Today, I talk with Gabriel Rhodes about a feature documentary that has Oscar buzz – Garrett Bradley’s Time.
Gabriel’s credits include Matangi/Maya/M-I-A (which won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance 2018). Also, the documentaries, Newtown, The Witness, 1971, The Tillman Story, Without Shepherds, and Quest For Honor – some of which were shortlisted for Oscar consideration.
He was also a fellow at the 2015 Sundance Documentary Edit & Story Lab. His work has also been featured in PBS’s P.O.V. and Independent Lens series.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk about Time. I really loved the way it started. There was kind of a visual overture at the beginning before she actually kind of tells what the inciting incident is. Can you talk to me about deciding or determining that you needed something up at the front before the big reveal?
RHODES: It was always there from the beginning to some degree. We always did start with that first piece of archival — well, not always, but sort of by maybe halfway through the process — we’d found that one piece of archival where she’s talking about where her husband’s in jail and you are seeing her emotionally devastated after the incident.
So, the question was, “Where to go from there?” Originally, we went to her speech to bring you into the present day, and then she would start presenting her story for people.
When we started working with the soundtrack that is in the film now, it had such an evocative power to it and the more we worked with that archival, the more we found ourselves with all these little pieces that were on the outside looking in. It felt like we wanted to establish that this archival was a big part of the language of the film and that chronology was going to be sort of thrown out the window.
So in that first montage, you see so much of the span of time that that archival travels and also it establishes the language for it: that this music is going to be driving a lot of this material.
There is a language created between the music and the archival that sort of bounce off of each other. There’s sort of a modern quality to it and sort of a classical quality to it. It just felt like the right vibe — the right way to sort of feel that archival and see who these people are and understand what it is that you’re going to be digesting over the next hour and a half.
HULLFISH: I’m also interested in the idea of just before she actually says, “My husband just got sons jail” or “my husband is in jail” there are some moments that are almost preparatory for her, and I wanted to talk about what the value is in having that material at the very, very top. There’s some sound, presence, ambiance, in black before that I think, right?
RHODES: Yes. You hear the sounds of her family in the background. The value of that for me was that so much of the film is about sound and I think that so much of the archival is not just visual — it’s audio, too. There is so much richness in the sounds of her world. It’s telling you what this film is going to be about. It’s telling you about what this world is that you’re going to be inhabiting.
It felt like the right bed to have underneath the credits as a way to pull you in sonically. I really love films that start that way. I really love being introduced to sound before visuals because it’s like the appetizer. It just eases you into that world.
HULLFISH: Like in a play, you’d get the overture. So you hear the music and the lights are still down and no one’s on stage. It’s a great way to start.
RHODES: I think what it does too, is it creates a little bit of a mystery. It’s telling you one piece of information. It’s very vague and yet you start filling in the gaps a little bit. Then, when she comes on, and you’re confronted with her visually right away looking at the camera and she’s telling you this information, you’re enticed already. So I love that aspect of that.
HULLFISH: Despite a lot of the stuff being iPhone footage or some kind of home video, I guess — because you actually see video noise or something — there are a lot of great cinematic moments. How did you organize the footage to remember and utilize all of these little moments?
RHODES: The process was that (director Garrett Bradley) shot most of her current-day footage by the time I showed up. She was planning on making this film into a short. She had a prescripted shot list and she knew what the boundaries of the material were going to be. But just she was about to start the edit, Fox handed her a bag of mini-DV tapes. She said, “I shot this stuff when the kids were little, maybe it will come in handy for you.”
It was about 80 hours of footage — just this beautiful treasure. Garrett started looking through it and it simultaneously opened the project up and it also threw her off her game. You have this concept of what this film is going to be, and all of a sudden you hit this crossroads and it becomes a completely different thing.
Garrett had never worked with an editor before, so they decided to bring in an editor and start to work with that material and see how it interfaces with the modern-day stuff.
So I came on board. She had already gone through and made some selects from the archival, and she sent me those selects. I immediately gravitated right towards that.
The first thing I did was look through all the archival. I probably watched it through twice. I marked it up, which is just how I like to work. I don’t categorize anything. I don’t try and put it into baskets. I just want to really respond to the material.
