Today I’m talking with Robert Grigsby Wilson, editor of The 40-Year-Old Version, written, directed, and starring Radha Blank and streaming on Netflix. It was named one of the ten best films of 2020 by the National Board of Review.
Robert was editor on the films Goldie and Lost Bayou. He was an additional editor on Miss Juneteenth, and Lost Transmissions and the VFX Editor on The Lighthouse. He’s also been an assistant editor on Gemini Man, American Made and Captain Fantastic, and on TV shows like Billions, Halt and Catch Fire, and Mister Robot.
HULLFISH: Tell me first about how you got involved in this project.
WILSON: Radha and I met at the 2017 Sundance Director’s Labs. The Sundance Labs are sort of like an incubator for a lot of indie filmmakers. They have an incredible history of alumni from Paul Thomas Anderson to Quentin Tarantino and more recently Ryan Coogler and David Lowery, with who I’ve worked. A lot of really impressive filmmakers have come through there.
The Director’s Labs is specifically an opportunity for emerging filmmakers to come out and test their approach. Generally, they’ve been vetted through the Sundance Screenwriters Labs. They have a script that Sundance has endorsed and has helped develop. As a rule, none of them have ever made a feature film before, and so it’s an opportunity for them to try out their ideas in a simulated production environment.
They bring out cinematographers. They bring out editors. They bring out script supervisors. Production designers. They replicate the production environment in a way so that these filmmakers can try to see if their ideas will translate on-screen and then talk about it with a cadre of really established creative advisors through the labs.
So you’re sitting in the room with Ed Harris and Robert Redford and legendary screenwriters and cinematographers and directors and it’s an incredibly intimidating experience. It’s sort of like a film camp in a way. You’re all sequestered alone at the Sundance Resort but it’s a very surreal experience to be sitting there getting notes from these people.
Radha was a fellow there and I was asked to come out and be her editor and we had never met before. We were just sort of paired together by the Sundance Institute and we just kind of hit it off. I really loved her approach. I really loved her humor. I really loved her sense of timing and sense of film history and I just really wanted to be involved with the project and then through our collaboration working together — trying out her ideas at the labs — she decided that she liked me enough that she wanted to have me come do the thing for real.
So, fast forward a couple more years and she calls me up and says, “Hey Rob, why don’t you come and do the movie?” I’m very lucky really. Honored to be a part of it.
HULLFISH: So this was her first film. She wrote, starred, and directed, correct? Is that a tricky road to walk when you’ve got all three of those things and you’re the editor who’s also analyzing all three?
WILSON: Not only is she the writer-director-star, but it’s also an incredibly personal story to her. I’d say that it is semi-autobiographical. There are a lot of moments in her life that are just plucked out and adapted for the film. As it is with every director-editor relationship — but specifically here — you really have to trust that this person knows their own story.
She had a personal attachment to everything that she had written down. And so I think it was just important to try to talk to her about what was the best version of the story that she was trying to tell. And she has such a smart mind for story that I think it was really easy to talk to her about what her intention was as a writer.
In some ways, it simplified the process because the buck stops with one person. There’s not a worry of balancing any sort of relationship that’s happening between all the creative forces. She was the creative force, so if I could win her over to my idea that was sort of the end of it. And so it became a really fun collaboration and it really started and ended with getting to know her and trying to help bring out exactly what she had seen in her mind and what she had been living with for long enough.
HULLFISH: But that idea of a story that is so personal and so rooted in one person, is fraught with the danger of really her taking things very personally that another director might not. If you say, “This whole scene could go,” some directors might just say, “Yeah.” But for her, it’s: That’s my life!”.
WILSON: And we had discussions like that that weren’t dissimilar. We talked a lot about some of the things that were really personal to her, and I think we experimented with a lot of options and at the end of the day, I think where we landed was that Radha really felt empowered to tell the story that was most important to her, and I think one of the things that I’ve learned over the course of my still-young-but-somewhat-experienced-editing-career is that you have to give over some of the authority to what the director really wants to see on screen.
The answer can’t always be, “What is the most concise way to tell the story?” The answer can’t always be, “What is the quickest way into and out of the scene?”
I, as an editor, can always turn my mind towards how do we pace things up? How do we move things faster? How do we collapse scenes into each other? How do we turn this sequence that’s playing long into a montage? I can always go there in my brain but if I go that way, sure it might get the movie to an hour and 40 minutes, but what have I lost along the way?
