We Grown Now

Director Minhal Baig and editor Stephanie Filo discuss collaborating during production, the film's evolution of post-production, and the importance of sound design.

Today on Art of the Cut we speak with editor Stephanie Filo, ACE, and also get the unique opportunity to hear from the director of the film, We Grown Now.

Editor Stephanie Filo, ACE, has been on Art of the Cut before to talk about her Emmy and ACE-winning work on A Black Lady Sketch Show and about her Emmy-nominated work on Dahmer: Monster - the Jeffrey Dahmer Story and History of the World Part II. Stephanie has also won an Emmy and a Peabody Award for her documentary editing work, and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for her work on We Grown Now.

Minhal wrote and directed We Grown Now for which she won the Toronto International Film Festival’s Changemaker award, and was nominated for Best Feature for an Independent Spirit Award. She also wrote and directed her previous feature, Hala which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.

Minhal, let’s start out by discussing how you found Stephanie and why you chose her as your editor.

BAIG: The job of the editor is so important in a movie. It was one of the roles that I agonized about the most in finding the right person. On my last film I had the great privilege of working with Saela Davis, who is a director now, herself.

One of the things that I liked most about Saela’s approach is that she really thought like a storyteller and was so focused on characters’ emotions in a scene and thinking about perspective. She also came from a documentary background, which I found incredibly invaluable in the editing process for Hala (Baig’s last film, 2019).

There were big shoes to fill for this film because I had just worked with someone who was incredible. I was worried that I wouldn’t find somebody who not only met all of the criteria that I had for an editor, but also someone who I could collaborate with, because this was such a personal project.

The story of how I found Stephanie’s quite funny. I watch Black Lady Sketch Show and I love comedy and I think comedy editing is some of the most challenging editing to do.

I think editing for horror and editing for comedy are incredibly difficult because timing and pacing how long you stay on a shot matters so much more in a comedy because you either hit the punchline or you don’t, or there are things that emerge in the editing that are really funny, so I watched one of the segments that Stephanie had edited and I just knew I had to meet the person who edited it ‘cause it was just brilliant.

The work in Black Lady Sketch Show is top-tier in all of its aspects, but particularly the editing. The editing team behind that show is just phenomenal and it’s very unique in the way that it’s constructed.

Editor Stephanie Filo, ACE and director Minhal Baig

It felt very intentional and curated in the team and also the approach to editing. I wanted to meet her because I was a fan of her work. When I met her in person, I immediately felt a kinship. I wanted to work with somebody who was excited about the material, had a personal connection to it, in whatever way we can find a personal connection to the material and was going to be a collaborator and partner.

I find I want to work with people who really inspire me and engage with me to push the material and not just do exactly what I say, because sometimes if we do exactly what I say, it might not be the best version of what the story needs or what the movie needs.

I wanted somebody who was going to be able to push back and remind me also what is the core of the movie - what is the heart of the movie - the emotions in these characters.

Stephanie did an incredible job on this film and it’s so clear that she really took ownership of this story. I want to work with people who bring their own perspective. I really am not looking for people who just echo what I’m saying, because I think that film is a very collaborative medium. 

One of the hardest jobs as director is to cast the movie - not only in the people who are on screen but also behind the scenes. Hopefully if you’ve done the job well, you have people like Stephanie and all I have to do is to create an environment where she can flourish; and her work and her perspective ends up in the final film.

I’m not trying to dictate too much of what needs to happen because I really trust in the process of making a movie and the editing process is one of my favorite parts.

Stephanie Filo, Jay Wadley (composer), Pat Scola (cinematographer), Davone Alexis (AE) after TIFF premiere

Steph, do you remember that first meeting with Minhal?

FILO: I think we originally started by following each other on Twitter. I had been a huge fan of Hala, which was Minhal’s prior film and she really liked a Black Lady Sketch Show.

So one day she had followed me and I thought, “Oh my God!” So I followed her back right away and shortly after, she sent the script and we finally got a chance to meet over Zoom. 

I’ve always struggled with the concept of: what is home? What makes a place a place? And she had covered that so beautifully in this script.

I read it and I thought, “I’m gonna edit this movie!” I didn’t even question it. I just thought, “I have to find a way to work on this.” So we connected via Zoom. We just talked about the story and what she was hoping to achieve with it; what I would hope personally to achieve with it. And we just kind of hit it off.

Were you able to collaborate while you were shooting and then how did that collaboration change after production was over?

BAIG: Stephanie was putting together the first assembly while we were filming. I found that really useful. I don’t know if that’s standard practice. It was the case on my last film as well. What I found really helpful with us doing that was that after a day of filming I could talk to Stephanie if I felt I was unsure of whether we had gotten a scene completely.

There were a couple of scenes that - because of production challenges - we really needed to condense the shot list. We had to think about what was important, and I wanted to make sure that we were still getting all of those scenes and that they would cut together in a way that was natural and flowing. Another part of this that was so helpful was that there are a lot of shots in the film that were important for texture.

