'We Grown Now' Editor Stephanie Filo on Bringing Chicago's Cabrini-Green to Life

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

In an exclusive interview, Emmy-winning editor Stephanie Filo delves into her latest work on Minhal Baig’s poignant coming-of-age film, We Grown Now, now in theaters. The film, set in the Chicago Cabrini-Green public housing complex during the summer of 1992, follows the journey of two best friends, Eric and Malik, and features standout performances from Lil Rel Howery and Jurnee Smollett. Filo’s lyrical editing earned her a nomination for an Independent Spirit Award, adding to her impressive list of accolades, including a historic run at the 2023 Emmys. As the first picture editor to be nominated for three different shows in a single year and the first Black female editor to achieve this feat, Filo’s versatility and talent are unmistakable. Her work on We Grown Now captures a sense of childlike innocence and immerses viewers in a nostalgic and heartfelt exploration of friendship and resilience amidst hardship.

PH: Congratulations on your recent Emmy wins and the release of "We Grown Now." This film seems to tackle themes of friendship, growth, and resilience within the backdrop of the Chicago Cabrini-Green public housing complex in 1992. What drew you to this project, both personally and professionally?

Stephanie Filo: Thank you so much! I think something about this story that really spoke to me was the theme of figuring out what "home" means, or what makes a place significant. As someone who has lived all over and whose family lives across the world from me, I've always struggled with similar questions – what makes a home a home, what makes a place memorable, and as a child what brought me the most comfort. For me, that comfort was the people within that space and within my community, and I think that Minhal did such a beautiful job of exploring and writing about those ideas and feelings. The minute I finished reading the script, I knew I needed to be a part of telling this story, no matter what.

PH: Editing can often shape the narrative and emotional impact of a film significantly. How did you approach editing We Grown Now to evoke the essence of the characters' experiences, particularly Eric and Malik's coming-of-age journey?

Stephanie Filo: Finding Eric and Malik's emotions and experiences really had to do with living in their perspective. This is a story where the entire world is experienced through our kids' eyes, and so the most important element in finding their emotion was finding ways to feel like we are experiencing the world with them. So editorially, that usually consisted of trying to stay on longer, lower angles so that you're drawn into their world and headspace, and throughout the process we also did a lot of work on building out a Cabrini-Green soundscape so that we felt like the boys' surroundings were always ever-present, even if it's just beyond our line of sight. A lot of times the adults are not seen in this movie, but only heard, and that was a deliberate editing choice to stay with our kids. As children, when things are happening around you, you tend to focus on friends around you or the people you look up to (in this instance, their parents or community members). So, for example there are scenes where the police are present but you really do not see their faces and only see our kids reacting to the world around them. That made it a really interesting journey in the edit because it was like finding different and sometimes more raw ways to approach emotion.

PH: "We Grown Now" is directed by Minhal Baig, known for her intimate storytelling style. How did you collaborate with Minhal to ensure that the editing process aligned with her vision for the film?

Stephanie Filo: I think that Minhal and I share similar storytelling sensibilities, so working with her on this was a really special collaboration. Before shooting started we had a lot of conversations and meetings about the story, talked through story beats, and bounced off of each other a bit, which was nice because in post we aren't always given that opportunity or offered that kind of insight ahead of time. Once shooting began, I would send her a quick assembly of scenes at the end of each day just so that she could see if there was any additional footage she might want to pick up while they were still on location. Once we were fully in the edit, we really spent a lot of time trying to uncover ways to make our boys' experience feel as immersive as possible. As it is a “slice-of-life” film, we approached the story almost as if it was a verité documentary, in that we would come in every morning, look at the story cards on the wall, and try to identify if there were any moments or different story structures we could play with to help the audience feel like they were in our kids' shoes (in documentary fashion, sometimes that involved finding extra moments that existed in the footage or that could be repurposed in different ways.) A majority of the time, the editing process was about carving out and honing in on beats that felt really intimate or emotional, so that the boys' experience felt close and universal.

PH: The film features a cast of young newcomers alongside seasoned performers like Lil Rel Howery and Jurnee Smollett. How did you balance capturing the authenticity of the young actors' performances while integrating the seasoned actors' contributions during the editing process?

Stephanie Filo: Watching our incredible young actors performing alongside our adult actors was a privilege for me. Despite the young age of our leads, you would honestly think that they have also been doing this for many years as well. Finding the balance in the edit was really about following the story and following our young actors' perspectives and emotions from scene to scene. There are a lot of heartfelt and tender moments between our adults and the boys, and so staying in our boys' world and hearing adults largely off camera throughout most of the film allowed those heartfelt moments to stand out more because seeing the adults in these beats accentuated those specific scenes.

PH: Your work on A Black Lady Sketch Show has been widely praised, earning you consecutive Emmy wins. How does your experience in editing sketch comedy differ from editing narrative feature films like We Grown Now, and how do you adapt your editing style accordingly?

