So he was very comfortable with technology and he’d heard about these systems that were being developed. The EditDroid that Lucas was developing and the Montage that were the first two that were getting close to having feature film editing conversion software.
He asked me to keep an eye on them. I talked to the Montage people and they were very, very excited about the idea. So Sidney said, “Train on it, and then we’ll cut a scene and see if we can make it work.” So I did and he liked the idea and he said, “Well, if they’ll give us the system for free and if they’ll have an engineer in the room next door in case anything goes wrong…”
He was very quick. He worked at a tremendous pace. And he wanted to cut out in East Hampton, New York, where he had a summer home. So we rented a little cottage out there, so the first film was done with an engineer in the next room and I was in there.
Every night they would come in and download information and ask, “What worked? What didn’t work? What do I need to change?” And they had a team of software designers and code guys and gals in Massachusetts. They would say, “We can make you do this!” And I would say, “Yeah. But I need it to do THAT.”
The next morning they’d come in with software patches. It was very bleeding edge in the technology. And later on I had to decide whether or not I wanted to continue down that path. Of course, everybody started calling me. Lucas wanted to fly me and Sandy Morris — who was working with Woody Allen at the time on Zelig — to look at the EditDroid.
Another thing that was interesting is that some of the more technologically-savvy and adventurous directors started calling me because I was literally the only film editor who had now had exposure to nonlinear editing.
HULLFISH: What year was this?
HULLFISH: Bleeding edge!
MONDSHEIN: I know. One day my assistant came running in and he said, “Don’t freak out, but Stanley Kubrick’s on the phone.”
MONDSHEIN: I was sitting with Sidney and my assistant then said, “No. He doesn’t want you, Andy. He wants to talk to Sidney.” Apparently, they had been friends back in the 50s when Kubrick lived in New York. He’s from the Bronx and Sidney was like, “Stanley! Bubbe! Baby! Darling! Lovie! I hear you’re finally gonna get off your ass and make another film.”
Kubrick asked him about the editing system and Sidney said, “The truth is I don’t really know anything about the technology except that I’m liking it and I’m working with it. But my editor knows everything about it. So, ‘Andy Mondshein — Stanley Kubrick.’” And he handed me the phone.
Both Sidney and Kubrick were the two people that were the biggest reason why I was interested in filmmaking. My mom had dragged me out of school in Washington D.C. to take me to see “2001” when I was 11 years old. It was up on the Cinerama screen there. And it was a transportive experience from 11 years old.
I had no idea what movies could do. And it was just stunning to me. Kubrick became the sort of unattainable goal of the possibilities of the depth and of what film can explore in the human experience.
Sidney actually made a whole series of films that also dazzled me, but I was older then — in the mid-70s and I was watching Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon and Network. These were films that were so incredibly visceral and brilliant storytelling — grab you by your shirt collar and pull you into a world that you had no escape from — and didn’t want to escape from.
I remember watching Dog Day Afternoon for the first time and not being able to get out of my chair at the end of the screening I just sat there for minutes trying to recover from that.
Then having had the opportunity to work with Sydney, he really was instrumental in basically giving me a career. I got hired on a film called Prince of the City as an apprentice sound editor. It was an ambitious film — a 3-hour film — that had not enough money and I was promoted pretty quickly to Assistant Sound editor and I was given six reels of Foley’s to do. So I had to record and cut the Foleys.
I was determined — I was pretty fresh out of college, I was maybe twenty-three years old — and I was really determined to have these be the best Foleys that ever existed. So I worked round-the-clock, seven days a week. One day they literally found me in front of the Moviola asleep in the morning because I worked through the night.
But I got every rustle, every footstep, everything they wanted for my six reels. I had barely met Sidney. I just said “hello” to him. I’d been introduced once briefly.
So we get to the mix — which was at Transaudio. There was a legendary mixer named Dick Vorisek He was our mixer and he kind of hated Foley. The Foleys in those days weren’t quite as good. The ones coming out of Sound One still had Sound One tone on them and they were a little rough.
When they were mixed in properly they were good but he kind of hated them, so what he tended to do was push up the Foleys really pretty loud on the first time watching a scene and the directors would tell him to lose it, and he would drop them out, so it was very frustrating for a nascent Foley editor/assistant sound editor like me. Earth consistent sound but me.
So we get to a scene and my reel is up and it’s one of the scenes where a prosecuting attorney is walking around a table with a bunch of other DAs and stuff and I have these footsteps on the carpet — really subtle things as he’s walking there — and Dick pushed it way up, and Sidney, who’s very impatient at the mix, sits there and he plays solitaire at the side of the board, but he was always listening and he looked up and says, “What’s that? What’s that sound?” Dick says, “Those are the footsteps on the carpet.” Sidney says, “You don’t hear footsteps on carpet! Lose them!” Dick pulls them out.
