The Banshees Of Inisherin
Oscar-winning editor Mikkel E.G. Nielsen, ACE, discusses what it was like to work on writer/director Martin McDonagh's latest film about lifelong...
Editor Amy Foote on juggling emotional, artistic, and structural decisions in the creation of the Oscar-nominated documentary.
Today on Art of the Cut, we discuss the BAFTA, Oscar and ACE Eddie nominated documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed with one of its editors, Amy Foote. Joe Bini and Brian A. Kates, ACE weren’t available for this interview, but were also nominated for editing this film.
Amy’s credits include the documentaries, Father Soldier Son, Hail Satan, A Matter of Taste: Serving up Paul Liebrandt, and Bombshell: The Hedy Lamar Story.
Yes. I'm one of three main editors, and then we also had some additional editing help as well.
The first one is Brian Kates, who started the project. We sort of all worked in tandem. We didn't really overlap. Then, the second one is Joe Bini. He and I overlapped for a bit. Then, we had additional editing with Joe Krings and Sabine Hoffman. They're all terrific.
I did it with the help of the additional editors pre-Venice (Film Festival). Then, after Venice, (where it won the Golden Lion), I went back into the edit room for the last month for the New York Film Festival for this final lock.
Starting with that first action at the Met where they threw a thousand fake Oxycontin pill bottles into the pool at the Temple of Dendur, really sets up the dramatic arc of the film. Who are these people? What are they doing? Who is this woman?
It raises a lot of questions, not too many that you're confused and disengaged, I would hope, but just enough to sort of think, “I need to know more about all of this.” The original idea for the film, was that it was mainly going to be about her fight against the Sacklers, and it evolved over the years.
I totally agree. Openings are so important for documentaries - for any film. I tend to like cold opens. They really pull me in. Starting on those close-up shots of the pill bottles is another way to just say, “What is going on? What are all these people passing pill bottles?”
You could have started with “The Met, New York City, the date.” But this was a bit more intriguing way to start. Also, they snuck in there and it was a surprise - this action they did - so trying to give that sense of what's going on, what's about to happen.
That's kind of the second part of the opening, so I'm glad you brought that up because that sort of sets up Nan's personal story. We go to her working on her slideshow, which is one of the ways that she shows her photographs and it does function as a credit sequence.
There's kind of time to just sort of absorb the music and the images and get your bearings and read some credits. But her slideshows are constantly being re-edited. She takes pictures out. She puts pictures in. She continues to change it.
We wanted to kind of nod to that. It doesn't quite land that she's a famous artist, so that next scene that we go to where she's in a gallery, telling people what to do and where to hang things, sort of shows her as a person who has stature in the art world.
We don't say “She's a great artist!” but there are these ways that you can decode that this person is not just an outsider going into a museum throwing pill bottles. She's actually on the inside of the art world.
Maybe it's my pedestrian art nature, but I didn't know who she was. You don't wanna overexplain, right? You don't want the audience to get ahead of you, but how much do you say, “Oh, by the way, she's a famous photographer and has been and you eventually learn, “Oh, her work is actually in these museums that she's protesting”?
We played around with the different ways to kind of get at that. We even had a text card at one point: “Nan is a …” We just kept trying that stuff and then just pulling back on it and just saying, “We want you to sort of come to understand Nan's work through her life and through this film rather than kind of trying to convince you to stay and watch this ‘cause she's really a huge name in the art world!”
We did play around with that. I think by the time you get to her first real action, which was in the essay that she wrote in Art Forum magazine. That editor, his interview, it again nods to, “Oh, she's a big person in the art world.” We kind of wanted it to come out organically.
Director Laura Poitras and Amy Foote at the Venice Film Festival Premiere
I was on it for about 10 or 11 months. Before that, I think Joe was on it for maybe not quite a year. Maybe Brian was on for a year before. But the film sort of evolved. It started in one place and then when they realized that these interviews were gonna be a part of it that Laura did with Nan, that sort of changed the direction of the film. It was a process that sort of evolved in the edit room.
That was just audio. One thing about the process… you get to the end of a film and it's all there and you think, “Well, obviously, that's what it should have been like.” It’s sort of hard to step back and think of all the things that you tried.
I was working with somebody once and I thought, “Gosh, when I look back at my old rough cut, I think an insane person edited this. Why would I ever have thought this would work?” He said, “And that's how you're gonna feel about the current cut you're working on now in a few weeks.”