It was really helpful to keep those on the shot list - keep filming them and then sending them to Stephanie and it’s starting to percolate with her that some of these shots may not end up in those individual scenes but they’re going to be used for something else later, which a lot of them did.

I really valued just being able to call her and ask her, “Do you feel like we have it?” Which - I know as a director - I should be much more confident about, but there were a few scenes where - because we had such limited time with the children - we really had to be so spare in the number of shots, just the number of how many setups we could have because the kids would  would “time out” and then that’s all we can do, and we can’t extend the schedule anymore.

So we really did have to be a bit more creative in how we were planning these shots. But also in the editing because there are a couple of scenes where we had to film the children out before the adults. There’s one scene in particular that’s coming to mind where we had to make sure that it still felt like they were in the same scene together. That was a big upside in having the assembly started while we were filming. 

Then, by the time I came to New York, it was maybe a week before I saw a cut. It was very fast. I felt it was fast and we were already like getting into the director’s cut immediately after that. My scripts are pretty short - I think it was maybe 90 pages if I recall - so there’s not a lot of extraneous scenes.

There’s maybe two or three scenes that didn’t make the film, so we got right into the director’s cut after maybe a week.

Steph, can you talk about that collaboration and how you worked during production and then once the director’s cut started, how did it change?

FILO: It felt pretty seamless. I would get dailies, I would do a quick assembly and send it off to Minhal just so that she had it. There were some scenes in particular - like our ending scene with Malik and Eric - there was also the scene where Eric finds out Malik is moving - some of those that just felt like they really were so important to the story so we just really wanted to make sure they were correct.

So I would make sure to send Minhal my quick assemblies at the end of each day just for safety’s sake, “Let’s take a look and make sure that everything we need is here.” A couple days after they had finished shooting, we went straight into the director’s cut.

There was an additional day that was shot a couple weeks later, and it was actually super helpful that we were able to get into the director’s cut so fast because we were able to see, “You know what? Maybe we need this one additional shot that if we can pick that up on that last final day of shooting.”

There are a couple moments in there. I think the shot of Malik from above on his desk when he’s lying there and kind of sad was not something that existed before. It was just something that we decided as we were working might be something that we needed. 

It felt pretty seamless. We went straight from assembling that first editor’s cut into the director’s cut and beyond. I feel like we took almost a documentary-style approach in the way that we collaborated once we were in the director’s cut because we had our story cards on the wall and every morning we would just come in, look at them, see because it is a slice of life film, are there ways maybe that we can restructure this that might make the boys points of view more clear?

There are a couple scenes that the audio from a different scene is playing under a totally different scene. Our approach was just kind of every day looking at the cards and figuring out what felt the best and what emotionally led us in the direction we were trying to go.

Almost all directors complain that the editor’s cut is a nightmare to watch - no reflection on Stephanie - it’s just the process. How did you feel about that editor’s cut and moving forward from that point?

BAIG: I can’t recall exactly how I felt, but I do remember feeling as if I don’t know how to do my job ‘cause it’s been,  four or five years since I shot a movie. Every time I’m in this part of the process, I realize there were so many things that I wish I’d gotten or that I had thought ahead about something.

You only discover in the edit that “Oh, this would’ve been great if we had gotten that.” And it’s not something you can totally anticipate. It’s not like it was a missing shot. It was just maybe a beat or a feeling that might not have even existed in the script.

So I feel that I get into the post process wishing I was a better writer and better director so that this part of the process would feel so smooth and easy.

I look at that first assembly and I see it as a first draft. I really did feel differently than I did with Hala because I think we had planned so much of this movie out because of the children. It was very exhaustive and I think that meant that going into the assembly I had a pretty good sense of what was there. There weren’t a lot of extraneous shots or scenes.

We had to be really concise. On average we were doing maybe two or three takes - sometimes more - if there were technical issues or there was camera movement following the kids. But on on the whole, we really didn’t have hours and hours of footage or 20 takes of the same shot. We had to move very quickly.

So in a way that made the editing process much more fun because it wasn’t hours of stuff and hundreds of shots that we could play with. It was, “This is what you have” and we had to be incredibly resourceful and creative with it. I didn’t really feel horrified after watching it.

I just thought this is the first draft. Sometimes you watch it as a director and you’re not sure if you have the capacity to get to the finish line ‘cause you have an amazing editor that’s working on it. Stephanie’s working on it every day and so I’m coming in thinking, “Man, I really hope that I have the right sense of direction or that I have the right instincts for this scene.”

One of the great benefits of the post-process is that you can try lots of things and realize, “Okay, we went down that route and it didn’t work. That’s fine, we can go back to what we had before. We can try multiple different versions of this scene.

We can even just watch down the movie, and if we’re not feeling like something is working, let’s just watch down the whole thing because maybe it’s not the scene.” 