I never figured I would be an editor. I had my sights on directing at the very beginning. There was carpet on the stage behind where Sidney was sitting and I got up and I started walking back and forth behind Sidney….
MONDSHEIN: … for what must have been three or four minutes walking back and forth and finally Sidney puts down the cards and he said, “OK. You hear footsteps on carpet.” Then he turned around to me and he said, “but not in my film.”
I said, “Sidney. I just want you to know that if there is a sound that you could hear, you’ve got it.” He kind of laughed at it and we started talking and we sort of developed a friendship.
I think it was a ballsy thing to do. In hindsight, I know it was. I can’t believe I did it. But he talked to the editor of the next film and they hired me as the assistant picture editor. Then on the next film, which was The Verdict, he said, “Listen. If you can hang in for one more film, I’m going to promote you to editor.”
So that was the huge, huge thing. We remained friends till the end of his life.
I was nominated for an Academy Award for The Sixth Sense and of course, you tell everybody, “I lost. I didn’t get to thank you.” But Sidney was one who I was really going to thank in a big way. I wanted the billion people who saw that to know just how influential obviously he is to the industry, but to me personally.
George Wolfe, who directed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, is a renowned theater director — I think he’s got like 20-some Tony nominations and he’s won it six or seven times — and he reminded me more of Sidney than any other director I had worked with.
HULLFISH: That’s a huge compliment.
MONDSHEIN: Both of them are extraordinary artists. You get to work with a lot of people that are really amazing artists in this business if you’re lucky. That’s what you want. Some of them are also very original. So it’s not just that they’re brilliant they’re uniquely brilliant.
And I feel that way about both Sidney and about George. They bring a uniqueness to it. Sidney grew up in the theater world. His father was an actor and Sidney was a child actor. He really knew theater which allowed him — and I think you can tell from his film canon — it allowed him to really understand how to communicate with actors, what it was that the character at the time is experiencing, and giving them ways to actually portray it — to play it basically.
One of the other real gifts that Sidney gave me was that he allowed me — encouraged me — to come to his rehearsals for his films.
MONDSHEIN: And what he tended to do — which was very play-like — he would rent out a space like the Ukrainian National Home which was down on the Lower East Side. And it had a huge open space.
HULLFISH: That’s described in his book — his directing book — which sits on my bedside table.
MONDSHEIN: He wrote that while we were doing Running on Empty. He would have his production designers tape off the basic size of the different rooms and locations that they were going to shoot in. And he would start table reads. He did two weeks of rehearsal — if he was given the opportunity from the actors — and almost all the actors, knowing how important and good Sidney was at rehearsals, knew how valuable it was.
I don’t know how actors do it. I mean, I have the utmost respect for them, but without rehearsals — which so many times now directors are either not comfortable knowing how to really communicate with actors and or they just don’t have the time. The schedules don’t allow for it or the availability of the actors.
But Sidney insisted on it — sometimes even three weeks — and he would do table reads. By the end of the second week, or maybe the Tuesday of the second week — he would expect the actors to be off book which was really tough for some actors but they appreciated it.
By then they were starting to do walkthroughs of the stages. They were blocking it. On Running on Empty I remember a conversation with his production designer where he said, “I’m going to shoot this from this angle and I need the stairway that you’re building in the house to have 12 steps.”
And the designer said, “No. I’m going to build the entire stairway.” Sydney said, “No. No, I just need twelve steps. I know that.” And of course, that’s exactly what he needed, and they saved money because of that. So that was part of his ethos.
One thing about the Power rehearsal with Denzel, I remember Sidney saying to Denzel that his character is the kind of person who has bought top of the line suits and he will maintain his weight to make sure those suits fit perfectly. That was part of the mentality of who this character was.
Stanley Kubrick wanted me to come to England and work on Full Metal Jacket, which he did end up cutting on the Montage. He bought two of the systems. We had a series of conversations, but I was unable to go because he got delayed. He went six months over in their shoot and I was waiting and waiting and waiting, and then my first son was born and I couldn’t leave at that point.
But Stanley Kubrick asked me, “How does Sidney get his actors to remember their lines?” Weirdly, because I’d been working with Sidney in that capacity and because I was the only editor to work on an electronic system, I had all of the answers for the technical questions that he was asking.
So I told him the story of how Sidney rehearses such that his actors — and it doesn’t matter who it was — the top actors or small secondary actors, the day players that you brought in, they all had to know their lines.
Part of it is reputation. Sidney had this great reputation with actors. They loved him, and George as well has this amazing relationship through theater and the films that he’s done. To have worked with great, great actors but also to know how to communicate.
Jumping ahead in time, I went to Pittsburgh to meet with George. He interestingly did not want to meet over Zoom or Skype. He wanted to have an in-person meeting with all the people that he was hiring. So they flew me to Pittsburgh where they were going to be shooting.