I loved the cinematic montage of the snow falling through the trees and these closeups of slides and slide projectors and all that stuff. How long do you go before you finally get a voice that comes in and starts talking about sustaining memories?
That song that we use, the Klaus Nomi song, is just so big and beautiful. The images are so beautiful and kind of mysterious in the way it’s shot through the slide projector. I think that's just sort of a feeling thing.
You just came out of this crazy scene at the Met and you just need a minute to sort of settle in. It might have been dictated a bit by the song when it was time to sort of pull out and hear Nan’s voice, which is going to be sort of one of the main elements of the film.
Like when does it start in the scene?
Yeah. Oftentimes, I find spotting is not at the beginning of a scene, for example. It might happen three-quarters of the way through a scene and lead you into the next scene.
The way we deal with music is so different in the Nan personal stories sections versus the forward-moving verité sections. I tend to maybe use less music than more. Sometimes, I cut with music and then strip it out, just to kind of get in the rhythm of a scene.
We experimented with putting a lot more music in because as you saw, there's long stretches of just still photos and Nan's voice. Whenever we tried to spot music there, it kind of buried her. It buried her presence. Instead of subtly kind of supporting it, it sort of squashed what she was saying.
There's a lot of music because of her slideshows. That was really fun having those needle drops, which are from her original slideshows. There's a lot of different places where music was used.
Sometimes, in the backstory sections — what we called the inner story — we use a lot of old Super 8 footage that had no audio. So sometimes, that sort of called for some music. I have all these principles about how I like to use music, but at the end of the day, it's what you feel and you try things and you keep what works.
Postworks sound mixer team
I tend to think, “Okay, I don't wanna lead the scene with music. I wanna let the scene start before you're gonna bring in music.” That might be one of the things. I really do tend to use very minimal music because I just find it sometimes so distracting.
Exactly. In the verité contemporary pain activism story, that was fun to use music because you really wanted to enhance how beautiful and exciting these actions were or how nervous they felt on the way in. Sometimes, it's useful there to sort of support the emotion that is in the scene without pushing it too much.
Nan started the film. She started documenting the work that she was doing with her activism. Eventually, she pulled in Laura and the producers. She was very much a collaborator and she had strong feelings about what photos were being used.
I don't know if you noticed, but when we present her slideshows, we sort of cut to black and start her slideshow and then cut to black. Originally, I had blended her slideshows into the film more.
When she saw that, she said, “No, these are separate pieces of my work.” I totally got it when she said it.
Exactly. There was an understanding between her and Laura that these interviews were gonna go very deep with the idea that if there was something that she ever felt uncomfortable with, she could choose not to include that in the film.
There was nothing that she actually took out of the film. When she wanted to change something, it was like she wanted to make it more nuanced or go deeper into it, so it was interesting.
Nan Golden in the darkroom
But as an editor, I'm thinking “there's no motion.” If we put motion on the photos, then that would give it some energy. But I'm sure she felt like she wanted those to be stills.
When I had come onto the project, that language of the stills being still had sort of already been developed by Joe Bini. It's also maybe part of the reason why music doesn't work for a lot of those things.
I think if probably you moved in on a still, then you would probably want music. It was just like a vacuum when she would speak. It was quiet with just the stills. That was enough. There seemed to be enough energy with her storytelling.
That was weird at first. I was sort of thinking, “Oh my God, am I never gonna do a cut-in? But it held up, I thought.
The other question I have is about keeping one side of the story alive or the other. We've got the verité Sackler stuff and then we've got the Nan history ‘80s New York stuff. Were there discussions or was that something that evolved as you were editing?
Yeah. With the sort of forward-moving verité scenes with PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), I think every time you left it, you think, “Oh my gosh, what's gonna happen next? They just pulled off this big action, but they're being ignored. I know that they've had some success, so what's gonna happen next? And now they're being followed by a P.I.”
I think with those. They ended when there was a good… what's the word I'm looking for?
Yeah. Like they've now achieved this. What's next? I sort of got enough of this story that the stakes are higher. Each time you get to one of those PAIN scenes, there's a cliffhanger. I think that’s the word I was looking for. There’s a cliffhanger.
You sort of know where you are when you come back to the story after this maybe long stretch — sometimes a 15-minute stretch into her personal story — you remember where you were.
With the personal stories, there are these sort of different eras in her life and a lot of it was dictated by the storytelling that she did in those interviews and kind of when it felt like we've got what we need to learn about Nan from this era of her life and we're ready to go back. There are different reasons that the transitions work or the two different parts work and they're kind of different, each one. There were different reasons that these things are next to each other.
