Mdhamiri Nkemi has recently cut two feature films drawing critical acclaim in the UK: The Last Tree and Blue Story. His list of projects – both shorts, features and TV – belies his age.
His unique approach has also led to editing the UK series The Pale Horse based on Agatha Christie novel of the same name.
In this episode of Art of the Cut we discuss how he got started editing and the unique aspects of editing both The Last Tree and Blue Story.
HULLFISH: I was just looking at your IMDB page. You have more projects done than anybody that’s 60 years old.
NKEMI: (laughs) I guess I just got into it when I was really young and then said yes to a lot of things. Which is really great. I mean, it’s a good opportunity to just work with a lot of different kinds of people.
HULLFISH: That’s fantastic. It goes to something that I tell people that are wondering, how do I break in? How do I get better? I just say, “You have to sit in the chair and do a lot of work.” And that seems exactly like what you’ve done.
NKEMI: Yes. I fully agree. I think you get the opportunity to make all the mistakes quite early on. Hopefully, you don’t make them later down the line,
HULLFISH: So Blue Story, did that start as a YouTube series? Did you work on the YouTube series?
NKEMI: No. I wasn’t involved at all. The director, Rapman, had been making a YouTube series — I think six years ago. Eventually, he got money from Paramount to make it as a feature and that’s when I came on board.
HULLFISH: With the variety and range of projects that you do, do you find a lot of different working styles of how you have to work — either with an assistant without an assistant with various types of coverage?
NKEMI: Blue Story was the second film I’ve done on a professional level, where I had an assistant and it was done for a studio. So I’m still kind of working out what my different workflows are. it’s definitely been a case of each project being a very different kind of system, and way of working. Working that out has been the challenge for each project.
HULLFISH: How did your relationship with Rapman begin?
NKEMI: He made a YouTube series, Shiro’s Story, that basically went viral online and he was getting contacted by a lot of different studios asking him to adapt it into a Netflix series or something? And he had this other script that he’d written called Blue Story before that.
Then this producer — Damian Jones — got in touch with him. He was the first person who asked him, “What else do you have?” So they went to Paramount and it was funded by Paramount and BBC Films, Months passed with development, then Joy — who is the other producer — she then got in touch with me because she’d seen my last film, The Last Tree and liked it. So she sort of offered this to me.
HULLFISH: How did your previous short films and other projects lead up to The Last Tree?
NKEMI: It was actually a really good combination and collaboration over quite a few years. I met the director when I was 17 — when I was doing a kind of film course before I went to university and studied it properly. There was this sort of boot camp film course for 16 to 19-year-olds and it was the first year that they’d started it.
During the camp, I met this director, Shola Amoo, who had just graduated from film school and he was helping out as a staff person and so we just basically hit it off. Then I ended up working on a short with him and a really, really tiny, low-budget feature called A Moving Image and we just kept in touch over the years. Then, the year after I graduated from film school he came back to me saying that he just got some funding from the BFI to make this feature, The Last Tree.
HULLFISH: It’s preparation meets opportunity, right?
NKEMI: Yes, completely.
HULLFISH: Did you ever assist anyone or have you always been straight into the editor’s chair?
NKEMI: Interestingly I came at it on a slightly different route. Between university and going into film school I was working at an advertising post-production facility. So I was an assistant, but for commercials. And I think actually that’s where I started learning about project structure and organization and all that kind of stuff. Although I think it’s changed a bit now, I think a lot of how I think about editing has come from that sort of mentality actually. Setting up select rolls and kind of the stuff I was doing as an assistant in commercials has fed into how I work with film.
HULLFISH: How do you approach editing? When you get rushes and you’re looking at a blank timeline, what do you do?
NKEMI: I like to organize everything in bins, so I’ll have that set up in Avid. Then I won’t actually edit from the bins. Usually I’ll create select rolls. I’ll watch it all through and make notes.
It depends on the kind of film it is and how it was shot. The Last Tree was quite non-conventional in the way it was shot. There wasn’t really: here’s a master, here’s the close-up, here’s the 2-shot? It varied a lot depending on each scene. So from that selects roll I’d be choosing those moments I felt really got to the essence of the scene, and then duplicate that and start working on the assembly.