Of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle — the one every decade 10 plays that he wrote about the black experience in America — all of them take place in Pittsburgh except this one, which takes place in Chicago, and it was the first one he wrote, too. It’s a 1927 story.
I had a very good meeting with George and got hired for the job. They shot it in Pittsburgh. I was cutting it in New York. I asked him — for the other editors — about remote editing if he was at all interested in that. Given that he didn’t even want to remotely interview me, I was not surprised when he said, “No, no, no. That’s not the way I work. I gotta be in there. I got to be right at the screen.”
Obviously, now with COVID, things changed. It did change right toward the end of Ma Rainey. We had to switch over to a remote setup just about two months before we finished. So we were right toward the end of it and we were just forced into it. There was no choice at that point but we have pretty much locked the film. It was very very close.
So that takes us up to the beginning of basically the way we shot it and I was cutting it at my house actually. I’ve done remote editing — because of my early introduction to electronic editing — which, by the way, I went back and forth for a couple of films.
I’d done Desperately Seeking Susan and Running on Empty on film. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was the next one that was a hybrid Montage system when they were trying to go digital but they hadn’t committed to it yet and ultimately that’s what I think stopped them from being the system everybody embraced.
Avid went fully digital and my old systems look like 1950s futuristic film stuff if you look at them.
Back to Ma Rainey, they started their shoot in Pittsburgh and I was not on location. It was a fairly quick shoot. George was totally comfortable not having the editor there. He really didn’t want to see anything until he saw the whole first assembly.
We barely spoke about his approach to it. There were some conversations, but it was pretty minimal. He was wildly preoccupied with all that was going on and trying to make it. It was a very quick shoot. They had limited time with Viola.
They put together an astonishing cast. He delved into the world of theater. For theater actors, August Wilson’s monologues are lengthy and complex. These are characters that have layer upon layer of complexity to who and what they are and all of their behavior. And that’s the stuff — editorially — you’re always tracking, trying to make sure that you are able to reveal to the audience or depict those moments when those characters are with you.
George did come in finally, after the end of shooting and I had done an assembly.
Generally, I get one to two weeks after the shoot to finish up that assembly. As all of the editors listening to this and you know, this is one of the low points in the whole process for the director.
Almost every director I’ve worked with has said how much they love editing and, in fact, it’s possibly their favorite part of the filmmaking process, because basically every day the film is getting better. If you’re doing your job it’s improving, improving, improving.
But the assembly is the moment where you’re looking at it for the first time and you realize you didn’t make Citizen Kane.
HULLFISH: It’s the famous Martin Scorsese quote about: “If you’re not physically ill watching your first assembly there’s something wrong with you.”
MONDSHEIN: Well, I told him a similar thing. I said basically, “If you’re not suicidal, then it’s a success.” And not only was he not suicidal he said, “Good. Good.” That was his reaction, which is a lot from George.
Then he said, “I’ll be honest with you. It’s the first time on any of the films that I’ve directed that I’ve been able to watch it all the way through on these first round.” So I took that as a total victory and an accomplishment.
HULLFISH: You should.
MONDSHEIN: There was so much going for this film from that starting point for his involvement in the editing.
HULLFISH: I do have some questions based on the things that you’ve already said. One about the theatrical basis of the dialogue that’s in here. Was it that the rhythms of those speech patterns — the rhythms of the writing — did that guide you in your visual pacing? Or when you’re trying to shape a performance, was it something that you had to be very careful of — that specific rhythm?
MONDSHEIN: I think that’s a great question and it’s one of the things that jump off the screen: is the rhythm of their dialogue. These are musicians talking and they have an inherent rhythm. And George was really determined to have a kind of a banter that was authentic to musicians and embraced August’s dialogue in a way that sounded completely naturalistic all at the same time.
I’ll jump back to Sidney — one of the very first things he ever told me about editing was, “Do me a favor. When you first put a scene together, cut it to the rhythm that was written, rehearsed, and played on the stages. Before you start mucking it up and speeding it up, or doing all of those things — at the very first time, cut it to the rhythm that we played it.”
Sometimes you’re cutting the sound and then letting the picture cut where it happens because of that, or adjusting it, rolling it in that direction. But it was a hugely helpful thing that I still to this day try initially: generally in my first cut, I do not cut out lines.
Obviously, with something like Ma Rainey that was even more important until we decided which lines we’re going to need to be excised. But in a lot of films, there’s a lot of things that get said that are easily excisable.
But I tend to — on the first cut — cut things tight to the dialogue, not being loose, but not cutting out dialogue, because I think it is really, really important for directors to be able to watch the first cut in a way that they can judge the nature of the scenes and not be slapped in the face by edits.