She really wanted to make sure that she showed all the sides of her life experience and I think — through the process of screening the film for different kinds of people — there were a lot of things that I, with my background, thought were superfluous or unnecessary or were slowing things down but those ended up being the things that people held onto the most. And those ended up being the things that had the most emotional resonance going through the story.
You might be violating your own rules in the process, but if it’s ultimately in service in the film it’s for the best.
I think one of the brilliant things about cinema is that you can learn so much about other people’s lives. I think Roger Ebert called it the “Empathy Machine.”
I can offer my own perspective as an audience member which I guess Radha found valuable but it’s important to understand your own limitations in that. I don’t think that that means that I can’t help her tell her story. I just think that we need to have an understanding about where I’m coming from and where she’s coming from and realize that your normal editing instincts don’t always apply.
So far the reception of the film — the way people have talked about the way it speaks to them — I think has proven out that approach.
HULLFISH: I want to talk a little bit about technique and some choices that were made. The whole film kind of claims to be black and white, but the whole film was NOT black and white, correct?
WILSON: We found it necessary to shoot on color film for a few select moments. Those scenes were written into the script as color – those moments where you see Radha’s mind’s eye, the representation of the play. She saw those scenes as being in color from the very beginning because the way she sees it, is that she wants to see the world in black and white, but then when we break from the world into Radha’s subjective perspective — this representation of what she sees of the play — that’s in color. So she liked that as a break visually.
We also found it necessary to shoot a little bit on color stock because black and white 35mm film is actually pretty slow. It hasn’t really evolved. When I say slow…
WILSON: Yeah. The ISO is pretty slow, so it’s hard to expose at night and on our budget, we didn’t really have the capability to go and light whole city streets in the middle of the night, so we had to shoot on color stock for some night exteriors so that we could get the exposure that we were looking for without needing to light up whole city blocks in New York City which is not inexpensive.
And that gave us the chance to experiment with things like the dip to color at the end of the film where we sort of dissolve to the color frame, which was something we found in post — something that wasn’t written in — but something that Radha really grew attached to as we played with the idea.
HULLFISH: One of the other color places is the high school prom photo of her and her boyfriend, right?
WILSON: That is Archie’s real prom photograph. That’s Peter Kim — the actor’s — real prom photograph that we Photoshopped Radha’s face into. It was one of those things in the way that we are stealing life to integrate it into this art — that’s his real photograph. The pictures of Radha’s parents are her real parents. All the images we feature that we flash to periodically over the course of the film are her mom’s real artwork, her dad’s real album cover. That was a really fun thing to play with.
HULLFISH: Something else that I noticed that I really liked was a rhythmic sense of not everything being at the same pace. There were long scenes on a single shot, but then there’s also very fast-paced scenes.
WILSON: Speaking to the oners, like on the park bench that you talk about, that was one of the first scenes that they shot. I actually think it was the FIRST scene they shot.
I knew Radha’s approach because we had worked together at the Labs, and I knew she liked long takes, but it was definitely something to come in to see dailies and see that you get five takes from one angle and then there’s an obvious cut point and then there are five takes from the other angle as they sit down on the bench. And it’s just like, “Pick one.”
It was really fun to play with that but I think you can manufacture a lot of charisma and you can manufacture a lot of chemistry between your characters with an editing style but in a way that can sometimes feel false or make it feel like you’re covering up for something.
Radha really loves theater. She comes from a theater background and so a lot of times she really wanted to present some of the true relationship moments in single shots so that the audience could really just pay attention to the drama and the dialogue. But then she’s also really influenced by hip hop music videos and a lot of other different kinds of films and so we really liked to try the different styles out and experiment with them.
Like the kids in the classroom — the first scene — where the two girls get into a fight. That was fun because they shot the hell out of that scene. On the one hand, I could find times to just sort of sit in frames and really enjoy the drama of it. I also got a chance to really flex my muscles and try to find the most high-energy way to really amplify some moments.
The Queens of the Ring scene, which is another scene they covered the hell out from a lot of different perspectives — They shot inside the ring. They shot outside the ring. They shot the reverse on Radha and D from inside the ring. They shot behind them looking up. They shot all these different ways to approach it.
It was just about creating some sort of visual dynamism through the film so you didn’t necessarily walk into any scene knowing what the approach might be.