HULLFISH: So tell me a little bit more about The Last Tree. You were explaining that the coverage is a little bit different. How exactly was it different? Was it more like a moving camera?
NKEMI: Pretty much moving almost constantly. A lot of Steadicam. The film is very much this internal subjective experience of the main character. And so he (the director) wanted the visual language of the film to represent that. It was very much long tracking shots following the main character through each scene — from behind and from in front and trying to get a sense of what he’s experiencing. So when it came time to edit that, it was very much a case of picking out those moments that conveyed that and trying to get them to fit together, because it would never be the same from take to take. It was a lot of adapting to how the actor was moving around the scene.
HULLFISH: What were some of the challenges or solutions when you were having those kind of issues of, “Oh, my gosh, this take is not the same?” Was it that the actors weren’t saying the same lines or was it that the camera movement was different or the continuity?
NKEMI: Continuity was pretty good. We had a really great script supervisor who was quite on top of that stuff. There were a few scenes that were quite heavy improv, but mostly it was the physical movement of the actor that would vary from shot to shot. I had to kind of let continuity go a bit and kind of have the essence and the feeling. It was an emotional thread.
HULLFISH: I just talked to Walter Murch and he said that continuity is the least of your worries. As long as the feeling is there and as long as you’ve got the vibe of the scene, don’t worry about it.
NKEMI: I’m 100 percent in Walter Murch’s camp.
HULLFISH: Talk to me a little bit about doing the shorts. You’ve done a lot of shorts. Are those things where you just want to get in the chair? That you hope to meet a good director? What is the purpose of doing all the shorts that you’ve done?
NKEMI: I guess it was a mixture of things. I am excited by just getting as much experience as possible and working with a big range of people. Trying to work out what I was interested in. Any time I heard about anyone directing a short, I’d say, “Oh, I’ll cut it.” So I worked with a lot of first-time directors actually, which I think was really, really useful because aside from the whole technical and creative side of editing, I learned that there’s a kind of diplomatic thing of working with different kinds of people and how to get the best out of them and how to get the best out of the film and what their vision is. It gave me an opportunity to learn a lot about that kind of stuff.
And I think it was really helpful for building up a portfolio when I was applying to film school. I could show them a whole range of different kinds of things I’d done — from horror to comedy to more naturalistic drama.
HULLFISH: So a lot of those shorts are pre-film-school?
NKEMI: Yes. 80 percent of them.
HULLFISH: I am intrigued by you talking about one of the things that you learned while doing those shorts was kind of the political or social side of it. That’s something I don’t think we talk about enough and it’s super, super important. Can you think of any specifics or would you mind elaborating on the things that you learned socially and politically?
NKEMI: Yeah, of course. I guess it was working out how to build up a sense of trust with the director and how important that can be and how difficult and tricky. I worked with a lot of first-time directors who had a very strong vision and they thought they knew exactly how it needed to be shot-by-shot.
To be able to contribute anything as an editor I first needed to get them to trust me and let me in and let them understand that I also wanted to make it the best it could be. Then they would be more open for me to try out stuff and show them and say, “How about this way? It might not work at all, but let me just show you this version of it.”
Realizing how important that was, I think, was really useful and helped me a lot when I worked on some longer-form stuff with first-time directors. With Blue Story, for instance, I ended up actually getting quite a lot of freedom in terms of the edit, but I think that was because I realized that from the beginning that I needed to build up a sense of trust and let Raps know that I understood the story and I understood what his vision was.
HULLFISH: It’s tricky with a lot of new directors, right? It’s a little different with somebody that’s worked with a bunch of other editors.
NKEMI: Most of the projects I’ve been on, I’ve been the first editor that they’ve worked with. Actually, with Blue Story, I was kind of the first editor he’d ever worked with because on the shorts he’d done, his DP was the editor. He was used to having his editor on set with him at all times and having that communication constantly.
