Sundance 2019: Editors Discuss Films Premiering at the Festival

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Every winter in Utah, the Sundance Film Festival becomes the ultimate gathering of original storytellers and audiences. The festival includes dramatic and documentary features and short films; series and episodic content; and New Frontier, showcasing emerging media in the form of multimedia installations, performances, and films. When you attend Sundance, you can expect to attend daily filmmaker conversations, panel discussions and live music events. 

We're thrilled that we got to interview a few filmmakers whose films will be displayed at the festival. Below are just a few. 


Courtney Ware, Editor, Light from Light

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

Courtney Ware: Paul Harrill and I discussed the feel of the film at length before shooting. I’ve known him for a long time (his film partner at the time was a producer with me on another film back in 2015) so I was already pretty familiar with his style and tastes from his previous film, Something, Anything. He sent me an exhaustive list of films he felt matched the vibe and essence he was going for - so I spent the time leading up to the shoot watching or re-watching the films on his list. I felt really prepared to go into the edit that I would generally get the pacing right.

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: As on Augustine Frizzell’s Never Goin’ Back, I was able to edit on set. I would grab the footage as it was shot, ingest and sync it immediately. I could usually start cutting footage we’d shot as early as that morning or the day before. I often had my laptop set up just offset, so I was generally aware of the challenges or discoveries I’d find in the footage before even jumping into a scene. Paul would also shoot different versions of scenes, whether changing the dialogue or action. Being close by, he was able to give me a heads up on which way he was leaning as they would finish shooting. This made the process of cutting the assembly a lot easier.

We had one emotional scene in particular that we had shot the previous day. As I had literally just cut it together, so Paul had me over by the monitor as they shot the scenes leading up to the pivotal one. I was lending my opinion on if we were reaching and ramping up to the same emotional tone and intensity for the scene that we had already shot. On such small independent films like this - having that ability to know what’s already in the can, and be able to see it as we’re shooting, is really valuable and saves a ton of time.

PH: What challenges did you encounter?

Courtney Ware: Paul is always trying to get to the most essential version of the story. So that meant cutting out complete scenes and even some characters. It’s always difficult to trust your gut on what scenes are or are not working. But when you finally watch the “right” version of the film, it’s extremely rewarding.

 

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

Courtney Ware: There is a 12-minute scene in the middle of the film between Marin Ireland and Jim Gaffigan’s characters. It was the scene I was most nervous to start as there was so much performance to sift through. I quickly realized that the scene was going to be incredible. There is a close up of Marin where we do not cut away for over 2 minutes. That’s when you realize sometimes your job is to get out of the way and let your talented actors do their thing. It was electrifying seeing that scene come together and realize it was something special.

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

Courtney Ware: We edited in Adobe Premiere Pro - it’s robust and has all the tools we need. I’ve cut now 3 features in Premiere Pro, so I trust it to get the job done.

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

Courtney Ware: That first watch through after the rough assembly is my favorite part of editing. The cut is
so far from where it will end up, but the first glimpses of a complete film are there.

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

Courtney Ware: I don’t think I would change anything. I’m really proud of the process we went through to
cut the film together.

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

Courtney Ware: Premiering at Sundance is obviously a huge honor. But for me, being in a place full of
peers - and being able to share something that I’m really proud of is the best. It’s also hugely
validating that all of those hard decisions we made - paid off. 


Robin Blotnick, Editor, Knock Down the House

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

Robin Blotnick: Knock Down The House is a documentary so nothing could be totally predetermined. But we knew we wanted it to be an intimate character-based verite film that also had a national scope. We knew there would be some use of interviews and archival, but that the bulk of the story would take place in real time, in verite scenes. Once we’d settled on our four main subjects, we knew we’d be interweaving their narratives, jumping between the four locations and finding ways to have their storylines intersect.

We knew we’d be dealing with certain themes that cut through all four storylines, like drawing courage from loss and adversity, finding a public voice and going up against political machines. These were the elements we could count on, along with the inherent suspense that comes with an election story. What we didn’t know is how the four candidates’ races would turn out, which stories would get the most screen time and exactly how we would weave it all together. We had to keep gaming out possible developments at every stage, and revising our vision as new events occurred.

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?

Robin Blotnick: The director Rachel Lears is my wife and we’ve worked together for a while so we have a lot of overlap in our aesthetics and storytelling sensibilities. Because I was a producer and writer on the project before we began post-production, I had about as much input and creative freedom as an editor could want. I started the process while traveling with Rachel on the production trips, watching our two-year-old Max while Rachel was shooting and ingesting footage and editing early scenes in the evenings and during his naps. Strangely, some of those first scenes I edited are my favorites in the film and have changed very little since the first cut.

