One of the more memorable films I saw this year at Sundance was the The Spectacular Now, an authentic and realistic portrayal of teenagers living in a small rural town, who pass the days living and coping with a life that feels like they could get stuck in forever. Reminiscent of Catcher in the Rye and other classic coming of age stories, Sutter (played by the incredible Miles Tenner), is an outgoing high-school senior who ‘lives in the now’ and is the life of the party, always with a drink in his hand. When he is dumped by the popular girl he believes is his soulmate, he falls for Aimee Finicky, one of the geeky, not-so-popular girls (played by the lovely and understated Shailene Woodley). The two have more in common than they initially think when it comes to overbearing mothers and absentee fathers, and eventually become each other’s biggest fan, spending a lot of time together. Aimee diligently works to make her dream of going away to college a reality, but Sutter has a hard time not getting out of his own way. Realizing this girl might be the best thing that ever happened to him, Sutter must face some grown-up decisions that could ultimately help him move beyond the wounds of his home life.
The Spectacular Now took home Sundance’s Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Acting, was well-deserved for both Miles Tenner and Shailene Woodley’s incredible performances. Director James Ponsoldt is on a roll with his second feature two years at Sundance, the first being Smashed which won the Special Jury Prize last year.
The film was beautifully edited by Darrin Navarro, whose credits include two projects for director Azazel Jacobs, Momma’s Man and Terri, both of which premiered at Sundance in prior years, as well as the William Friedkin-Tracy Letts collaborations, Bug and Killer Joe, which premiered at Cannes and Venice. Additional credits include the dramatic horror film, Grace (also a Sundance premiere), The Dish & the Spoon, and a co-edited credit for the music documentary Re:Generation, directed by Amir Bar-Lev. The Spectacular Now is Navarro’s first collaboration with director James Ponsoldt. I had a chance to talk with Darrin about his creative and collaborative process working on The Spectacular Now, and his thoughts on trends currently in independent film.
Your work on THE SPECTACULAR NOW felt seamless and almost invisible to the narrative. I think good editing doesn’t draw attention to itself, and specifically for this film, the acting was so riveting that it really drew the viewer to the performances. Tell me what it was like to work on THE SPECTACULAR NOW and how you crafted the visual language of the film.
First, I must slightly disagree with you on one point: I think that good editing might sometimes draw attention to itself, depending on how stylistically assertive a film is in general. Music sometimes operates just outside the conscious attention of the audience, in the same way that lighting and sound design might, but in other cases, those things might be right up in the audience’s face to great effect. Sometimes we welcome the audience’s awareness of our technique — music, cinematography, sound, and editing included. Scorsese, for instance, never leaves you entirely to your suspension of disbelief; he keeps you aware that he and Thelma Schoonmaker are there, working their magic on you, and there’s a great deal of pleasure for the audience both in the effect of their work and in the awareness of their work.
With that having been said, it’s true that with The Spectacular Now, we were not trying to be assertive in that way, except in the first six minutes, which by design is stylistically at odds with the rest of the movie, and in so being is deliberately misleading. For stylistic as well as budgetary reasons, the director, James Ponsoldt, shot a lot of the drama in long takes and encouraged really natural performances from the actors. Above all, he was going for honesty and authenticity, so this was not a film in which jump cuts or other style-for-style’s-sake choices would have made much sense. Also, these are characters who think about what they say, and who listen to each other, so there wasn’t much call for artificially overlapping the dialogue or any of the usual techniques that are employed to make a movie “snappy.” The values we applied were very similar to those of Terri, another high school film I did, that one with director Azazel Jacobs. In both films, we wanted scenes from these kids’ lives to play out in real time, or something close to it.
Of course, the trade-off with that choice is that you’re limited in how much you can edit scenes internally in order to get the movie down to a particular running time. So, you start looking at the big picture: what is the movie ultimately about – is it an addiction drama, a love story, a coming-of-age – and, once you’ve answered that, what scenes are absolutely essential to that story? James and I spent relatively little time concerning ourselves with internal cutting, compared to rethinking character arcs, establishing their stakes, and trying to illustrate their inner lives through the recombination and re-sequencing of scenes. This is actually a much more difficult editing assignment, because you have to make hard choices. Sometimes really good scenes get cut, but character is always paramount, followed by story.
What were your early conversation like with Director James Ponsoldt? Was there a specific vision for how the film would be cut together?
I had met James about a year and a half earlier at the Village Bakery in Atwater, where we talked about the possibility of me editing Smashed. I loved that script, and he asked me to do the film, but they had so little money. It killed me to pass on it, but we kept in touch, and I was incredibly lucky that when The Spectacular Now came around, he checked in with me again.
