The ACE Eddie-nominated editors of “American Symphony” discuss their collaborative approach in shaping the film's narrative, their creative choices, and the challenges of handling an immense amount of footage (over 1400 hours) also the significance of discovering pivotal moments, referred to as "nodal scenes."

Today on Art of the Cut, we’re talking with the editors of the ACE Eddie nominated documentary, American Symphony.

Sammy DANE steps into the edit chair for the first time. His previous films include assistant editing on After Shock, The Boy From Medellin, 16 Bars, and Hip Hop, the Songs that Shook America.

Jim HESSION has cut Marina Amramovic, The Artist is Present, the TV series The Deep End, Philly D.A., and David Blaine: The Magic Way.

And Fernando VILLEGAS has cut HBO Boxing, Golden, The Journey of USA’s Elite Gymnasts, and After Jackie.

The film’s director - Matthew Heineman - is also credited as an editor on the film.

I don’t know quite who wants to answer this question first, but my first question is always about the beginning of the film. For this film you start on Jon at the piano for a moment then he’s sitting at the riverside with his melodica. Why start it that way?  


It’s a really great question and interesting backstory, perhaps. That scene was actually the first day of shooting, and it was New Year’s Eve and it was [director] Matt [Heinemann’s] first day with John.

It was, I believe, the first day that maybe they had met, but certainly that they had shot for the film. On my first day, Matt said, “Hey, take a look at New Year’s Eve footage.” It was the first, and he said it was the first day me and John worked together.

And I think he had a sneaking suspicion that there might be the beginning of the film there. So it was the beginning for all of us. It was the first day of shooting with Matt and John. It was my first day on the job in screening the footage. And it was New Year’s Eve.

So I screened that day and the day after and put together a long cut of that day, none of which ended up being in the actual film with the exception that I had flagged that piano scene that begins the film as well.

And that was from New Year’s Eve. It was Matt’s instinct and it proved to be our opening scene. But it’s interesting that it’s my first relationship with the footage, John and Matt’s first relationship with each other, and it was the beginning of New Year and it started our film.


You could sense it though. You could sense that that was the beginning of something.  


Well, my first pass was a version of Jon singing at the river at dusk. I just kind of gravitated to the moment and just the ambiance of the river at dusk. Then Sammy took a whack at the same day from the same shoot, but it was daytime and Sammy’s cut is what starts the film.  


That’s a place that Jon needs to be there - especially at the start of every year - to kind of reflect on what’s happened and think about where he is going.

And I think the only difference in the two moments was that what he’s playing on melodica there by the river is the symphony. It’s the theme of the symphony. The scene that Jim had cut, John is kind of singing Auld Lang Syne and it’s amazing, spiritual, and so energetic - but this was so focused on what he was about to do.

And even though it might not come across immediately as, “This is the symphony, this is what he is working on” he starts to build that melody into the rhythm of the film, into the rhythm of the shoot, and it just felt so connected to everything that was gonna come afterwards. 

You reminded me that there’s actually a scene before the river scene, which is him at the piano.  


It comes right after. Yeah.  


That was the scene that was referencing before. That scene was from the same day. So that was the first day as well, and it was Jon at the piano kind of riffing and playing with musical themes.

Normally on a documentary - just ‘cause they go so long - there aren’t so many editors. Were you under some kind of time constraint that they wanted three editors, or what was the idea there?  


I think it was just the, the enormity of the footage. Matt captures everything. The cameras don’t stop rolling. You cannot do it any service if it’s just one mind. It has to be a collective sort of wisdom that starts to harness it.

And Sammy was the first one on there where he was watching the dailies, everything. I think it would’ve driven a single editor insane to go through all that footage and start to quantify it and start to understand what the core of it was.

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - DECEMBER 07: (L-R) Suleika Jaouad, Jon Batiste, Matthew Heineman, Lauren Domino, and Joedan Okun attend the American Symphony New Orleans Premiere on December 07, 2023 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images for Netflix)

Fernando, how much footage was it? 


Over  1400 hours 




We had dailies from a single day’s footage that were 18 hours long. One day’s footage could yield one scene or there could be three scenes from one day.

So in the beginnings we were just cutting dailies and trying to find what were the powerful moments within that day. You needed three people because there were three vibrations within the film. You had his career, you had the symphony, and you had this life of his that he was going with [Jon’s girlfriend/wife] Suleika [Jaouad].

I think that the wisdom of the director, knowing that each one deserves a concentrated mind to find the real depth of it. I think that was very important for the film, for us to concentrate.

Then Sammy organizing… I could never have done it! I was brought on a little early, too. I did the sizzle for it. I cut a few scenes early on. I thought, “This is amazing! I’ve never seen this before!”I’ve never seen this intimacy before.

I’ve never seen this vulnerability before.” Then when Sammy started to organize it, it really allowed us to figure out: “What are we doing here? What is this film becoming?”

Jon and Suleika

How did you divide responsibilities?  


Matt has a really interesting process and he always likes to work with multiple editors. He likes the “hive mind.” He likes the collaborative aspect: everyone bringing different ideas and taking on different scenes from different perspectives.