 

Director Rachel Lears

After Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her primary and became an overnight media sensation, we had a much better sense of what-what the film would look like, and we knew we needed to try for the Sundance 2019 deadline. But we still had to finish covering our last candidate Cori Bush’s primary race in August before we could turn our attention full time to post-production. At that point, we brought our friend David Teague on as a consulting editor, and with the help of his years of experience and general storytelling brilliance, we were able to come up with a plan to craft a great movie in the extremely limited time we had.

It took a level of discipline and efficiency I’ve never summoned as an editor. There wasn’t time to build long assemblies of every possible potential scene just to cut them down. Instead, Rachel and I identified which scenes we wanted to build in advance and outlined everything extensively with scene cards. Each rough cut we’d come up with would be almost exactly our target length. We’d share it with David and he’d help us pinpoint issues and identify possible solutions, then we would get back to work. It was a really intense process, but we went from a 20-minute work sample to a picture locked cut in just over four months.

PH: What challenges did you encounter?

Robin Blotnick: The main practical challenge was time. Because of our accelerated timeline, I had to forego luxuries like actually watching all the footage through, which was kind of nervewracking. We were also short on funding until late in the year, which meant I was my own assistant editor and at times I wasn’t even able to afford enough drive space.

We had to put a lot of things on credit cards. And raising a two-year-old while making a feature film is an adventure in its own right. Whenever he got a cold at daycare, one of us would lose a day of work, and often a night of sleep. Like a lot of working parents, we had to learn to work in an extra disciplined way to make the most of the time we had.

Artistically, the biggest challenge was how to interweave the four storylines without confusing or losing the audience. Choosing Alexandria’s story as the main narrative arc was an obvious choice not just because of its incredible and uplifting ending, but because it was the story we’d been able to cover in the most depth (we’re based in the NYC area). But once we’d established that, it took a lot of trial and error to figure out how
best to introduce the other three characters and work in their storylines in a way that would allow people to connect to them quickly and understand why we were taking a detour from the main storyline. In the end, I think it worked out really well. To me, the three secondary storylines add emotional and political depth, as well as a national scope to the story that is absolutely essential.

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

Robin Blotnick: I try not to get too attached to scene transitions because I want to stay open to moving scenes around in endless configurations. But there’s a great satisfaction to rearranging scenes because it’s better for the overall story structure, only to discover that the new configuration also allows for a cool transition. For instance at one point the candidate Amy Vilela is driving over Las Vegas highways and she goes into a tunnel. I was able to cut it so that we emerge from the tunnel on a New York City subway hurtling through the Bronx. Hopefully, those kinds of transitions aren’t just an editor’s self-indulgence, but help reinforces the idea that these four characters are on a sort of collective journey.

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

Robin Blotnick: The most trusted tool for me might have been scene cards, which began as actual physical index cards that Rachel created and we laid out all over the floor, and eventually ended up as various structure outlines I set up in the program Trello. I edited the actual film on Adobe Premiere Pro CC, which wasn’t quite a “trusted” tool for me at that point (I’d been a Finalcut Pro 7 editor until a couple years earlier) but I became more confident with it and continued to learn tricks as I went along.

I also was really glad to be able to work with home movie archival materials in this film, because editing peoples’ home movies were how I used to pay the bills after film school. They always have a certain magic to them!

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

Robin Blotnick: It’s an amazing feeling when a section hasn’t been working right for a long time, and you get an idea of how to approach it a little differently – pick a different scene to introduce a character, for instance — and suddenly everything falls into place. When everything aligns, there’s the sense that the film is editing itself. All your exhaustion and sluggishness seems to melt away and you feel like you could happily stay up all night working on it.

But my favorite part of the process might be doing the online work, where after pulling your hair out with anxiety for months you get to sort of lie back in comfy chairs as very talented sound and color people polish what you’ve made until it looks and sounds its best.

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

Robin Blotnick: Hopefully, I WILL get a chance to go back and change a few things, after Sundance and before wider distribution. And by then I’ll probably have a long list. For now, it’s too soon to ask me that! I just finalized the film on Monday.

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

Robin Blotnick: I’ve been working toward this moment for most of my adult life. Now that it’s here, I’m realizing that I never really thought about what it would be like if it happened or what happens next. All I know is that my life is about to completely change!

