Taylor Mason, ACE, discusses the importance of sound and music in horror flicks, the importance of reaction shots, editing with little dialogue, and more.
Today on Art of the Cut, it’s my pleasure to speak with ACE Eddie-winning and Emmy-winning editor Taylor Mason, ACE, about the film Birth/Rebirth, which was in theaters earlier this year and is now available on Amazon Prime or Apple TV. Previously, Taylor has edited A Black Lady Sketch Show, Dahmer: Monster - The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, and Pose. She’s also been an assistant editor on Bladerunner 2049, Dune, and DC League of Super-Pets.
Thank you for having me. I’m happy to be on Art of the Cut, finally. It’s a bucket list item that I’ve had for a while. I’m just so thankful that you gave me the opportunity to cross it off.
So sorry, but I’m also so happy to hear that. It’s kind of the best news I could hear about this movie.
Birth/Rebirth official clip: “I Want to Talk to Her” | IFC Films / Shudder
Well, that was definitely the intention. The script was so well considered, and they’d worked on it for such a long time — I think over a couple of years — they revisited the script, tailored it, and ensured every beat was well-represented, well-thought-out, and well-balanced. But they still allowed room for the collaborators to bring their own objective experience to the film. And I took advantage of moments like the first minute or so, where you’re supposed to be immersed in the woman — Emily’s — coding in and out of consciousness, and it’s supposed to feel chaotic and disorienting.
And so all those decisions — those jump cuts, the fades to black — were just in an effort to immerse the audience in the character and feel as terrified as she was feeling, and therefore be engaged from the first frame to the end of that section.
It was fun to play with. There are a lot of different ways to play that opening scene, but I think the instinct was correct, and it felt good that the director, Laura Moss, confirmed that when they saw it.
Birth/Rebirth Official Clip - "Rescue Birds" | HD | IFC Films / Shudder
That actually might have been scripted — sound under black — I don’t know if I remember that correctly. Either way, the point was to get the audience to start asking questions. Where is this sound coming from?
Why am I hearing it? To try to piece together what it might mean before we get to the first image. So they’re immediately immersed in the story. To me, the image of the eye is already telling us so much about who we’re looking at and how they’re feeling.
This eye, the way it was shot, how close it was, the contrast of her iris and her skin, all of those things — it was such a great shot to start on, and when you pre-lap with sound, you feel even more disoriented which was the goal there.
Our director, Laura, and composer, Ariel Marx, had worked together previously on a short, and they already had a shorthand when discussing the palette for this film. Laura had already recorded some things with Ariel, specifically with her own voice.
A lot of the music is a combination of Laura’s vocals and Ariel’s amazing arrangements…So they sent me a few tracks that I could play with in the offline, and it really informed a lot of the tone and some of the decisions I’d make because a lot of it was so out there and beautifully surreal.
I took liberty with that in the cut and tried some out-of-the-box ideas just because I heard the music and thought, “Oh, this is crazy! All right, I know how far I can go. Let me try some things.”
In terms of the sound. It was just what I felt was right in the moment to help us tell the story. And Bryan Parker, our sound designer, took that and elevated it so much.
You had the same kind of sounds in the beginning under the black of someone getting in an ambulance and the door shutting and all that, and he took it and transformed it with interesting guttural sounds and interesting medical instruments.
He really put his spin on it and made it unique. I had the help of a great team.
Taylor Mason and writer/director Laura Moss at Birth/Rebirth premiere at Sundance Film Festival
That opening was scripted and story-boarded, and the song selected, I think, was also scripted, so I knew exactly how it was going to look, but the kind of pacing it had was still carefully crafted.
How we moved from one shot to the next was more of a subjective choice. For example, I thought the deceased woman’s foot transitioning into the newborn’s foot needed to be treated gently, so I threw a longer crossfade from one to the other instead of cutting hard.
I feel like I had a lot of options to choose from, even though I kind of knew what it was supposed to look like.
What was shot was so beautiful, which made it easy for me to play around with in terms of how to get in and out of what was already pre-planned, and it was fun to do, even though I kind of knew how it was supposed to go before I saw the footage.