So on Blue Story, I was either on set with him, sometimes I was in the unit base a mile away, and I was assembling as we were shooting so I could feedback and let him know if things weren’t working or if I had any ideas for pickups or anything else we could do.
HULLFISH: When you are temping music, is that something you discuss with the director or is it something you just get a feel for from the script and then you say, “Hey, I think this would be great.”
NKEMI: God, I love music. I love using music in the edit. And I also really love the relationship with composers. The Last Tree and Blue Story were quite different.
With The Last Tree, we hoped that the composer would be able to give us his own temp stuff during the edit, but he had just gotten the job as the composer for Doctor Who, so he was totally unavailable for almost the entirety of the edit.
For temp I’d found a mixture of stuff that I discussed with the director and I knew what his references were. We were pulling from Moonlight, some classical music, some more art house films.
HULLFISH: Let’s say I hire you for a new movie. What would be your approach as to where you even start to look?
NKEMI: Well, I think it would depend on what kind of film it was. I’d go through the script and have my own interpretation of what kind of film it was and what musically I was hearing and try to find films that sort of felt aesthetically like they were in the same ballpark. Also, have chats with the director on what they were thinking in terms of music and the soundscape of the film. I have quite a big drive with a big library of temp stuff. And then also I’d have a look online, trying to find stuff that felt like it was sitting in the right place.
I’d do that before anything had been shot. And then during the assembly would probably go back and look for more stuff as the story starts coming together.
HULLFISH: My approach is similar. I’ll think, “This is a family drama. Maybe the family’s breaking up. What other films are like? Oh, I am Sam is kind of like this movie. But that’s all Beatles music. Okay, that’s not going to work.” So you choose something else.
What about NLEs? You have been talking about being on Avid and going to film school. Have you used any other NLEs? Have you tried Premiere or Resolve or Final Cut?
NKEMI: I used Premiere a lot on the shorts. Most of the shorts were done on Premiere. The first feature I did with Shola — A Moving Image — was done in Premiere. That was quite tricky because it was early on and it wasn’t very stable. My projects were getting bigger and bigger and I kept getting more crashes and it started getting a bit laggy. We finished the whole film in Premiere, but we had to split reels into different projects. So the next project I did I decided to use Avid.
HULLFISH: Is there a reason why you switch back and forth? What do you like about Premiere and did you just move to Avid because of how stable it is with larger projects?
NKEMI: I think what I prefer about Premiere is its flexibility especially with the other apps in the Adobe suite. I like to go back and forth with Photoshop and After Effects. I find that really useful, especially on that short film stuff.
I just did a commercial where it ended up being quite graphic-heavy and we kept switching back and forth in titles in After Effects. Just that flexibility and speed wouldn’t have been as easy in Avid.
But then having Avid’s stability and that sense of project organization is really useful for long-form.
HULLFISH: I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts with directors lately and they talk about controlling tone as being a really important thing for a director to do. And with some first-time directors, I would think that they might have some trouble with that. Is that something that you try to control yourself as an editor as much as you can to help even those tone changes out.
NKEMI: I try to help as much as possible. With The Last Tree, I was in the unit base. I was there the whole time during the shoot — assembling as we were shooting — I was very close to keeping up with camera — only a few hours behind because my DIT and my assistant were getting stuff to me very quickly, so quite often I was able to feedback to the director on whether I thought technically something was fitting in with the scenes that they’d shot before. Because it was 90 percent chronological in terms of how they shot it, I could see how the previous scenes were feeding into the scene they were shooting.
This example isn’t so much about tone, but it was more a technical thing. They were shooting outside a school and it was just really windy and they weren’t sure if they could use the footage or whether they needed to re-shoot on another day. I remember, the producer and director came back to me and were standing over my shoulder trying to figure if they needed to reschedule. I just had to — really fast — do a really, really rough assembly, just so I could give them the thumbs up or thumbs down.
HULLFISH: In those cases where you’re trying to cut something together really quickly. What’s the key? What do you drop? Do you just say, Hey, I’m just gonna look at circled takes? Do you just start with the last take? What do you do when you’re trying to cut very fast?