So I had a really great experience watching the assembly. Of course I knew that we had a lot of work ahead of us but I felt that I sort of know and understand what we have and we had a really short timeline for this project.

On one hand that was very stressful, but on the other it also forced us to be bold and try things quickly and move on if it didn’t work or we only had so much time to do it.

Steph, do you remember that first cut and your thoughts of things that you thought needed to happen or how you thought the collaboration would go from that point?

FILO: I think on every project I just have imposter syndrome to be honest. Anytime I’m first showing someone a cut I just feel like, “Oh God, they’re gonna find out I’m a fraud.” I always approach watching any cut with a lot of anxiety, so thank you Minhal for dealing with that.

Our performances are so amazing. Our kids are so amazing and so I was confident that we had something. I had to get out of my own way a little bit - as on any project - but I was excited to get into the edit with with Minhal ‘cause when you’re cutting dailies, you’re on an island, so it’s nice to finally get in and start collaborating.

Cabrini Green - the towers - don’t exist anymore. It’s creating a place that is not there anymore and finding all the different ways we could explore that and explore how to make it feel like a place again and feel like we’re in the ’90s - feel like we’re with our boys. I was just really excited to dig into it.

Minhal, how did the film change from writing to shooting to post? There’s a great quote from French director Robert Bresson who said,‘My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected onto a screen,  come to life again like flowers in water.’ Can you talk about those moments of rebirth?

Director Minhal Baig

BAIG: I think that one of the major changes from script to production, I realized that the center of those scenes had sometimes shifted in ways that I was not expecting. For example, the scene where the police come and raid the apartment, the way it was written was very spare from what I remember.

It was maybe a page and a half. I was working with [Executive Producer] Jurnee [Smollett] in the script process on that scene and building it out, but then when we got to production, it was so much more than a page and a half or two pages.

It was a very emotionally-charged scene that is very hard to put down on paper. I think of how much that moment means to the family: how their safe place has become unsafe, so that even the space itself feels different after that moment. That’s a turning point in the film and I think it’s just hard to really get that sense in just reading it.

But it’s the performances - the kids’ reactions - the helplessness they feel. It’s [composer] Jay [Wadley’s] score. All of those things started to come together - even in production. And I realized that’s something I wasn’t expecting at all when I was writing it.

Then when we got to post it was really making that scene come alive and and become that turning point emotionally for these kids. I remember we spent a lot of time on that sequence really hammering home how this was a violation for the family and we’re never gonna be able to look at this place in the same way. It’s not gonna feel safe anymore.

We need to understand the motivation of Dolores moving forward - that she wants to leave this place and this becomes the reason.

So that changed a lot from writing to production and then in post in ways that I think far exceeded my expectations. And then the other part that changed a lot I think in the post-process was perspective.

One of the notes that we received from our executive producer, James Shamus, was to consider that last third of the movie from Eric’s eyes and think about what it feels like for him to lose his friend and allow that perspective to shape not only the order of those scenes but the focus.

When we received that note, I didn’t really know how to execute it. I understood it intellectually. And I think in the process of working it out with Stephanie, we realized what that meant. We need to stay on Eric and now center the scenes a little bit more on his experience of loss.

And it also gave us an opportunity to create something that didn’t exist in the initial script, which was his prayer for Malik.

There’s a scene in the written script where Eric goes to Malik’s house and he asked to pray with the family that was always there, but the prayer itself changed during production because we had the amazing insight and experience of S. Epatha Merkerson and Jurnee on this film that we rewrote what that prayer was and then in post we created a sequence. It wasn’t in the written script.

It was this imagined sequence of Eric saying goodbye to his friend in the same way that Malik is saying goodbye to his friend in the essay earlier in the movie. So those were the unexpected joys that came from production and in post realizing that the script was a starting place and then allowing all these other talented collaborators to come in and do their best work.

Then in the post-process it was discovery, not feeling so tied down to the written word because when I wrote that I didn’t have all these other people involved and now that they’re all involved they brought in so much and it only made sense to really honor that and to approach the editing from a very organic place and allow it to lead us, ‘cause we had this amazing footage that we built out into this prayer sequence that I couldn’t have imagined when I was writing it.

Both of those are very powerful sequences. Steph, can you talk about the evolution of them as they moved through the post process, both the police violation scene and the prayer scene?

FILO: I think the original version of the raid was less cutty. The version we have now is more frenetic. Anytime something big is happening in the movie - not just the raid but also when the kids first come home and they find out they need ID cards - those are more frenetic scenes. There’s so much more happening. You hear babies crying in the background - and this is horrific.

So we had these sounds kind of in the background that we built out over time. But those evolve in a sense of the lens we were approaching them from as well. The sequence with the ID cards has footage of the police officers. You see all of these different things happening. But really it was about the kids’ experience of it.

