Sundance Film Festival, which took place January 28 – February 3, included 73 feature films, hosted by actor and comedian Patton Oswalt, with jurors presenting 24 prizes for feature filmmaking and seven for Short Films.
In our latest Sundance interview, we talked to Jeff Boyette, Editor of Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir, about his editing process and what it’s like being featured at Sundance.
PH: How did you get involved with Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir?
Jeff Boyette: I had known the director, James Redford, for 10 years, since I was just getting started in the industry. A few years ago I was free when he needed and editor to finish his HBO doc Happening. He then asked me to edit his next project, Playing for Keeps. Jamie initially interviewed Amy for that project, and they really hit it off. He and his producing partner, Karen Pritzker, pitched the idea of biopic to Amy and got American Masters on board. Amy agreed, and I was asked to edit both projects back to back.
PH: Can you share your effective approach to editing and how you make executive choices to
cut/keep certain content?
Jeff Boyette: First of all, you have to be clear what story you are telling. Inevitably any one subject will have way more depth than can be covered in single film, so you have to find a through line and make sure your selections are always in service of that central story. In our case we focused on Amy’s relationship with her mother. That was our through line. We get into other aspects of her life, but always circled back to how Amy’s relationship with her mother evolved through the course of her writing career. As a consequence we left out other major events in Amy’s life, but we knew that wouldn’t matter if the mother-daughter story was successful. For this to work out well I start with a pretty extensive outline of the structure based on a first viewing of the footage. At the same time I try to be flexible with that structure and prepared to shift things at any point in the process. There might be something that you exclude from an early cut because it seemed less relevant at the time, that turns out to work quite well once the film has been through some evolution. The way I create my initial selects has this in mind.
Instead of pulling out my favorite selections from an interview and putting them in a “selects” sequence. I leave the entire interview in my selects sequences, but use detailed markers to clearly label and summarize each line, with stars for my favorite lines. The best lines get moved up to track 2 and 3, but everything is left in the timeline. That way, when I return to my selects sequence I can find my favorite lines quicly, but also jump around my markers to reconsider things I didn’t select the first time. Later in the process, if I need something specific, I’ll often “reset” everything down to the first track so I can review again and make new selections in a different context. A film takes several months or even years to edit so it is impossible for your first round of selects to be the be-all-end-all of film. Your understanding of the film changes as you edit so have to be prepared to reconsider things at any point. But you can’t watch all the footage multiple times, so thorough organization and good notes in the markers have been key for me.
PH: How has your professional experience in the industry helped you with this project? What
did you take away from this project?
Jeff Boyette: It was intimidating to work on a film about Amy Tan. Even though I’ve worked on other films that have been widely seen, this film had extra pressure knowing that she had a massive fan base and a massive legacy that we needed to live up to. Having a bit of experience with feature edits made it a lot easier to take on the film and approach it with confidence. Rather than get worried about the daunting task of editing, I knew to have faith in the rest of the team throughout the edit would support the process and that me. If I learned anything on this project in particular, it is the importance of having a supportive team. Jamie always led the team with a positive attitude, and was never stressed about the schedule even things got messy with the pandemic. And I didn’t hesitate to lean on my producers or my assistant if I needed anything and vice-versa.
PH: How did you oversee production or make suggestions to streamline your work?
Jeff Boyette: Fortunately most of the shooting was done well ahead of the start of the edit. I was editing another project with the same director and producers so I was in direct contact with assistant who prepped everything well before I started the edit. The big time saver was having an assistant on throughout the edit. I was able to delegate a ton of work that I’m used to doing myself. We worked very closely together.
PH: How did you collaborate with the team?
Jeff Boyette: Most of the reviews happened via Vimeo followed by a long conference call. That was the method for all the full team conversations. We did reviews after each major pass – ie first act, second act, first full rough cut, etc. The director, James Redford, waited for me to ask for feedback rather than giving me deadlines for each pass so I had a lot of control over my pace of work. He and I had an open dialogue throughout about anything and everything, and I was talking even more regularly with both my producer and my assistant for input on story decisions and anything else I needed help with. In fact, even though we were all remote, we had a really supportive, trusting, and communicative team throughout the edit. They really trusted me to be in the drivers seat in terms of the edit, but I also really depended on them for regular input and support.