He and I had another meeting, this time by Skype because he was already in pre-production down in Georgia, to be sure that we’d be on the same page about how to do it. We agreed that we were making a high school film for adults, and probably for sophisticated teenagers. Say Anything was a model, as were The Last Picture Show and Terri. James was a big fan of Terri, which is why he had reached out to me in the first place.
We didn’t talk much about editing, per se, in those early discussions. Only what the overall value system was for the story and the characters; again, we were going for honesty. We didn’t talk about style at all, really. I was actually surprised when later he sent me a copy of the shot list that he and Jess Hall, the director of photography, had put together, and so many scenes were oners, or were to be covered in only two or three setups. I told him I was concerned about it, and it turned out he was too. We both like long takes and mise-en-scene storytelling, but it’s always good to have options. The thing was, the budget was forcing them to cut a lot of shots from each shoot day, so they had to get creative, and we wound up with more minimal coverage than even we would have preferred. There are a few scenes with pretty traditional coverage – the sister’s dinner party, and of course, the bar scene with Sutter’s dad – but I won’t lie: there are many scenes where I’d have liked to have had a few more set-ups, but overall the minimalism turned out to be the right thing for the film. We might very well have tossed out those additional shots anyway.
Do you ever see the film edited together it in your head, before it’s shot?
Not really, because until the director has blocked the scene, composed the shots, directed the actors, etc, it’s almost impossible to know exactly what the footage is going to be, especially with added element of actors being free to improvise, which they were on this film. Ninety percent of what I do is respond to the footage and then act upon those responses, so it would be counter-productive for me to have a pre-conceived idea of my own intentions. It would also be a lot less fun.
What was your creative process like while working with James Ponsoldt?
I did a full cut of the movie, which came out to about two hours and twenty minutes. James and I watched it together and then talked a lot about which scenes worked best, which didn’t work at all, what specific story we wanted to tell out of the several possibilities that were before us. We structured the story accordingly, and then began to work on specific scenes.
James seemed to trust me a lot, which is nice. He never felt the need to unravel a scene. Only if a particular take bugged him, or there was something specific that he wanted a scene to do that I hadn’t gotten at in my cut, would we go into the other dailies.
We did run into some resistance when we showed his cut to the producers. It was by then forty minutes shorter than my long cut, and they were a little taken aback by a lot of what had come out. It was a process but we involved them in it, showed them everything that they wanted to see, and tried some versions that restored some of the things that they missed. Eventually, they began to see why we had made the choices we did, and James and I also came to see the value in some of the things the producers were asking for. Ultimately, I’m confident that we made the best possible movie with what we had.
Let’s talk a little technical now — what software did you edit THE SPECTACULAR NOW on?
I edited on Avid Media Composer 6, which was provided by Siren Studios in Hollywood.
Did you work with an Assistant Editor, and what did he/she help with on the project?
Unfortunately, the budget only provided me with an assistant to handles dailies during production and then on an as-needed basis later when we had to order visual effects or turn over reels to various departments. It’s terribly short-sighted but unfortunately it’s becoming more and more common on indie films, and it predictably led to things not running nearly as smoothly as they ought to in the final stages of post. That said, I had a wonderful assistant named Elana Lessem who handled her duties with grace and skill. She was a real asset, criminally underused.
How many weeks was your editing schedule?
Sixteen weeks from the first dailies to picture lock.
Were you involved in the post process after picture lock, and if so, in what way?
I was, but not officially and only on occasion. I came back to edit some voice over with James, and I attended final playback at both the mix and color correction, but there was only so much that could contribute creatively at that point.
This is another trend among indies, to let the editor go after picture lock. This runs counter to all the training I received when I was coming up as an assistant; that is, the editor was tasked with shepherding the film all the way to the end of the process, until there’s an answer print (in the old days) or a projectable master, now in the digital age. On the films I’ve done for William Friedkin, for instance, I attend every day of the color correction, I attend every day of the mix, I preview tracks from sound editors and the composer, and I continue to contribute to the creative discussion.
There are countless creative steps to be taken in post, by composers, music editors, sound designers, visual effects artists, colorists, etc. Unlike a film crew, these people are scattered all over the city, or maybe the country. The director cannot be everywhere at once, nor can a post-production supervisor, and a post super hasn’t spent four months locked in a room with the director internalizing the most minute creative intentions for each moment in the film. The editor has. My experience in these situations, which as I say are becoming disturbingly more common, is that details are always lost.
What words of advice could you offer to independent filmmakers when it comes to post production and the editorial process?
Remember that none of the key craftspeople on the film will spend as many hours side-by-side with the director as the editor (with the possible exception of the writer). We will come to know things that even spouses don’t know. No one can be a greater advocate for the director’s vision, and therefore an ally to the film, in the crucial final stages.