In a universe where cool kids are nerds, the orchestra is world class and being Asian American is the norm, seniors at Lowell High School compete for the top prize: admission to the college of their dreams. That's the synopsis of Sundance Documentary, Try Harder!
In an exclusive post-Sundance interview, ProductionHUB spoke with editor Andrew Gersh about his work on the project and his experience with the first virtual Sundance Film Festival.
PH: How did you get involved with this project?
Andrew Gersh: I came onto the film after the director been working for about a year on the project with another editor, and was feeling very stuck and discouraged. The first cut I screened was very promising, but still had a lot of issues, especially with character arcs and storytelling structure.
PH: Can you share your effective approach to editing and how you make executive choices to cut/keep certain content?
Andrew Gersh: I always take notes when I first screen through the footage to see what hits me emotionally, and try to work as many of the strongest moments into the cut as possible. Emotion and humor are always key. Of course, they have to work with the structure of the entire film, but those moments will usually be the most memorable to an audience because they truly connect with people.
PH: How has your professional experience in the industry helped you with this project? What did you take away from this project?
Andrew Gersh: I’ve cut many different styles of documentaries, from archive-heavy films like “Crip Camp” to personal, intimate stories like “Real Boy.” I’ve also edited quite a few docs with multiple characters, and it was the lessons learned working on those projects that were the most helpful on “Try Harder!” Making sure each character is bringing something unique to the story, and doesn’t get repetitive with similar,
overlapping character traits or story beats.
PH: How did you collaborate with the team?
Andrew Gersh: Even before the pandemic, I was often working remotely with directors, so this project wasn’t all that different. Debbie Lum, the director, was in Hawaii and San Francisco, while I was cutting in my studio in Portland, Oregon. Debbie and I have never actually had the chance to meet face to face, though after spending months together over Zoom, and bringing the film to Sundance, it’s hard to believe that’s still true!
PH: Do you have a favorite/memorable scene that you can discuss?
Andrew Gersh: Any scene involving one of the students named Alvan and his mother, who’s what is often referred to as a “tiger mom,” were a pure a joy. Alvan’s body language alone spoke volumes, and the cringe factor makes those scenes pure cinema gold.
PH: Did you face any challenges while working on this project? What were they and how did you approach them?
Andrew Gersh: A great challenge was making one particular character more sympathetic and compelling. When I first watched the assemblies, I suggested we might want to lose the character all together, as they were not very engaging and I assumed prior cuts had already used the strongest material available. After hearing how important it was to the director to include this character, I dove into the transcripts and footage to mine for forgotten or overlooked gems. Now, audiences tell us this subject is one of the most memorable characters and couldn’t imagine the story without them.
PH: What editing software did you use to cut? And why?
Andrew Gersh: I used Adobe Premiere Pro on a Mac. The project had already been started in Premiere and I enjoy cutting with it. It’s a flexible tool that allows me to forget it’s there and create whatever I can think of very quickly.
PH: How was this experience different from past Sundance festivals (aside from just being virtual?)
Andrew Gersh: I really missed sitting in a theater and riding the emotions of a film with an audience. It’s great to get texts after the fact that people really enjoyed your work, but nothing beats sitting all together and getting that instant response of whether jokes are hitting and the film is really working. There’s magic in experiencing art together, and that was sorely missed, as it has been with all performing arts this year.
PH: How do you think the filmmaking community reacted?
Andrew Gersh: I think people were still excited by the great programming that’s a hallmark of Sundance, and were impressed that the whole thing was carried off as smoothly as it was. Huge kudos to Tabitha and everyone on-staff for making it happen, as well as the volunteers who were still as necessary to a smooth-running experience as always, even in the virtual space.
PH: Were there any challenges?
Andrew Gersh: Getting to connect with fellow filmmakers and audience members is one of the best parts of attending Sundance in person. Those casual meetings on the shuttle bus or in the long, snaking entry lines have turned into ongoing friendships and working relationships. Those were almost non-existent this year.
There was a pretty remarkable attempt through New Frontier to enable folks to connect though avatars,
but I found it hard to really concentrate on conversation with others when everyone looks like skinny
PH: Do you think this might be the future of film festivals? How could it improve?
Andrew Gersh: I loved the democratization of the festival this year, in that people from around the world could experience Sundance without the prohibitive costs of travel and housing. Our two sold-out screenings at the festival this year reached at least 15,000 viewers, assuming at least half of the streams were watched by more than one person at a time. The drive-in screenings in many communities around the country were also a really special way to experience a bit of the Sundance magic. I would hope some version of a hybrid model could continue into the future, even when we’ve made it through this horrendous time. I know I would virtually attend many festivals that I usually can’t make it to, and I’m sure others would as well.