We really wanted to keep it visceral because there’s a story, and then there’s underlying themes. One of them is bodily autonomy. We really wanted the audience to empathize with the women who lost their autonomy in this film, and it was important that the steaks around all the things that were happening to these women were understood and felt and not simply used for the plot.
It was necessary for the audience to feel, even if it was pain, what these women were feeling. It’s also interesting that if you’re a male in the audience or identify as male in the audience, you can still feel the same kind of terror, even though it might not happen to you in a lifetime.
So it was really important to make it a universal experience and to respect what was happening and not just be entertained by it.
Birth/Rebirth Official Clip - "She's Alive" | IFC Films / Shudder
Yeah — which also emphasizes the kind of desperation that these women had to have just to be able to do something as drastic as stealing fetal tissue from pregnant women, knowing that it could just as easily be them in that situation.
Having a mostly female cast really raises the stakes here.
I ask myself that often. I almost think this is a question for my therapist because sometimes I’m just shocked by how not shocked I am at a lot of this. Surprisingly, I didn’t need to protect myself too much on this.
That’s not the case for everything, of course. I had finished Dahmer not too long before Birth/Rebirth, and that was definitely an exception for me since it was not fiction — I had to protect myself, leave the chair every so often just to take a breather, and then come back to it with fresh eyes and fresh mind.
But in general, fear (to me) arises when there’s a lack of control or when you don’t have control in a situation. For Birth/Rebirth, I think the fact that I could sit in front of the cut and manipulate it so easily, I didn’t need to be protected from that, knowing that I could change this from a horror to comedy within 13 frames.
Birth/Rebirth poster at Sundance Film Festival
I do, too! I might do a second pass after this. No, but it was great that I had this team of horror-heads — people who are horror fanatics. Laura has a catalog of films in their head that would put anyone to shame. I felt inadequate next to them as we were pulling references.
They knew so many horror films and could just recite lines and scenes at like any given moment, and I had to catch up quickly.
There wasn’t enough time in the day, honestly! Horror was the language that was used, and Akin to that is Mali Elfman — who was our producer and a director in her own right — and also the daughter of famed composer Danny Elfman, so she obviously brought her own horror sensibilities to this.
I want to say — and this is a direct quote — that I think over breakfast one morning, Mali asked if “we should have more bone marrow aspiration in the film.” We contemplated this very seriously and over breakfast.
So a lot of the language just became so commonplace that it did away with any fear, and we were able to really just attack the story without being super affected ourselves until we needed to.
Sisters was a big one. Dead Ringers was a major one for many reasons, but primarily because there are two people whose relationship to one another is where the story lived, so I watched that a few times. Censor, Safe, and We Need to Talk about Kevin, were a few more.
But Dead Ringers was the main reference. And then, when I watched Dead Ringers the series, the amazing series on Amazon after Birth/Rebirth came out, and saw that the themes and tone were so similar, eerie, and effective. I felt like we did it justice.
Taylor Mason at Sundance Film Festival
Not showing the death was a directorial choice, and it was a choice that I’m a fan of. I think the goal was to replicate the real human experience and, of course, how we experience death in real life is, more often than not, unseen.
It’s tragic in that someone you love is here one moment, and then they’re gone the next. There’s no preparation or processing time beforehand. They’re just ripped away.
It’s almost similar to — if you’re a Succession fan — Logan Roy’s death, where he was such a strong character, is suddenly ripped away, and you’re left…
…yeah just a phone call. And as an audience member who does not personally know this man — are still feeling completely and utterly empty, just like our main character does.
So we really wanted: 1) for it to feel authentic and 2) for the audience to connect to our protagonist so that they’re just as affected by the death and then affected by the revival of this young girl.
I’d say this is less of a challenge and more of a gift. I love it when exposition is told through a character’s behavior. I think it’s so much more interesting, and it requires the audience to have to interpret what they see on screen and, therefore, engage.
And once the audience engages, they hopefully become invested in the outcome of their interpretation. So it’s also kind of a device, but I also think it’s just more fulfilling to lead with action than it is to directly tell the audience what’s going on.