I do it through markers. I take tons of notes in the markers and that became my guide essentially. Over the course of the edit I would go back to those markers repeatedly and find moments that I had dismissed or that I thought were not quite emotionally resonant, but once the edit started to unfold, it would re-contextualize those moments for you, so you look at them again with different eyes.
So I try and stay as open as I can to it. I find that putting stuff into categories or into baskets is just going to limit my interaction with it when actually it’s like painting. I treat that footage as colors. The colors can kind of interface differently with the footage as you’re starting to find it and create new colors, so it was a constant reworking process.
HULLFISH: That’s huge advice. I have a hard time not categorizing stuff or not pulling selects just because I feel it’s a way for me to get my brain around it, but what you’re saying about how it limits you in your attitude towards something is so spot on.
The first time you see it you think, “This has this purpose.” So you put it into a bucket and that means, in your brain, it’s in that bucket instead of allowing it to go anywhere. That’s a really creative way of thinking about it. It’s just difficult. My hat’s off to you. How do you add or access those markers? Are you in Avid, I’m assuming?
RHODES: I’m working on my current project in Avid, but this film was cut in Premiere.
HULLFISH: Time was cut in Premiere. That’s fantastic. So you’re using markers in Premiere. Is there a way that you’re using to search across them?
RHODES: I set up keystrokes so that I can move through them really quickly. When you’re looking at home movies there is a lot of stuff that you immediately know: this is not something I’m going to be using. I want to be able to move quickly through this stuff and remind myself of what’s there.
I oftentimes will transcribe full moments, so if someone’s talking I will word-for-word transcribe it. Something about typing out the dialog puts it in my brain in a certain way so that I remember it more fluidly. When there were repetitive moments you can put those words in and then it’s easy to find the seven different instances when that happens.
I love the searchability of them and I love the ability to move through them quickly.
HULLFISH: So when you’re searching these markers you’re just calling up a clip into the source window and then jumping between markers? You’re not using some kind of a window or find command or any of that stuff?
RHODES: I’ll use the Find command to search the whole project for certain markers if I know there’s something universal I want to find in all of the archival. Each tape was digitized as an individual clip, so an hour-long tape in one clip. And within that one clip, I would have fifty-five markers.
If I knew it was on that tape I could pop in and just click, click, click, click — get to the spots that I felt were the most valuable in that clip. But also in looking through it — just like anything, like if you go record shopping or something — the act of looking makes you think in a different way. It’s a physical thing.
I’ve cut film before. It feels like that — like looking through the bins, looking through the trims. Something about the markers feels like that to me and it motivates my brain in a certain way. So sometimes it would be as simple as: “I don’t know what I’m looking for but I’m going to go and look through every single marker on these six tapes and see what happens.”
HULLFISH: That’s really interesting. I remember talking to a film editor and they used to have two KEMs. They had a KEM that they were working on and they would have another KEM and they would just have a selects reel rolling off to the side, but they’d glance over every once in a while and catch some little gem.
RHODES: It’s the magic of the moment. There is a little bit of magic and there’s a little bit of luck. I just think it’s treasure-hunting sometimes.
HULLFISH: What did you temp with? There’s a classical piano or solo piano that goes through a lot of the beginning of the movie.
RHODES: I temped with a bunch of different soundtracks. Some filmmakers temp only with needle drop music because it’s so generic, but I tend to temp with multiple soundtracks because I want to have the different color palettes to work with.
So I’ll pull this emotional music from this soundtrack. I’ll pull the more propulsive music from this soundtrack. Oftentimes, if I discover a new artist I will try and temp with that artist. The original temp I used was from an old friend of mine who was a cellist who had just come out of the new album and I was using his temp. I knew it needed to be sort of an organic instrumentation. I didn’t want anything electronic, so I was temping with a lot of this cello music that is a little bit experimental and ethereal.
That worked for a while. We also were temping a little bit with the Moonlight soundtrack — it’s one of the more evocative recent soundtracks.
One day Garrett said, “I want you to listen to this album, and let’s see if we can start cutting with it.” It was an album by Emahoy Maryam Guebrou. She’s was an Ethiopian nun and there’s this series called Ethiopia. Immediately I thought, “Oh, this is the sound we want!”
