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Like a puzzle, 'Beale Street's' editors piece together its time jumps for a clear picture

Like a puzzle, 'Beale Street's' editors piece together its time jumps for a clear picture
Film editors Joi McMillion and Nat Sanders have each worked with director Barry Jenkins three times. In their latest collaboration, on "If Beale Street Could Talk," the pair divided the film into sections and split the work. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Last September, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” writer-director Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to his Oscar-winning feature “Moonlight,” received raves for its stunning photography, acting and art direction when it premiered at the Toronto film festival. Two of Jenkins’ less obvious weapons in that acclaim are editors Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, whose friendship with the director goes back to their days as film students at Florida State University. The duo, who received Oscar nominations for their work on “Moonlight,” spoke to The Envelope about the director’s vision and how they helped shape the movie together.

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This movie marks the third time each of you has worked with Barry Jenkins. What made this project different from the previous ones?

McMillon: I was very excited that the movie explored the multi-layers of romantic love and familial love. It represented something that is oftentimes under-represented, and I knew that Barry was going to do it in a way that felt new and inventive. It’s a story that is set back in the day, but it’s still very relevant to our time now.

Sanders: As long as we’ve known Barry, James Baldwin has always been one of his idols. The author is someone he has always looked up to and revered. That combined with the fact that there are so very few adaptations of Baldwin’s work, and we just knew this movie had so much gravity and importance.

As editors, you played a very crucial role because the movie moves back and forth in time seamlessly. Can you talk about how you came up with the rhythms of the project?

Sanders: I would say the structure was probably the biggest challenge. Pretty soon after we started working with Barry, we were moving beyond the nuances of the individual scene and focusing on the bigger picture. The first act has a tight structure, where we’re going back and forth between the two families and Tish and Fonny’s (KiKi Lane and Stephan James) first date. After the first 28 minutes, the movie really blossoms. It’s not the most plot-driven story, so there’s not a lot of cause and effect so that things have to go in a specific order. It was kind of a choose your own adventure where we spent months trying different directions.

McMillon: The thing that was very interesting about the structure of this film was that unlike “Moonlight,” which was a very contained, three-part movie, we’re weaving in and out of the past and present. If you pick up a scene and move it too early or too late, it tended to have a ripple effect. For about six weeks, Barry was taking the entire movie home with him every night to watch it to see what was working and what wasn’t. The trickiest part was really navigating to see where each piece of the puzzle should be.

Which sequence in the movie was the toughest one to edit?

McMillon: I would say my hardest scene to put together was Sharon (Regina King) going down to Puerto Rico to talk to Victoria (Emily Rios). Both actresses did such an amazing job and it was such a delicate scene that we had to handle it with much care because neither one of them ends up being the winner. Both of them are impacted by the situation in such a devastating way. We wanted the audience to feel empathy for both women

Sanders: We split the film into quadrants, I had the first and third, Joi had the second and the fourth. Some of it was fighting to keep Barry’s original vision versus the notes we were getting throughout. In the first section, we have this montage where we’re introduced to Fonny carving wood and we start to hear about their relationship. We’re also introduced to the Baldwin voice-over where we show photos of the civil rights era. When that scene was cut out, it broke my heart and changed the structure in a way I felt wasn’t as strong. So I had to remind Barry about it almost every day. When he finally put it back in, it made me very happy.

Joi, you were the first African American woman to get nominated for an editing Oscar, for your work on “Moonlight.” What do you hope audiences will take away from this movie?

McMillon: One of the common threads that runs through both “Moonlight” and “Beale Street” is love in spite of everything. Our history is a tough one and challenges are great. Oftentimes the light that is shined on us focuses on the violence and incarceration. But love is a theme that is greater than all of those things. The layers of love that is depicted in this movie is one of the greatest takeaways. Yes, there is anger and disappointment, but it’s the love that keeps the family together. In my heart, I hope that Trish and Fonny do go on to live a happy life after the movie ends.

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