So I’ve spent a lot of time on the first cuts. I really want them to have a kind of fluidity to them that the directors can get past the fact that they’re seeing their images cut together for the time and be able to say, “Oh, you know what? That material is being said over here.” or “This is communicated there.” Or “Wow. Architecturally, we have a big problem in the second act.”
Those kinds of future questions are what I want them asking initially so that as we start to go through it, we’re not making changes that are based on a false response because they got stopped by the editing. That it was so roughly edited that they can’t really judge it. For me, it’s the hardest part of the process — cutting together the first assembly.
Sound is a really important thing to make sure that I don’t have sound bumps from shot to shot to distract. I’m easily distracted by that kind of stuff. I don’t tend to cut with music but occasionally there are montages where the rhythm of the music will help dictate, obviously.
After I’ve edited a scene, I do try to put some score on to help the director again watch the movie in a way that maybe simulates the experience of actually watching it from a non-directorial point-of-view from a viewership. I feel that’s really important.
There are times — I’ve had films most of the time the first cut is really hard to stomach, as we’ve discussed. But other times if you’re already saying, “Wow, there’s stuff there. There’s really something there.” You know you’re ahead of the game. You know that not only are you further down in the editorial process but that if this is working in its roughest form there’s a chance that it can be really special.
I remember that when Lasse Hallström — who I had worked with a number of times — he directed What’s Eating Gilbert Grape — and we watched the first cut of that, he sat back and had a real smile on his face and said, “Ooh. There’s really something here.” And I knew what he meant. He had shot a lot of stuff on that film.
In fact — a small side story — Peter Hedges, who wrote the book and then the screenplay that Gilbert Grape was based on, I didn’t know him but I got a call from him. And I went down to the set — they were shooting it in Texas — to meet with Lasse, say hi to everybody during the first week of shooting.
I got a call from Peter and he was very upset. He asked to meet me to talk. He was a first-time writer and he said, “They’re not shooting my script at all. It’s all ad-lib. It’s not what I was writing. It’s all over the place.”
I had just cut a scene that I knew he was referring to: one of the café scenes. What Lasse had done was he had had them ad-lib a whole bunch of takes to get really comfortable — to have them be old friends understanding, interrupting, and then in the last takes he would bring them back to the script, and then they would do it again on each side.
Peter was watching all the dailies and he thought it was a disaster. I asked Lasse, “Can I bring Peter in the cutting room and just show my first cut of that scene?” He said, “Sure. No problem.” So I brought in Peter and he looked at the scene and he started crying and said, “Oh my God! It’s great. It’s going to work.” He hugged me.
We remained friends for years and years. People can be unaware of what goes into the editing process and what it is you’re choosing. In that instance, Lasse gave me a lot of flexibility in trying to make the scenes work even in the first cut. He wanted me to be adventurous and try things out even from the very beginning.
One of his producers said, “It’s jazz filmmaking.” You’ve got to think of it that way. And of course, Leonardo who was not the original Ernie — he wasn’t cast originally — Lasse started rehearsals and he wasn’t happy with the actor that they had cast. The original actor was actually a bigger star than anybody in the film.
He called me and said, “We’ve decided to go with somebody new. Somebody else. His name is Leonardo DiCaprio.” I said, “Who is that? It’s a great name. I’ve never heard of him.”
Then I saw him on the first day of shooting — a scene that’s not actually in the final film — Lasse put Leonardo in front of the big grocery store competition. And it has an electronic door opening and closing and people coming in and out and he just put him there and had him react to all the people as they came out and interact with them. He was unbelievable.
He was one of the more obviously extraordinary talents. Not that long ago I saw they had an anniversary screening of Gilbert Grape at Sundance — the director’s lab.
I was so worried that because of how big a star he had become that you would watch it and it would be a distraction. You would no longer be able to see the film. But I was stunned. 10 seconds into his performance you’re already not thinking about Leo. You are thinking about Arnie and this incredible character that he created and this language that he invented with his hands. It’s one of my favorite films. It’s hard to judge your own films.
HULLFISH: I love that. You mentioned that first rough cut and I got to just ask you about ego in that because you’re a talented editor — Oscar nominations, tons of big films — and yet you know that when a director is watching the “editor’s cut” they’re gonna hate it. That is hard for me to accept.
MONDSHEIN: It is. And it’s why I tend not to call it the “editors cut.” Technically, you have to call it that. I call it “the first assembly” and I try not to have an ego about it. It’s hard and you want them to really be surprised and like it, but you have to be prepared that it’s not what they imagined their material to be.
As you get better over the years — as you’ve done it more — and more importantly if you’ve worked with the director multiple times then they’re much more comfortable in it. You’re not sweating it.