But I was first tasked with watching all of the footage, which we calculated that It would’ve been about 10 months just to screen it.

I quickly did the math: 1400 hours divided by a 40 hour week is 35 weeks.


Yeah. So I started two months into production and they ended up shooting for seven months almost every single day. So I was two months behind trying to piece together or understand editorially what was happening in the field.

Every day Matt would come back from the “Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show” [where Batiste was band leader], or he’d get back at very strange hours.

They were filming for 16, 18 hours a day and just kind of tell what happened or he would show me the footage of Suleika getting released from the hospital and we would just sit there and cry together.

And Matt would wonder if he got the shot, if he was in focus or not. And so I was just trying to treat all of those hundreds of hours of footage as if they all had a place in the film.

And if they did, how would they live in the film? And then kick out these six days to Jim, this week to Nando and what are the scenes that are actually in here? And Jim and I had a conversation early on about a conversation he had with a mentor of his, about the concept of nodal scenes.

And so then I really tried to go into the selects and say, “What are the nodal scenes here?” I wrote up a long document for everyone to think about and start to piece together these different storylines.

Jon Batiste directs The American Symphony at Carnegie Hall.


And Matt really has an instinct for it too. You start working on the Suleika and Jon story art. And for me, I mean, I love music, so I thought, “Oh man! I kind of want to get into the symphony!” You know what I mean?

But I’m so lucky and so blessed that that was my task because it was I started to see that there was really something there. There’s something really profound what’s happening here with these two people.

And it created a big question of “Do we share this or do we not: the opening up of their lives?” I started gravitating early on to the fact that this is a love story. That direction is what actually made the film. Then we’ll honor those aspects of these people’s story. 

Jim, what’s that concept of the, of nodal scenes?  


It’s actually a concept that I quite literally think about every day, certainly of my working life and maybe even in my off hours. The exact phrase came from Jonathan Oppenheim, who was a mentor of mine and who passed away relatively recently.

He was a beautiful man and a brilliant man, and a really seminal documentary editor for our craft and also for me in my development as an editor and just in my personal life as a human being.

And effectively John would say, “There’s a question when you’re working on verite films such as this, where you’re going through hundreds of hours of footage or in our case, thousands of hours of footage.

The obvious question - which is my fundamental question - is how do you decide - of this real life unfolding in front of the camera - what is in and what is not in the film?

John simplified it with this idea of nodal scenes: of the hundreds of hours of footage or of the thousands of hours of footage, what are the five moments or what are the 10 moments scenes that you witnessed in this sea of footage that are absolutely in the film - hell or high water - what is without a doubt in this movie, because you know it in your gut, you know it instinctually, and you know it viscerally and emotionally, and it was really not academic and not quantifiable in language sometimes.

And he would cut those scenes pretty viscerally and lay them all out.

Suleika - wedding scene

In my past experience, sometimes you have four nodal scenes. Sometimes you have 20 nodal scenes. You lay those all out and then you come up with some theory on what order they should appear, then let’s say you have 10 nodal scenes laid out, the telling the story, the creation of the story becomes pretty simple in the sense that you’re just trying to get from one nodal scene to the next, so it’s “All right, I got five minutes, I gotta get this nodal scene to this nodal scene.

And it makes it a little bit more manageable in your brain and kind of logistically as well in kind of cracking the first pass of the story.

Then you take a look at that, then obviously there’s iteration upon iteration upon iteration, but the idea of nodal scenes has been my saving grace in basically every verite film I’ve ever worked on in the sense that I don’t know how else to make sense of real life captured on camera for thousands and thousands of hours without that concept.

So it’s something that I think about every day. And I think about Jonathan every day. He simplified a very complex concept into a very digestible framework that I’m thankful for every day in my working life, for sure. 

While we’re on that subject Sammy, what was your nodal scene?  


One of them that is in the cut that feels closest to what the first idea was, was when Jon is on tour and Suleika is back home in the hospital and we’re communicating their relationship and the distance just through these phone calls and FaceTime moments.

That was such a tough scene to crack because we wanted it to show Jon’s dazzling, entertaining side, but also tether you to what he must have truly been thinking about and caring about during that moment.

And it was so hard for him to be away from her, but he knew he had to, and he’s providing for them at this moment when they need it the most.

And the way that he was connecting with people in the audience was something that we had to strip for time, but the conversations that he would have with people afterwards, he was this figure who was touching people’s lives in such a unique way.

And I think that’s represented in his Grammy speech and the way that music and art can just find you and grab you at the moment that you really need it.

It was one of my favorite scenes to cut and so much of that work had been done by Nando earlier in establishing their love and their connection and the trust that they had so that John could go out on tour and do what he needs to do while Suleika is in the hospital doing what she needed to do.

## What about you Fernando, a nodal scene for you? You must have had a lot of 'em if you were doing the love story!


I think for me, one of the ones that resonates the most is when they’re in the hospital where he’s using music as medicine for her. And that scene of them getting up to stretch and walk around and they play Simon Says.