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

Robin Blotnick: Just that editing this film was a deeply collaborative effort and it was a pleasure and an honor to work with the creative team that helped shape the story and all its moving parts, including the score, the animation, and the online post work. Our subjects took a great risk for something much bigger than themselves, and I hope they find this film to be a fair and true portrait of the people they are and the races they ran.


Kent Kincannon, Editor, Before You Know It

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

Kent Kincannon: The production was based in NY, but the director lives in LA, and while filming in NYC she found out that she did not need to stay there for the edit to retain the tax credits. So she called me and asked if I could start in just a few weeks in LA. I agreed and started downloading dailies soon afterward and spent a little over a week watching everything and making notes on printed editors logs while the NY assistant editor worked on an assembly with direction from Hannah- so the first day I sat down in the edit suite in LA, I got everything set up, watched the assembly cut from NY, and besides one other phone conversation with Hannah, I started the movie only with the approach of helping Hannah find the movie.

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?

Kent Kincannon: Hannah wrote, directed and stars in the film that she has been working on for nearly ten years, so I was very happy she wanted to be there all day every day. I'd read the script and watched the dailies, but I still had to learn what the movie was really about as we worked and I could ask Hannah questions not only about takes, but also about the characters, their mental illnesses, how theater fellowships work, etc.that all helped me understand whats important and what I should be showing at any given moment. Most of the movie was cut with her watching over my shoulder just doing notes- 'lets use the emotional take from Rachel here-' I'd ask a question if I didn't know what she meant, otherwise she'd patiently wait for me to finish, answer any questions I had if any, I'd show her, and she'd note it again, or we'd move on. We mostly worked from the original assembly, but other than the laughing scene near the end, almost everything was gone over many times in the regular notes process. A few scenes needed to be rebuilt from the ground up, so she took a few breaks on those days, but otherwise it was a very good give and take of information between us- me mostly receiving, but she let me work and respected my input and I respected her right to ignore it if she wanted to and we got along great!

 

Director Hannah Pearl Utt

PH: What challenges did you encounter?

Kent Kincannon: I think the biggest challenge was the unavoidable existential question that we all have to face in all areas of life- is this right?

The film isn't a traditional formula, so there were quite a few options available to us in terms of storylines and character beats to beef up or pare down and figuring out what we could mess with and how it would affect how the movie ends. I was amazed at what all Hannah shot. We had to lose some stuff for time, but some stuff we could change the whole tone by leaving out or keeping and so we took things out and put them back in right up to the handover, but we all agreed we landed in exactly the right place in the end.

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

Kent Kincannon: There is a oner an hour into the movie where Judith Light and Hannah are coming up some stairs as they talk and some twins ask for an autograph and Hannah gets an idea and they walk and talk about it and we had one take that was perfect, except right at the end a bus noise causes Judith to get off track and the last few lines were off.

The other takes weren't as good and for a while we cut the scene, but when we put it back, I was determined to make the flubbed take work and by cutting out early and using the right music and leading dialogue from the next scene we got to use the good take and we're launched into the next scene quickly and I don't think anyone else would say that's their favorite cut, but when it rolls by I'm always happy to have found that solution to use the best take.

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

Kent Kincannon: Since I came onto the project after the assistant had started processing dailies, they asked me if Premiere would be alright and I said it would. I think I prefer Premiere when working alone, but on TV shows where I'm working on multiple episodes in different stages of the competition, I prefer the Avid world. But I've cut both features in Premiere and across multiple computers both times and had no troubles
whatsoever.

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

Kent Kincannon: As I alluded to above, this movie is fairly complicated both emotionally and plot-wise- so sometimes I would ask her what something meant and I would get a completely surprising answer- so there were times when the film completely changed in my mind without me making a cut and that was really fun. I knew she wasn't going to let me make a wrong choice because her compass for the movie was always true, so I didn't mind asking obvious questions if it helped me to understand what was going on.

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

Kent Kincannon: I think it's a collection of little decisions regarding project setup- I've always been pretty flexible in terms of folder structures and project settings and systems, but there were a few changes that I wish I'd made at the beginning that would have helped the process immensely- for instance. the way we worked,
reviewing lots of takes much time, it would have been nice to try this using Avid Scriptsync.

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

Kent Kincannon: It's great- it's like the Superbowl for filmmakers- something that even if it's not a goal of yours, it's still a big deal in anyone's career. I've always wanted to go to the festival but was unofficially waiting to go with a film. I'm glad I don't have to wait any longer!

Tune in Monday for more Sundance interviews. 

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