Maya Mumma has worked on numerous documentary projects including as an associate editor on Restrepo, and as an editor on Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington, Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ to Tell You, Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown,A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers, and ESPN Film’s Oscar-winning: O.J.: Made in America. Mumma will be speaking at Manhattan Editor Workshops’ Sight, Sound and Story event June 10th at the NYIT Auditorium.
HULLFISH: It’s always kind of interesting to me in documentary film making that organization is obviously so much a part of it. You get so much material.
MUMMA: I feel like each project is its own animal, that you discover very early on how you approach it and organize it, and how all the footage sorts itself out. I have a fairly strict way of organizing verite footage. I go back and forth between verite projects and archival-based projects.
In verite projects I use what I call “stringouts” and then “breakdowns.” When I started as an assistant we were still working on tapes, mini DV tapes. I liked to capture those fully as an hour, or whatever was on them, and then kind of start to divide those up by content. So I still kind of think in that way, in hour chunks. Nowadays with the way that cameras work with recording digital files to cards, you can get dozens of clips in an hour, some are five seconds long, some are ten minutes long. I like to string all the clips from each card out in sequence as if they were a tape. Then I make a sequence for each day of shooting and string out all the footage from each shoot day in chronological order. Then I start to breakdown that footage in to more digestible chunks, which become my “breakdown” sequences.
I break them down the beats of what was shot over the course of that day. For example, in the morning maybe there is some B-roll of the sun coming up over the city that they’re shooting in; then they go to an event maybe where the main action of the day takes place, and then they may sit down and interview somebody associated with it. It helps me start to digest what’s in the footage. For me, these sequences are the beginning of seeing where potential scenes are. The more you go through the footage and the more you organize it, you usually begin to see repetition in what the filmmakers are shooting, and you start to get to know the characters, you start to get to know the locations. So after breaking down all of the footage into the sequences, I’ll often sort those breakdown sequences into categories, like by character, by location, by events, by B-roll, by whatever emerges in the footage. By doing that, I start to have have these different pools to pull from when I start to dig in deeper to find the story.
Most of the archival films that I work on have been very event based as well; they’re telling somebody’s life, or they’re telling the unfolding of events over a certain period of time. For me, chronology is very important to start to digest to footage and think about story and structure. So, similarly with verite projects, everything is again strung out chronologically. Often when you get material from an archive it’s been chopped up and rearranged for years and years and years, and sometimes dates and locations are vague, so there’s a lot of detective work that goes into piecing together all these snippets of footage until you can lay out a clear chronology of everything that happened. Once you kind of dig into the chronology, it’s all about understanding the flow of the story and starting to look for the natural drama that takes place between different events. So in the end, I have many, many bins, and many, many sequences where things are organized before I even start to “edit.” It makes the edit project fairly complex, but at the same time it’s where I start to find the story, and themes, and ideas: through the organization of the media itself.
HULLFISH: That’s even true I think for a lot of feature editors: the organization process is so critical. A lot of people think, “Oh this gets handed off to an assistant because it’s grunt work, but doing the work of organization helps you wrap your brain around, it right?
MUMMA: Exactly. For example, for the film I did on James Brown, Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown, we were covering a really complex, and fairly unknown, civil rights story. There was an event called the “March Against Fear” in 1966, which hasn’t covered significantly in other documentaries that I’ve seen. It’s usually kind of a blip on the radar. It was an incredibly complex historical event where Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael were front and center. It’s mostly known because it was the first time that the phrase “Black Power” was uttered in public. When we first sat down with all the archival materials… it’s hours and hours of people marching down roads in Mississippi over the course of about two weeks. At first it’s a little hard to understand the beats of what happened in the many days of march until you really dig in and organize the footage chronologically. You look for the road signs visible in the footage that tell you what city they are in, you listen to the speeches and interviews conducted along the way that give you clues of what day it is and what’s happened that day.
That part of the process is so important because it allows you to start to see the evolution of events along the way that got them to the night where “Black Power” was uttered, which is important as you start to try and figure out how you are going to tell the story in the film. I think in documentary, that real life is inherently dramatic and by looking at history you find drama. You just have to really dig in deep, and find it, and find a way to bring out that drama for the audience to understand its significance.
HULLFISH: Tell me a little about trying to construct story from all of these disparate elements.