HULLFISH: So do you feel that through editing you can telegraph for the audience and that’s what you’re trying to keep from happening?
WILSON: We did find times to help the audience anticipate certain visual moments but I think what we always wanted to do is just never spend too much time doing anything — taking any one approach.
We have moments with long takes up against other moments with long takes but we tried to insert a quick little montage moment of city streets — something like that to inject a little energy and music into the movie. But it kind of just became instinctual after a while so I don’t know that we ever really approached it with the thought that “at this point, we need to be cutting fast and at this point, we need to be cutting slow.”
It all came from what the dailies said to us and then once I got it back it was just about trying what I thought was the best approach for the scene, and then once we saw it all up against each other, it was helping smooth the transitions into or out of that visual style into the next.
HULLFISH: I was remembering one of those montages of visuals of New York. Tell me about adding those — deciding why you needed them — and what was the value of placing those.
WILSON: It’s always tough because my instinct is always: “how do we keep this story moving?” So in a way, you’re finding an opportunity to linger with these cityscapes and I think if we had especially dropped the audience into a pretty dialogue-heavy scene or a scene where the audience is taking in a lot of information about something that’s happening with Radha and her character, we wanted to give them a chance to breathe and to catch up to everything we’ve just thrown at them because we’re running a lot of narratives concurrently.
We have her theater story and the story of her play. We have her journey as a rapper. We have her relationship with the students and so we’re always sort of bouncing around narratively and trying to keep the balance there. And so we didn’t want to just steamroll into another story without giving the audience a chance to take a moment — take a breath — and reflect on the things that we had shown them.
Plus the movie itself is a love letter to New York for Radha and it’s also about showing parts of New York that don’t really get dramatized on screen in beautiful 35mm black and white. So they are New York cityscapes, but they are Harlem cityscapes and they are Brownsville cityscapes, and they are parts of New York that aren’t Midtown, Times Square, Greenwich Village — all these parts of New York that have been shot by other white men.
Radha wanted to reflect the New York that she saw but using the cinematic language of her influences. So we wanted to make the city into something of a character in that way and so that helped us just make sure that we found ways to squeeze that in. And she had done a lot of camera tests and stuff like that too, so we had camera tests in different film formats dating back a year or two that we were always pulling from or going back and digging up something that they had tried to shoot on 16mm from 2018. So we were also mixing a lot of different formats.
HULLFISH: How much did the various storylines and the way they intercut change from the script?
WILSON: It didn’t differ dramatically. I mean, Radha is such a good writer to begin with. She started in theater but she’s done a lot of writing for television before she came to making the 40 Year Old Version.
She has a wealth of experience trying to craft a great story in the script and so when I read the script initially I felt like we were telling all the right beats and we were setting things up in the right order and paying things off in the right order. And we did have to play with that structure a little bit, but I think we were actually pretty lucky that there wasn’t really a grenade to be thrown at the story in that way.
Sometimes you get in and you find out your whole act one is headed in the wrong direction. You have to go in and completely rethink it once you see what the footage looks like. I didn’t really have that problem on this project, which I really feel fortunate for. That’s really just a credit to Radha as a writer.
That doesn’t mean that within the story we weren’t finding things that were missing along the way. One example would be her brother — who she goes to see pretty late in the film — and the way in which she was sort of avoiding facing the death of her mother. And we needed to find a way to dramatize that through the voicemails from her brother that periodically appear throughout the film.
That was something we found in post because we found that by the time we got to her mom’s apartment the audience had not really been tracking that. She had been talking about it a little bit but it wasn’t quite enough. So we were just trying to find little ways to sprinkle the stories that we were staying away from. We wanted to find a way to like sprinkle in just enough to make you remember that it was out there.
HULLFISH: Is there any difference in cutting black and white? This is something I just talked to Kirk Baxter about with his editing of Mank.
WILSON: I’m very jealous of their operation that they’re running over there.
I don’t know that I approached the film really any differently once I saw the final footage. The difference though that I would draw between the operation that Kirk Baxter and Fincher and their whole operation is running over there is that because they’re shooting in a digital format they’re able to turn around dailies in a short amount of time.
Our dailies process was incredibly involved and incredibly complicated and most of the time I wasn’t actually seeing the film dailies in true black and white until about a week after that footage had been shot. So I did my entire assembly of the film from what I’ve been calling “tap dailies.”