I try and look at the last couple of takes. On that specific example, I didn’t have script notes at that point, but if I did, then I’d look at what the preferred take is and start from there. Then build up a sense of what the major action is and what that journey through the scene might be.
I’ll cut that together and then have a watch and it’ll probably be terrible, but then I’ll think, “For that bit, maybe I need another option.” So then I’ll go through the takes just for that shot or I’ll think I need a wide, so I’ll go through all the wides. But that’ll give me a really good sense of what the overall shape of the scene will be and whether it’s working.
HULLFISH: I don’t want to drop names, but if you’re gonna do it, go big, right? So Walter Murch gave me a great piece of advice. He said, that for the best take, it’s not the LAST take, it’s always the SECOND to the last.
NKEMI: Oh, hugely, Yes! That. I find it’s always the second to the last.
HULLFISH: What do you think that’s about?
NKEMI: Directors and the whole team are trying to nail it and then it works. They have a moment where it all just works and then they say, “Let’s have one more, just to be sure.” But that second last take is normally always the one that goes in.
HULLFISH: You and Walter Murch. There you go. His take is basically that you get to a peak and then you realize that it’s heading the wrong direction and so the director says, “Okay, we’re done.” But you don’t want to say, “Don’t print it” because then the actor feels bad. Obviously, nobody is printing anything anymore, but — yeah — second-to-the-last-take, not the last take.
Talk to me a little bit about the chance of working with an assistant, for example. What’s your take on the politics of an assistant or what you need to teach an assistant or how you choose an assistant?
NKEMI: It was really interesting to me when doing The Last Tree. It was the first time I had an assistant. It was also the first time my assistant had been an assistant, so we were both trying to navigate how the relationship works. They started on the shoot with me and it was a little more relaxed because they were only getting rushes every so often. So we could kind of work out during the shoot what the relationship was going to be like. Initially, I just asked for the bins to be laid out and that kind of stuff.
Then I started asking for things like, “Could you build a selects roll for that scene?” I started asking for a lot of line breaks. I find that really useful. Then asking for their opinions on: “What do you think about this?” I also encouraged her to cut together anything that kind of grabbed her fancy and then try to find time to give her feedback on her edit. I also really like sound in my edit, so as we got further along, I’d say, “Can you lay up sound for this?” And I’d give her a rough idea of what I was thinking and then leave her to do that. That stuff is really useful for me.
When I was assisting in commercials, I found that really good training because it meant I could start thinking about how the scene was being put together and how the sound could feed into that. It led me to be more interested in using sound as a storytelling tool.
HULLFISH: You mentioned that The Last Tree was shot almost chronologically. How does that change how you relate scenes to each other when they’re being actually shot in order?
NKEMI: It’s interesting because it followed the character’s journey. It was kind of a coming-of-age film, so you were following them going through that very closely. That was how it was that was written and that was how it was shot. So that’s what we did for the assembly.
After that, we started looking at ways that we could play around with it a bit more and trying flashbacks and flashforwards and that kind of stuff. The journey happens over quite a large amount of time and space. The character starts off in a small part of the countryside in England and then they move to London and it’s about them trying to find themselves in a whole new way of life. Then they follow their roots back to Nigeria, refinding themselves there and so it was about following that journey, but also teasing where the journey was going to go earlier on.
HULLFISH: So how did the structure chang as you got past your editor’s cut?
NKEMI: There weren’t any really big structural changes in terms of moving whole sections of the story around. Like Moonlight, there are three sections: him as a young child in the countryside, and then him as a teenager in London, and then him as a teenager in Nigeria and they’re quite separate sections.
One of the things that we had to do in the edit was to work out a way of transitioning. We were very keen on making something that felt cool and felt unique to the story that we were telling. We were trying to avoid cutting to black and then putting “THREE YEARS LATER.” So we were trying to work out a way of doing that in a way that hadn’t been done before.
So we ended up basically finding a shot that kind of summed up where the character was in part one and a similar shot in part two and then did a sort of staccato intercutting thing between the two shots with some sound design to give you a sense of transitioning.
