In our latest Anatomy of a Scene interview, we chatted with Yvette M. Amirian on 'ExMas.'
PH: Which scene was your favorite to work on in ExMas?
My favorite scene to work on in ExMas was the Christmas Eve family dinner scene. The last few films I’ve cut have actually all had some sort of scene with a family or ensemble cast around a dining table. Each was challenging in its own way because you’re balancing so many characters, multiple storylines, a lot of coverage, and various ways you can put it all together… but I’ve come to find those unique challenges in crafting dinner table sequences have made these some of my favorite scenes to cut.
PH: Describe this scene and the significance it has to the rest of the ExMas.
This scene is really the culmination of “the games” that Graham and Ali, our main characters, have been playing with one another. It’s all leading up to this big moment filled with a lot of fun and laughter because we as an audience are making a hilarious revelation alongside Graham. But it also has a lot of heart, as the scene takes a sudden turn in revealing a big secret that Mindy (Graham’s sister) has been holding on to. And that ultimately allows the scene to pivot and further showcase their family dynamic, both as siblings, but also in their respective relationships with their parents.
PH: What tools, plugins, or instruments did you use in your production of this scene?
My favorite audio plug-ins in Avid, which I use quite frequently for music-heavy films, are a combination of a light reverb and EQ. This makes the music within a scene feel natural and diegetic like it’s coming from within the space of the room our characters are in. We did this a lot in the film, as part of our director, Jonah Feingold’s vision, was to constantly have the household buzzing with some sort of chaos… people chattering in the background, a movie on the TV while they’re cooking, music playing from the record player during games night. This became a cool technique we used throughout the film where something might start in that way and build into the full score, or vice versa. In this particular instance, the music is a very traditional Christmas song softly playing in the background as they’re wrapping up dinner. Thanks to our talented composer, Grant Fonda, and our amazing sound team, we were able to seamlessly blend that into the upcoming score, so it didn’t feel drastic or out of place, and really cemented that as a device that became part of the language of our film.
PH: What technical challenges did you encounter while working on this scene?
Like most dining table sequences with multiple characters, we had a lot of coverage. They shot with two cameras for the majority of the scene – with the exception of one unique angle that allowed the actors more freedom with improvisation, and of course, made those take much longer. If I recall correctly, the scene was ultimately just under 4 minutes – but counting our second camera, we had close to 6 hours of footage for that one scene. With so many people involved in a single space, it takes time for them to find their groove with pacing and hitting marks, so you have to be careful not to choose a take where one set of timing is totally off from the rest of the scene you’re building. These were the most challenging parts of working on this scene from a technical standpoint. And what made it even more difficult, was that the actors were amazing and hilarious in all of the takes!
PH: What was the dialogue like between you and the ExMas director regarding this scene?
I love working with Jonah, our director because he really values the perspective an editor brings to the table. He gives you a lot of freedom, especially early on, because he wants that fresh perspective on what you find funny. After all, since I wasn’t on set, I was really like the first audience for our film as I watched the dailies and could easily pinpoint the things that made me chuckle vs. the joke that completely went over my head vs. the line deliveries that made me laugh out loud hysterically.
I think my first cut of this scene, adhering closely to the scripted lines and moments, was about 7 minutes long. So right away, we knew we would have to kill some beloved pieces. Thankfully, Jonah is not super precious about holding on to lines and is always game to try options and see what flows best. We took a massive pass where we brought it too far down, quickly recognizing what we missed. We slowly started adding things back, anchoring the scene with the best takes from our scripted pieces, which allowed me the freedom to fill in the blanks with the funniest improvised pieces.
We found unique methods to keep what we needed in time-effective cuts. For example, there is a beat where Graham’s mom is making a snowman from her sweet potatoes. As scripted, that was a long beat where every person at the table reacts or has a line. We chopped it down to a quick comment from his Dad, cut to the Mom and snowman, Graham reacting to it, and having that lead to his big revelation. We found it was so much funnier to have this be a passive moment, because you as an audience member are experiencing it alongside him, and you’re eliminating any duplicate beats.
I think we both knew this would be the most time-consuming scene of the film to cut, and we were right. It went through so many different versions. But every pass we took on this scene, including the fresh perspective from our producer Richard Reid, gradually made it tighter and stronger. I recall getting the scene to a place everyone was happy with structurally, and finally getting to do a pass to focus on the characters’ reactions and honing in my pacing to further heighten the humor. Every reaction, every look, every glance made it funnier and funnier. Until one day, I remember finally looking at it and going “This is it, I think we got it”!