We started sprinkling it in and then Garrett kept saying, “Put it in here, too. Put it in there. Put it in there.” Suddenly we realized, this is actually the music of the whole film.
There’s a certain sort of mood that music couldn’t evoke. So later we ended up working with a pair of composers who brought us that other flavor that you hear sort of from the midway point through the end. But we really wanted that piano to sort of speak to the archival, and for it to represent Fox Rich’s world.
HULLFISH: I’m assuming everything was shot in color. What was the value or purpose of presenting it in black and white?
RHODES: Yes. Everything was shot in color and we edited in color up until maybe the three-quarter point. Garrett had originally showed it to me in black and white. And that was because this was conceived as a sister film to another film she had made called Alone, and that film was in black and white.
Because the film’s concept had changed so much from when she was handed that archival I asked her to saturate it again. Let’s disconnect it from your original concept of what that film was, so we’re not burdened by that. She agreed to that, which was awesome.
At some point or another right around when we started messing with the Emahoy Maryam Guebrou music, the film was finding itself sonically and I think visually it was starting to establish itself too.
Garrett came to me one day and said, I think we should go back to black and white. At that point, it made perfect sense because the archival has a certain quality to it in color that’s a very 90s quality. Very mini-DV. But the music had established this sort of timeless quality to the material.
Garrett works in a lot of slo-mo, so there’s this floating quality to a lot of the footage. When you desaturate it — the archival AND the modern-day footage — they clicked into each other in a way that’s hard to explain. It allowed them to function in the same world as opposed to — when you were in a saturated world — you would always see the archival as just archival. It didn’t feel like this lost timeless piece of treasure that you’re engaged with.
Once we desaturated them, those two pieces of media lived in the same space, and I think that’s really what made the film click.
HULLFISH: Honestly, as a fellow professional when I was watching it, it took me a while to realize, “Oh, wait a minute! This was shot by a professional.”
RHODES: I think that’s good.
HULLFISH: That’s not a slam to the shooting. It’s that the black and white merged the two in a really seamless way.
RHODES: One of the underlying themes in the film is that this is Fox’s film. You really shouldn’t be thinking about Garrett when you’re watching the film.
The first thing that you hear Fox say in the modern-day footage — she’s looking at a screen on a camera and she says, “OK, I like that. I like that.” She’s kind of directing her world. It allowed us to sort of fuse those two and get Garrett out of the way, in a way.
HULLFISH: Talk to me about editing non-professional camera movement. There’s a distinct feel to the mini-DV footage. The camera’s lightweight so there’s a definite feeling to that. Is there a trick to getting jump cuts to work when you’re working with material that’s shot in that method?
RHODES: I don’t think there’s a trick to it. I do think you have to turn on a different side of your brain. People that shoot footage — like Fox Rich, or the film I edited before this film was about the pop star MIA — they are trying to capture something personal. They want to sort of make this footage into a journal of their life.
Neither of them really had an intention in mind. It wasn’t like Fox thought, “20 years and now a filmmaker’s going to approach me, so I’ll make sure I have this footage ready for her.” There is this real off-the-cuff quality to it. There’s a lot of “peeking around the edges” in footage like that. The camera comes on sometimes and then it gets put down somewhere on a table and then there’s audio going on. The moment that they start filming THEY think of it as the first moment but you’re given this gift of moments outside of the frame of intention.
You’re using it in a way that it was never really intended and there are a lot more possibilities in it than footage that has an intention to it. When it’s conceived as one thing, it’s hard to divorce it from what it’s conceived as, but when it’s not really conceived as anything it can be formed into whatever you want it to be. There’s a more manipulable quality to that footage. You can paint with it a lot easier.
HULLFISH: It’s like a lot of editors will use the footage after the slate and before action is called.
RHODES: That becomes a discovery process. So it’s not even like you’re thinking about it as much as you are trying to just be as open as you possibly can to what’s there.
That goes back to those markers. Trying to see footage through a different lens every time you look at it.
HULLFISH: Could you talk specifically about cutting the scene where Fox goes to Aunt Sandra’s house. It’s really chaotic. She’s in the car with the kids and she seems super excited to go into this house.