The Birth/Rebirth team at the Sundance Film Festival
Some of these choices were made to serve the scene that we were currently in, and some of them were made to let us decompress from the scene we just left. A lot of these choices were emotional. It was necessary to just sit with some of the characters for a second and see how they’re internalizing things.
It’s such an out-of-this-world narrative, so it’s necessary to see how these women are processing it and reacting to what’s going on so we, the audience, can empathize with them.
Initially, the grieving process was a little bit more substantial. We actually went back and forth on this and considered this moment quite a bit in the director’s cut, and basically decided that it was better that Celie remained in shock — that she didn’t fully accept the loss of her daughter — which didn’t require much screen time.
It was important for the moment — especially because we don’t see it — it is important that the death of the daughter be so traumatic for Celie that she can’t process it. She doesn’t accept it.
I mean, There’s a moment where you get a little bit of emotion when she is listening to voice messages left by her daughter before she dies, but we were very careful about striking the right balance there. We didn’t want to give the audience too much decompression.
We just let her graze the surface of that grief and then cut right to the outside of the medical center, watching her go through the motions, barely there. It was necessary for us to create distance between her and grief to allow the audience to buy her, getting on board with a big reveal about her daughter later on.
You know how she kind of easily accepts what’s happening when Rose explains the experiment??
She accepts it very quickly, and normally, people would ask questions and be a little bit angrier, but she just gets right on board with her daughter suddenly alive and breathing through a tube because she never really accepted that her daughter was dead.
So, all these decisions are carefully balanced at the script stage and rebalanced in the edit one scene at a time. It was a fun math problem.
Taylor Mason walks the carpet at the ACE Eddie Awards
Absolutely, I read the script. I was reading it while I was getting my hair done, funny enough, and I had so many verbal reactions to this. Yelps and “Oh my Gods” and “What the hells?”
My hairdresser asked, “Is everything okay? Do we need a break?” It was a thrill to read on the page, and I immediately said, “Yes, please! I will pay you to cut this, actually.” I just loved how well-considered it was.
I loved the personalities of the women. I loved all of the underlying themes, and it was just so well-thought-out. And I knew the director knew what they were doing, so I was on board immediately.
I don’t even think I finished the second act before I started texting my friend to tell her, “Yes, I want to do this.”
I don’t know if you’ve interviewed Kayla Emter yet. We went to AFI together. She was a mentor of mine for a while — mentor turned friend — and she’s the one who recommended me for this.
I think she was working on something else at the time, so I was texting her, “Yes. I’m down,” before I even finished the script.
And then, when I did, they set up a meeting with Laura and Mali, and I was gushing. So, thank you, Kayla!
So true. Only in LA
Taylor Mason and friend at an ACE Eddie Awards Nominees Event
That, along with some of the other moments in this film, was crafted that way, in part, to create intrigue.
I wanted to show the audience that this was just the tip of the iceberg for Celie, as well as for them. I really wanted them to know that there’s something weird going on here, and this is just the beginning, and there will be more.
And, of course, it’s answered shortly after when you see the whole pig – But then we upped the ante when you see the I-V bag attached to the pig.
So you get your answer, and then you get another question right on top of that, and it just keeps the ball rolling and keeps us engaged.
I always love a little hint of something: some kind of promise to anticipate being revealed later on in the film.
Ironically, I relate to that character more than anyone else in the film. I think most people would disagree, but I think it’s because I mask very, very well. So, a lot like the character in the film, daily communication — with all of its nuances — is so painstakingly challenging for me.
Except for this one, Steve! You’re delightful, and I’m so happy to be here! But generally, it is a challenge, and so I was able to relate to the character a bit.
Also, the spectrum is so wide and ever-present, especially in this industry, and I’ve just been exposed to a myriad of personalities and behaviors, some that I can relate to, some that I cannot.
But it’s been super helpful when I’m watching dailies and see these same behaviors on screen. I can kind of easily identify when someone’s feeling sad or mad, or angry. I know how to capture that.