When you’re a kid and something big is happening, you look to your parents or you look to the people around you that you trust - look to the other kids around you.

So it was really about living within those moments, then that carried over into the raid sequence as well where you’re a lot more in Malik’s perspective, in Diana’s perspective, as they’re watching these things happening. You’re not seeing the police officers’ faces, you’re just seeing how this plays out.

That also added to how we ended up cutting it a little bit more frenetically - just to feel that emotion of the turmoil that these kids are experiencing. 

It was definitely an evolution sound-wise as well. It was an evolution because when you have temp sound effects, you’re limited to certain things.

So we ended up, by the end of the edit, we had like real sound from raids that we found on YouTube and you can hear actual people screaming and it was obviously very emotionally trying for us as well. These are real people - real things happening - in the background that we’re hearing. But it was a big part of that evolution. 

The Eric prayer sequence is probably one of my favorite scenes in the movie now, honestly. We built that in the last few days of the edit. It was within a few days of locking the movie. We thought, “This is what we’ve been trying to figure out this whole time.”

So we put together this moment and we felt like it was such an important time to have Eric’s perspective. His friend is leaving him. We have Malik’s perspective. Finding that was really special because we restructured the movie so many times just to see how different things would play out.

That scene in particular, I know we tried so many different things to see how we could get that last little Eric beat to work. The prayer scene also tied into other themes: Eric is having issues with religion and what happens after you die and all of these elements throughout the movie that it just felt like the natural organic way for this to play out.

You mentioned structural changes and how you tried different things. Can you explain what some of those attempts were and why you did them and why they maybe didn’t work and why you got back to the way we get to watch them in the theater today?

BAIG: One of the moments that had come up even in the writing process was when Dolores decides to move in the script. I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but it felt that it needed to be more motivated.

And in the post process, I believe that scene moved a few times. I think we tried a few things. Originally it was Malik dreaming of moving and then Dolores has the job interview and then it was, Dolores has the job interview and then Malik is dreaming.

We really needed to think through emotionally when it made sense because I think it can be read a few different ways. Did he know that she already got the job and was considering moving and then he’s dreaming about it?

Also the job interview scene coming on the heels of the raid because that really ties those two events together that once the raid ends and you see Dolores in the room crying, it feels that the the change has happened to her.

It’s really tremendous that she has finally come to understand that this place is not what it was before. It’s not where I can raise my kids. So then when you cut to black and you open on the job interview scene, you see that she is making some effort to change her situation.

I’m not sure if it was that sequence in the script. I also remember that the raid and when the funeral happened were also in different places in the script. Once the raid happens, it’s really a point of no return emotionally for the audience, so it needed to escalate. 

The raid happens and now their lives are changed. It has come home for them. The ID cards were one thing, but now it’s a complete violation of their space, of their home. Those were things we played around within the edit to really dramatize those moments and also maximize the emotional impact the audience will have ‘cause we wanted to feel like a real escalation.

The script was kind of a slice-of-life, so those things wouldn’t necessarily have happened in that order, but it made the most sense dramatically for them to happen that way in the movie.

Minhal mentioned that her previous editor had documentary experience and I know Stephanie that you have that experience as well. Can you talk about where that might have helped you in maybe the reedit of the scene with the police or in some of these structural ideas?

FILO: In documentary editing it’s so important that you focus on the ethics of a scene or the ethics of a story that you’re trying to tell. I think that that came into play a lot, particularly the raid sequence. But in any of these sequences,  it was really just about making sure we got it right.

We all were very focused on making sure that the kids’ perspectives stayed as strong as possible. Also that the story wasn’t overly dramatizing something or signposting/telegraphing what you’re supposed to be feeling. I think you can kind of extract it just watching, you know, watching this footage.

And so we really, like in documentary, you know, we really leaned on what the footage was telling us. You know, the footage kind of dictates how it wants you to edit it. So I think for me that’s kind of how I approached a lot of it and just always remembering that lens and always remembering, you know, what story we’re trying to tell, what community we’re trying to highlight and why.

Minhal mentioned throwing away the written word. I think that that’s one of those places where documentary editors are really valuable to say, “Let’s reimagine this is something completely different” and you don’t worry about the script. Can you talk a little bit about just completely reimagining something?

BAIG: I think one of the sequences that changed quite a lot in the post process was the funeral scene and the pastor speech. Originally it was maybe seven or eight minutes long and even on the day when we were filming it there were crew that were making it very clear - without saying it - that this will not end up in the film in full. It really truly did not hit me until I saw the first cut of that.

God bless Stephanie and the assistant editor. They put it together to the script originally, even though it was very long. So there was a challenge. We had to rewrite that speech. We had a Google document to rewrite it and cut from that.

The challenge was we needed to make sure that not only did the speech make sense and emotionally land now that we’ve condensed it so much - to less than two minutes in the final film - we also had to make it emotional because one of my pet peeves in movies when you’re in a church or in a religious setting and there’s a figure of authority speaking is that you tune it out because it’s not important.