Yeah, we didn't really worry about the length of either. We weren't really kind of looking at, “Oh, this can't be 20 minutes” We weren't really worrying about that. The good thing about the chapter break is that it sort of leads you back into these backstories, we call it a trap door.
Matt Hickson, our wonderful associate editor, I think he coined that. The chapter break is a trap door and you land in a different place in Nan's life every time.
That was a useful transition. The first chapter is called “Merciless Logic.” In the personal story, it's kind of when Nan first encountered this rebellious spirit of her sister and what society does to squash that.
That's also the chapter where you meet the Sacklers and the merciless logic of their capitalist greed. Other transitions or other times things are next to each other, like the story of her being battered by her boyfriend during the New York downtown section of the film, is very close to when they're being followed by a P.I., so there's a sense of danger. They’re different reasons things work or are connected.
Yeah, just moving around all the time.
Director Laura Poitras
Sometimes, there are other photographs from other artists. I'm pretty sure it’s mainly people she knows or she knew. There's some stock video, I think.
I think the first place that we dropped it in was when we get the Downtown scene in New York City. There's the beautiful shot of the Lower East Side of an old station wagon with the U-Haul thing on top of it. The last chapter, we were in Boston. I just felt like I need to ground us in New York.
We don't need to see every iconic shot of New York City. There's a lot of speaking in the beginning, where there's all the people she lived with and then it sort of shifts to how she got into the art world.
There was a need for a breath and a transition. Sometimes, I didn't wanna look at more photographs, so that was a time where you can just breathe for a minute. You're landed in a time and place, and you can go on to the next leg of the journey.
So much of it is just her story. Sometimes, it was used to sort of transition between different stories that she was gonna tell within that same section.
Director Laura Poitras, AE Marley and editor Amy Foote at The Met when the Sackler name came down
That's kind of the fun challenge. When you don't have exactly what you need to depict something literally, then you think, “Okay, how am I gonna show this?” That can be where more interesting things happen.
She had done this slideshow called Memory Loss, which was about addiction and lots of different voices, including her own. We had used an excerpt from it. Basically, she started taking a lot of photos of the sky and I think Memory Loss had a lot of those photos that we used for that section about the overdose.
I had temped in some things that I felt could work that were from this longer slideshow that we only use an excerpt of. That was a place where she came in and knew exactly the photos she wanted to use. I'd had four or five photos. She sent four different photos so those went in and they worked beautifully.
We had an incredible archival team and a lot of what they found predated me coming on board. I think they mainly were getting things absolutely related to Nan in her story. Then I would signal them like, “I need something of Lower East Side!” Most of the time they would've already found it and then they just gave me the name of the file and I would find it in my Avid. They're incredible and they worked for three years pulling stuff in.
One other thing that I love talking about with editing is reaction shots. Documentaries rarely have reaction shots, even in verité ‘cause sometimes there's only one camera, and you are faking them or something. But in this one, there's a whole section where the PAIN group is on a Zoom call with the Sacklers, who are being forced to listen to victim statements.
Can you talk to me about the decisions that were made and when you would be on a various person who wasn't speaking? Because you could have just always been on the person speaking, right? If you wanted.
Nan Goldin self-portrait with scratches
I don't wanna take all of the mystery out of filmmaking, but that scene was shot with one camera. A lot of the people that I chose to speak were the ones that I had long enough segments on.
I could have stayed on that 911 call with the parents because that was fully captured, but we don't know them quite as well as we know our characters.
It felt really impactful to see them witness this. Often at times, I might have a timeline of all the shots of this character listening, all the shots of this character listening, and you sort of play with them until you get one that's like, oh, what he's hearing is clicking. You're kind of moving them around to sort of build the emotion of the scene.
So that brings up another interesting point, which we probably all heard or anybody that went to film school heard about documentaries, is how - if you are not using a reaction shot that is truly them listening to a specific phrase - how carefully do you try to use that reaction shot?
‘Cause you can make the Sackler’s seem terrible.You could hear this tremendous, horrible thing from a parent and cut to the Sackler’s looking off into space when that would wasn’t really their reaction. You could have done that. Talk to me about making those choices.
There were times where I would put in a cutaway of a Sackler that did feel like a lie, that just made them seem really disrespectful. I mean, they were pretty much dead the whole time. They would look at the clock or look around uncomfortably and that was while people were speaking. That wasn't during a break or anything like that.