Now, it is important — even with my personal experience — to make sure a character’s performance is still balanced because I feel like if there is too much of Rose’s quirks on screen, it could feel a little exploitative.
And if I cut out of her too soon, it could feel like we’re not crafting the authentic character we want. So, there’s still a balance to maintain, and I make those decisions one moment at a time.
But it is still really helpful that I can relate to some of those tough social experiences.
Taylor Mason at the Sundance Film Festival
I loved that moment. It’s where are two main characters take a breather, and you learn more about who Rose is and also learn more about Celie based on her reactions to Rose and how gentle she is with her.
So, with Rose being so rigid and intense, this vulnerability was an important moment in her character arc. It also sowed the seeds of her mom, who plays an important role later on in the film.
It is a moment where the two women really connect and they see each other finally outside of their shared purpose and common goal to revive this young girl.
But in general, this scene marks the beginning of their journey together, and it’s like an odd couple’s relationship that grows throughout the film.
It really is one of the kinder moments in the film for me and definitely puts a smile while I was cutting it.
I think they’re the reactions that I would have! And I recognize Celie’s reaction in a lot of my family and friends. I mean, Judy Reyes is fantastic and super talented. Her timing is so on point and so when I saw the reaction, I thought, “Oh, that’s how my sister would react to that, or that’s the kind of smirk I’ve seen my cousin make before.”
Then I’ll put the reaction in with a little pause for some judgment and a laugh that I’m so familiar with, and keep it moving. Marin Ireland, who plays Rose, gave me so much to work with.
She plays Rose’s quirks so naturally and unexpectedly, and it was equally great to have Judy bounce off of that with her reactions and expose even more for the audience, just reacting the way she did.
Yes, absolutely. Especially in comedy, they’re my favorite. Deadpan looks? I’ve cried laughing at some of those. There’s a lot of juice in reactions.
There were even less establishing shots that were scripted, I think, and we ended up putting them in there just to reestablish tone or to offer moments of decompression for the audience. But originally, some of those weren’t in.
I think you’re right. There are about 3 or 4 tops. Transitions were limited, mostly because they were unnecessary for the story, especially a story with elements that are actually a bit disparate.
They’re very different and interwoven; making any unnecessary transition choice would disrupt that. It’s such an important balance that any little extra texture, however stylized or not, could mess up the balance.
And so, unless necessary, we kept it cut and dry. If I had use transitions that were stylized, it would’ve been purely superficial and wouldn’t have benefitted the audience.
Actor Judy Reyes, writer/director Laura Moss, and actor Marin Ireland at the Sundance Film Festival
We have the benefit of the audience in this, being able to fill in the gaps, and so when I cut out of something in the middle of it, I’m basically depending on the audience to, in their minds, come to the conclusion that Celie finished cleaning, and Celie finished listening to the music and so on, so it’s not real estate we have to use.
The audience is doing it for us in almost a split second. And then, when the very next frame that we cut to is of a completely different tone — it’s silent, Celie is now still, background noise sounds different, the room tone feels warmer etc. — you get the sense that time has passed.
You have all these little tiny elements that instinctively feel different. Like in your body, it feels different. And so we’re able to show the audience that it’s a different time of day without adding some chyron that says “Wednesday, 7:00 pm, etc.”
That’s what I love about the craft. There are just so many creative ways to communicate to the audience and evoke feelings, and it’s fun to try to figure out which ones to use and when and how.
Yes, we used a LUT. Our DP Chananun Chotrungroj was fantastic. I hope I can work with her again. Her work was so inspiring, and the LUT she chose was great. It was really close to how they ended up grading. And yeah, it definitely changed the tone for me in a lot of these scenes.
It informed a lot of the cutting decisions I would make because of how brooding and dark it felt at times.
And in some cases, because it felt dark, I would ease off of a close-up a bit or maybe make it a little less intense because the color spoke for us. It’s really nice,
I think, to have a LUT, and it’s really nice to have music already kind of established. It really does help you get into the mindset and tone that the director is going for, especially on such a short schedule. It makes it easier. And then you can really focus more on the story.