I think what the pastor is saying in the scene is important and is relevant to these kids and it really motivates the conversation that they have with each other on the stairs right after. So we had to find a way to structure that. So it was focused on the emotions of the folks that were sitting there listening, but also that what he’s saying has meaning for these characters and for the movie as a whole. 

That required abandoning what was written because what was written was so long and I think ultimately really was doing too much. There is something to be said about trusting the audience to understand the point you’re trying to get across.

The version of it that finally emerged in the final cut got to the heart of what it was about right away. This scene is about the fear that this community has about losing one of its own,  and what losing one of their own children and the resilience that they have in knowing that there is a life after this one.

That’s a real sentiment that many former residents had as a way of keeping hope because spirituality was really important for a lot of the people I spoke to.

So it needed to exist in the movie, in the form of these prayers but also in the funeral sequence when they’re listening to what the pastor is saying.

We really need to get across that this is a way for the community to cope and to carry on, and I think that the only way we could have gotten there is to actually forget what was written before because it was like an essay and the audience doesn’t need an essay.

They need a lot less, so it doesn’t need to be so expositional or explicit. I think they really understand what the heart of the scene is with so much less than I thought.

FILO: That section in particular is where a lot of doc approach was helpful. We had restructured where that funeral sequence happened so many times and it was really about feeling the characters’ progressions.

We need to understand where each of these characters were in that moment. Restructuring a bunch of sequences and changing what the pastor said really kind of depended on where the emotions of our characters were in that moment.

So right now - where we landed - we have the kids go to the art museum, they come back, they show their ID cards and then Dolores yells at Malik because he played hooky from school. There’s a really a powerful Jurnee moment where you see where she’s at emotionally and that leads us into the funeral sequence.

You just had to feel where these characters were in their lives and how all of these elements unfolding affected them before the funeral, so by the time you’re at the funeral, Malik is grappling with so many things. Dolores is grappling with so many things and Eric is as well.

I think that informed how we whittled down that the long pastor speech.

BAIG: I think in the original script it felt too soon after Dantrell Davis is shot and killed and then literally the following day there’s a funeral or what felt like a story day. In the editing of it though, I think we kind of can assume there’s a lapsed time between when he comes home and he’s played hooky from school and then when the funeral happens.

But emotionally it made a lot of sense because he’s saying that what happened to Dantrell couldn’t happen to him and now he’s at the funeral looking at a kid in a casket, so I think that it needed to be right before the funeral sequence for us to really feel that now Malik is understanding what his mother was thinking and feeling in the previous scene and starting to understand her perspective.

For Eric, that moment is about the hopelessness of his own situation. That’s what he’s discussing with Malik right after: that if there isn’t anything afterward then the violence is senseless. That’s a very devastating concept for a child to accept.

For Dolores the ground is shifting underneath her feet. She really is starting to sense: “Okay, I don’t know if I can hang on to this place” and she’s not totally sure she hasn’t made the decision yet, but there’s a sense that it’s the precursor before she makes that decision.

What I love about that scene is also we’re focused on the faces of the family and how each of these parts of the speech that pastor is giving affects them. It really is so much about the emotion. We had maybe a shot that was a wider shot of everyone in the church and we felt that we don’t really need that.

We really needed to be in the emotional landscape of their faces because their performances are so strong, so it made sense to just be with them and to feel what they’re feeling and without them speaking it’s really just watching them.

Avid timeline screenshot of the locked cut of We Grown Now.

I love the sound design so much on this. How much of that was stuff that you tried in your picture cut before you got to full-on sound design?

BAIG: I have to give Stephanie so much credit for the sound design in this movie. The cut that we turned into Participant (the production company) had so many layers of sound. It was incredibly important to the both of us because we needed to give a sense of this place.

A big part of the film is shot on stages and that’s a very sterile sound in the background. So we really needed to build out that without seeing hundreds of people - that lots of community lived here. So that was really central to the design of it. 

Once we had turned in the cut, the feedback we got was that it was one of the most polished director’s cuts that Participant had ever watched. That was in large part due to the sound. The sound was filled out and made Cabrini Green feel like a real place, which I think is hard to do. It’s really hard to do in a movie where you don’t have the actual location.

While shooting on sets was so helpful when working with children and being able to really design the space as we imagined it, it wasn’t great for conveying a sense of the scope and scale of this place because you’re not really getting that from just the two apartments.

You’re really getting it from the sound. When we got into the edit, there were a lot of scenes where the emotions of that scene really hinge on us understanding that this is a place. The ID card sequence is a really good example because we really need to feel the anxiety, the frustration, the violation that the residents feel.

We only have so many shots of extras and things happening to them, but we really need to get a sense of that through the sound. 

