Behind Sundance 2020: Exclusive Interviews with Professionals Behind the Most Talked About Films

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Sundance Film Festival has been THE premiere place for production professionals - seasoned to fresh-faced - to come showcase their incredible work on life-changing films. The 2020 event proves to be no different, with tons of amazing films from expert professionals. We got the chance to interview a few of the filmmakers attending Sundance. 


Film: DINNER IN AMERICA

Adam Carter Rehmeier, Director/Editor/Writer

PH: What was the initial approach for this film? Was there extensive pre-production that
determined how the film would be cut?

Adam Carter Rehmeier: I’m a big fan of meticulous planning in pre-production, as my earliest work experiences were shooting 16mm and 35mm film. It forces you to be very specific, have a plan, know how each shot is going to connect to the next one. When video began taking over, the trend seemed to shift to duck shoot coverage, 2- 4 camera ops spread over the axis, with the editor often having to establish the overall tone in post. For DINNER IN AMERICA, my DP [Jean-Philippe Bernier] and I planned out the film pretty much shot-for-shot in pre-production, and we adhered to it as best as possible in production. There were times when I had to redesign a scene on the day, but mainly that was dropping a few shots here and there that time wasn’t going to permit or perhaps strategically combining two shots through blocking. I also have an extensive doc background, both shooting and editing, which is very helpful when I’m on set because I can really visualize my edit as we work.

PH: Walk me through what the process looked like. How much input did you get and how
much freedom did you have to make decisions?

Adam Carter Rehmeier: I had final cut on DINNER IN AMERICA, which was absolutely freeing creatively. My producers were all very supportive of me and really believed in the script. They fought alongside of me for six years to not only make this film, but to do it without compromise. That said, when it came to editorial, I had much respect for their creative input, and was always open to ideas/thoughts they had about the cut.  

PH: What challenges did you encounter?

Adam Carter Rehmeier: It’s always a FIRST ACT PROBLEM. Every single time. In the case of this film, in my rough cut, our lead actors were meeting for the first time at 39 minutes! That’s straight insanity. I really needed to compress the front end of the film and shape it so they were meeting at around 22 minutes instead. Shaving 17 minutes off the front of the film felt radical, but it also made it breezy and clean. Nothing feels better than killing some darlings.  

PH: What was your favorite cut? How did that influence the film?

Adam Carter Rehmeier: There’s a brief montage in the film where are two leads, Simon and Patty, rally confront a couple of jock bullies. Each of the shots in the sequence is very dynamic and purposeful - a lot
of quick pans and rack focuses - and I am so pleased that it came out exactly how JP and I had planned it, beat-for beat. I think it influences the film because the sequence unites them for the first time in the film and pretty much secures that the audience is going to root for them as a team.

PH: What trusted tools did you use for editing the project and why?

Adam Carter Rehmeier: Adobe Premiere Pro and black coffee. That’s all I need. 

PH: What was it like to see the film come together? Favorite part?

Adam Carter Rehmeier: It was amazing to see this film come together, as I absolutely loved working with this cast and crew so much. Any time you can create a familial vibe on set, you get something special, and this gang worked their asses off to make art instead of treating it like a job. I think my favorite part of the film is when Simon and Patty create a song together on a 4-track recorder. It’s an additive build, in that we start with drums and then add bass and guitar over each subsequent bar as the song starts to come together. It all builds to the vocal take, which is is nothing short of emotional and profound. Not only is it my favorite part of the film, but it was my favorite part to film. 

PH: If you could go back and change one decision you made, what would it be and why?

Adam Carter Rehmeier: I have no regrets with the cut. I spent so much time studying my footage and experimenting with each and every scene. I really feel this cut is the best version of the film I could create with the footage I have in the can. There’s a quote I dig [Antoine de Saint-Exupery]: Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. I’m not saying that the film is perfect, but I definitely try to apply that all of my work, and I think when you come to the point of not having anything to subtract, it is time to walk away and move on to something new. 

PH: What does it mean to you to have a film at Sundance?

Adam Carter Rehmeier: It means the world to me to have Dinner in America teed up at such a prestigious film festival, with programmers that clearly eat and breathe cinema. Truly a dream scenario. I cannot wait to
experience the festival for the first time and check out this great lineup of films from around the
world.


 Film: Miss Juneteenth 

Courtney Ware, Editor 

 

PH: What was the initial approach for this film? Was there extensive pre-production that determined how the film would be cut?

