Making an Impact at Sundance: Filmmakers Discuss Their Creative Process

Published on in Advice / Tips & Tricks

Pictured: Some Kind of Heaven Editor, Daniel Garber

The Sundance Film Festival recently wrapped in Park City, Utah, but ProductionHUB got to talk exclusively to a few of the professionals that worked on nominated films. Wondering how some of these films came to life on-screen? Read more to find out their creative processes, equipment they relied on and more. 

Boys State – Editor: Jeff Gilbert, ACE 

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

Jeff Gilbert: I came onto BOYS STATE a few months into the edit and took over an existing three and a half hour assembly. I mostly worked from the cut itself along with a trove of selects reels that the previous editor and directors had compiled.

There was not any predetermination from production in terms of how the film would be cut, but it was clear to me from the assembly that the heart of the film was in the wonderful characters who were full of ambition and idealism.

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?

Jeff Gilbert: Having worked on several projects with the directors, Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, there was a lot of trust built into our collaboration. When they brought me on to the project, they stepped back and gave me the time to saturate in the material. The assembly I was give was very long but full of great material. My job was to find my own take on things and come back to the directors with a cut that reflected my own point of view. Once I was able to take a pass at the material, we had a starting point from which we began to develop the cut collaboratively.

Since the directors are based in San Francisco and I’m in Los Angeles, it was a remote working relationship. This inherently gives me a lot more space to work, literally and figuratively. I tend to like being left alone and not micro-managed during the exploratory phases of “finding” the narrative, so the distance worked well for me. The priorities I chose to focus on long term were finding a way to simply a very big and surprisingly complicated process that is the Boys State program. I also aimed to develop our characters’ backgrounds so that we could connect with them and root for them beyond the competition to win a mock Governor’s race. On top of that I really aimed at focusing the dramatic question of the film and letting it live int he material where it could. This is a film about an election, but it’s truly a film about discourse. About finding common ground. It was exciting to unearth moments that reflected the true essence of the story. I have a great deal of respect for both Jesse and Amanda’s instincts and opinions and on the whole we often saw things eye-to-eye. In the cases where we didn’t, we would discuss ideas collectively and work through various iterations of sequences until we found consensus.

PH: What challenges did you encounter?

Jeff Gilbert: Working remotely has its benefits, but it has real limitation. It’s a pain in the ass having to export and upload ideas and wait for responses. Once the collaboration is in full steam, the distance becomes an inefficiency and frustrates the creative flow.

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

Jeff Gilbert: There’s a wonderful moment in the film where our character René, who is black, comments about how his mother is concerned with him being around so many white, conservative kids in the program. Right on the heels of his observation, we cut to an energy circle of mostly white boys on an athletic field doing a tribal, team building chant. It’s a very simple edit, but holds a lot of power in its juxtaposition. The cut feels propulsive, it feels expressive of what he’s saying. To me the moment connects the intellectual idea and dramatizes René’s feelings in an elegant, jarring way. It’s a small example of the power of editorial simplicity and expression.


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

Jeff Gilbert: My assistant editor, Connor Hall. He’s not a tool in any way, but I couldn’t have cut the film without him. Literally. He taught me Adobe Premiere Pro on the fly and troubleshot countless challenges that our remote workflow presented. I can’t stress enough how important it is to have good AE support and he was an integral part of the process. I also quite like the functionality of the markers tool in Premiere Pro, if you’re looking for a more program specific example.

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

Jeff Gilbert: I love this film. So truly my favorite part is watching the completed version and feeling like we got it “right”. I knew from the start we had a great film on our hands when I looked at the assembly that the previous editor Michael Vollmann put together. So, it was a pleasure to help push it forward to be its best self.

I think my favorite part of the process was taking my first crack at it. What I came up with wasn’t the right solution but there were a lot of exciting ideas in the attempt. Ideas are never fresher than they are at the beginning, so getting started on the film and trying to hack down a huge chunk of clay to something more defined and focused was exhilarating.

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

Jeff Gilbert: There are literally hundreds of thousands of decisions made over the course of a year long edit, so while I’m sure I’d make some of them differently, I don’t think anything is ever lost in an experience. Plus, I have a terrible memory so I can’t even remember what I would’ve done differently!

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

Jeff Gilbert: It means a lot. It’s the best festival in the world and it’s really, really hard to get accepted. So on a personal level, it’s validating. On a larger level, I love the platform the festival provides in terms of exposure for the inspiring characters in our film. BOYS STATE is a film about Democracy - how hard it is to make work - and as such, it’s a timely and important story to tell. Our country is divided and I think this film brings a light-hearted, yet meaningful, teenage voice to a conversation about real world, grown-up issues.