RHODES: I remember it pretty well actually because it was one of the first things I cut of that archival footage. So I knew I wanted to be able to route this story in a time of sort of before the incident. And that was one of the only pieces of footage that had that quality to me it felt like this is a family in its most intimate moment. There’s a lot of love in the car.
They’re actually on some kind of a road trip. The first time I watched it — the way Fox is freaking out as they’re pulling up. She has this overwhelming zeal for life. Now that I know her in person, she is like that in person. It summed up so much of what I understood about her from the footage. I just wanted to anchor the film in that moment.
That moment expanded and retracted. When they get inside, it’s chaos and all that, I ended up finding these little pieces of dialogue through the course of the edit that I would kind of fold back into that moment just to give us a little bit of information.
HULLFISH: So, when that section was a little bit longer, you had some moments that you really liked and when you shortened it you wanted to make sure that those moments were retained, at least through audio?
RHODES: It was more that — as we were editing — people wanted a little more context about who these people were earlier in the film. So there are little tiny pieces of audio I sort of slipped into that moment, just to tell you a little bit about who she is.
There’s this moment where she yells, “Surprise!” That actually came much later, but I wanted to give that idea that she’s the kind of person that’ll just spontaneously show up on your doorstep. There’s a lot of love in that moment.
It also says something about Rob (Fox’s husband) — when he comes in and he’s hugging people. And it was one of the few moments we had of Rob, so we wanted to lean into his footage in that one moment where he’s sort of a little bit on the outside of the family, but he’s so warm and receptive at the same time in the way he’s looking at everybody, so it’s said a lot about both of them.
HULLFISH: One of the things that I thought was really interesting about the structure of it was that you guys decided not to reveal some of the information about why her husband’s in jail until much later in the film, and by then you kind of have fallen in love with Fox.
I think it would be a very different film if you knew that information right upfront.
RHODES: Yeah. We tried having that information a little more upfront in the early edits. The way this structure came about was that the first cut I did, I did it very quickly and I wanted to just get the basics of the story down to see how it would play and to see if we could pull it off because it was very loose.
There wasn’t a whole lot to hang onto in terms of what happened in that story and there weren’t quite the materials to sort of put it together, so I did a skeleton basically — here’s all the stuff laid out as she tells it of what happened. And then we just slowly peeled it away because Garrett’s belief — and I understand now exactly what she was trying to do — was that the details don’t matter.
We peeled back the layers of the details and the more we did, obviously the more questions kind of came up, but then we found other ways to sort of answer them organically without trying to sort of provide as much detail.
The answer to do it was emotionally. What was the emotional impact of this event? How did it leave the kids? Where in the footage do we see that?
Like that moment that you see where Remington is in the car — Remington is the oldest son — and he says, “I’m going to take care of it, mom. I’m the one who’s going to take care of it. I’m going to be the man.” That was a piece that came in later in the process. It says so much more about what happened with the family after this event than any narration would from Fox.
We just found ways to put the emotional thought of this event in there and peel away as much of the detail as we possibly could while still leaving enough for you to understand what had happened.
HULLFISH: I think that’s a powerful lesson. It’s really important to decide when to reveal information. The other thing that you don’t reveal is that she was in jail until very late.
RHODES: We do it just enough, but you don’t need too much of it. You kind of get a sense because she’s in church and says, “I just got out of jail.” So I feel like there’s enough in there that you kind of get it, but you don’t really know how long or what the detail was or why she went to prison and what the terms were for her.
It’s complicated. As soon as you started to put legal details into the film, it kind of killed the emotional truth of the film. So let’s just peel it away and see if we can live without it.
HULLFISH: I think that really was a powerful, important decision.
The structure, as you said earlier — we’re going to throw chronology out the window. Tell me about building that structure, cause it is not linear. How did you come to each one of those pieces being where they were?
RHODES: I think it’s an emotional structure. I think there’s an emotional mapping going on in the film and that was really the intention from the beginning.
