On this week’s episode of Working, Isaac Butler spoke with Joi McMillon, an Oscar-nominated film editor who has worked on Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk, and The Underground Railroad. They discussed her path to working on TV and movies, her collaborations with Barry Jenkins, and how she motivates herself when she’s in a creative slump. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Isaac Butler: Let’s start on the most basic level. You are an editor for film and television. What is it that an editor actually does?
Joi McMillon: It’s really hard to put into words because we’re involved in so many different aspects of the project. That’s one of the things that makes it really hard to point your finger and say, “That’s exactly what an editor does.” I was just talking to a group of UCLA kids a few days ago, and I was telling them how there’s a moment in If Beale Street Could Talk where the characters Daniel and Fonny are having this long conversation. One of the tricky things to do was to hide my edits to make the conversation feel as fluid as possible. Someone tweeted about it and they’re like, “There’s a section in the film where it’s just one long camera take, no cuts.” I was like, “Well, actually there were a few cuts in that.”
But as an audience member, you’re so engrossed in what’s happening that my job is for you not to see the cuts. We’re almost a curator for the audience’s experience. We work with the sound department to curate the sound so the effects are exactly where they’re supposed to be, and you’re scared or you’re fearful or you’re overjoyed. We also work with the composer so we make a music hit align with the cut. At the moment you’re tearing up and you’re like, “Why is there so much emotion?”
You’re right there on that very first day, taking those dailies, editing them together. When you work with Barry Jenkins, is he in the room with you for that part of the process? Are you making a first draft on your own and then presenting it to him and tinkering from there?
Initially we did our first pass of The Underground Railroad without Barry because he was still shooting. Throughout the process, when we had a cut to a place where we thought it was like, “OK, he could see the lay of the land and give us feedback on it,” we would send it down to him, because he was shooting in Atlanta. There were two breaks that they took where Barry was able to come back to L.A. But it’s a little tricky when you have a director who is very popular to get time with him, because everyone’s like, “Barry’s back in L.A!” But he did take the time to sit with us and to give us the nuts and bolts of where he wanted to take the episode.
Our last two productions, Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, I think Moonlight was 21 days. Beale Street, I think was 28. So I’m oftentimes used to doing that first pass and then by the time production wraps, Barry’s in the room with me and then we’re working on it. But this was 116 days, so I just had to keep going. Episode 1 and the last episode were the two that shot first. I was actually working on both episodes at the same time. Then when I got one completed and had all the dailies, I sent it down to Barry, he gave me notes on it. I would work on that. Then we just kept going until we actually had him back in the cutting room.
You’re doing a lot of the first pass on your own, at least during The Underground Railroad because of how the show is structured. In that moment, you’re making a lot of decisions about how long a cut is held, which camera angle to use if they’ve shot something from multiple angles and stuff like that. How do you think through that decision-making process?
I oftentimes allow the footage to inform how long I’ll be on a shot or exactly what shot to select. I can tell—I think it’s because we’ve worked so long together—Barry and [cinematographer] James Laxton’s process and I can see the shot that they really like. Oftentimes it’ll be a one-er, or it’ll be the second to last shot in a series where we’re landing in the same spot, but they’ve done a different pan across, tilt down, ending on the actor. It’s one of those things where I’ll guess what I think Barry wants. Then once he comes into the cutting room, he’ll be like, “Oh.” As an editor, one of the best compliments a director can say is, “That’s exactly what I would have picked,” because in a lot of ways you are, as an editor, trying to present their vision in a way that reflects their intent.
One of the things that’s so hard about what we do is, there’s the initial script that’s on the page, then there’s what’s shot in production, and then there’s the actual footage that we get. One of the things I always say, that directors have to come to terms with, is the version in the script and the version that we’re working on in the cutting room are different. A lot of experienced directors know that, because they’ve been through the process before. It’s about creating the best film possible. As an editor, we’ll present a scene and sometimes the director will be like, “Huh, it’s not how I would have started it, but I like it that way.” Or they’ll be like, “Oh, I actually saw it this way. So can we try it?” Of course, as an editor, you always try what the director wants. But I always love when Barry says, “Put it back, Joi, you were right.”
It’s one of my favorite things to hear, but it’s not about being right. I think that’s why it’s not hard for Barry to say it was right, or it’s not hard for me to say when he’s right. Ultimately, we’re in service of the film. We want to just make the best film or TV series possible. That’s our goal. It’s a collaboration between the two of us, and whenever we come together on an idea, that’s when we’re the most successful.