MUMMA: Well for me a lot of storytelling comes from juxtaposition. I think I’m kind of drawn to projects where I’m able to juxtapose storylines or different people’s trajectories. I feel like I did that in Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown and we definitely did that with O.J.: Made in America and I’m doing it on my current project as well, looking at parallel narratives and how they interact with each other. From the very beginning, we knew we would be weaving O.J. Simpson’s personal story with the history of race relations in America, particularly Los Angeles, from the time that Los Angeles and O.J. first intersected, in the 1960s. From day one that was the driving force of the film, and in looking for connections in the two narratives both chronologically and thematically and looking for ways to pull back and forth between the two stories allowed us to try and tell a much more complex story than just the story of one man.
Similarly, with the James Brown documentary, the organizing principle from the beginning was: what was going on in James Brown’s career, what music was he recording, what the sound of it, how was it changing, what was going on in America at the same time, how was America changing, and how did those two narratives intersect? For us, that created a really rich tapestry for the film. That’s often where I find story to be most interesting.
I edited a film recently called Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers. It’s a verite film about a group of female UN peacekeepers from Bangladesh who are deployed for a year to Haiti. The directors had originally filmed five women over the course of the year, and in the edit we narrowed it down to three. That came from me really breaking down the footage, seeing what we had of each woman and what their individual experiences were during their deployment. Here’s a film where all of the characters are in the same place at the same time for a year, but they aren’t necessarily having the same experiences. In the end, we focused on the three women who had the strongest emotional journeys and who we could weave together to tell a story of a complex group of women. We really looked at how these three women reflected different backgrounds, viewpoints and experiences on the deployment. It’s through those differences and being able through editing to compare and contrast their experiences that we can tell a compelling story. By moving between their different personal experiences you can gain a bigger picture of their experiences as a group. I think the ability to tell a complex story is something that I inherently look for in projects.
HULLFISH: You mentioned juxtaposition. There’s a great moment where some voice over person says, “If you’re going to be black in America the best place to be is Los Angeles.” And then they cut straight to the Rodney King beating.
MUMMA: That line comes at the point in the film where O.J. has become a star at USC, and then we pull back and start looking at the history of what that actually meant to many people living in Los Angeles. As he’s being lifted up and idolized at USC – which was at the time a very wealthy and white college – we’re juxtaposing what is going on outside the stadium and the campus. The Watts riots had happened only a couple years before and the city of Los Angles and the African American community was still healing. We use that line to flip between O.J.’s story and the community’s story with some irony, which helps draw focus to the fact that we’re juxtaposing these two narratives. In this section of the film, we’re also looking at the choice he’s making as he’s becoming a public figure, how he’s choosing to interact with the outside world, so that gave us a very natural way to juxtapose these two storylines. He was given an opportunity to take part in the boycott of the 1968 Olympics, and chose to not lend his voice to that. And so that is place where O.J.’s life and the overarching narrative of civil rights in America start to intersect. So that sets him on his journey for the rest of the film.
HULLFISH: I’m struck by the fact that when you watch a lot of these documentaries people are thinking it just kind of naturally flows, but that’s just simply not the case right? Tell me how much discovery, how these things are being built, how these little moments are being found and woven into a story.
MUMMA: Yeah, I mean it’s, for me it’s really interesting, because I think the more you dig in the more you find those connections. And I don’t think they’re an accident necessarily or maybe we get lucky sometimes. I feel like often, with films I’m working on, we’re looking at extraordinary people, people who have transcended something. There’s a reason we’re making a film about them – they intersect with culture and society in a way that’s unique. As we were laying out O.J.’s story, we were looking at the same time at race relations in Los Angeles and the relationship between the African-American community and the LAPD. In the early 90’s you have the Rodney King case, which is the first case where the police brutality was caught very clearly on camera and kind of set the world on fire. And during that time Los Angeles is becoming this cauldron again, harkening back to the Watts riots, which we cover at the beginning of the film. During this period O.J. had retired from football and was trying to navigate Hollywood and moving within privileged circles. He’s navigating celebrities and culture and money, and at the same time there are episodes of domestic abuse and calls to 911 coming from his house. So as his own personal violence is evolving, the violence in the Los Angeles community is bubbling up as well. It’s an interesting parallel. So we were looking at that as we wove the story together. They’re not necessarily directly related to each other, but they are the impetuses that move both of our narratives forward. They are related in the fact that ultimately in the end, O.J.’s murder trial defense focuses on the LAPD and their history of racism and brutality – that a racist police force has framed an African American man for murder. We’ve traced this history from the Watts riots through to the Rodney King beating which resulted in the 1992 L.A. riots. So all of those things come together and all those story lines start to align. From the very beginning we felt the biggest challenge of the film would be weaving these two narratives, but in the end, by making parallels between both public and private experiences, it helped push the narrative forward in a dramatic way.
HULLFISH: One of the things that I find is interesting with the James Brown documentary and the O.J. documentary was the text and the subtext. So the text is O.J. and James Brown and the subtext is civil rights.