Courtney Ware: I had edited Channing’s previous short film (Doretha’s Blues - through Refinery 29’s Shatterbox initiative) earlier in the year. So we were able to figure out a working relationship previous to working on her feature. A lot of the edit was knowing the types of things that are important to Channing - mainly world building details and performance. So we were able to have a bit of a short hand just by knowing what she was looking for in the edit.  

PH: Walk me through was the process looked like. How much input did you get and how much freedom did you have to make decisions?

Courtney Ware: I would get synced dailies from our post house (Lucky Post in Dallas) about a day or two behind shooting. My main goal was to get an assembly done to make sure that we had everything throughout production. I was also keeping an eye on overall tone, and we did discuss tweaking a few specific performance notes that were becoming clearer in the edit. After production, there was a lot of collaboration between the two of us. We had an assembly cut of two and a half hours - so there was a lot of discussion of what the footage was telling us the film was about. There were instances where I would go try something (a recut or structure change) and then we would watch and discuss the implications after. Much of the process was full of cutting too many things out and then finding the things that we missed, and putting them back in.

When we shot some pickups for the film, I was on set with my laptop and the edit right there next to camera. We had some pretty specific shots we were looking for that had to  match the previous footage. The DP Daniel Patterson and Gaffer Matt Hadley and I would watch the cut sequences on set and compare to what we were capturing to make sure everything was matching. So that process and workflow was very “real-time” to say the least. 

PH: What challenges did you encounter?

Courtney Ware: The structure was probably the biggest challenge. Channing had written a really tight script - there really weren’t any scenes that were unnecessary or superfluous. So when we started messing with the structure of the film and cutting it down, we had to find some unique solutions to make character connections and arcs fully fleshed out. I’m a big believer in the footage telling you what needs to stay in the film. There were scenes that were rising above others - character chemistry, world moments etc. that were really working. So we focused on those first, and ended up writing story beats down on pieces of paper and rearranged the entire film on the floor. 

PH: What was your favorite cut? How did that influence the film?

Courtney Ware: My favorite cut was what I loving-ly named “The Chainsaw Cut”. Ha! This was the cut of the film where we slashed major sections of the story. It was more of an experiment and an exercise. The film didn’t work and didn’t make any sense - but it told us a lot about what was really working and necessary to the film.

PH: What trusted tool(s) did you use for editing the project and why?

Courtney Ware: I cut the film in Adobe Premiere Pro. It’s my favorite editing tool. I like to move through the footage very quickly, and Premiere works well with my brain. It also fits within our post workflow - which made everything easier when it came time to deliver. 

PH: What was it like to see the film come together? Favorite part?

Courtney Ware: We were very fortunate to screen the work in progress cut of the film through the Austin Film Society’s Rough Cut Screening workshop. That was an exciting screening - we got a lot of confirmation on the things that were working on the film - as well as got some incredible insight for what was connecting with the audience. This was definitely a turning point in really nailing down the direction of the cut. It was exciting. 

PH: If you could go back and change one decision you made, what would it be and why?

Courtney Ware: I’m not sure that I would change any of the decisions that we made. Each choice led us to other insights and helped us make more decisions. So even if we made a “wrong” decision - it still told us a lot.

PH: What does it mean to you to have a film at Sundance?

Courtney Ware:  This is my third time at Sundance as an editor! I really love the festival and am super excited to have a film that’s in competition this year. Having a film that you get to share with your peers is always a delight.  


 Film: Spree 

Benjamin Moses Smith, Editor 

PH: What was the initial approach for this film? Was there extensive pre-production that determined how the film would be cut?

Benjamin Moses Smith: The film was written as a continuous live stream, shot mostly from 8 cameras mounted inside the main character's "Spree" a fictional ride share app. His phone, its apps and interface, as well as footage he streams from it are also a huge component. Other characters' social media as well as secuirty cameras and other 'found' sources become a part of the movie as it progresses. Eugene and I talked a lot about how the cut would work, both as he was writing the film and as it went in to pre-production. But we knew we were doing something experimental, and that we were weren't going to know how it felt until we could start working with the footage. That proved to be very true, and it took us a
lot of experimenting to find our cut.

PH: Walk me through was the process looked like. How much input did you get and how much freedom did you have to make decisions?

Benjamin Moses Smith: I spent about 6 weeks working on my editor's cut, including the 4 weeks the film was in production. After that, Eugene and I were sessioning together almost constantly for the 5 months of so it took to finish the film. We rigorously debated every decision, even when we basically agreed. And of course we took lots of outside feedback to find our way to the final cut. It was a struggle at times, but ultimately I think we're both really happy with the choices we made.

