Industry Insights: Editor Matt Friedman Talks “The Farewell”
Editor Matt Friedman cuts to the chase on working with Lulu Wang and Awkwafina — and the importance of nailing multicultural projects.
PremiumBeat: Matt, editing is as much storytelling as directing. In fact, it is somewhat of a marriage. How dependent is your most successful work on the director’s vision and preparedness (meticulously storyboarded or shot with an eye to the edit)?
Matt Friedman: Yeah, it’s definitely a collaboration! The great thing about editing is that there is always something more you can do to improve a scene. When I teach at AFI, I see more than a few teams immediately look to reshooting to solve problems. But a lot of them can be addressed equally well by creative cutting. I’ve cut some really good scenes from disastrous shoot days, where everything went wrong.
Sometimes when I cut for first-time directors, they aren’t completely clear on what their vision is, so we talk about the story they want to tell and try to clarify the vision. And oftentimes, even the best-prepared director will find that despite their best laid plans, when they get into the editing room, the movie has decided it wants to be something different.
But certainly, it’s also fun when everything is well-planned out and works as envisioned. I once cut a pilot that Shawn Levy directed, and there was a scene that took place between an in-studio news anchor and a reporter live in the field. Shawn shot each location with both a news ENG video camera (what would be the practical news camera in the show) and on film so he could pop into and out of perspectives. He called me the day I received dailies to talk through the scene and he rattled off cut for cut what location he wanted to be in line by line, and whether he wanted it to be in film or video. It was amazing . . . He had the whole scene — a complicated scene — completely cut in his head! Shawn was always open to trying options, but it’s always great to get to work for a director that has a clear vision and a smart starting point to work from.
PB: What was your process working with Lulu Wang on The Farewell? And how did it differ from other experiences you’ve had with different directors?
MF: I love working with Lulu! She’s a blast! This is the third thing I’ve cut for her, and I’m definitely looking forward to the next.
My process with Lulu is basically the same as with other directors, and is best illustrated by one of the first conversations we ever had in the cutting room. Lulu hired me on her first feature to come in after the first editor left — she felt the film could be better and it just wasn’t getting there. I went through the film — polishing and tightening — and came to a scene in which a character walked towards another character, then stopped and delivered a line. The other character responded, then the first character walked towards the second character, stopped and delivered his next line.
As an editor, I strongly believe that every frame I put on screen must be helping to tell the story, and when I see a character just walking from point A to point B, I often remove it from the film. (Characters moving around rooms is rarely compelling storytelling). When Lulu saw the scene, she saw what I had removed and asked to put some of it back, so I did. On the next pass through the film, I trimmed it back again and she asked to split the difference.
So I stopped, turned to Lulu, and said, “Maybe I’m not understanding something here. I keep wanting to cut this, and you keep wanting to extend it. What’s actually going on in this moment.” Lulu explained that the first character was hesitating because he knew he had fucked something up, and was afraid to say the words because the other character might realize what he’d done. I had totally missed that, and one of the reasons I had missed it was because the setup for that hadn’t been edited correctly earlier in the scene. So, we went back and fixed the setup, then all those frames of the character tentatively walking had meaning, and were therefore storytelling. They went back in the film because they worked now.
After we had finished the scene, Lulu said to me, “I had no idea that this is what an editor was supposed to do. None of the other editors I’ve ever worked with had done anything like that.” But that’s my process. Through those discussions, we get to better movies. And we can sometimes even brainstorm ideas for changing what the characters are thinking in a particular moment — sharpening their motivations, clarifying their goals, raising the stakes, and thus making a more compelling story. To me, that’s the real process of editing.
There was one component of the process that was fairly unique to The Farewell: the Mandarin dialogue. I don’t speak the language. At all. So there was a lot of translating that Lulu did for me while we were working. But beyond that, the Chinese sentence structure is completely different from the structure of the English translations. For instance, in Chinese, the most emotional part of the line might come at the beginning of the line. But in English, the words that carry the emotion might fall at the end of the translation. So, it was really hard to judge performance until I understood both the translation and the way the words were actually ordered in Chinese. That would also sometimes change when I would cut — I might have cut one place in English, but the Chinese warranted showing a different part of the line on camera. That was an extra consideration.
Beyond that, our process involved cooking breakfast for dinner every day in the Big Beach kitchen, and occasionally going on Giratina and Gengar raids when we needed a break. I don’t think I’m supposed to tell that last part, but there it is.