MUMMA: For both of those films the subtext was always the reason for making the film, from day one as I sat down to talk about the film at the interview for the job. There have been many documentaries made on both James Brown and O.J. Simpson, and people were saying, “Why O.J.? Hasn’t there been enough on O.J.?” But we hadn’t looked at O.J. through this particular lens before, and James Brown also hadn’t been looked at through the lens we wanted to look at him through. A more interesting film is made in setting somebody in a new context that may be surprising. The audience thinks they are going see a film about one thing and we end up revealing a lot more to them. There’s always the question of “why even make the film?” I think a film has to have an interesting angle and an interesting entrance point to tell audiences something new. I think the subtext ultimately becomes the text of the film.
HULLFISH: So since you knew that subtext, did it help you as you screened footage with an eye to, “That phrase will lends perfectly to get us back to the larger cultural context?”
MUMMA: Yes, exactly. I often start with the subject’s personal story first and then pull back and look at the context. But first I have to get to know the main subject of the film and understand the different beats of their journey, and then look at the bigger picture. Very early on I make a big board in the edit room full of notecards that have the beats of the main subject’s story, and then have corresponding cards that line up chronologically with what was going on in their career, for instance. And then I add a column of what’s going on in the country politically, what’s going on in the country culturally in the case of the James Brown and O.J. films. And then I start looking at how those things interact with each other. And then when I map it out visually, I can start to see the connections between things. On the James Brown film, “Cold Sweat” came out in the summer of1967. It’s often credited as being the first true funk song. And if you look at what was going on in the summer of 1967, America was on fire. There had already been riots bubbling across the country and then they burst in the summer of 1967. There’s something about the sound of funk music and all of that energy and all of the rioting. There’s something kind of subconsciously and consciously going on in America too. That music, that song is what’s playing on people’s car radios and radios at home and they’re putting it on the record player while they’re listening to news of what’s going on in Detroit. Those all start to interact with each other and it makes for interesting storytelling.
HULLFISH: And do you, as an editor, have to find some interesting way to demonstrate that? You mentioned the sound that was coming out of people’s radios, and out of their balconies, and out of their car stereos, is that the director’s job to visualize that? Or are you trying to help do that or guide a director by saying, “Hey I need some pick ups. I would love…”
MUMMA: You can talk through story ideas and you can talk through those juxtapositions, but for me so often those things come from sound and image. They come through the discovery process of going through the material in the edit and starting to stick things together and thinking about style and trying things to help find the language of the film. For me, that comes through the process of editing. In an archival film, I’m going through both the archival material and interviews and giving them equal weight. They are my raw materials for trying to tell the story. I look at how they can interact to tell a story in the most compelling way, and through their interaction, I am able to start to build scenes. While I’m building scenes, I’m always thinking about structure and how the scenes can or will tie in to the overarching narrative and figuring out how each of them push the story forward. In O.J.: Made in America, there’s a lot of flipping back and forth between the O.J.’s personal world and the outside world, and we experimented a lot with how to do that. And sometimes we’re flipping back and forth between those from one scene to another, and sometimes within a different scene itself we’re visually flipping back and forth between O.J.’s world and things that are happening in America at the same time. For me, the process is always about how to tell the story in the most compelling way.
HULLFISH: You knew this O.J. film or the James Brown film was really going to be about race relations or civil rights before you went into it. Therefore, when you’re listening to interviews and when you’re listening to music, do you say, “Oh, I’m not just listening for a great revelation of O.J., I’m also looking for how does O.J. relate to race relations?”
MUMMA: Yeah, I’m looking and listening for both. I’m looking for how the smaller story can connect to or reveal the bigger story. For example in O.J.: Made in America, there were a lot of films students at USC and they would send them out to film footage around campus in the ‘60s. So we have this gorgeous footage from USC from that era. There is footage of O.J. walking around campus with his wife, and they’re very young and very wide eyed. There was something that grabbed me the first time I watched the footage of them walking through this bucolic campus. The person behind the camera asks Marguerite, his wife, what she thinks of the campus, and she says “Oh it’s beautiful. It’s just like a resort.” Whereas just a few miles away its the complete opposite. So that footage always stuck out to me as something that spoke to the juxtapositions we were working to make in the film in a very natural way.