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

Jeff Gilbert: Just that I appreciate you giving an editor a voice. Documentary editors play a central role in crafting elegant, dramatic stories out of hundreds of hours of raw unwritten material, yet when conversations around storytelling and filmmaking get told, their voices are rarely represented. So thanks for asking.

Save Yourselves!  Editor: Sofi Marshall


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

Sofi Marshall: I officially came on board a few weeks before production. The directors – Alex Fischer and Eleanor Wilson - producers, DP Matt Clegg, and VFX supervisor Jeff Desom and I all chatted creatively about the film, as well as about the workflow. There was definitely an extensive game plan for how to shoot and edit most of the alien stunts, since those effects were all practical. Of course, much of that was tweaked in the edit, but the advanced planning was incredibly helpful.

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

Sofi Marshall: I was cutting the film during production, which essentially gave me free reign creatively since the directors were on set all day. I did have wonderful production notes from our script supervisor, Lucy Munger, that gave me an idea of what the directors liked and didn’t like in the moment, as well as which takes were considered best for camera. I also ended up sharing a number of rough scene cuts with Alex and Eleanor during production to confirm that we had all the coverage we needed for some of the more challenging setups.

After the initial assembly, I had two rounds of directors’ notes that I worked on independently. Once the assembly became a true rough cut, the edit process became incredibly collaborative and the directors and I worked together daily. We alternated between working together as a team and trying out new ideas on our own. It was a very fun edit!

PH: What challenges did you encounter?

Sofi Marshall: Just about every visual effect in the film (and there are a lot!) was done practically.
Although many were later enhanced with VFX, the practical effects created some unique
challenges in getting the action sequences to feel smooth, dynamic, and exciting. Each
take was just a little bit different, as opposed to pure VFX shots, which can be designed
as needed right down to the frame.

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

Sofi Marshall: There’s a super short scene of an unknown man running through the woods about 20 minutes into the film. I really like all the cuts in that one – they’re fast paced and a bit disorienting. The scene works really well to build up tension as we move into some dialogue heavy scenes. We actually ended up employing a few other short, tension-building interstitials throughout the rest of the film that weren’t scripted.

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

Sofi Marshall: We used Adobe Premiere Pro for the edit. The co-directors and I worked closely together throughout the post process and Premiere's flexible timeline allowed us each to work in our own  preferred styles, while easily sharing project files back and forth. We also used (and its integrated Premiere panel) for our many rounds of edit notes, as well as Dropbox to host shared edit files like music tracks and VFX comps.

Initially, we used Blackmagic's DaVinci Resolve for syncing and dailies creation. I also designed a DIY live edit set up to stream our edit sessions from NYC (where I live) to LA (where the directors live) using just our laptops. We often spent hours editing together in real time, right from our own living rooms. It was integral to our process!

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

Sofi Marshall: There’s always a moment in the edit where you watch back the cut and all of the sudden it feels like a real film. You get lost in certain scenes and forget that you’re supposed to be taking edit notes. For Save Yourselves! that moment came once we started placing temp score, along with the first drafts of some of our VFX touchups. I always love that moment because for me, it represents a shift away from the earlier mechanics of the edit, like figuring out overall shot choices and structure, and towards the greater potential of the film as a whole and how score, sound effects, and subtle performance tweaks can affect the experience of watching.

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

Sofi Marshall: I wouldn’t change anything - I’m thrilled with how the film turned out!

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

Sofi Marshall: It’s an honor! It’s an incredible feeling to share something you’ve worked on for months
with the world and there’s no better place than Sundance.

Scare Me - Editor: Patrick Lawrence

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

Patrick Lawrence: Unfortunately, I was not hired on to the project until after production had wrapped shooting at the end of February 2019. But I was really blessed to have worked with some incredibly talented Directors and Producers over the last few years, who referred me to our director, Josh Ruben, as he had been asking around about which Editor he should hire for his first feature.

I was sold on the concept of the film before I came on. The production team at Irony Point had already created a very effective proof-of-concept trailer to help raise money for post-production. They sent it to me as we were discussing the project and I saw that “Scare Me” was unlike anything I’d ever done...

“Scare Me” is a metafictional horror-comedy that takes place entirely in the comforts of a secluded cabin in the woods, with a cast of just 3 actors telling scary stories over 100 minutes. There’s werewolves, creepy grandpas, trolls, and an evil version of American Idol all appearing within the shadowplay of each creepy tale. It blends comedy and horror so seamlessly that you’re never quite sure if you should be terrified or laughing your ass off... and that is the genius of Josh Ruben.