Taylor Mason with her Emmy Award for HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show
No, I mean, we actually had another thread in the film that, had it been included, would have murkied or undermined the overall story. It was a thread — completely outside of Lila, Celie, and Rose — that was very good, and it was compelling and well-acted but including it would have ended up adding confusion to the overall story.
And because of this change, the moment where the daughter sits up just so happens to be the dead center of the film.
Especially because it was such great texture, but I mean, there’s always so much you want to say in a film all the time. Letting go of a really compelling thread is tough, but if it’s going to be in service to the larger story, then it’s necessary.
I always try to tell myself that lifts can always be repurposed for another time on another film. There are so many stories to tell, and maybe this part of the story doesn’t have to end forever. It just has to end here.
Writer Brendan J. O’Brien, writer/director Laura Moss, and editor Taylor Joy Mason
Well, it isn’t as difficult when I focus on the material. If I’m excited about the material, it’s really easy to talk about, and especially if I connect with it, I can pull from my own experiences and share them very easily without hesitation.
We immediately had a connection the moment I finished the script. And it certainly helps when the person I’m talking to is easy-going and has a sense of humor, which I could also tell about Laura from reading the script.
And so, I didn’t go into our meeting feeling super anxious, knowing that I was going to be excited about the subject matter and got a sense that who I was talking to would be a pretty cool person.
And, the moments when that’s not the case, I think it’s just challenging. But as long as I stay honest and true to how I think and feel about whatever material I’m talking about, I can get through it in one piece.
Yeah, which is kind of why we’re there. So it works out quite well.
There was a moment where I just sat and stared at the ceiling and thought, “Is this healthy? This could make me a better person, or I could just go off the rails after this.” It’s interesting to look back on that time and see how I maneuvered through all that, but I don’t think that will happen again.
I’m going to be kinder to myself in the future and just give myself some space between projects if I’m able. But I am thankful that I have the ability to cut both extremes. I love that and want to keep testing that and honing those skills. So we’ll see.
Taylor Mason and the ACE Award-winning editing team on HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show
I might be pigeonholing myself because I am looking into more horrors. I had such a good experience on Birth / Rebirth and the crew, so I might be doing myself a disservice by cutting more horror, but regardless, it is good to know that people know I’m capable of cutting other genres. Most editors can cut all genres. If you can cut, you can cut. It’s just probably a lot easier for people to pigeonhole us as a way of making the hiring process easier, but hopefully, exposure to the craft and discussions like this can help push against that and show the world that a good editor is a good editor.
Taylor Mason operates Avid Media Composer onstage at the Academy Awards.
Oh yeah. I learned on Avid and dabbled in Final Cut and dabbled in Premiere, but I felt like I had more range, I could tailor my experience in Avid a little bit more.
And so now I’m just kind of a devout Avid user. It’s necessary to learn other platforms. It just is. You don’t want to limit yourself and your opportunities, but if I have the choice, it’ll be Avid.
That’s a great analogy. I think Avid has a bigger lexicon, in my opinion, and it gives me more options to do things. I never feel like my back is against the wall, and I have to do one thing one way. It gives me so many different ways to do one thing, and I like that freedom. I just like that it can be a very personal, technical experience.
Avid project timeline for Birth/Rebirth
I did use ScriptSync.
Like you said, there wasn’t a lot of dialog, but there was still description. And whatever action we had was also scripted, which was necessary because our schedule was short. Our goal was to get to Sundance, so it was really tight. I think about six weeks! Which is wild. So ScriptSync really helped us in crunch time with auditioning takes and swapping things out. So, I will always use ScriptSync if I have that option.
Using Avid ScriptSync on Birth/Rebirth
Shout out to Liz Berganza, who is not a horror fan. So, I want to apologize to her and kudos for making it through the end of this process. I know it couldn’t have been easy, but you killed it, pun intended. And I don’t know what I do without you.
It’s so good chatting with you. I could talk to you forever, but I’m going to let you go and have a nice evening, and I’ll talk to you later. Hopefully, we’ll see each other again soon.