I think it also comes from moments that grab us in the interviews themselves. There was a great moment where the director Ezra asks one of O.J.’s football colleagues what he thinks about when he thinks of 1968. 1968 was an incredibly momentous and chaotic and tragic year in American culture and politics. And when he’s asked that question he says, “We thought about football and we thought about O.J. becoming famous.” It’s his gut reaction. It’s what he said in the moment and for us that became a kind of linchpin to understanding that inside world of USC and the outside world of Los Angeles and America. We held on to that bite for a really long time and weren’t quite sure how to weave it in. But then much later in the edit process we thought of an interesting way to use it. I ended up constructing a montage prompted by the question and the answer that flips back and forth between their experience at USC and what’s going on in the greater world, which is the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the assassination of Robert Kennedy, and the riots in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention. By doing that, we setting the stage for the political climate of the country that O.J. is entering once he graduates from USC and becomes a professional football player. It took a while but we finally found the right way to use it, and it became a very important part in helping crystalize these two parallel narratives of the O.J. film.
HULLFISH: That idea of holding onto a sound bite until you find the right spot for it reminds me of an interview I did with documentary editor Paul Crowder. He said he had all these great, great sound bites and fantastic things. He went back and looked at them recently and was so sad that there was all this great stuff that got left on the editing room floor.
MUMMA: A lot of great stuff does. If there’s something that somebody says that you have a gut reaction to when you watch it for the first time, that’s the thing to hold on to as long as you can, until the find the right way to use it or try to use it. I always have a sequence called “good things,” which I throw things into that I don’t want to forget. I’ll often go back to it and look for inspiration. But you never want to forget that gut reaction to something and very often those bites are the ones that you finally find the right place for in the end and that make a big difference in the storytelling of the film.
HULLFISH: Yeah. I think he had the exact same thing only he called his “hip pocket.” Isn’t that great? I told him, “I’m starting a hip pocket bin, I’m doing that today. I gotta have one of those.” Talk to me a little about building scenes.
MUMMA: Often the things that I think of early on as “scenes’ end up becoming multiple scenes within a section of the film. For example, the USC section of O.J.: Made in America is probably ten scenes if you go through and break it down beat by beat. But when I initially started the section is was just one long piece of storytelling. When I start to build out a section of the story, I’ll lay everything out in kind of one big swath and then start to find story beats with in and then start to focus on building scenes. I’ll often start with the archival. I look for words that can tell the story with in it. It might be from a news report, or a man on the street interview. I look for the words to that help tell us what’s going on and then start to look for the story in the images as well. And then we have the words of the interview subjects too. I start looking at how the archival and the interviews can to interact with each other and tell the story of the scene together. And I’m talking mainly about archival films; verite is a little different for me. But in both kinds of films, how to enter into the scene is often the biggest question for me when I start a new scene. How do we grab the attention of the audience, because we are often coming from another scene, and how do we take the audience into this new idea or this new development in the story? Often, I think juxtaposition works well for that be it visual, audio or thematic. You can relay important information right at the beginning or you can set the mood or tone of the scene – or both at once. It could be a newscaster coming on to report breaking news, or it could be coming recalling an in interview “I’ll never forget the day when…” or it could be a quiet establishing shot, perhaps with music that starts to cue the viewer in to the tone of the scene to come. Every scene is different.
In O.J.: Made in America something that was incredibly important to us in the edit process was creating true characters from the interview subjects, people that the audience felt they were getting to know over the course of the film and who had an emotional journey. In O.J.: Made in America for example, we meet Rob Shipp first at USC when he’s a kid and he’s attending a football game there and marveling at O.J. on the football field. And later he becomes an incredibly important person in the trial. So I’m thinking of how to build him to any relevant scene in between that helps him develop as a character alongside O.J., our “main character.” Character is incredibly important in documentary because I think the more that the audience relates to them the more that they’ll feel invested in the story.
HULLFISH: Documentaries need to be visual. It’s a visual medium. Otherwise you would do a radio play I guess. I worked on The Oprah Winfrey’s show for a decade, and we had very clear rules about when and when not to use an interviewee on camera. You can literally make a documentary that is nothing but talking heads. How hard do you push to not have somebody on camera and how do you know when to put them on camera?
MUMMA: For me it’s always a feeling. When I start a scene or a section I may have forty minutes of interview selects. I have to whittle them down and in the process look the for lines that stand out to me the most – they may be delivered with a certain emphasis or with emotion or there may be a gesture or a look on their face. Those are the types of things that I will think about coming on camera for. I like looking at people’s facial expressions. I like pauses after they speak. I’m looking for something where they’re clueing us in to something personal or they’re relaying something to us that they feel is important, and I think that comes across in people’s faces. Otherwise I’m focusing on how the words and the images are working together, but when I want to connect with them or emphasize an idea is when I bring them on camera. A lot of it has to do with rhythm too, both visual and auditory, and often I play with where I come on camera with someone as the scene evolves. I always keep the interview video on V1 in my timeline and I layer the archival on top so that I can adjust and try different things as I revise. Sometimes the rhythm of the scene isn’t something I find until I’ve done several passes on a scene, so I’m always kind of fine-tuning it as I go.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk about that then: pacing. You know that at some point you’re going to lose the audience. “I don’t want to listen to O.J. for four hours.” But you want to get all this information in. At same time you just cannot run back to back to back facts and never cease. So talk to me a little bit about pacing and just saying – more than hearing another fact – I need a moment to breath.