It also sometimes reveals something which to me one of the most important things in an editor-director collaboration is that you view the material in a similar way but not exact. Obviously, you have kind of a parallax view of the story that’s being told. If you’re diametrically different in the way you see the story — you’re in deep trouble.
But if you have that slight parallax view you have the opportunity to push each other really in a collaborative fashion into a direction that’s like: “Oh. I never thought of approaching the scene that way.” Which is something that happens. Or she’ll say, “I wanted to try this, and then I could show them that. And they say, you had something interesting there. I see what you’re saying but it doesn’t really work unless you do this.”
And you go back and forth and back and forth and ultimately you end up with something that neither of you would have accomplished individually but as a collaboration, you end up in a place that is the most satisfying. That’s the ideal anyway. And when it happens and you’re able to solve all the problems that are inherent in films it’s incredibly gratifying.
You have to recognize that while you contributed to it, it wasn’t only your doing. It’s a harsh lesson to learn that: “I don’t like that idea at all!”
“That’s never going to work” is what you’re saying in your head while you’re doing this. And then there’s the slow realization that “that actually works.” You have to be prepared to admit that, because you can’t let ego get in the way or you’re going to inhibit some aspect of the progress of the film and it’s not going to get to the place that it can be.
So much of that first cut, for me, is about trying to push the film down the field and get it to a place where — from there — you can get to that next level and that you’re not going back.
I mean you’re always going back. I don’t know what the percentage of final edits that there are in that first cut, but it’s pretty small. I think you’re lucky if you’re 15 or 20 percent of the final cut stuff that was there in that first cut on a feature when you have time. In television, stuff is a little different because you’re under so much of a tighter constraint.
Time is always the issue. You always run out of time. It’s very few films where it’s just like, “OK we’re not helping it anymore now we can give it up.” At that stage of the film, my rule is don’t do the change unless it really clearly is an improvement because there’s a tendency to want to change something and at that stage, it makes it fresh again for YOU, which as you know as an editor, is one of the biggest battles you’re facing.
Basically, how do you keep fresh to the material? It was helpful in Ma Rainey as well we did manage right before the pandemic hit to get a real preview. We went down to Atlanta and screened the film for an audience. And I have a mixed reaction to previews. One is that it’s one of the most helpful things for an editor to sit with an audience.
You can almost miraculously, magically, experience the film in a way that you haven’t for the longest time.
HULLFISH: Yeah You re-feel the film.
MONDSHEIN: Exactly. You’re laughing. You’re tearing up through osmosis through the crowd which is the magic of going to a theatrical movie with a crowd — which is why it’s so important we keep that alive. Which is why Christopher Nolan is so right. We have to fight for it, tooth and nail.
So it’s enormously valuable. It’s even more valuable in a comedy than it is in a drama. Timing is almost action-film-oriented. You have to have the real precision. Every frame matters and how you set up a joke and pay it off. If they’re laughing, they get it. If they’re not, they’re not. And you have to fix it.
HULLFISH: So you did the screening with Ma Rainey…
MONDSHEIN: We did the screening with Ma Rainey and we learned things. And one of the things was that it was funny. Delving into one of the most tragic elements of this whole experience was, of course, Chadwick’s death. It is beyond a tragedy. He was such an enormously talented, gifted man, who, right up to the end, was giving his heart out in this performance.
One of my fears for the film — for his legacy — is that people won’t be able to separate their knowledge of the fact that he passed away shortly after and this is his final film. Because of the pandemic, nobody is really going to be able to see it in the theater.
Netflix, who was completely supportive of us all the way along, said to us from the beginning, “We want you to cut this and approach this as if it’s a feature film in every respect. So there might be some delivery requirement differences but other than that — every respect.”
So we were doing the previews and we learned from it — because of the pandemic — the humor of the film is harder for people to take in. I think people watching this at home won’t get quite the joy of these compatriots in this journey that these musicians are on and just how funny it is.
When Denzel first called me, he said, “We did this read-through and the film is so much funnier than I even knew.”
He, by the way, has permission to try to turn all 10 of August Wilson’s “Century Pittsburgh stories” into films. And I heard Viola say that “Without Denzel, this would never have happened. This is just not the kind of thing that without somebody of his stature championing it, it wasn’t going to happen.”
I loved Fences too, by the way.
MONDSHEIN: He did an amazing job in directing and acting in that.
To have the opportunity to work on material that is as brilliant as this is — and I know there’s a lot of hyperbole about scripts and directors and actors and stuff — but obviously, it was justified in this. This is a brilliant adaptation. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour play that he adapted into it a 90-minute film.
The rhythm that we were talking about of the acting was one that George was committed to. He really wanted the actors to have this fast clip — this comfort level as if they were riffing. He wanted me to make sure that we were inside it — that we were a partner inside that rehearsal space with them; that we weren’t outside it watching.