I wouldn't wanna manipulate something where it would feel like a lie. Seeing them just stare blankly is —
Bad enough! The question of ethics in documentaries is an interesting one. If somebody were to ask me, “Oh, when he was listening, that wasn't what he was listening to and he made that horrible look.” And if I was to answer, “Oh, I faked that” in such an extreme way that that would then disappoint the person I'm telling - that they feel cheated by that - I don't ever want to be in a situation where the actual truth that I'm covering up would make somebody feel cheated.
Thanks for asking that. We wanted to make it very clear that this is Laura making this film about Nan and with Nan and that these conversations are not voiceover. There's different places in the film where we sort of sprinkle Laura reacting to something or speaking at the same time with Nan, just to sort of remind the audience that this isn't voiceover.
Nan Goldin with her roommate
This is a conversation between two people and it's sort of privileged that we're kind of accessing this conversation between these two women. After such an intense scene where she's talking about her sister’s suicide, which had a great impact on her life, I think it was important to show that Nan had that ability to say, “You know, that's enough for tonight. I don't wanna talk anymore.”
It shows that there was this degree of trust and that she was able to stop when she was done. That did happen after a conversation about her sister, so it felt true.
I don't know whether you constructed that, but talk about the images that are used and when you are showing things that are exactly what we're talking about. She says, “I read this thing,” and then you're seeing what she was reading and sometimes you're not.
That was an intense scene to construct. Nan gave us access to those documents and Laura and I pored over them. Actually, that's where Laura discovered what would become the title of the film, All The Beauty and the Bloodshed, which was in one of those medical documents. It was a quote from the sister, from her sister Barbara.
Nan’s telling this story sort of independently of these records. The documents that we used were sort of general enough or had less detail. If there are too many words and you're just landing in there, you're gonna get confused.
I'm very sensitive to when people are speaking and there's text. When I experience that as an audience, what am I supposed to do? Listen or read? So just careful placement of space. When we were going to land a document, that required a bit more time to be able to read, but also to be able to listen to Nan.
There were some things that Nan said that we found specifically in the documents. All of those highlights are from Nan herself. She had pored over them for that slideshow she had done, Sister, Saints, and Sibyls. A lot of those were her own highlights that we showed.
I got into it very haphazardly. It was not a main plan, but I look back and I think, “Oh, I probably did wanna do this, but I didn't even know what an editor did.”
I got very into documentaries when I was a teenager. I lived briefly in Austin, Texas and they have great theaters down there. I just found myself always wanting to watch documentaries. I think it was after this film called Promises.
I'm not sure, but I remember sitting in the theater and watching the credits with tears rolling down my neck and just thinking, “Wow, look at all these people that were part of making me feel this. Wouldn't it be so cool to be part of making audiences feel things?”
But that didn't lead me down this path. I basically got an email from a friend that I knew from years ago saying, “I'm looking for unpaid internships on a documentary film by Jennifer Fox. Do you know anyone who would wanna do that?” I said, “Maybe I would.” It just started as a part-time unpaid thing.
Jennifer Fox directed this six-part series that came out in 2007 that Nils Pagh Andersen edited. He's the editor who did The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. I worked with him for a couple years and they both very much nurtured and mentored me.
I said, “I don't know if I can handle the risk.” They just said, “Oh no, you're gonna learn how to cut a scene and you're gonna learn how to do this.” Then, the minute I actually edited, I lost sense of time and didn't eat and didn't go to the bathroom. I thought, “Whoa, this is so cool! I can't believe I could get paid for this.”
One thing led to the other. I went to the Edit Center in New York that Ellen Oxman ran and the rest is history. It’s funny. I didn't remember that Austin screening until years later when I was already cutting films.
Nan Golden with her older sister
I feel like there are two places that she says something like that. There’s one where she says, “I was thinking about this last night,” and then she shares something about how her friends kind of saved her. We kept that in because that's one of those other places to drop in the fact that this is a privileged conversation that's sort of unfolding and there are new things that are coming out.
I worked really closely with Laura. We were talking every day. Multiple times a day, depending on what was going on. I think it's something that I just dropped in ‘cause it felt interesting and it felt right. Sometimes, you're operating by feel, but you're not sure why it works or you're operating with logic and you don't really know why it's gonna work emotionally, so you're not always firing on all cylinders.
I don't remember exactly, but I think I might have just dropped that in. Joe and Laura had talked about the importance of Laura's voice and that this was a film that was specific to these two women. I kind of kept my ears out for any phrases like that could sort of help communicate that.
That was Laura.
Thank you so much for having me. I feel honored to be on your podcast!
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