MUMMA: I think I’m always looking for the simplest way to tell the story in terms of facts. More importantly, I’m looking at a way to enter in the story and make it feel alive, versus just saying this happened on a Monday, then this happened on a Tuesday, then this happened on a Wednesday. I want to make it feel active. Very often the pacing and the mood of the scene comes from the footage and then often from music. I like to work with the archival and try to get it to play and feel as much like verite as possible or as natural as possible and let the story move and unfold in a way that the audience feels swept up in the present moment, even if we’re talking about something that happened a long time ago.
HULLFISH: I have two more questions before I let you go. One is sound design… just using sound design to bring a story to life. Visuals are great but really, sound for some reason allows a deeper connection.
MUMMA: I agree. I think about that a lot. I love using sound for transition and juxtaposition. I love bleeding in sound from one scene to the next or making a really hard cut in sound. It propels you into the next scene. I tend to do a lot of sound work as I cut and I tend to mix as I go. I need to feel the scene and hear the scene play out in a way to really feel how if it can work dramatically. A lot of times, early on in assembly cuts, you’ve got interview bites that are smooshed together and all these pops and jump cuts and all that kind of stuff, but for me doing a of smoothing pass and looking for sounds that help fill out the sound landscape really helps be pay attention to pacing in the scene and helps judge whether something is working because it’s just that much close to how I want a polished scene to sound and feel. So I’ll spend an extra few minutes mixing a scene before I screen it.
HULLFISH: Beyond the source pieces of music, are you also doing temp score?
MUMMA: With James Brown I was lucky because we had limitless James Brown material to work with. We only used his music in the film and that was the plan from the beginning. We were focusing on several of this landmark songs, but I also dug in and really looked at his instrumental works to use more as traditional score. I find it challenging to cut scenes to a song with lyrics. It can be very sonically chaotic. And so I selected a lot of his instrumental music to use as score in different scenes where we weren’t focusing on a particular song, but needed his music to set the mood. We worked with a lot of temp music in O.J.: Made in America, mainly movie scores that we thought had similar tones and moods that we wanted to set. We had a lot of moody music. We had the Gone Girl soundtrack. I worked with a lot of Max Richter and (Alexandre) Desplat, especially in the L.A. riots section. We were using a lot of Philip Glass music at first to set the epic tone of what’s going on. His music sounds amazing with scenes of football. We cut everything to temp music and then had a composer compose to the locked picture afterwards. We would talk a lot about what the mood of each scene was and why we chose the music that went into it.
HULLFISH: Is there a big difference between the verite work that you started on and these more archivally-based pieces you’ve done lately?
MUMMA: I really didn’t talk very much about verite, I’ve been doing more archival recently. I started in verite as an assistant editor on the documentary Restrepo, so I kind of cut my teeth in that world and never thought I’d end up working on archival films. Early on I thought that archival films were so different from verite. But I’ve discovered that it’s a very similar toolset that I use for each, just adjusted slightly by what the material is like. I’ve found them equally challenging and equally rewarding. I love both and I often switch back and forth between verite and archival films. In the end it’s about compelling storytelling
Thanks to Brandi Craig, Charles Shin and SpeedScriber for transcribing this interview.
The first 50 Art of the Cut interviews have been curated into a book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV editors.” The book is not merely a collection of interviews, but was edited into topics that read like a massive, virtual roundtable discussion of some of the most important topics to editors everywhere: storytelling, pacing, rhythm, collaboration with directors, approach to a scene and more. Oscar nominee, Dody Dorn, ACE, said of the book: “Congratulations on putting together such a wonderful book. I can see why so many editors enjoy talking with you. The depth and insightfulness of your questions makes the answers so much more interesting than the garden variety interview. It is truly a wonderful resource for anyone who is in love with or fascinated by the alchemy of editing.” MPEG’s Cinemontage magazine said of the book: “In his new book, Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors, he gathers together interviews with more than 50 working editors to create a mosaic of advice that will interest both veterans and newcomers to the field. It will be especially valuable for those who aspire to join what Hullfish calls, “the brotherhood and sisterhood of editors.”