Garrett said, right at the top of working together, “I want this film to flow like a river.” So, the idea was that you would be in this stream and as you’re going through the stream, time is sort of flowing along and you have to sort of see chronology in the footage as equal. As if you could just see everything as happening in no time then that freed you up from thinking, “Wait! This happened before that, so we can’t show this before that.”
It just allowed you to sort of move anything anywhere once you established the rules. Like that montage at the front helped you to establish some of those rules.
Then there were these cornerstones. I knew that we had to have the introduction in this speech where she sort of introduces herself and you get a piece of what this puzzle is — of what happened — what the inciting incident is.
I knew that we had to have that speech in the church. That she had to have a moment where she sort of had to reckon with herself. And then we also knew we had to have a moment when the closure could start. Where you would sort of turn this corner and that you realized that this story is coming to an end.
Otherwise, it would just feel like this never-ending, forward-moving, shapeless thing. So we worked on crafting those moments. The last one being when she’s in that lawyer’s office and you start to get a little a sense that something is changing — something is happening.
So that is what we built all the rest of the emotional structure around — those three cornerstones. It was just a matter of dialing it in over eight months.
HULLFISH: I love the fact that there’s not a chronological story mapping but there’s an emotional story mapping. I see cards on the wall behind you. Did you do emotional story mapping out on a wall?
RHODES: No. I do it in the edit. I do it in the project. It’s all about that first response. It’s like watching that archival footage and thinking, “What is my initial reaction to this?” Then holding on to that and returning to it every time. What did that make me feel? And what do I need to feel right now in this structure? And how do I get the pieces into this space to feel just that?
This is such an emotional film. I’m a pretty emotional person, so I really listen to that as I’m working and I did a lot of crying while I was cutting this film in a lot of passionate moments of inspiration and frustration, just like Fox and you ride that. It’s just about listening to your feelings as you’re going through it and honing it.
HULLFISH: I really love that idea of your emotional center or your empathy being a powerful tool as an editor. We can talk all we want about oh how you cut in Avid and how you cut in Premiere and how you organize things and the value of a jump cut, but let’s talk about coming from an emotional place as being so critical.
RHODES: I think you said it. Empathy is the word that I would use to describe almost every documentary editor I know. I think you have to have a deep sense of empathy because you’re being asked to relate to these “characters” — in air quotes — that you’re living with. Yet you never meet them. Yet you’re also weirdly defining one part of their life and it’s indelible. You’re putting it down into the film and people are going to watch it. So you have this deep sense of responsibility for that.
I just think that’s a quality that all good editors have — the ability to empathize with people and then also — at the same time — the ability to distance themselves from those people enough to tell their story respectfully.
I worked on a film called Newtown that was about the shootings in Newtown of the kids in school and that was also an emotional mapping sort of structure for that film. It was such a profoundly emotional experience to work on this incredibly intense experience that these people had and the way that they opened up about their personal experience and you internalize it a little bit.
I had young kids at that time. It was a really difficult edit because of that – because I was over empathizing in a way — it became almost crippling. You sort of ride that. You have to know when to pull back and know when to re-engage. Then the beautiful thing is you get to meet these people at the end of this process, and it’s weird at first because you’re sort of disembodied from them and they don’t know that you know them so well.
RHODES: In both of these cases — in Newtown and in this film too — I ended up bonding with them in a profound way because they recognized that I had seen something in them and that I helped them to see themselves in a certain way and you connect in that way emotionally with them. It’s a really unique relationship.
HULLFISH: That Newtown thing is something I think about a lot, because I’ve done some dark editing and some joyous editing and to be in a space like that for a long time, that’s difficult to do.
RHODES: I think it is difficult. But it also feels like — when you’re doing something like that — you’re doing important work. That sort of keeps you going. But it’s important to do something lighter on the backside — for the next film.
HULLFISH: This story COULD seem like it would be dark or difficult, but Fox is just so joyous. You can’t control your circumstances but you can control your attitude toward your circumstances, and that just seems to define her. She’s like, “Yep! Crappy life, but I’m a happy girl!”.
RHODES: How do you not fall in love with that kind of strength? That’s not something you see every day, and to have it captured so intimately — as soon as Garrett showed me the material, I said, “I’m in! I love her already!” and that’s what pulls you in.