Then in the opening sequence when the kids are carrying the mattress out, we need to know a lot about this place before we see a single person in frame.

So that opening shot has a lot of sound right away. The sound design was important to both of us.

Working with  Leslie Shatz in post, he commended Stephanie on how she had created such an incredible template for him to work off of because we had been very specific about everything from traffic to people talking and what they’re talking about, then going into Loop Group, making sure that all of that was very specific and not just random babble, but really relevant to the time and the place.

Stephanie, I think a lot of that came from your expertise from your documentary experience.

FILO: I think sound has always been a huge part of my own personal process. Any space that you’re in, you hear at least three sounds. Like, currently I hear traffic outside.

I hear construction happening next door, and I hear my AC unit in the other room, so I always try to start from that base level. In this instance we’re in Cabrini Green, which doesn’t exist anymore, but which is a place and character in itself. It was like creating that character.

So aside from just our obvious, three sounds in any given room, they are living in towers that are 16 stories that have thousands and thousands of people. So we really took a lot of time to think about what that would sound like: “Okay, on this floor there’s a fight happening.

On this floor there is music playing. On this floor we hear people walking around. 

We had a different intention for each floor, which helped us build out what Cabrini Green was - what Cabrini Green felt like - just having that space in the backdrop of our characters lives. Even though we’re focused on these boys, it’s very important that we felt a sense of and understood the place that we’re in. So I think that dictated a lot of our sound work on the project.

I think we landed on about 49 audio tracks or something by the end. At some point Minhal said, “Well, what about the cicadas? We should have cicadas, right?” So we have all of these other elements that were fundamentally Chicago? Then what is fundamentally this time of year? Or how do we signal what time of year we’re in?

Minhal, you mentioned the perspective change at the end of the film. Stephanie, can you talk about how you may have helped in editorial with that perspective change?

FILO: I think throughout the movie it was really important just to stay in these kids’ perspectives. You’ll notice that anytime you hear adults talking, they’re almost always off screen. You’re only kind of within the kids’ lens.

Yes, there are ACE COVID masks.

You never see the cops. The cops are always off screen.

FILO: Yeah, the cops are off screen, the teacher is off screen, the parents are often off screen as well. We also have some really heartfelt moments with our parents. The perspective shift helped in that every time we are in these heartfelt moments where suddenly like you see Dolores you know that something has has shifted.

You understand that this is an important heartfelt moment between the kids and their parents or their family or community. So I think that’s kind of where a lot of perspective shifts happened throughout the movie.

Not just in the last part, but just trying to find what those beats were and identify what those important moments were where we would see the parents and family members and also identifying where the adults would exist off screen and where we’re very deeply in Eric’s point of view, which you can see during the prayer sequence and during his moment at the end.

BAIG: There’s also a three scene sequence that I think really unlocked Eric’s perspective on losing his friend. The first is after he gets punished. We cut from his face to his face again in the breezeway, and I thought it was so great! Stephanie, I think it’s one of my favorite edits.

Because his face is almost in the exact same position, so you can see that he’s been thinking about this punishment and how following his friend’s lead has gotten him into trouble. Now he cheated on a test and he’s getting heat from his dad and that’s sitting with him: that his environment is changing, the rules are changing for his life.

So when Malik and Slug come up to him to go play, he’s not interested. He feels very left out. 

Then there’s the cut of the ball hitting the wall into the sequence at the dinner table. That scene changed a lot because we had coverage of Jason and Eric’s sister in that scene. When Stephanie was cutting it she said the most important moment is when Eric realizes that his friend is moving and hasn’t told him.

That hurts because in the earlier scene where they’re dreaming, Eric has already expressed that he imagines his whole life here and Malik is his closest friend, so it makes sense that they’re both gonna live their lives here. What we discovered in the edit - what Stephanie discovered in the edit - is that there is a long shot on Gian (Eric) in that scene where you see the moment where he realizes that they’re moving and we stay on him.

Jason has a line there about “didn’t Malik tell you?” and we still say on him and then he slowly gets up and leaves. And I think that that is the whole scene really. We didn’t need to cut around the table. Even in the beginning there’s some conversation leading up to that moment. 

We stayed in the wide and I think that really did a good job because the moment when Jason says “we need to help Ms. Johnson with moving” for the audience, it’s also a surprise. We knew that she was talking about the job and that she and Anita have had a conversation around the table, but we didn’t know they’re already moving.

The perspective shift is important because that’s unexpected for both Eric and audience. Now, we’re with him, we’re really following him. The last three scenes have been following him. I think that that moment really hits because we stay on him in those three scenes. We really force the audience to stay with Eric, understand why this hurts so much.

It’s a shock. And then when he confronts his friend about it, even the way that’s cut you really see that confrontation happen. You see Eric’s pain coming out as anger and we again stay on the kids.

Malik doesn’t see it coming. When he opens the door he assumes he’s coming over to eat. He has no idea. And so again, it’s the POV there: it’s Eric’s POV.