So at the end of part one, we cut to black and had this impressionistic thing happen. Then we go into part two and you get a sense of, “OK, now this character has changed from this person into this person.”
HULLFISH: While we’re talking about structure and building the whole thing together when you’re editing — especially something that’s not shot in order — how quickly do you try to put scenes together? One scene to the next? If you’ve edited scene two and scene three isn’t coming for another week and a half, as soon as you cut scene 3, do you try to put it next to scene 2 or do you wait?
NKEMI: I wait. I try to work in scenes for as long as possible — at least during the shoot and the assembly — and then once I feel like the scene is where it should be — then I’ll start putting together sequences and seeing how things are flowing together.
What works me anyway is working in those scenes and trying to make sure there’s a complete story being told in that scene — that it works in-and-of-itself and you’re getting a sense of a mini-arc and the structure in it.
Then when I start working in sequences and then reels my brain is switching and I’m thinking, “How is this first ten minutes working as a section and what is the journey that we’re going on from minute one to minute 10?” Trying to get that working may mean going in and deleting that really lovely shot that I put at the end of a scene, but we don’t need it at all. We need something else in order to help take us into that next scene and so on.
I try to keep those as separate parts of the process.
HULLFISH: Sure. I basically do the same thing, but lots of editors are as soon as they know they’ve cut a scene that’s next to another scene, they put them together immediately.
You’re working on some other projects. Are any of these new projects with people you’ve worked with before? Are those relationships on those shorts and stuff bearing fruit?
NKEMI: I just worked on a project that was very different from anything I’ve done before and also with a totally new team. It’s my first television project. It’s a two-part series coming out in 2020 called The Pale Horse — it’s an Agatha Christie adaptation. I hadn’t met anyone before on the project. That was quite new. It was an interesting experience just working in TV-land and seeing what that was like and how it differed from film.
HULLFISH: And did that give you the chance to work with other editors and having that social experience of: “it’s so nice not to be alone.”
NKEMI: Yes. That was my first time. There were two of us. Me and Eve Doherty. It was a really great collaborative process and working together. By the end of the project we’d both had a pass on every scene, I think. It was interesting to see her working style and the things she was best at and figure out how I could compliment that. I came in after she’d already started. She’s really great with dialog and she’d pay a lot of attention to that kind of stuff. They basically brought me in to shake it up a bit and see how bold we could go.
So I’d come in and say, “How about we edit this into a kind of non-linear montage sequence?” I was able to be the fresh eyes.
HULLFISH: Did you find yourself trying to deconstruct her sequences and saying, “Oh, that’s how she did it. I like that.”
NKEMI: Yeah. The first thing I did was watch her assemblies and say, “That’s really interesting. I’d not thought of doing it in that way” or “She’s picked out this moment that I would have used this shot for. But I think hers is better.”
One of the really useful exercises I did at film school was to have all eight of us editors be given the same rushes for a scene and then we’d cut it separately and then watch them all back to back. And it was so fascinating because you’d see eight different versions of the same thing and in some cases quite different versions. And in each one, you say, “Well, I prefer the thing I did in mine, but this whole thing is so great!” Often, I’d watch it and say, “Where did they find that shot from? I don’t remember seeing that.” Each person just has a totally different way of looking at things.
It’s why I really love reading all your interviews because everyone just does things differently.
HULLFISH: I taught an Avid Master Class many years ago and we did the same thing. We sent the same rushes to every student. And when you came to class, everybody had their edit and we watched them back-to-back and it was so interesting to see 1) how different they were, but then, certain shots or certain transitions were used in the same way every time.
NKEMI: That too! Some moments will be picked out by everyone because they are just universally good.
HULLFISH: How does sound design help you create either a better edit or a more true story or whatever sound design does for you? Why do you care about sound design?
NKEMI: I’ve realized how useful it is as part of the power of storytelling and how important it can actually communicate parts of the story better than the picture. It was actually something I picked up from listening to Walter Murch talking about it. He’s always been as much of a sound designer as he was a picture editor. I made it my goal when I started film school to learn how to use sound design more. Like with The Last Tree — that was incredibly subjective and internal — it was really vital that the sound design was there in the edit, so you could get a sense of all that kind of stuff going on. Because I think without it, if you watched the off-line you’d ask, “Why is it so experimental?” But with the sound there, you understand it.