HULLFISH: Yeah. 100 percent. So to go to something more technical from something so emotional, talk to me about pre-lapping audio to make a transition. There was a place where you’re hearing the road noise at Sandra’s house before you cut to the road going by. What’s the value of a pre-lap? What does that get you and why don’t you do it every time?
RHODES: In every film, you use it in a different way, but I think in this instance the sound design was a huge part of the film. Garrett had shot a lot of this footage of the road driving by and cars, wheels turning, and movement. She loves kinetic movement.
The audio of cars passing becomes a little bit of a ticking clock in the film. I realized that we had done it in certain places even when there’s no context for it. We don’t even go to a driving shot, you just hear this sort of road sound and it becomes almost Pavlovian or something. It puts you into this headspace that sort of feels like something is moving forward and it has an eerie quality to it of something passing by you. It feels like you’re moving through space and time. And I think that’s why we did a lot of those pre-laps and the value of them as we added more and more of them, they become a bit of a ticking clock, and you feel their progression.
But a lot of other times I’ll do pre-laps when I want to fuse two worlds. And I think we did that in this too. When you’re going from the modern footage to the archival. It gave you a way to be ushered into this other reality. It pulls them together and connects them. Especially when you look at how many times we used it throughout the film. It’s a familiar audible space to be in. You might be jarred by two realities clashing together, but It just softened them.
HULLFISH: Sure. love that. Let’s talk about breaths for a minute — or spaces or pauses or whatever you want to call them. What made you decide to take a breath? For example, after the grandmother talks about her daughter going to the courtroom and she said something kind of profound and then you cut to a shot of Fox from a totally different time just sitting there almost looking at the camera.
It’s one of those things that you might look at and say, Oh, I’m never going to use this. She’s not doing anything. But it was a great moment for the audience to kind of soak in something that’s said. Can you talk about those moments where you felt you needed to open it up?
RHODES: With Miss Peggy — that’s Fox’s mom — she has such a presence about her and the way she talks and I think that going back to how the music is evocative of this world, I think it’s evocative also of Miss Peggy’s world. There’s a gentility to the way that she talks. I think you pause in those moments because it allows so much of her personality to come out visually without saying anything.
There’s a presence to her that we loved, and I think you’ll see that throughout the film. Garrett loves to look at faces. You’ll have a lot of moments where someone strikes a pose and we would even slow it down sometimes so that you would just look at that pose because the way someone holds themselves or the way someone carries themselves says so much about them. I learned that from Garrett, frankly.
I think I probably was a much more impatient editor before I started working with her. Through her eyes, I saw so much value in those moments suddenly. It’s so revealing. We have one person talking about another person — her mom talking about Sybil and you hold on Sybil — and that pose also says so much about her.
She had pride about her, even at a young age. You could see her generating that inner strength. I’m not going to let this bring me down. But at the same time, she’s really vulnerable in that moment. She looks like she’s been crying. She looks like she’s introspective in a way that just told the story. We just leaned into those moments. You didn’t need to say much because the images would do so much for you.
HULLFISH: There’s a transition of some flags flapping and a wrench and a puddle — at a car dealership probably. I’m assuming that the siren and the flapping that was all added? That wasn’t production sync sound?
RHODES: Correct. Well, some of it was. There was production audio of the splashing of the hose and that kind of stuff. But the flag probably was added. You’re trying to create a sonic world and allow those sounds to kind of pull you into this space — similar to that huge jackhammer.
There’s one transition where you just see this piledriver. It’s just going bang! Bang! Bang! We saw that and fell in love with that shot. It has nothing to do with her. She’s not in construction. It was shot outside of her building. It had no context for where it was, but it told you something about the world and it also serviced us audibly because it was like that clock ticking sort of thing that pulled us along and moved the story. It gave it a sense of kinetic energy. So we were always trying to play with the sonic world in that way to help us tell the story.
HULLFISH: Did you aim for a specific act break to happen at approximate times — like, 20 minutes in seem to be a statement of the thesis: “it’s all up to me.”