They were recording off the DP’s viewfinder to these ProRes proxy files which are incredibly grainy and incredibly soft and they have these burned-in 2.40 matte lines on them. They look like garbage but they’re technically in color because it’s just whatever the DP is seeing himself. So those would be the dailies that we were receiving the next day.
So I had to judge performance, I had to judge focus, camera, everything from watching these incredibly garbage images while the film was being shot in New York and then shipped to Baltimore for processing and then shipped back to New York to be scanned and then brought over to the post facility to be sunk up. So by the time that all finished, they would have wrapped a location three or four days ago and I never really got the chance to see the way the footage looked until basically, it was too late.
I never looked at it any differently once I saw the footage in color, but as a logistical perspective, cutting black and white 35 millimeter negative is incredibly complicated and your ability to help the creative decisions that are being made on set are incredibly hard because that’s expensive. It’s hard to go back and reprocess anything. It’s hard to go back and reshoot anything. It’s always hard, but it gets even harder once you’re talking about a film format that is not widely used anymore.
But I would do it again. 100 percent. It’s so gorgeous. It’s such an amazing format.
HULLFISH: I’m assuming you were editing in New York. Were you actually on set? Near set?
WILSON: We were set up at a facility in the West Village called Goldcrest Post. Goldcrest helped us with every step of post-production from sound to grading to dailies. They gave us great editorial facilities. They are a really tight ship and really gave us a tremendous amount of support. I don’t know that we would have been able to have such a seamless finish if it weren’t for them and the way that their team is so integrated.
One of the other things that makes that really valuable is that we didn’t wrap shooting until after Labor Day and we definitely submitted to Sundance late. I can’t remember the exact date that we sent in, but I think it was sometime in October.
We probably sent a cut to Sundance week four or five of the director’s cut which is in October and then we have to finish, lock, re-scan the entire film at 4K and grade it and mix it and deliver it for Sundance which was in late January. So if we didn’t have a facility that could provide all of those resources to us, then I think we would have had a much more stressful finishing process.
HULLFISH: Do you know enough about the technical side of it to know how you re-link and sync those “tap dailies” to the final scans? That must have been crazy.
WILSON: It was not the most fun process but I had a great assistant editor — Sam Salvodon — who essentially had to go in and over-cut the entire film from scratch.
Our “tap dailies” were coming back generally with time-of-day timecode that was being read off the sound files because the sound could feed into the tap and so we were getting sync sound — which was great — but those “tap dailies” MIGHT line up with the sound timecode that we were getting back from our synced film dailies through the Goldcrest dailies pipeline.
However, the picture timecode wouldn’t reflect anything because they were putting it all on film rolls and so the time code that we were getting for our film rolls was reflective of the film rolls themselves and have nothing to do with when it was shot. So we could do our best — sometimes things would come in within a few frames and you can kind of guesstimate it if you A/B’d the audio timecode from the film with the tap dailies but generally speaking there is no button to press. You literally have to go in and eye-match it.
I was producing multiple versions of these “tap dailies” scenes and then I would give them to Sam and say, “Can you overcut five versions of that scene?” And for something that was even crazier — like Queens of the Ring — which was shot in a night but had so much footage, it was just crazy because the “tap dailies” are so low resolution. When the film dailies come back, all of a sudden you can see everything!
For example, I couldn’t see the crowd outside of the ring when I cut the “tap dailies” but when the real scans came in, I could see their faces. Is that good? You have to re-evaluate your whole editorial approach.
I’m really grateful for my time working as an assistant that I have enough of a technical understanding of how things work to realize when there aren’t going to be solutions or when there are gonna be solutions.
HULLFISH: Talk to me about music and temping and how that affected the picture cut and where that stuff came from.
WILSON: There are three elements to the music in the film. There are the songs that Radha is performing. There are needle-drop songs or source cues, for example, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul — things from the early 90s golden era of hip hop that we’re pulling from that we wanted to drop in.
And then there’s also the score which Courtney Bryan did, which is pulling songs from albums that she’s recorded.
There were two songs called out in the script: the sequence of Radha walking through Harlem, there’s this beautiful jazz tune by Courtney that Radha called out, so I knew that that was going to go in there.
Then there was also the R&B slow jam that hits when Radha and D finally consummate their relationship to great effect — to great hilarity — in the film. That’s just about finding the right point to cut hard into the bedroom.