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?

Patrick Lawrence: My usual workflow on independent features, is to take 6-8 weeks working on a rough Assembly/Editor cut of the film. I like to be completely isolated in this phase so that I can familiarize myself with the raw materials at hand, without being influenced by any of the misgivings or shortcomings that happened during production. Once completed, I present that edit to the Director as my vision of how the film cuts together, and from there we begin chiseling away at what will be the Director’s cut.

This was a very relaxed and trustworthy experience on “Scare Me.” Josh and I had never worked together before, but I full heartedly trusted his vision and respected his experience from years of working with College Humor and his various TV projects. He was equally open to hearing my ideas/thoughts/concerns, which I tend to be very vocal about, and gave me the space to explore the story and manipulate the characters as I saw fit. This created a very fast paced yet streamlined workflow that allowed us to complete his Director’s cut in just under 3 weeks. Within in a month we were locked and a month after that we submitted to Sundance. The entire Post process took just under 5 months to complete.

PH: What challenges did you encounter?

Patrick Lawrence: The greatest hurdle we dealt with on “Scare Me” was how to trim the film down from 2 hours and 10 mins to a more manageable 100 mins. The issue with this was we have 5 scary stories being told in a linear and continuous narrative, making it very difficult to lift or eliminate any problematic scenes. Unfortunately, we ran into just that issue when one of the scenes in the film was just not working for our test screenings... and lifting it all together would not make sense for the narrative progression of the film.

Josh Ruben and I were forced to roll up our sleeves and get creative with how we presented the story in question in order to keep it in the film, while still cutting it down from its original 11 minute run time. I suggested using the erratic emotions of our characters to motivate faster cuts, with no real linear path for the story to be told, while at the same time using an eerie piece of score to turn the story into a montage/recap so that the audience could pick up the finer beats of the scene, without having to sit through the entire thing. The end result is one of the funniest scenes in the entire film, and our follow up test audiences absolutely loved it.


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

Patrick Lawrence: Historically my favorite cut is usually the Editor Cut, because it typically represents what I think is the best version of the film, based on the footage I received from production. But in this case, I knew very early into the Assembly that this film could be played in multiple ways, and that I probably would not nail it on the first time out. I called up Josh Ruben and explained that I wasn’t confident that I was on the right track, but he was very understanding and assured me that we would find the sculpture within our clay.

To my surprise he was very happy with where I landed on the Editor cut, and with his guidance over the following weeks, “Scare Me” really took shape thanks to his intuition and comedic brilliance. It’s because of the bond and collaboration that we created in those weeks together that the first Director’s Cut of the film was probably my most favorite.

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

Patrick Lawrence: “Scare Me” was edited using Adobe Premiere, After Effects, Photoshop and Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve. Premiere has been my tried-and-true editing platform for the last 8 years. I float back and forth between Avid and Premiere, depending on the needs of a particular project, but the muscle memory and symbiotic relationship I have with Premiere really shows in the speediness of my workflow. I am fortunate to have had 6 films premiere at the Sundance Film Festival since 2016 and all of them were editing using Adobe Premiere.

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

Patrick Lawrence: One of my favorite scenes in the film is towards the beginning, where we first see Fred (played by Josh Ruben) manipulate sound and space to create a real life monster inside of his mind. He breaks from eating his TV dinner and stares blankly at a cellar door 10 feels away. As the camera creeps in slowly towards the door, we hear a low pounding as if someone on the other side is trying to bust through. And as the camera gets closer and closer to the door knob, we spin around to reveal Fred, still sitting at the table, making the terrifying sounds with his mouth. To me this was the epitome of what “Scare Me” is all about, and its the scene that got me the most excited to work on it.

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

Patrick Lawrence: I stand by the finished film 100%, but if there was one thing that I would have done differently... I would have flown myself to New York City to sit in on the sound mix with Houston Snyder and Ian Stynes at Great City Post. Editing “Scare Me” was only one half of the task of bring this unique story to life, the sound mix and design was equally as important to selling what we were trying to achieve in the edit, and the team at Great City absolutely killed it.

When I wrap work on a feature, I love to take every opportunity I can to sit in on the other stages of Post, so I can observe how the other half lives and see all the toys that they use the process. For instance, on “Clara’s Ghost” in 2018, I spent an entire month on the Warner Brothers sound stages sitting in with Fred Paragano (Westworld) as he mixed and designed the film. Unfortunately, this time around, I was tied up back in Los Angeles and could not make trip to the east coast to sit in on the mix or the color grade.