For some of my initial cut, I wanted to make sure that we understood the geography. I was going through it on a technical basis, but George said, “Look at it! This is a stuffy confined room and the fan doesn’t work, and they can’t breathe, but we’re inside with them.” That was his directorial edict.
When it came to rhythms I did follow what they had shot. But then we started to compress and compress, but always with a sort of musicality. George is a genius with music and we had Branford Marsalis do the score and do the recordings of all the Ma Rainey songs, which was fantastic.
I love Branford. He is just an amazing musician. I went down to New Orleans when we recorded the score. I’ve been a music editor at some point as well. It was great to go down there. His father, by the way, Ellis Marsalis was a legendary jazz musician, but also what he had done was — after Katrina devastated New Orleans — he had built a music academy and recording space in the midst of the district that was hit hardest.
He even had them building housing around there for musicians to come and to help renovate that area. And that’s where we did the recording.
Branford’s father came to two of the sessions — which was just great — and his brothers came and I loved the music recording sessions there. One of my favorite parts of the entire process when it really comes to life. Music never sounds better than it does then.
We literally left New Orleans four days before Mardi Gras really took off, which is just when the pandemic really hit and hit hard in New Orleans. So we were just ahead of it coming out of there and tragically Branford’s father passed away — not from COVID — a few months later.
HULLFISH: You were talking about the rhythms of the actors and trying to stay out of the way of that, and when you DID need to do some crafting that you needed to stay in the same rhythm.
We’ve got this scene of them where they’re talking about style. Can you talk a little bit about that scene and how you made the decisions that you made and a little bit about the rhythms of the dialogue in that scene?
MONDSHEIN: Hard to remember exactly how we approached it. While George pushed the actors to keep the tempo up, oftentimes and I think that scene was an example.
We went back in and compressed and compressed and it’s a kind of familiarity. You have to trust that people will keep up with it, but at the same time, what you’re doing is forcing people to keep up with it.
Arthur Miller had a great quote. He said, “The silences should speak louder than the words or get rid of them.” It’s one of those things that I keep in the back of my head. You’re hoping that the silent reactions are powerful punctuation or clear-cut turns and character revelations but you better make well sure that they are! Because there’s nothing more dangerous to a film than to be boring — to be tedious. Not that this ever was going to be tedious, but its theatrical roots could show a little bit more.
I feel like if you weren’t taking the risk to really make the language musical and what’s interesting and I’m trying to remember that clip to know what we did score-wise, but when we started to score some of these things, we ended up with problems because the dialog was so musical that there wasn’t room for score and so we went back in a couple of places in a couple of scenes and opened them back up again to allow Branford to have space for a score because the emotion of it — the story of it — was enhanced by having some score.
But it’s rare in films that I have that kind of problem where you really are just ripping along through the dialogue and it has its own rhythm that there’s not the room for score that you would want. And you’re trying to score something and if it’s not just “paddy” then punctuation is hitting in places where there’s punctuation.
We had to go back and isolate those spots that we wanted musical punctuation to, so we would send the scene to Branford. He would try to do it. We would recut the scene based on that and then send it back to him to try to rework the music.
Viola did not sing. She was not the singer of the songs, except for one that she did acapella. She had told George that she didn’t think she had the musical chops to do it, so Branford got a singer of some renown who did these great recordings and Viola did them to playback and sung to them on the shoot.
It was a long process of us trying to make her stuff sound like it came from Viola. Editorially we tried picture-editing-wise to make sure that it was in sync. Music would then adjust the lines. Timewarp (Avid term for variable speed slow motion or speed up) now allows you to do a manipulation of speed of performance — which we used a lot by the way in the picture-cutting.
Split-screens, we were doing all the time. Then the singer went back and rerecorded some of the singing to match what Viola had done energy-wise and projection-wise. Then we cut that and then we went back through the process again.
It was so important. If it looked like she was either doing it to playback or it wasn’t her, it’s gonna take away from people experiencing it.
There’s not a ton of singing in it, but what there is crucial to the story. It defines Ma’s talents and power over an audience which gives her some power in a powerless world for a black singer in the 1920s.
HULLFISH: I’ve got a clip that speaks to what you’re describing. There is a scene where she’s singing the “Moaning Blues” or something?
MONDSHEIN: Yes. That’s where we started the story. In that scene what was interesting dramatically was that here’s a guy who’s trying to separate himself from these other guys.
There’s a lot of trash-talking amongst people of a group. And he’s trying to say that he’s the one who’s the real talent in the group.
One of the things that we wanted to communicate was A) they didn’t buy it. “You’re nobody Boldin.” And then he wanted to show that he was literally writing music right now. What you don’t quite show — because they’re actually trying to hide it — but they’re not really great at, is that they can’t read music. Actually Toled can, but he’s the only one. Even Cutler, who’s the leader of the band members, he makes a show of it, but then he’s dismissive of it as if he’s dismissive of the music.