END SPOILER ALERT
Speaking to the rest of the score, this beautiful jazz that Courtney Bryan had composed just felt right in a lot of ways for the classic New York story that Radha was trying to tell. I went through the albums that she’d recorded and when I first showed Radha my editor’s cut, I had temped a lot of the moments where I thought, “Well, maybe this is a place for some score. Maybe this is a place to sort of slow things down. This isn’t quite right for hip hop. This is about another side of Radha’s brain.”
So we laid in Bryan’s music there and I don’t remember exactly how many we kept, but I would say maybe six at most, so the score that works through the film were compositions by this composer Courtney Bryan. Those all stuck because it just felt right.
Now, when it came to laying in hip hop, it was a little bit more fun. We had a great music supervisor — Guy Routte — who has a ton of experience working with early New York hip hop. He is the guy who helped get Radha the beats for the songs that she was going to perform in the movie and all the different beats that D was going to play for her and to play for other people.
So when we got to editorial he just dumped a bunch of these cues on me. I knew which one to use for the song “Poverty Porn” but I didn’t necessarily know where all the other ones were gonna go. So we spent some time just trying to figure out “What’s the mood that this cue is telling me?”
To some extent, we really wanted to wear our influences on our sleeve. So that really led us to open the film with A Tribe Called Quest which is the cue for when she’s running to the bus and traveling during the opening credits sequence until she gets to the school. I love that song. A Tribe Called Quest is one of my favorite groups.
Radha is a little bit older than me, but not much, so I do remember seeing them on MTV and De La Soul and all those musical influences had a huge effect on me too, so being able to put those in the film and find the right ways to communicate where we were coming from and the types of things you heard out there in the world was also really fun.
We were able to clear a bunch of them, which is the icing on the cake. I can’t believe that some of those cues are in the movie.
I just did a whole project where we were trying to get stuff cleared and I had such great high hopes and none of it got cleared. It just kills you.
This is a hot take, but there should be an Oscar for music supervision. Sometimes the songs just work and the amount of energy that goes into clearing them and digging up old masters and just the amount of work that goes into that. Also the amount of taste and execution that is required from a good music supervisor, I think they’re worth their weight in gold.
HULLFISH: Was there a Coltrane track in there?
WILSON: There wasn’t a Coltrane track but Courtney’s music is very inspired by Coltrane and we wanted to evoke that in the film because that’s the other side of it.
We talked a lot about the two sides of what Radha is feeling. We talked about her head and her heart — her theater career and her hip hop career. We talked about her head being her theater career and what she should be doing, and her heart being her hip hop career, and “screw everybody else I’m going to do the thing that’s inspiring me.”
Radha’s background — her father was a jazz musician. He used to play with Sun Ra, so she heard a lot of jazz in the house. But then when she was growing up hip hop was in the air and so those two forces pushed against each other. It was about finding that balance in there which is something we always want to be playing with.
We want you to think it’s Coltrane. We also want to be able to find the best hip hop cues, the best hip hop influences.
HULLFISH: What did you edit on? Where you on Avid or Premiere?
WILSON: We cut in Avid. I try to be as platform-agnostic as possible. A lot of my assistant work was through Avid. So I came up through the traditional Avid Assistant Editor pipeline, but I think Premiere is a great tool. I’ve also been recently kicking the tires, cutting in Resolve, and cutting in Final Cut X.
Depending on the project I’m trying to just stay nimble with that. But I do think for a feature film — when you’re working with multiple people in a shared environment — Avid is still king of the jungle. And I didn’t want to run into anything that I couldn’t predict was going to be a problem, so we stuck with Media Composer.
HULLFISH: You mentioned the cage match rap battle. With a ton of material do you have to have a different approach for that than for a scene that’s maybe a much simpler dialogue scene?
WILSON: That scene is really interesting because there are a few things going on. Obviously, there’s a performance taking place and then there’s the crowd reaction to it. Even though they’re speaking a cappella they are actually speaking in rhythm. And so it’s also really important to have something of an understanding of cadence and tempo.
I’ve played in bands for years. I think that’s really important when it comes to editing a scene like that. The pacing on a whole other level — besides just the performance of it — you could pick performance but you also need to find the thing that makes the entire rap battle flow through each other. So those things are all really important to pay attention to.
When it comes to cutting performance what I try to do is just start with the performance and try to find the places that can fit together without needing to cut away. I think these women are so good on the fly — off the cuff — that cutting too much almost leads the audience to question whether what they’re seeing is real. I really wanted to sit in as many moments as possible and try to find the right camera angle.