Those scenes were really important for giving Eric’s character space and for the audience to really understand it because he has fewer scenes than Malik does.

We need to feel - before the end of the film - that we understand his point of view, too. We know what Malik’s point of view is about the trains of him moving, of him dreaming and aspiring for something different.

But we also need to understand the perspective of the child that gets left behind and what it’s like for him and what do they need emotionally because that final scene of the film really hits emotionally for the audience because we’ve been with Eric too now and now we know what it feels like, losing his friend.

That was one of the really amazing things to come out of the edit because I don’t think those scenes were one after another.

When they’re saying grace at the beginning of the movie and praying for the grandfather, you cut to a two shot of the grandmother and the daughter as she’s saying, “You’re confusing them.” And then to a reaction of the kids over, “I’m not confusing them. How else are they gonna know who their granddaddy is?” How do you choose when to play something on the speaker and when you choose to play something on a reaction?

Director’s view of Steph

FILO: We played with that scene a lot, but because it’s so early in the film we were really trying to stay in these kids’ point of view. They’re receiving this information and we’re seeing them receive the information.

There’s a version we had where we were on the adults for their full lines, but it just felt more important to be with the kids in that moment because they’re about to have what I think is actually our first sort of like magical realism moment when Dolores is talking about the pie and there it is, boom, there’s pie.

We really just wanted to live with the kids before that moment happened to punctuate what was coming and kind of set the tone for what the rest of the movie would be since that’s earlier in the film that this happens.

BAIG: I also think that in that scene it was important to capture the kids hearing the adults arguing because that’s something, as a child you distinctly remember when your parents or your caregivers are not on the same page.

Those are the things you overhear and you internalize. And we have it happen again in the scene where Anita and Dolores are at the table talking after she has a long day at work and then Malik and Diana are in the living room watching TV.

I have distinct memories of my parents thinking that I’m in my own world and in reality I’m picking up a lot more about what’s going on in their adult world than they know. So I think that those moments were important to highlight because it felt very real that the kids are starting to see the fractures. They pick up on these things and that it affects them.

Immediately after that Diana announces that she’s done with the vegetables. It’s played as a funny moment, but it’s also to get them to stop arguing. It’s very minor in the moment, but I think it’s one of the joys of having kid actors too, is the way she plays it is as if she’s just had the thought, but it’s because she’s listening.

I think that we have a lot of those moments in the movie where the kids are just so special. I think we tended to just lean on what they were doing in the moment because their reactions are really incredible. Even when they were doing nothing at all, I think you want to stay with them to experience things the way they experienced them.

Even in that ID card sequence, we only had a maybe one shot on Diana by herself and that’s it. We cut to it in that scene and it was amazing. We discovered it on the day. I didn’t have a special shot just for her, but it felt really important that we stay on the kids and how they are experiencing this turmoil around them, these external forces, even the conversations of the adults in their lives, how they internalize it and what they do with it.

The other thing that I loved was the patience that you had with silence. You allowed the film to really breathe. It also gave you a great place to be able to hear the sounds. That was one of those places during the stops where there’s no dialogue and you can hear the sound design’s really, really here and present. Can you talk about protecting those breaths and protecting that pacing?

FILO: I feel like that pacing was our attempt to stay within our kids’ world. You need to feel that you yourself are a child experiencing the world during this. I know the first couple of shots of the film when they’re dragging the mattress out from the apartment play for a really long time.

But that’s so you can like get absorbed into that world. You’re feeling Cabrini-Green around them. You’re hearing a playground down below that you don’t quite know what’s happening yet, but you can at least feel what’s what’s happening.

I know we at times had played with shortening it. We thought, “Maybe we just try pacing this little piece up” but we decided, “No, because you need to live with the kids and you need to feel this world with them. You need to experience things as they’re happening with them.”

That’s why we really made a very intentional effort to stay in these longer shots or to let moments really breathe as much as possible. Because if you’re a kid, that’s how you would be experiencing the world, right? That’s how you would be absorbing information and understanding the things around you. It was very intentional on our part.

BAIG: There was one other moment that I think is worth bringing up when talking about silence. It’s after Dolores touches the fabric of the curtain torn in the raid scene - it is absolute - there is no score after that. There’s just the sound of her walking.

There’s glass that crunches under her shoes as she’s walking back to her bedroom. It felt really important that we preserve the silence of that moment because what they’ve just experienced is so harrowing and terrible and we have the wide shot of the devastation that they’re seeing.

We are watching them witnessing what’s happened to their space. It has never looked like this before, and Dolores’s resignation is played out in this wide. It’s all in her body language as she just doesn’t even say anything and just walks out of the room and Malik follows her.

We thought about what it would be like if the score had continued on until the end of that sequence, but I think what works so powerfully is that we needed to give dignity to those emotions and the grief they’re experiencing.