Part of the editorial approach of that scene was to try to get the physicality of the flow of what was going on. So inside that, you’re trying to have each cut have a little more energy to it to drive it through — to have a kinetic quality to it. And you’re constantly trimming the dialog based on that.
In the other scene that you were talking about — the Moaning Blues. They did an edit in it. It starts in the tent in Georgia and then what they cut out was the Great Migration. That is part of the nature of this story — of what has gone on — which is a little different than people’s understandings and expectations.
There is a historical perception that a lot of blacks migrated from the south for great economic opportunities and treatment in the north and indeed that is what was promised — that in the south they were being treated badly and being cowered in the corners on racial issues. And yet what we’re seeing is that Ma had staked out a place there in this.
You see it in how she commands the stage and the tents and how she is accepted in that world in a profound way. She’s heralded. She’s a star there. Then there’s this montage that’s not in the clip of the idea of this great migration that ends up in her performing in a theater in Chicago — the same song, it’s the second half of that song.
And it’s done in a flashier way. It’s expanded to include dancing women, and we finally introduce her band members and we start to see the thread of the story.
We see Levy trying to take the stage — trying to take the spotlight literally with a solo — and her shutting that down. We see him eyeing her girlfriend and we see Cutler seeing her seeing him see the girl and they’re all reacting.
We’re starting to set up the dynamic of this film and editorially we stayed with Ma and the sort of black church feeling of the first tent where she’s singing and they’re reacting — there’s an interactive quality with the audience — as opposed to the second show in Chicago where the audience isn’t even seen. You see no audience. It’s all about them on stage and it’s much flashier and more upbeat.
But the cutting now requires us to really be inside it in a way. We’re no longer reacting with the audience. We are now reacting within the band and how they’re defined and it’s punchier and it’s bigger.
But the whole sequence actually ends with what the migratory results were. There’s a huge sweatshop of sewing machines and it’s all being manned by black women, and men shoveling coal into endless furnaces and in a way, I think what George was saying was that the nature of this was that they had become cogs in the wheel. They were dehumanized in a different way.
HULLFISH: You had a huge amount of story to try to get through in editing in a very short amount of time because you do get the sense that the trumpet player’s trying to step out; Ma’s not happy; he’s checking out the girlfriend; girlfriend’s checking him out; she’s wondering what Ma’s thinking; the band’s trying to figure out what’s going on… There’s a lot of stuff going on in that scene.
MONDSHEIN: We did spend quite a bit of time trying to make that work. And at first, George was determined not to ever use the front shots of the band — of the whole stage — because he really wanted to be inside. But the front shots were so fantastic that we kept coming back to them.
But you’re right: it’s not just the amount of story. We had to do it all musically too. So Levy has to do something that turns Ma’s girlfriend’s attention. So we had to do something musically, so we had to find the right moment within the piece to make that work. It was a bit of a Rubik’s Cube.
Then if we do that, we don’t have this beat for Ma. We don’t have this opportunity. But as we got it, we could tell that there were sections of it that were really crackling and we knew that part of it really did work.
HULLFISH: And you need the geography of it too. You need to know where’s the girlfriend compared to the trumpet player compared to Ma. The audience needs to know that stuff and then you’ve got the reverse shots which show the spotlight swinging back and forth. That’s part of the story.
MONDSHEIN: That’s true. One of the spotlight shots was a real spotlight, but the other one — in order to make the timing work the way we wanted to — we had to create that one.
We had a small number of really important visual effects in this story. It was crucial that Chicago looked and felt like it did. In fact, one major change that George made to the story was that — in the play version it took place in the winter — and he changed it to summer and wanted the oppressive heat of it to be palpable inside the room.
You could see the smoke in the room. You could feel the lack of air movement and the pressure that that puts on people. They’re all sweating and it added a physical arduousness to what they had to do. I think it ramped up every little thing as your putting the clamps on this story.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk about the scene where Ma describes that the blues is life. You almost stuck with a oner. It’s a great performance, right? Which I would think is one of the reasons why you stick with that, but you also cut to reactions.
MONDSHEIN: These are all the choices that you make. You have to have a reason to make a cut. And when you have a really great performance you have to have a real justification — and know that it is enhancing the performance — because you risk suddenly taking some of the energy away.
You have all kinds of actors and some actors take some time to get up to speed. When they deliver it, they deliver it, and then that’s it, and it’s your job to make sure you’re patient enough and you’re using them at the right time and the right camera angle and maximize it.
It’s a lot of what you do. Viola is so talented. Really amazingly talented. She would do four or five takes and give you four or five really valid credible honest interpretations of the same speech.
HULLFISH: So then you can’t undercut them, right?
