Lam utilized Premiere Pro, After Effects, Illustrator, and Photoshop to cut a modern Romeo & Juliet tale in the innovative "Screenlife" format (which has been used on films like Searching and Unfriended). We got the chance to speak with Lam about his work or learning more about Adobe’s work with SXSW to celebrate the art and craft of editing.
PH: Hi Lam! How did you get involved with R#J?
Lam Nguyen: I was hired on by Timur Bekmambetov’s company, Bazelevs Productions, doing proof of concept trailers. The POCs were all various forms of Screenlife projects to pitch. Then they presented this Romeo and Juliet project to me with the bold idea that it will be told entirely on their smartphones. At first, I wasn’t so sure about the project. It’s a classic story that’s been told so many times and to do it in this format presented a lot of challenges.
I read the script and I was excited with the diversity of the project and this version was definitely much different than what’s been done. They introduced me to the director, Carey Williams, and we brainstormed the overall idea for like an hour. After seeing what his vision would entail – I was willing to take on this challenge believing if we can pull this off for a remake it could work out.
PH: Can you share your effective approach to editing and how you make executive choices to cut/keep certain content?
Lam Nguyen: That’s a question that filmmakers often struggle with every time. What I was so impressed with Carey was his storytelling instincts and that he’s not attached to scenes like most filmmakers would be. He was willing to let go his favorite scenes if it improved the story.
I’ve learned not to get attached as well over the years and how I approach editing is with my heart. I edit with emotions and so if I’m not feeling the scene working out then I know to scrap the idea and try something else.
Editors usually are able to make something out of nothing a lot and I would challenge myself with that on every project. We left a few deleted scenes on the cutting room floor but I couldn’t help to see the characters emotions in those takes and I thought we can re-purpose these scenes somehow. So, I would cut various versions of those deleted scenes and surprise Carey with the drafts. Eventually those scenes made it to the final cut because it added an element to the story needed.
PH: How has your professional experience in the industry helped you with this project? What did you take away from this project?
Lam Nguyen: I’m fortunate to work with so many talented directors, writers and producers over the years and I’m like a sponge on every project. I take bits and pieces of their storytelling instincts with me. Along the way I was tasked to do a lot of graphics and animation work and those skills definitely gave me the confidence to take on the hardest project I’ve done to date.
What I took away from this project is that the fundamentals of filmmaking and storytelling still do apply. Screenlife is a whole new visual language to tell a story and the first drafts felt mostly technical. Once I was able to treat the comps (iMessage’s, Instagram, etc.) as clips with cinematic camera movements then I saw the potential that we can make a movie now.
PH: How did you oversee production or make suggestions to streamline your work?
Lam Nguyen: I’m lucky to work with a very collaborative director in Carey Williams. During production he would ask me to take a look at the dailies and see what can we improve on. One of the suggestions I gave was to let the scene linger a little bit longer after the take is done to give me room for the edit. I think about transitions a lot and how to make those seamless. So, by allowing more time on those takes helped streamlined the edit so much more.
For a film like this I felt like we needed a lot of natural actions and reactions. So, Carey would give more time pre roll and post roll of a take and he was able to capitalize on that in allowing the actors to be more comfortable in the scene. This gave us opportunities to use the candid moments in our edit.
PH: How did you collaborate with the team?
Lam Nguyen: The entire team has been great from Producers, Writers, Actors, and the crew. Everyone had an open mind. That’s probably because of this format and because it’s so new that we’re all learning how to make the best of it. Everyone was not held back creatively in any way. We made a lot of bold choices and that’s credit to Carey in not being afraid about it as well. It was awesome to see how it all came together in the end.
PH: Do you have a favorite/memorable scene that you can discuss?
Lam Nguyen: I would say my favorite and memorable scenes are two different ones. My most memorable scene would probably be the one-month montage of Romeo and Juliet getting to know each other. This was the most challenging scene to put together because we had to think of creative ways to show them falling in love strictly through various apps on their phones.
Carey was able to film spontaneous moments of Romeo and Juliet during breaks on set and because of that we were able to manufacture some of those clips into the montage (i.e., Romeo dancing Tok-tok video, Juliet’s reaction to a message, and Romeo appearing in Juliet’s Kelela album cover).
Carey had a lot of great song choices for this movie and that got me thinking of them sharing a Spotify playlist using song titles as messages in a way for them to flirt with each other. We both expanded on that idea and believed that glued the montage together in a very touching and emotional way to see their relationship grow.
My favorite scene would be Juliet in her room struggling to record her farewell video. This was a scene initially deleted from the movie but we were able to repurpose this scene using all the best takes and creating this mood needed to feel for Juliet’s emotions. It was great to be able to tap into her psyche.
PH: Did you face any challenges while working on this project? What were they and how did you approach them?
Lam Nguyen: Yes, the initial challenge was ‘too much reading!’ Because of the format we were faced with using a lot of Screenlife comps (iMessage, Instagram, Facebook, etc.) So, I did some research in how to limit the reading and allow viewers to watch. I would watch films with subtitles on and realize that I’m not reading so much but pulling key words while watching the scene. Our brain is able to piece together the rest of the information as the story moves forward.
So, I started applying fundamental filmmaking techniques to our Screenlife comps (pull focus, depth of field, pans, dolly movements, etc.) and this kept our eye from not being bored and to focus only on what was really important for the story beat.
Cutting fast in between messages being sent or typed showed the anger and frustration of the character. Moving slow across the screen revealing a message or image to express the sad or happy mood of our characters. Or deleting words and retyping to show their hesitation.
We wanted our audience to comfortably ease into the story without having to think about the format so much and I hope we achieved that once we were able to find the right balance between videos of actors and Screenlife.
PH: What editing software did you use to cut? And why?
Lam Nguyen: I work primarily with Adobe Premiere Pro. One of main reasons I chose Premiere Pro was how intuitive the program was and the transition from what I did with the original Final Cut Pro to Premiere was more seamless than the other programs.
Adobe does a great job in allowing editors to use their other programs in the adobe suite with their dynamic linking system.
There was a large number of graphics and animation done on this film that I moved in between After Effects and Premiere constantly. Since all the programs are linked to each other - it was nice to make a change in After Effects, Illustrator, or Photoshop and Premiere would automatically update those changes.
PH: Now that Sundance is virtual, how do you think the experience has changed? What are some of the ways you, along with other production professionals, can still socialize and collaborate?
Lam Nguyen: This was my first Sundance film and so I wasn’t able to get that experience in person. But I thought the virtual experience turned out well. The panels were easily accessible to watch and streaming the films had no issues. Given with the technology today we were able to meet other filmmakers on zoom through different panels. Their New Frontiers program was pretty cool, where we got to walk around in this virtual space to meet other filmmakers.
PH: Now that Sundance has happened, how do you think the filmmaking community reacted?
Lam Nguyen:I thought everyone felt good about how this turned out. Sundance worked diligently to keep all the technology simplified and streamlined for users. A plus for this year was that everyone around the nation got a chance to see these films without having to travel to Utah.
PH: Were there any challenges?
Lam Nguyen: I didn’t encounter any challenges with the virtual format. I was nervous about
how the streaming will work but all went pretty smoothly.
PH: Do you think this might be the future of film festivals? How could it improve?
Lam Nguyen: I do think this can be the future of film festivals. I feel like once things are back to normal, we can blend both worlds into the experience. Especially with the technology of VR, the festivals can run the in-person experience while live streaming the event for people that’s unable to make the trip. The whole no FOMO experience, haha.