PH: What challenges did you encounter?

Benjamin Moses Smith: The biggest challenge was figuring out the live stream aspect of the film. It was important to Eugene that it feel live, and we both felt like the more real we could make it seem the more unsettling it would feel. We wanted to keep a lot of the film in our primary wide dash cam angle and let the actors preform. It took us some time to realize this wasn't going to work. The performances were great, but the overall effect was so oppressive and exhausting. As we started to cut more and use more angles more often, the scenes started to really click.

The film's material is also higly sensitive. It's an extremely dark satire, and we're riding a very fine line between making a point about the impact of social media/internet culture, and something that could be seen as glamourizing Kurt's behavior. The rigidness of sticking to a linear live stream kept us struggling to leave the audience with the right takeaways. We couldn't quite define our intent. The final step in letting go was to open the film up to intercutting, pastiche, and non-diagetic score, things we had initially resisted. Once we allowed ourselves up to use them, we could take control and land the film.

PH: What was your favorite cut? How did that influence the film?

Benjamin Moses Smith: The first time I put together a cut of the opening montage was really exciting. We decided to do it after our first producers screening. We had realized Kurt, our main character, really needed a different kind of introduction. It was the first time we took a step out of the live stream structure. There was all this incredible material that Joe and Eugene made together both before and during production. Some of it was shot as 'just in case' extras while they had certain locations like Kurt's house, and some of it was essentially rehersals. They had made a 30 minute 'Draw My Life' video as a way to explore Kurt's character. It was brilliant and hilarious, but it was never intended to be part of the film. I grabbed it as a way to structure the introductury montage, and it immediately brought you into Kurt's World (96). We ended up picking up additional material, and revising it countless times, but it was the first shot of non-live stream language that we gave the movie, and it led the way to opening the movie up.

PH: What trusted tool(s) did you use for editing the project and why?

Benjamin Moses Smith: We cut in Premiere Pro and used a lot of After Effects and Photoshop as well. Our editorial team was small. I had an assistant, Justin Ulrich, during production who was a huge help getting the massive amount of footage organized and into groups/multiclips. But the rest of the time it was just me who had to deal with any extra elements. We were constantly adding from phones, or video we riped off the internet, or graphics we were temping in from somewhere or other. Premiere reduces a lot of the friction for that stuff compared to Avid, and I knew we would be experimenting and pulling new material all the time, so it was an obvious choice from the start.

The other reason for using Premiere was all of the multi-source multi-camera groups. When you're working with 8 GoPros and often multiple phones shooting at the same time, it's not easy to organize and sync everything together. Especially because actors are holding the phones, so their footage is not usually going to be slated, or the phone is rolling multiple times within a take. Then the GoPros are drifting out of sync with each other--not to mention they shoot in segments. So it was a huge challenge just to put our dailies together. Premiere was great because we could make a 4x3 multiclip that held our 4x3 GoPros, our 9x16 iPhones, and anything else. Then we could set up whatever geometry we wanted for them both within the multiclip and within our 16x9 timeline that would be our final aspect ratio.

PH: What was it like to see the film come together? Favorite part?

Benjamin Moses Smith: It was slow and grueling but it was also incredibly rewarding. Possibly my favorite part about being an editor, and especially when it comes to this film, is experiencing actors' process. Sasheer Zamata, David Arquette, and especially Joe Keery were unbelievable to watch and work with. Joe had such an incredibly difficult role, both in finding Kurt, and in being stuck in an AC-less Prius for 10 hours a day with Eugene directing him from a walkie talkie. I was constantly in awe.

PH: If you could go back and change one decision you made, what would it be and
why?

Benjamin Moses Smith: There are process decisions and that I have regrets about, and I wish I could have known what I know now at the start. But obviously, that's not how it works. As far as the edit goes, I'm happy with just about everything.

PH: What does it mean to you to have a film at Sundance?

Benjamin Moses Smith: It feels pretty special. This is Eugene and I's third film together, and the first at Sundance. I'm an Austin guy and I absolutely love SXSW where our other films have played, but still, it feels like Sundance means a lot. I'm really excited to experience it for myself.


 Film: Aggie 

Gil Seltzer, Editor

PH: What was the initial approach for this film? Was there extensive pre-production that determined how the film would be cut?  