PH: Do you have a favorite/memorable scene that you can discuss?
Jeff Boyette: I love the final scene of the film. I don’t want to say too much for those who haven’t seen it, but it is after Amy has had some closure with her mom and we brought up to “present day”. Amy is finding new peace through a new hobby, which involves some wonderful moments in nature. There is a lot in the sequence that I relate to personally. It is one of the few moments in the film without any interview talking heads – the only voice is a finally passage read by Amy in VO which is also very meaningful.
PH: Did you face any challenges while working on this project? What were they and how did you
Jeff Boyette: Our director and friend, Jamie, died just before we finished our final cut. This was a devastating loss on many levels. Needless-to-say this made finishing very emotionally challenging. We had just finished a cut that he felt confortable showing to Amy who was able to convey her enthusiasm for the film just before Jamie passed. We knew it was nearly finished and we owed it to Jamie and Amy see it through. At that point we got some outside input, mostly from people who knew Jamie well, and who we knew would be thoughtful and honest. The feedback pointed to some tweaks and trims, but it was mostly a matter of polishing the cut Jamie last saw and then getting it ready for Sundance. The finishing timeline was extremely tight, but everyone came together in an incredible way. The composer, the animator, the colorist, everyone on the team were people who knew Jamie and I think they all channeled their experiences with him to finish the film. It was an extremely emotional experience, but we all felt a huge devotion to Jamie after so many positive experiences working with him. I know he would be very proud of the finished film.
PH: What editing software did you use to cut? And why?
Jeff Boyette: I edited in Premiere. I learned to edit in Final Cut Pro “classic”, and then quickly switched to premiere when Apple re-wrote Final Cut. I’ve had a few experiences in AVID, but I was always very glad to come back to Premiere. For this film I used the new Productions feature, which improved some the stability issues I’ve had on past features.
PH: Now that Sundance is virtual, how do you think the experience has changed? What are some of the ways you, along with other production professionals, can still socialize and collaborate?
Jeff Boyette: This was my first time going to Sundance, so I can only compare to other festivals. I think the organizers really made the best of the situation by setting up meetings and socializing online, but I don’t think you can possibly recreate the kind of connections that happen in person at an event like this. I did “run-into” someone I hadn’t spoken to in a while at an editor zoom event. So there was still some room for that kind of spontaneous connecting, but again, nothing like an in person gathering. On the flip side I had friends and family all over the country watching the premiere. That really was incredible. I really hope they continue to do some form of virtual screening alongside the in person festival in the future.
PH: How do you think the filmmaking community at Sundance reacted?
Jeff Boyette: Everyone I spoke to at the event and since was really excited to be a part of Sundance. For our crew it was just as big an honor to be a part of the festival in the virtual setting. In fact, we were able to share the premiere with so many more people this way that it actually made it feel like a bigger deal in some respects. Not only could I tell my family that I was at Sundance, they got to watch the premiere! That said, it was a let down to watch the premiere from the same seat where I edited the film – while bottle- feeding my infant daughter no less. So the actual screening was anti-climatic for me personally. I imagine most filmmakers had a similarly mixed reaction. I look forward to going in person in the future.
PH: Were there any challenges?
Jeff Boyette: I had an endless stream of questions about how to watch the film, and then I heard a lot of reports of technical challenges getting it to work. Ultimately, I think only a few people I knew couldn’t watch the film because of technical issues or misunderstanding the rules around the viewing window. Most made it work.
PH: Do you think this might be the future of film festivals? How could it improve?
Jeff Boyette: I really hope festivals continue to incorporate virtual screenings in some way. It really expands the viewership, which is a big deal for indie filmmakers. And for working Dads like me, it makes it a lot easier to see films that I would have to miss otherwise. I just hope the streaming platform improves and becomes more uniform across all the festivals so that viewers don’t have to figure out a new tool every time they want to screen something. Also, it seemed like Sundance tried a little too hard to make the events feel “live”. A lot of people, including me, were confused by the 3 hour streaming window followed by the 24 hour streaming window a day or two later. I think if something is going to be virtual, there needs to be more flexibility in when people can watch it. Still, I managed to see a ton of movies during the festival and every single one was amazing.