RHODES: It’s not like I aimed for it from the beginning of the edit. It was a discovery. Kind of like the emotional mapping. It was like finding how long you could get away with not telling people something and knowing you had to plant that seed. Over the course of the edit you would just be moving things around — like those cornerstones. You had to constantly be changing where they existed within the cut in order to kind of keep people engaged.
HULLFISH: Garrett shot a very interesting thing that you played forward at the beginning the movie and then backward at the end of the movie — which is like a car going over a road into another dirt road. Can you talk about that and how that was developed and how you decided to use it where it was used?
RHODES: Well it always existed in the first place. That is actually a dirt road that goes into a swamp with a sign that has an arrow pointing that says “Angola” which is the name of the prison. If you don’t know that information you may not absorb it, but if you do know it, it just feels like the symbol of the prison — this smoky swamp. You just get pulled into this space and you just disappear.
So it always existed in the spot where she concludes the story about Rob getting sentenced. As we were finding our ending — which came very late in the edit — Garrett started asking me to experiment with reversing footage. She came in one day and said, “I just feel like we can run the entire film backward at the end.”
RHODES: I learned along the way that when Garrett comes up with an idea, your first instinct is “that’s never going to work” but I tried never to do that. She’s always full of really great ideas, she just doesn’t know exactly how they’re going to work yet. So let’s start playing with that. So I took the entire film and exported a Quicktime and then I reversed it and I sped it up so that it played over the course of like 40 seconds.
It looked ridiculous because you get to these moments where there is an interview… but I thought, “There’s something kind of cool in that.” And the next thing I did was I went back again to all the archival — all my markers — and I looked at everything that could play backward. I decided to work with just the archival because the modern-day stuff looked silly, but the archival had something else to it.
So I pulled all those pieces into a sequence and I reversed them all. I realized that it had this great energy. It allows us to sort of unspool the film in a certain way with this footage that you’ve fallen in love with. That’s where that last sequence came from.
Then Garrett came in one day and said, “Let’s do the Angola shot too because that will tell you what’s happening.” The moment when you find out that Rob is getting out of prison always started with that moment in the car where Sybil is on the phone and she’s saying, “Angola, just call, baby!” And that was the first thing that Garrett shot of that day.
She got a call: “Fox is going to the prison! They’re getting him out today!” So she flew down and they just started filming in the car. So there was really no context for what was happening except for that one moment on the phone and it had such good energy. But the great idea that Garrett had was to visually symbolize it for the audience so that you emotionally understand exactly what’s happening before you get to the audio of that moment and it primes the pump.
So you feel your heart start to swell and then you’re in the moment with her. And I thought it works beautifully.
HULLFISH: It was an amazing moment because you remember the reference. To me, I didn’t know that was Angola. It felt like, “I’m going into the heart of darkness” like, “Here’s this horrible part of my life and I’m going down this dark dirt road that looks like I’m in a horror movie.” And then on the other end of it, you’re coming back out of it. “Here I am I’m leaving that moment.”
The other place that I remember you ran backward was another moment that we talked about, which was going into Aunt Sarah’s house.
RHODES: It opened up so many tools for us. Garrett — as a visual artist — is so gifted in terms of understanding what those kinds of evocative images can do.
HULLFISH: Regular listeners to Art of the Cut will recognize a consistent theme that bad ideas turn into good ideas. Like running the movie backward seems stupid, but then there’s this gem of an idea in there if you’re open to it.
RHODES: I think it’s all about being open. And I think the editing process is so exhausting over the course of such a long period of time that it whittles away your ability to be open to that – to that first reaction to the footage.
The theme of this conversation I think has been those markers. They allow me to stay in that first reaction a little bit. And then that openness — it’s just holding onto that as long as you possibly can through the process and not closing out one part of your brain.
HULLFISH: We were talking about breaths and one of the other breaths that you could easily go — this doesn’t belong in the film necessarily is the set-up to the white coat ceremony before you get to a speech which exemplifies or it’s really powerful to the point of the film.
But there’s just getting ready for the white coat ceremony. He’s just kind of talking to his friends. It’s a pause in the film that you don’t have to have, but it’s lovely to give the audience that space.
RHODES: Well it does provide a pause. I think that’s really astute. It’s a great observation because — back to that sort of emotional structuring — you also needed moments where you could just feel and watch. And that provided one of them. There weren’t a ton of things that Garrett had shot that were like what verite moments, but that was one of them.