Gil Seltzer: The challenge with “Aggie” was to find a way to tell her life story without following a purely chronological format. The goal was to weave a narrative that was more thematic while still maintaining a structure that had a beginning, middle and end. And of course it had to have a climax and to move people. Striking this balance was tricky but through several restructuring phases we were able to come up with the right story.

We used index cards on a large cork board in the early phase of post-production to map out a strategy and to reshuffle scenes as needed. This was really helpful but once the cut had a good shape we set up a few feedback screenings to test the waters. It’s always hard to filter out the key suggestions in feedback screenings because your initial instinct is to please everyone, but it’s best to listen for repetitive comments - similar notes that come from multiple people. And also don’t write off any suggestions that seem outlandish. Let them simmer for a day or two and see if they make sense later on.

PH: Walk me through was the process looked like. How much input did you get and how much freedom did you have to make decisions?

Gil Seltzer: I generally tackled the rough cut of each scene first and put together the first pass based on what I thought were the key elements we needed. Then the director and I workshopped the scene together and I made revisions. I had lots of freedom to make decisions in all phases of the process but my job is always to fulfill the director’s vision so that’s what I strived for.

PH: What challenges did you encounter?

Gil Seltzer: The ending was the most difficult scene to cut because we needed to end with a “mic drop” moment but the story itself is ongoing and there is no clear definitive end to the narrative. We worked through dozens of different endings and finally decided one one that we all agreed with which was to leave the viewer with another flight across the spectrum of Aggie’s art. It was the most fitting way to go out. We also worked with our composer, Jason Moran, to really build a crescendo into the final track that would emphasize this.

PH: What was your favorite cut? How did that influence the film?

Gil Seltzer: There was a wonderful poem called “To Be Of Use” by Marge Piercy that Cat (the director) wanted to use somewhere in the film. I was given complete license to create something with it so I dug deep into Aggie’s catalog of footage and put together a montage of a variety of artists working across different decades and different mediums. The footage was sometimes abstract, sometimes surreal, sometimes explosive…it was really fun to just create evocative visuals to accompany the poem. I chose a solo piano piece by our composer, Jason Moran, to accompany it and the scene took on its own life. We chose to sequence it right before the final scene of the film so it gives the viewer time to reflect on some of the serious moments leading up to it.

PH: What trusted tool(s) did you use for editing the project and why?

Gil Seltzer: There was such a wide range of archival video, photos and recently acquired footage that we needed something fast and flexible to ingest it all and start editing as quickly as possible. Adobe Premiere Pro was ideal in this situation because we could throw material with different pixel sizes, frame rates and codecs onto the timeline without slowing down. And since we kept unearthing more material throughout our entire post-production process, it was easy to replace and swap things out as quickly as possible. We also had a huge amount of old photos that we needed to scan and retouch and Adobe Photoshop allowed us to do so in-house and ingest it into the project immediately.

PH: What was it like to see the film come together? Favorite part? 

Gil Seltzer: The first rough cut screening we had in a full size theater was momentous because it really felt like film had taken a life of its own. Watching it with an audience you could really sense them coming along for the ride.

My favorite scene is the poem which I mentioned above but there was also another scene I love where Aggie talks about having dinner with Louise Bourgeois and describes her antics. It’s a really funny story and I was able to find some  provocative images of Louise and her work to emphasize it. That seems to get viewers laughing every time.

PH: If you could go back and change one decision you made, what would it be and why?

Gil Seltzer: What do you mean? Every cut is perfect! In all honesty, with every creative project there comes a time when you have to release your stranglehold on it and let it be what it’s going to be. It’s not our film anymore, now it belongs to the audience.

PH: What does it mean to you to have a film at Sundance?

Gil Seltzer: I’m super excited as it will be my first time with a film at Sundance. The expectation is that it’s a big festival and you can get lost in the shuffle but I’ve found from my preliminary interactions with the programmers and the staff that everyone is super focused on the filmmakers and go out of their way to make you feel at home. The goal is to show the film to as many people as possible and this is a great start. I can’t wait!

PH: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Gil Seltzer: I don’t have a background in modern and contemporary art and working on this film was a crash course for me! I now understand the art world just a little bit better and how art can function as a powerful tool for social change instead of just being a commodity. I’ve met a few of the artists in the film and have met people directly influenced by the work that Aggie has done and it’s been eye-opening. Working on this movie has been way more than just a job and has taught me volumes which is the best compliment you can give to any creative project.

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