It’s so real. The real families experience the raids in the high rises, so the next shot is Malik walking to the frame and he’s in his own room and Dolores is in her room, you can hear her crying. It’s a very painful moment as a child to hear your parent cry. In his eyes his mother is so strong and she takes care of them. She always seems to know what to do or the right thing to say.

In that moment he’s really witnessing her vulnerability and her humanness - that she doesn’t know what the answers are. She doesn’t know exactly what to do to protect her children. It’s a very difficult moment for both of them - her helplessness and that him realizing that my mom doesn’t know what to do or what’s happened to us.

It has affected her more than anyone and he doesn’t know how to comfort her, console her, and we needed that to be in silence. I think that crying is so hard to hear and as a child you expect the parent to be always put together.

BAIG: Then when we cut to black and we open again, and hear the sounds of the office and time has passed and now Dolores is in a different place where she’s decided to do something about it. I think silence in that moment was very effective.

Sometimes I feel we’re scared of silence as filmmakers, but I find that in the nakedness of that moment, there’s no emotional manipulation. If people are crying at the scene without any score or anything in that moment, it’s because what’s happening to this family feels so real and you can only really honor that with silence.

FILO: I think that moment also was much shorter at one point too. That last shot after the raid sequence was shorter and we were still living in the discomfort of it and we extended it by several seconds because we just need to not only live in the discomfort, but to feel like we’re actually there and with them in the reality and gravity of the situation.

Let’s talk about the score. It’s not what I was expecting. Stephanie, did you have a conversation with Minhal before they started shooting?

FILO: Minhal had sent me kind of a list of ideas. She had temp score ideas that she was playing with. From that I started building out a Spotify playlist of other temp scores that were within that vein.

So I had an idea what she was going for. I think we played a lot in the edit with what the actual tone should be with our temp score and also how much nineties music versus not-nineties-music.

At some point we had nineties songs playing underneath or you used to hear De La Soul playing at one point. So we had all these different nineties things that were subtly in the background, but really because it’s such a universal story, I think we kind of dialed back that very nineties aspect of it just to live with the tone that the temp score and the final score ended up putting us in.

BAIG: I would also say that one of the fun things to come out of this process of editing was how much of the score was influenced by the cut. There’s moments in this sequence where they run into the art museum and there are hard stops in the score on the cuts.

They run in, they stop and then the score changes and then they walk out and then it starts up again. It was really important in talking with Jay that in collaborating with him, that we create a score that felt very integral to those scenes.

That it’s not just a wash of color or just a feeling like I really wanted it to feel like you couldn’t have the scene without it, that it really needed to be there. 

Another sequence where it really played a big part is when they’re saying the pledge of allegiance into the handstand sequence. The cut from the hallway where the shadows are jumping on the wall to when they’re on the bed looking up at the stars.

That’s a hard stop. So I told Jay that I want what he described as “punctuation marks” and those were dictated by the cut. I wanted this score to start and stop on the cut in certain places. It really feels like it’s tied to it, like kind of woven together.

We had a lot of temp score that was challenging to use because it felt so specific. We wanted a score that felt playful and honest to the children’s perspective, but also had scope and scale because we wanted their world to feel big.

Even though they live in the high rises, they mostly live in this one little neighborhood, but there needs to be a sense of adventure and bigness to their world.

Another one of those moments that came out of the edit was the escape sequence. That music starts as soon as they start running. Those were fun moments to discover while working on the score. Jay would send us ideas and we would try them out and some moments came together very quickly and other things we had to have pieces fall in. 

The playground sequence was another place where score really needed to establish the tone of the movie. We are exploring the world through these kids’ eyes and it’s a public housing project and there are certain expectations of what that’s gonna be and none of what we’re showing should feel familiar: everything from the journey with the mattress - the way we shoot it - the fact that we focus only on the kids for the first five minutes.

There’s no adults, there’s not really much dialogue either. It’s mostly visual and the score itself has to really match the energy of these kids. So once that fell into place, it felt like we understood how the score for the rest of the film had to be. 

And we took a lot of risks with it. It’s a score that swings hard. There’s always the risk of it not working or people finding it distracting or annoying, but for me we have to go hard on this perspective in the same way that we’ve shot it and edited it. The score also had to do that. 

It really had to rise to the challenge of being integral and essential in conveying that psychological standout in the movie too. The score is another one of the joys that came out of the movie. The score is amazing. It really announces itself. It told its own story. It’s not trying to fall into the background.

FILO: Jay did such a good job of  - as the tone of the movie starts to shift - the score’s still playful, but it has these  strings of sadness as we evolve in our kids’ story arcs. He’s amazing. He’s a wizard.

I loved it. I hope everybody gets a chance to see it. You both did phenomenal work on it and I want to thank you for talking to us about it today.

BAIG: Thank you so much for having us. 

FILO: Thank you so much.