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

Patrick Lawrence: This is my third trip to Park City since 2016, and I have had 6 films in total premiere at Sundance. Every time I go, I try to remind myself of how difficult it is to even get ONE film in, let alone 6, and that every time may be my last time, so it’s best to enjoy the experience and to take advantage of it.

Some Kind of Heaven - Editor: Daniel Garber

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

Daniel Garber: The initial vision for this film was a sort of Wiseman-esque institutional documentary, one that focused on a large retirement community and the organizations and people that constitute it. The early versions of the film, and my first attempts at sequences, were really focused on vignettes that illustrated certain facets of this strange place. As time went on and more footage came back, though, we found that the initial approach was not the most interesting one. We pivoted to making a film that was much more narrative, much more character-focused, following just a few storylines rather than a kaleidoscopic view of this place. As with many documentaries, this one required mental flexibility to imagine radically different visions for what the film could be.

Almost everything was subject to change, though one aspect of the film that never wavered was the visual style. From the very beginning, cinematographer David Bolen carefully composed shots on tripod, mirroring the manicured ethos of the place with a tightly controlled camera. My goal was to make the editing feel every bit as deliberate as the images.

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?

Daniel Garber: When I came on, director Lance Oppenheim had already started editing with what little footage he had shot, but those initial attempts were nothing like the film we ended up with. Lance has formidable editing chops himself, but he understood that my job as the film’s editor was to imagine different possibilities in the footage, to establish a new tone and integrate the incoming footage with what he had shot earlier. It was collaborative in the best possible way: he gave me a ton of freedom to explore stylistically and structurally, though I also benefited at every turn from his input and creative vision. Particularly while we were doing initial scene assemblies, Lance and I would cut side by side and exchange work, refining each other’s cuts until we had something we were both happy with. Later on, he was a constant presence in the cutting room as I refined the cut, which is how I like to work.

PH: What challenges did you encounter?

Daniel Garber: One challenge for every film that weaves together multiple storylines is finding a structure that works on the whole, while also working within each separate storyline; this film was no different, except that, unlike a fiction filmmaker, we didn’t have the luxury of writing those stories from scratch. It took many weeks of rearranging, both within and among the story threads, to find the right balance—among the different characters, between the characters and the fantasyland they live in, and between humor and the sometimes grim realities of old age.

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

Daniel Garber: Toward the beginning of the film we introduce one of our characters, Dennis, an 81 year old womanizer who lives out of his van, trying to find a wealthy widow to settle down with in The Villages. He lays out his plan from the backseat of his van, emerges into the sunlight, and sets off for his daily attempt at seduction. Then, as he exits frame, we cut to a scene from The Villages at large: the bellydancing club, where a line of septuagenarian women performs a routine to “Let It Snow” in a tropical beach-themed recreation hall. The cut seems to highlight both the surrealism of the place and the sense that, in this charmed place, anything can happen. Dennis’s lingering words about wooing an old woman create a sense that any one of these women may cross paths with him. But the bigger reason I like this cut is because it’s an example of a sort of cutting we do throughout the film, hopping from place to place in The Villages, juxtaposing scenes in ways that I hope create a larger understanding of the place and the people who choose to live there.


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

Daniel Garber: I didn’t have a lot of tools for this project, because the ones I had did plenty of heavy lifting. We cut in Premiere Pro, doing a lot of temp sound work (and even a little temp VFX) from inside of the NLE. Thanks to our huge team of producers across New York, in Los Angeles, and in Boston, and we used to share footage, sequences, and cuts with everyone. I started structuring the film the old  fashioned way, on index cards, but I eventually abandoned that in favor of outlining the film online with Trello. That was a huge step forward, since I could attach images easily to each card, and rearranging the cards was much easier than with pushpins. Also, I never stabbed myself.

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

Daniel Garber: Lance, AEs David Shayne and Loulwa Khoury, and I put in long hours in the lead up to the first rough cut screening for our producers. We were moving at breakneck speed—so fast that we
had a hard time being objective about what we had. We knew that the cut was substantially different from what the producers were expecting to see—but would they like it? That morning, I was over-caffeinated and weak with anxiety, and I could sense that at least some of the producers were apprehensive about what they were about to watch. Thankfully, though, when the lights came up, people breathed a sigh of relief. It had gone over well. That realization, that you have something resembling a movie rather than just an assortment of shots, is an amazing feeling when editing a documentary.

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

Daniel Garber: No regrets.

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

Daniel Garber: Having work at Sundance is a huge honor for any American independent filmmaker. This is a strange, quiet, and very stylized documentary, a labor of love for everyone involved; I’m thrilled that it will be shown alongside such bold and interesting works by filmmakers I admire.

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