MONDSHEIN: Sometimes you do. You’re trying to get to a place where she’s being more open to something or she’s not. All of the beats that go along within a scene of character revelations. I felt an enormous amount of pressure to make sure I got the best performance and the best moment, and as the film went along you can’t be too precious. Editors are not so precious with the material.
I know that there are films that I look at of other editors and I think, “Oh my God! Don’t touch a frame!” But they say, “We never really got that to work.”
I’ll listen to some of the commentaries and they’ll say, “I always wanted to go back and recut.” And I feel that way about films that I’ve done. That’s the best we could do, but if we were allowed more time, or if I had Timewarp now…
They take it out of your hands.
HULLFISH: No film is ever finished, it’s just abandoned.
MONDSHEIN: Abandoned. In this regard, I felt enormous pressure because I knew that this was really, really good. I don’t want to be patting myself on the back, I just knew that there were so many good elements to this and you’re always hoping that there’s something that even elevates it beyond — there’s something magical almost that happens.
You end up with some element that’s unexpected and maybe it was getting Chadwick at this moment in his life when he was revealing his soul — determined to reveal his soul in this character and find a character that is written so that you want it. You embrace it and you are transfixed by it.
I didn’t know that Chadwick was ill but I felt that with all of the performances that it was incumbent on me to not accept something that I thought was just good. How can I make it better? Is there a line we can replace? Is there a way that I can subtly change that angle? Can I blow it up a little bit and that’s the thing that will allow us to be at the place in time where it really just sings?
That’s the goal and one hopes to accomplish it. We’ll see.
HULLFISH: Any thoughts on structure or what happened between your first assembly and the film we see? Things that you realized needed to be changed or the director realized needed to be changed?
MONDSHEIN: Well that tends to be a really driving force in a lot of films: the architecture or structure of the story.
In this particular film, there was very little structural change. There were a few things that we did. We moved a scene when they went out to the deli into a different spot. Some of the back-and-forth with them in the basement.
We moved Levy’s introduction in Brownsville — when he goes to buy the shoes. We actually moved that up earlier. It had been later. Originally it was written to be before he shows up in the basement — right before that — it was going to come out of that, and then he shows up with the shoes.
But it was a little bit late and people seemed a little confused by us cutting there. We had to allow them to understand that it was a flashback and that he was going to then show up. So instead we played it more like in real-time. We cut to them when they’re outside before they’re even having come in, and that allowed us to introduce all the characters — not have the question of timing to it.
The big negative that we worried about there was that we spent so much time in that basement initially. We didn’t want to overstay our welcome there.
What happened was, people said to us We love these guys. We love being with them, and even though it is a while before we get to Ma, the added opening that’s not part of the play, obviously, with her singing in the tent had already introduced her and given us a shot of it, and then — with the Great Migration — we were already grounded in who this character was going to be and what kind of influence she was going to have, so we were able to go with them into the basement rehearsal space and relax into it.
HULLFISH: For those that haven’t seen it — like me — the band is waiting for her to show up.
MONDSHEIN: That’s correct.
HULLFISH: So they’re in the basement. It’s a claustrophobic spot. And they’re like, “Where is she? We’re supposed to be recording?”.
MONDSHEIN: They start rehearsing. That’s the idea. And that’s where you start to understand the nature of what Levy wants for this story. He wants to record his versions. This is also a time when music was changing and it’s a fissure of the newer jazzier style that Levy represents and wants to depict and is actually talented — very talented — and not just in performance but in writing it.
He wants to break through so you get a sense of that. You also get a sense that the producer of both the studio and Miles manager embrace it as well. They think that this will sell better. Ma’s getting a little bit long-in-the-tooth.
They knew they could sell even more records if they had a jazzier version of it — a little more danceable version — upbeat instead of what they refer to as “Ma’s jug band music” which is what Ma does.
HULLFISH: One other question: Did you either read the play or see the play before you cut the film?
MONDSHEIN: I did not. I did not do either. I didn’t have an opportunity to see the play. But in some ways, I wanted to be fresh to the material.
This was a film version of this and they had spent an enormous amount of time cutting down the script of the play to what they presented. There’s no doubt that editing is an extension of writing — is maybe the final rewrite of it — and there are a lot of films that are based on books where I would say, “Let’s go back to the source material and grab this voiceover” or “Is there any way you can shoot that moment?”
There was no opportunity for that in this. They were off-and-running. They had a very limited time to shoot it and I happen to love the material. I thought that it really worked and I didn’t feel like we had to go back and shoot anything new to make it work.
So there were no reshoots for this.
HULLFISH: I really appreciate your time I think. Thank you so much.
MONDSHEIN: Thank you, Stephen. So nice to meet you. And I really greatly appreciate it. I enjoyed this thoroughly.
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.