When we first started talking about the film, one of the big themes that Garrett wanted to address is black exceptionalism and this moment — we felt like — did that for us and showed this sense of pride in the family, and it allowed us to sort of introduce a lot of the characters, too. As Remington is getting his degree, you also see the twins or at least one of them — I think you see Justice — and you see Fox, and you see Little Rob.
It just feels like the first family moment you get. And I think those little interactions also that Remington is doing with the other students say so much about him. He’s trying to guide or lead the other students a bit, and that’s similar to the moment of him in the car as a young boy, telling his mom that he’s going to he the man and take care of things. Trying to find these resonant moments between the past and the present, and that was one of those resonant moments that opened the lock for that moment as a kid in the car. They kind of start to just harmonize with each other.
HULLFISH: I love that you didn’t lead the audience through a lot of that stuff. You’re just like eventually they’ll figure out what this is. It wasn’t explained what a white coat ceremony was or what he was doing or what this was for. You just kind of figured it out as you went.
RHODES: I think, again, anytime we sort of started to explain too much it just stepped on the emotion of it. You saw this event. You know that there’s some kind of medical thing involved, right? There’s that very quick speech from someone who says, “You did this! With all the things that were working against you, you came through!” It’s just about pride. That moment is about pride and a sense of accomplishment. That is just a big part of that family’s story.
HULLFISH: And I loved, too, that theme of Black exceptionalism. I loved the several moments in the film of making sure their hair looked great and ironing. There’s a lot of ironing in this movie. Not to turn anybody off from the movie but there’s a lot of ironing! And I loved it because it showed… Well, you tell me. What was the purpose of the ironing and the hair grooming?
RHODES: You caught it. It is about appearances. When they’re going to church it’s about “We are a family that cares about how we present.” And that is important to them. I think that’s a really beautiful thing. It says a lot about Sybil. It says a lot about her kids. I think you see it in Freedom — the way that he carries himself and the way he talks to the class and the way that he is carrying himself through college. You sort of can just feel who they are through those moments.
HULLFISH: There are a number of jumps forward and backward in time — as we’ve talked about. What was the guiding principle in deciding the exact moment that propels you forward or back?
RHODES: Here’s a good example: When you first meet the twins — Freedom and Justice — there is this moment that’s just a chaotic family moment and she says, “What’s your name?” And he says, “Justice.” She says, “Your name is Just Us.” Then it cuts to this moment when Freedom comes in and she says, “Freedom’s won this award” and she says, “You didn’t win an award, did you, Justice?” He says, “no,” and then he grabs the camera and looking at the camera and then the two boys start wrestling.
We just kept expanding that scene later and later and later because it was like peeling the onion. As you went further into the footage it just kept showing more of their dynamic. Just when you think, This is the thing that’s going to take us back to the present, you would sort of unroll a little more footage and realize, “No, no, no. There’s more there that’s revealing about them” and just maximize it as much as possible.
That was really the principle of when we would go back and forth and then sometimes it was an aesthetic principle. Sometimes it was like, “I really love this moment, the way she’s holding her face” and that matches something that we see visually in the present day. It just depended on the footage.
Each one of them was like a little challenge and a puzzle.
HULLFISH: Walter Murch has talked about reaching a shot’s expiration date. You use the shot until the shot gets to that point where it’s expired and you have to be out of it before the expiration date hits.
RHODES: But I learned on this process that a lot of times I thought an expiration date was much earlier than it was, and that’s what I’m talking about where Garrett taught me so much about having patience and valuing your footage. A lot of times in a documentary, especially when you’re working with home-shot archival, it’s really easy to look at stuff and say, “Meh. This is just a bunch of home footage.” But for her, it was like a treasure chest.
Every little moment said something and I saw it through her eyes eventually and I realized I needed to be so much more patient with it because the expiration date was always later than I thought.
HULLFISH: Super great advice. Thank you so much for talking to us. Thanks for cutting a great movie and I really appreciate your time today.
RHODES: Thanks, Steve.
To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish or on imdb.
The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed, and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.