Now, we had to fight a lot of things like extras and camera lighting and angles because the scene is so stylistically lit. I think Eric Branco did an amazing job in general in the film, but specifically with that scene.
We had to find the right way to present the best performance, but then, once we put it all together, the full assembly of that scene was about eleven minutes long which is just not realistic, especially since it’s the back half of the second act.
She’s also going off on this date. Her relationship with D isn’t necessarily related to what’s happening with her head or her heart, so we’re kind of going off on a journey. But it was so important and such an amazing set piece that we wanted to have as much of it as possible.
So then we started to find ways to pull little bits of time out and cut around it a little bit. We ended up truncating their performances just a little bit, but that’s where the knowledge of cadence and timing and tempo come in because you have to find ways to craft their lyrics together so that it all feels seamless, and then that creates a whole other host of problems because you’re trying to match everything. You’re trying to match body position and editing sound, and are we inside of the ring, or are we outside of the ring – who are we trying to look at at this moment…
Ultimately, the scene is about Radha seeing herself on that stage and gaining confidence from that. And it’s also about her seeing another world that D is trying to give her and it’s about solidifying their relationship and this guy who she was initially skeptical about — this guy who she didn’t necessarily want to see — this guy she thought was shunning her — who is really trying to show his affection for her.
She spent a lot of time talking about the way that D doesn’t emote. He’s not going to come out and say, “I love you.” He’s gonna say, “Why don’t you get in the car with me and we’ll go to this thing?” So we had to find the right moments of him in that scene and show their connection all while building around this incredible rap battle performance because the real narrative value to the scene is the relationship that’s being formed between them over the course of the performance.
I wasn’t totally convinced that it was there and then we started having some feedback screenings and Radha invited a lot of her friends and I just remember vividly sitting in the back of the room and there’d be a look from D and all the women in the room would go, “Oooooooh!” You could feel this audible excitement and everyone was getting so interested in their relationship. And I saw that it was working.
It was maybe my favorite scene to cut in the film.
HULLFISH: Do you think there are different muscles — cutting feature films, narrative feature films — and cutting documentary? How are the two different?
WILSON: That’s a good question. There are different muscles. They’re certainly related and I think that narrative editing practice can really help you as a documentary editor and I think that documentary editing experience can really help you as a narrative editor.
I think that they are related and they affect each other but they’re not necessarily the same discipline. I really see documentary editing as ‘Black Belt’ editing. You’re given a pile of footage without even necessarily a story — without even necessarily knowing if there IS a story there and you have to find the right moments and put them together in the right order to evoke this emotional response from your audience. You’re literally writing the film as you’re cutting it together.
With narrative editing, you’re given a roadmap which makes the first step a little bit easier. There’s a whole other host of challenges that come into narrative filmmaking. I don’t mean to say that narrative editors aren’t equally as incredible, but I see the amount of work that has to go into making a documentary really work and always being impressed by the people who do it really, really well.
I’m just really glad every time I can get my hands dirty with a documentary. But I’m always reminded that this scene that you built and the way that this story is being told in this moment — if you had a different editor in here you could end up with an entirely different scene where they don’t use a single frame of the same thing and it communicates a totally different emotion depending on the way you cut it.
But I do think being able to tell story in brief moments and through mood and tone is something where my narrative experience has really informed my documentary experience and understanding that you don’t always need to watch a talking head to have someone explain what’s going on in the story — that your audience can really intuit things in a more cinematic language. That has really informed my documentary editing through my narrative experience.
HULLFISH: You’ve got something at South By Southwest coming up. Tell me about that and what are some lessons that you either took from 40 Year Old Version into that or that you’re going to take from “40” and bring into your next project.
WILSON: I was lucky enough in quarantine to get signed up to cut a film called Alone Together which is about Charli XCX, who is a pop star. She recorded an album herself in quarantine. It’s been widely heralded as one of the best albums of the year. It’s got a lot of great jams. It’s about her experience in quarantine and I think what’s really interesting about it is that she shot it all herself. She and her business managers and her boyfriend shot the entire thing themselves inside their house.
it’s about a pop star making an album but it’s also really about a 28-year-old woman being stuck in her house with her boyfriend who was — up until that point — a long-distance boyfriend. And her two friends who happened to be your business managers — but are also her friends.