Something that I’m quite proud of is that it premiered at Sundance this year. When we submitted it, we were up against the deadline, so we submitted it with just my sound design and mix and they wrote a blurb on the film on their website and they talked about how interesting the sound design was, and the power and subjectivity you get from the sound design.
HULLFISH: Can you describe for someone what some of those specifics were? How were you able to get into the internal headspace of the character through sound design?
NKEMI: It was about trying to make sure you were hearing the world as he was hearing it, rather than an objective version of it. There was a scene in particular where the main character has just gotten high. He’s also just been in a fight. Then the following scene is this kind of half-dream sequence where he’s walking back into school. He doesn’t know where he is or what’s going on. He’s really confused and heightened. We did this thing with the sound design where we put all of the dialogue tracks through reverb filters and overlaid them to give a sense of deliriousness. He’s called into class by a teacher who lectures him, trying to get him to open up. The first cut we did of the scene was quite linear and very observational. We kept getting notes from our execs saying, “You need to make this more in his head. How do we feel it as he’s feeling it?” So one day I ended up deleting the whole scene and went back to the rushes and picking moments that felt a lot more confused. I used a lot of stuff that was actually before “action” or after “cut.” It felt less controlled and a bit more loose. Then in sound design, doing this layered reverb-y thing, just to add to that sense of disorientation and having that build up to a climax over the course of the scene.
HULLFISH: Two things that you said that struck me: one is that you scratched the whole scene — deleted it — because I find that sometimes when you’re realizing that a scene is not working and you try to fix it there’s no way. It just doesn’t work. You’ve got to start from scratch again. And the other thing that I wanted you to talk a little bit about was the idea of using pieces that are not really in the scene — before “action” or after “cut.”
NKEMI: Completely. Part of that comes from my working in commercials. For them, there’s not this traditional sense of takes and dialogue. Those projects were more about looking for those moments that really felt true to the scene, and I think those exist anywhere in a shot. Something I ask my assistants to do is that any take that looked like it was just a mistake and it was unusable – I had a bin at the top of my project and instead of throwing those away, those takes went into that bin.
When I had time I’d go into the bin and review and see if there were any moments in there that I thought could actually fit into the edit. For The Last Tree that became a technique that we used. Every so often we’d have these close-ups of B-roll cutaway. They didn’t really relate so much to the scene before or after but would give you a sense of time passing and also felt very stylized and internal.
So between scenes, we didn’t use a wide-shot of the city or an establishing shot of a building, it would be closeup in a hallway of a spider crawling across the wall or something like that. These were all shots that I pulled out of the camera just running or the end of a take when the camera swung down. There was a shot looking down the street at nighttime just when they’d switched the focus and that ended up being in the film.
We ended up building a language with these through the edit.
HULLFISH: I love it. I can see why they brought you onto The Pale Horse to shake things up a bit. So those weird shots were more in-between scenes?
NKEMI: I used them between scenes and they were quite useful getting a sense of the rhythm where it felt too close between one scene and the next. They were just too close, so we used those shots to give the space we needed — where we needed to spend some time in between taking in what’s just happened, really, and allowing the characters to take that in as well. That’s when I started looking for those moments. Just to give a sense of time passing.
HULLFISH: That’s really interesting because a lot of times that’s where some shoe-leather might go. Like let’s just watch the character travel from one place to another, but if you don’t have that, you still want it.
NKEMI: I think actually that classroom scene that I talked about earlier was the first point in the edit where I started saying, “Let’s pull out all of the random stuff in this scene and try it all in the edit.” That’s what it ended up being — all the accidents or things that just weren’t scripted.
HULLFISH: So when you’re constructing that, and you’re thinking, “OK, we need something that’s less observational,” as you said. Did you find that you could cut the visuals and then do the sound design or did this sound design have to be at the same time? How were you building that?