PB: You’ve worked on several projects where you’ve delved into different cultures (the multiethnic sorority girls in Step Sisters, the Chinese family at the center of The Farewell, interracial relationships in Life in a Year, the Miami dance world of Step Up Revolution). Did you find a learning curve and/or responsibility to get it right when delving into these projects?
MF: Yes, I absolutely feel a responsibility for getting it right! And I’ve actively sought out the extra responsibility that comes with telling a wide variety of stories. It’s easy just to tell the same kind of story over and over — to always edit only action films, or only comedies, or whatever. Some producers and directors actually look for that consistency in an editor’s resume because it’s reassuring, in a way. But I’ve always tried to cut a wide variety of genres, and a wide variety of subject matters. It keeps me sharp as an editor, and I think it makes me a better editor in every genre I work in. There are always comedic moments in drama, and vice versa. There are sometimes musical numbers in comedies. Action comedies have always been a popular blend. And there is tension in films other than straight up thrillers.
Similarly, I love that I get to help tell stories about different cultures (in different genres, no less!). I can’t edit performances without understanding what drives the characters, and what drives characters is inextricably linked in some regards to the culture from which those characters come. So, I have to understand those cultural aspects as best as I can, or the performances I edit are simply not going to ring true.
For sure, there was a lot of cultural subtext in The Farewell that I didn’t understand because it was so far removed from my own experience growing up. So, like I described earlier, Lulu and I talked a lot — and in a lot of detail — about the cultural pressures that were causing the characters to make the decisions they were making, and to act the way they were acting. I tried to provide Lulu with a perspective of an audience member who might not know very much about Chinese culture, and suggest ways to help those viewers better understand what was really going on in certain scenes. It was tricky because if that exposition was pushed too far, it wouldn’t feel natural coming from the Chinese characters.
The scene around the restaurant dinner table, where Billi’s mom tells the piano story, is a great example of this. Lulu and I talked about that scene off and on for days before I could actually wrap my head around what the most important themes were and why. Only then was I able to cut the scene in a way that made sense for both Chinese and non-Chinese audiences.
But a learning curve? Not so much any more. One of the great things about getting older is that you learn that you don’t know what you don’t know. So, I know I don’t fully understand all the cultural subtleties, and I always ask a lot of questions to make sure that I’m doing those stories justice. Like I said, this has always been part of my process it’s just doubly important now.
PB: You grew up in the foothills of the Appalachians in rural eastern Tennessee. More Dollywood than Hollywood! What was your path to the industry and what advice would you give a kid, dreaming of a film career, that might feel he or she is a million miles away from that reality?
MF: Ha! “More Dollywood than Hollywood!” is a brilliant way to put it. Though at the risk of dating myself, it was Silver Dollar City when I was growing up. Pre-Dollywood!
Hollywood seemed a million miles away to me too, so I began in Atlanta. I got a list of movies shooting there whose stars I didn’t recognize, figuring those would be the ones that would be in the most dire need of help. Then, I sent a top ten list of the reasons they should hire me (this was in 1993, before the whole top ten list thing became so overdone!). Actually, I faxed the lists. With a fax machine. Because it was 1993.
My list had things on it like: “Two words: good at math,” and “I’ve never been the cause of a major international diplomatic incident.” I guess it was funny enough because I received a call (like five minutes after I sent it) from a production coordinator saying that anyone who could bring all the workers in the office to a laughing halt had to be down there working for them. They had no money, so it would be an unpaid internship, and I could choose Art Department or Editorial. Well, I can’t draw and I always enjoyed editing in school, so I chose that, packed my bags, and went.
I assisted an editor there named Emma Hickox (she’s the daughter of Anne Coates, who edited Lawrence of Arabia). She taught me so much about how an editing room works, the politics, and the need for precision and attention to detail. We got along great. So, she told me if I moved to Hollywood, she’d hire me for real money on her next show.
Around the same time, I got a solid job offer for an industrial video house outside of Washington, DC. It was a good job, with a good salary and benefits, making corporate videos. So, I had to decide: move a million miles away to a city where I had no family and knew barely three people, with only the promise of a job that would last six to nine months before I’d have to find the next gig, or take the good paying job that was full time and close to home. All I can say is, sometimes you gotta make the risky choice!
I did the internship route to start making work connections, but it’s harder today because everyone is scared to hire interns for fear of getting sued, but honestly, what I learned on that show was in many way more valuable than the film stuff I learned in college. I definitely was not taken advantage of! Those opportunities are still out there, you just have to look a little harder today. And look on smaller films. Because, it really is just as much about who you meet as what your resume is.
Cover photo via The Farewell (Big Beach).
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