Barry Jenkins + Destin Daniel Cretton’s Go-To Editor on How to Build an On-camera Performance

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Photo Source: Jake Netter

From “Moonlight” to “If Beale Street Could Talk,” Oscar-nominated editor Nat Sanders knows how to milk a subtle moment for utmost emotional impact. His latest, “Just Mercy,” starring Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, and Brie Larson, is no exception. Here’s how he maximizes an actor’s strengths in the name of storytelling and why the actor-editor dynamic is among the most peculiar in film.

How would you describe what editors do?
I think most editors think editing is misunderstood, and it is difficult to fully describe. It is a big part of the storytelling process, and I think it’s really attached to the writing process. What was shot on set and what you’re seeing on your computer monitor is defined, and you and the director are writing the last draft of the movie together based on what you have. There are so many decisions that go into it that people don’t realize, and you’re pivoting off what you have. Some things turn out better than they did in the script; some things turn out worse. But nothing ever goes exactly according to plan. Your job is to maximize the strengths and minimize the weaknesses.

How does your work as an editor impact an actor’s performance?
Working with performances is a huge part of our job. You’re always looking to make your actors shine in every moment possible. Performers are our gateway into telling human stories, into understanding humanity and the characters. On every production, but especially my work with Destin [Daniel Cretton], the director of “Just Mercy,” we just pored over the 10-, 11-month process. There are still certain scenes and certain lines where we’re asking, “Was this version better? Was that take better? Is it more subtle? Is it better if we show more passion?” It’s a long process, where the macro version of your job is to make the best version of the movie possible, and that encompasses a lot.

READ: Why ‘Just Mercy’ Has One of the Best Acting Ensembles of 2019

As an editor, you don’t ever actually work directly with actors, but you affect the outcome of their performance more than almost anyone else. How does that feel on your end?
It’s a funny dynamic between editors and actors, because it’s just so one-sided, where we really see ourselves as participating in their performance. People on set are participating in their performance, between hair and makeup and dialect coaches, but we are very much behind the scenes, and they barely know we exist. I’m editing footage from Day 1, so there’s not really too much time to talk to the director during the shoot. I’m just going off the director’s vision and what they’re going for, and combining that with my own impressions and gut instincts and feel for performances. As far as the director’s intentions, I’ll act as a detective and go through the actor’s takes and say, “Oh, the director wanted this to be more subtle” or, “They wanted this to be more fiery.”

READ: 2 Editors on What Makes a Great On-Camera Acting Performance

How did you get into the editing field?
I actually thought I wanted to be a writer. I went to film school at Florida State University. I got in based on a script I’d written in high school, and I thought that was what I wanted to do. I actually went to film school with Barry Jenkins, who made “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and it was very clear that I didn’t have a lot of personal stories to draw on and tell [like he did]. It was very clear that it wasn’t my path, and the first time I edited, I just fell in love with it. I loved helping other people. I feel like I was really better writing with other people than on my own, and that I was better helping to shape other people’s visions.

From the editing standpoint, what was unique about “Just Mercy” compared to other projects you’ve edited?
Destin’s movies are really emotional and raw and real and authentic, and I love working that way. The challenge is it’s such a fine line and a small target to hit, whether in performance or music or just overall tone. If the thing tilts a little too far one way, it can feel overbearing because it’s too much heaviness and you’ll feel bogged down. And if you go too far in another direction, it can feel saccharine. That’s the fun challenge of this project: Everything has to be really subtle and everything has to be very careful to hit the small target we’re going for.

Having done both extensively, are there major differences between editing and a television series?
Definitely. It goes back to that storytelling aspect. TV is really fun, and you get to work with different directors and with the showrunners. When you’re on a project for 10–11 months, you’re really fine-tuning, and you have the time and space to make sure you’re making the 100 percent best version of the thing you’re making. We do feedback screenings multiple times, we’ll bring in strangers and show them the movie, sit in the back and read their reactions, then do focus groups afterward. There are a lot of amazing things about television, and I love working in TV, too. But there just is not the time and space to do that. You get it together quicker, but, unfortunately, you have to move on to the next episode and keep it moving like a train with time constraints.

What would you advise someone who wants to become an editor?
For anyone who wants to get their foot in the door, you just have to take any opportunity. You have to be hungry and on the lookout for any opportunity to edit. You have to be willing and able to work for free in the beginning, if this is what you are really passionate about. You have to make sacrifices just to get your foot in the door. Pursue every opportunity that comes your way.

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 9 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.