Because they shot it all themselves and they’re not professional filmmakers, it is a little verite. It’s a little DIY. It’s a little rugged. It’s a little lo-fi. And that makes it really fun and it makes it feel really honest. I think that really comes through in the film and I’m really proud of it because South By asked it to be the closing night film at the festival.
So the thing that is really true for me about documentary is that I feel like people too often get hung up on ‘how good does your footage look?’ But if the emotion is there the audience will feel it. It doesn’t matter what the framing is like as long as you’re communicating the real narrative relevance — the real emotional importance of what we’re watching.
Emotional importance is the most important thing whenever you’re trying to tell a story. That is a lesson that I’m really looking forward to carrying forward. And also just the idea that you can wholly invent a scene in the editing process and documentary a lot more easily than you can do it with a narrative film. The idea that you can just throw a grenade at something and decide: “Let’s just make the scene into something different.”
What is the point of this scene? Finding the most elegant, fluid ways to tell your story. I think that that translates really well into documentary.
HULLFISH: What was the structure of that film and how did you come to that structure?
WILSON: We had a built-in structure in the way that the movie starts with her deciding to make the album and the movie ends with her paying it off. Through the course of it she ran into a lot of obstacles. She is something of a workaholic and that created a lot of peaks and valleys in terms of emotional successes — musical successes — but then also valleys where something’s not working. She could get frustrated. It’s the typical creative experience.
Two of my favorite films are Stop Making Sense and The Last Waltz. So being able to watch a song start from something she’s humming to herself and then you add in a little musical beat and then watch it evolve and then she scratches out the lyrics, because they’re not quite right, and she rewrites them and she sings it again – watching that flower, it’s really fun.
HULLFISH: Talk to me about editing in quarantine and editing remotely and how did that work out with this documentary project.
WILSON: Actually, the directors are in Los Angeles. I’ve done a lot of different projects over quarantine — all in different collaborative arrangements with different editing services and different editing platforms, trying out different remote pieces of software.
It’s different than being in the room with someone but I do find that often my collaborative relationships with directors involve having a lot of conversations, watching a lot of cuts, occasionally working through footage together, then they leave in the effort of trying to keep them from watching the sausage get made.
It’s an effort to let me experiment with different approaches and try and come up with different proposals.
One of the ways that Radha and I worked a lot is that she would come in, we would watch things, we would talk about them, and then she would go get a coffee or go get lunch and I would try to fix the thing that she wanted to work on.
It’s not the same as being in the room together. Although I’ve been surprised about how close to that experience you can get. I’ve worked on another project — I just worked on a pilot for HBO Max. The director, who is an editor himself, was sitting with me the whole time and we’re spending hours together on Google Meet and talking through the cut.
Ultimately what makes it really hard — and what you’re losing — is the things that are happening in between your edit sessions, now that your collaborative meetings are more focused — and that’s great… I don’t feel like the focus is any less because you happen to be sitting in front of your computer in your house than it is if you’re at a facility somewhere. However, I do really feel the normal evolution of a creative relationship that happens when you decide to go get lunch or when you need 15 minutes to reboot the system and the conversations that happen from that — getting to know the person as a person. Coming up with ideas, just sort of spitballing. The sort of idle time that comes along from the process of making a film is lost.
You can still make a movie without it but I think often that can create new relationships or even just new ideas. You can just be talking about some movie that you just saw because you’re walking down the street going to get lunch and then all of a sudden, “Oh I’ve got it! That just reminded me…” but if you hadn’t been having that conversation you wouldn’t necessarily put them together.
HULLFISH: If you’ve been in a band, you know that we could all record our individual tracks to a click track and put them in ProTools and come out with a record, but it’s not the same as sitting in a room with somebody.
WILSON: Yeah absolutely. There’s a certain magic that happens when you’re just allowed to sit there and tinker and with everything being remote you lose some of that.
I think it’s brought into focus the work-life balance for a lot of editors. The ability to be able to log off for an hour and go deal with something that is also important to your life and finding the space in your life to deal with the other things that are happening and then come back to it. It’s not the same, but I do think that there’s value in it. I’ve certainly learned to balance things a little bit more, and I think that collaborative relationships will be better for it and my mental health may be better for it, ultimately.
HULLFISH: On that note thank you so much for joining me. It was great having you on Art of the Cut.
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.