Stephanie Filo: I've edited every genre I can think of, but one fundamental thing stays the same in all of them, and that is in finding ways to tell a story as honestly as possible in the edit. Before any project I try to identify what lens we are approaching the story with and also what perspective I personally can bring to the project. On a show like A Black Lady Sketch Show, telling a story there might involve reactions or cutaways that are very nuanced and culture-specific. That's not all that different from a film like We Grown Now, where finding nuanced expressions or moments were some of the key elements needed to feel like you're in Malik and Eric's world. The difference on every project is more about the rhythm you approach it with, or the feeling you are hoping to leave with the audience. I'll also usually try to get myself into the headspace that that project will require. On We Grown Now, it really led to a lot of self-reflection and remembering back to 1992 when I would have also been Malik and Eric's age – I spent a lot of time thinking back to what life was like at that time but also the ways that I processed new information or learned about the world around me. So, I think that my editorial approach is similar on any project – each one has its own unique flourishes but overall it's always about the story.

PH: We Grown Now has been described as a love letter to finding beauty in adversity. How did you use editing techniques to convey this sense of hope and resilience throughout the film, particularly given the challenging setting of the Cabrini-Green housing complex?

Stephanie Filo: There is a lot of beauty in innocence, and this was really something that I tried to keep in the back of my mind every day while editing this film. When you are a child, although a million things might be happening in the world around you, there is still a blissfulness in being in a child's world. As innocence starts to fade, the way you see the world starts to change. So editorially, this was something I tried to reflect as the boys started to learn more and understand the world more. At the start of the film, you can hear our Cabrini-Green sounds in the far-off background while our boys' dream-like elements and the sounds of children playing are more front and center. The magical realism/dreamlike moments are the largest punctuation early in the film, and as the rest of the world starts to be more present in the boys’ perspectives, the sounds of Cabrini-Green start to become more present. The pace starts to shift a little bit as well – intense moments with the police are cut more frenetically to highlight that these beats are different, or an important shift in perspective. My hope in the arc of the edit throughout the film was to show that even though these moments may be happening around them, the boys are still innocent boys who hope and dream.

PH: As a celebrated activist and producer, how do you see your work in film editing intersecting with your activism? Are there specific messages or themes that you aim to amplify through your editing choices?

Stephanie Filo: My social impact work and activism started when I was much younger, through creating PSA campaigns and being very involved in the community around me, and I think at some point while working in this industry in the documentary space it occurred to me that those things weren't mutually exclusive. It's genuinely possible to work on film and television projects that can have an impact, and once I had that epiphany it really changed the way I saw the potential of the industry and the projects around me. I have been extremely fortunate over the years to work on several projects that highlight and amplify underrepresented voices. Editing-wise, no matter the project I always try to bring as much nuance as I can to moments, and I always think it's important to have conversations surrounding that while on any production. I was heartbroken recently to learn the news of Participant shutting down, and I hope that this is not a trend in the industry – projects that push to highlight underrepresented issues, voices, and concepts deserve the most protection of all.

PH: You've been nominated for multiple awards for your editing work across various genres. What do you think sets We Grown Now apart from your previous projects, and what challenges did you encounter during the editing process?

Stephanie Filo: I think the way that We Grown Now is told is different from other projects I've worked on, in that the lens we are looking through is entirely a child's lens. The storytelling style is very intimate and vulnerable, and highlighting small moments that feel big to young children was a refreshing and different way to approach the edit day to day. 

I think the biggest challenge while working on this film was recreating a space that does not exist anymore. A huge part of our process included trying to rebuild that world – the Cabrini-Green towers were 16 stories and had thousands of residents in them, so we took a lot of time during the edit trying to build out the sound from each of the floors. By the time we locked picture, we had about 49 audio tracks, each signifying different elements of Cabrini-Green. The Cabrini-Green towers were also demolished in 2011, so our city skylines and high-rises were completely recreated through VFX. I also spoke to a lot of people from Chicago and specifically from Cabrini-Green as well to make sure that I was being as authentic as possible in the edit.

PH: Can you share any memorable moments or scenes from We Grown Now that were particularly challenging or rewarding to edit? How did you overcome any creative hurdles during the editing process?

Stephanie Filo: Working on this film with Minhal, we were both constantly talking through options and ideas to bring this world to life. One moment in the film that stands out to me is Eric's final prayer about Malik. Originally this was a moment that did not exist, and the more we worked on the film, the more we realized we wanted Eric's character to have a moment of closure and growth. So, this prayer was created entirely in the edit. It gives him a last moment of reflection and embracing prayer, which he was so averse to earlier in the story. His prayer is now one of my favorite moments of the film!

PH: Finally, looking ahead, what projects or themes are you interested in exploring in your future work as an editor and producer, and how do you hope to continue pushing boundaries in the industry?

Stephanie Filo: I am generally drawn to stories with a social impact element to them, and in my experience that element spans all genres. Sometimes the social impact presence may be obvious, but sometimes (including on We Grown Now), the social impact may come from simply seeing people represented in a way that they haven't been before. I think that I have been lucky for these past 20 years to continue to work on projects and campaigns that have messages I'm passionate about, but I hope to keep it going. We are blessed with an industry that has the potential to change the world for the better, so I hope to keep working on projects that prioritize that mindset.

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