NKEMI: I’m trying to remember… I think it was a mixture of both. I think first I went back to the rushes and pulled out all the weird stuff that I thought was interesting and then put that to one side and built up a kind of radio edit of the scene. Because the scene starts and there’s this dialog that happens and it sort of escalates and gets more and more aggressive. Two characters kind of have a tussle and then the main character starts breaking down.
And so it’s building up that story through the sound and trying to find ways of doing it in a kind of more internal subjective way. That’s when I came up with the idea of putting some stuff in with reverb and overlaying dialogue, and kind of repeating stuff as well. Then I went back to those picture bits I pulled out and laid those in. That meant adjusting the sound again, obviously. And then it kept going back and forth and we’d end up with sections where I’d then start repeating the picture and you’d see the same action happen two or three times but from two or three different takes. That’s one of the reasons I like working with selects reels because accidents can happen that way. You see different moments back-to-back and that sometimes causes me to think, “Oh, that’s interesting! What if we did that in the edit?”
So in the scene, you’d have this action play out two or three times and each time would be slightly different. So you’d get a sense of what the character was going through in the scene in a more impressionistic way.
HULLFISH: Do you think that with your experience in spots, that you’ll go back to that? Are you cutting TV spots as well now? You’ve got people like Kirk Baxter and Hank Corwin who are big-time feature editors but still cutting a lot of spots when they can.
NKEMI: I haven’t done any for a while — since the ones that I assisted on. I am doing one next though, basically, one of the directors who went to film school with me was shooting a commercial and asked me if I wanted to do it and I thought it would be interesting to see what that world was like again.
HULLFISH: I could see — just from your description of how you edit — that your approach would work great for spots.
NKEMI: Career-wise I definitely want to keep switching between drama and documentary and animation projects. I just like the gear-changes that happen to my brain when doing something completely different.
HULLFISH: You’ve done some documentary?
NKEMI: Yes. The first feature-length thing I worked on was an observational documentary. And then I’ve done a bunch of short documentaries. While I was at film school you sort of do everything.
HULLFISH: Got anything that’s gonna go to Sundance this year?
NKEMI: I have a short this year playing called The Devil’s Harmony. It’s a fun, weird film about an acapella group in high school that realizes that if they sing at a certain pitch they can sing people into a coma and they start wreaking revenge on anyone that had done anything wrong to them in the school. So it’s very, very funny. Very dark.
HULLFISH: Like crossing Glee with Carrie.
NKEMI: Yeah. That’s exactly the film.
HULLFISH: OK, maybe I’ll see you at Sundance. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation today. Is there anything else you want to talk about specifically?
NKEMI: Something that you might find interesting is with Rapman’s YouTube series — he basically narrates what’s happening through rap. It happens less so in the feature than it does in the shorts, but in the shorts, he basically does it throughout. There’ll be very few moments where the characters actually speak for themselves. But in the feature, he wanted to kind of move on from that. It was kind of a one-man Greek chorus where he’d come in about roughly every 20 minutes and break down what’s been happening and hint at what’s going to come next.
It was really fascinating for me as an editor because I’ve not had that experience working on something like that before. But it became really useful when we needed to shorten the first 15 minutes of the film — condense it into a montage and I could try out stuff and ask him, “What if you just said this line here? Then people would get that bit and then you wouldn’t need this whole section of dialog?” Whenever something got confusing, we could stop and create a montage out of some cutaways and we could get him to rap about what was happening.
So that became this really fun playground. I’d show him something that I wanted and I knew the next day he’d come in with a rap that I could then cut to.
HULLFISH: Did you dare ever scratch the rap yourself?
NKEMI: Oh, no! I always asked him to write something. He’d give me an instrumental and I’d show him a picture cut over the instrumental. I’d ask him to rap about this and this and this and he’d come back with a rap. Sometimes I’d have to tell him, Actually, I think that’s a bit confusing. So he’d have the challenge of trying to make it rhyme and to make it work as a rap that was interesting to listen to, but also communicated the story that we needed to tell.
HULLFISH: Mdhamiri, it’s been a pleasure.
NKEMI: Thank you so much, Steve.
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.