To find that happiness in those kind of moments spoke volumes to me. No matter how much darkness we’re facing right now, it matters how we face it. That’s medicine: to find these moments of hope and moments of terror.

These kind of scenes need to make the film because that’s what connects us to a broader audience. And to also signify that it’s the music - it’s the CERTAIN kind of music - that we can give to the world that can be used as medicine for those that need it when they need it most. So for me, Jon playing “Lean on Me.”

I loved cutting that scene, especially ‘cause I cut a lot of other stuff where it was “Oh my God! This is heavy! This is dark!” That was one of the most notable scenes to me.  

The scene that Netflix has allowed us to play is from the hospital where they kind of danced down the hallway. Can you talk about constructing that and even deciding- and it’s a great scene - that that was gonna be one of the scenes that makes the film.


Exactly for that reason, that scene really played upon the duality of what they were experiencing, bridging those two contrasts of going through something that’s gonna be very scary and hard for a young couple to be going through.

This is almost immediately after their marriage to find the playfulness in that moment, to find the hope in that moment. We all put hands on all aspects of the film as it started going on, but to me, when I started cutting that, it was like a 10 minute scene and I thought, “I don’t want any of this to go away!

You know what I mean? Then you start shrinking it, but no matter what, we knew that moment - although a lot of the film is Jon’s over here living this other life while his wife’s over here living this life - it was those moments that brought them together and we could see how two people can go through this happening in their life.

And also what’s really beautiful is the wedding was before the hospital and it really resonated with the vow: “through sickness and in health.”

Those things are real. It resonated because - especially now in these days - our values need to be reinforced and for them to show us that we can go through these things with hope and joy and playfulness. That’s powerful!

What’s the process between the three of you and the director to determine how long that scene would be if it starts at 10 minutes? A great 10 minute scene, like you said, but it has to feel like the right amount when the audience watches the film.


We fall in love with it, but then - ultimately - reality sets in and discipline. Matt is perfect at that: to have the discipline to allow yourself to let go of those things for the benefit of the film.

You start chipping away at this piece of granite to sculpt that scene, and it’s that discipline: “Okay, I can lose that. I can lose that.” Then knowing there’s no more to be cut from it. That took a collective wisdom.

That took everybody putting their hands on that scene because there are moments where me as the person that cut that 10 minute scene - you’re starting to wreck my soul here.

Someone take it and be the assassin! But that’s discipline, and that’s the greatness of working with a team. It was very helpful.  


So many times when we’re cutting these scenes initially, like, you know, Nando will discover a scene, like the walking down the hallway scene or Sammy will discover a scene or all discover scene. A lot of times at the time that we’re discovering the scene, we have no idea what the film is yet.

And neither does Matt, and neither do any of us. Perhaps the more responsible thing is to cut the scene to be 10 minutes because you don’t know what the hell the movie is yet, or what, or what’s gonna be useful and what’s gonna serve what in relation to how scenes will speak to each other and the structure of the story.

So I think my fault a lot of times, if I had to be self-critical is I cut scenes a little too tight at the beginning when I first come across ’em, because I kind of wanna make the movie, you know! It’s always a struggle with myself and my teammates sometimes where I gotta cut things a little looser.

Be more “Nando” in the sense that I gotta cut a 10 minute scene as opposed to cut a two minute scene right off the bat. You gotta cut from the film that we’re at the, at the spot that it’s at, at the given point in time and not for our, you know, our advanced knowledge of what it is.

So I’m assuming that early on for all of you, it was about creating those verite scenes and not worrying too much about the structure of the final film.  


God bless Matt. I really want to stress this and the whole team - Lauren Domino, and Joedan Okun - how they structure the edit itself, because there’s a real discovery process that happened on this film, and it was only possible given the amount of time that was allowed for in the edit to discover things and to fail and to succeed.

Without that period of experimentation and discovery, the film wouldn’t be what it ended up being.  


Absolutely. I mean, it was an 18 month edit process. It was divided into these three sections. The first six months was dailies, selects, scenes, moments, feelings.

Then once Lauren Domino, our incredible producer came on, she started screening everything, we had already kind of started to develop this global knowledge of where things were headed.

And so she was able to look at it from a structural standpoint. And so she and Matt and Joedan were this kind of brain trust thinking about what are the main storylines, where will they possibly intersect? But originally we just cut these storylines as their own films.

So: John’s career arc, John and Suleika’s love story, John’s residency at Carnegie Hall and the symphony, and they were really thinking all the time about how are these scenes speaking to each other? Where do we need to go into this world and out of that world. 


We essentially cut three movies. Our initial rough cut was about eight hours long, right? 


Six hours, 40 minutes. 

It could have been 12,  


It could have been 12!

Probably could have been 1400!


I know, right? Oh my God. Exactly. There is a double-edged sword with the wealth of, of riches. When you have that many options, it becomes extremely difficult. If you don’t have enough meat on the bones, then you can be creative.

We can pull out all the tricks to expand. But this was like, holy shit, man! There’s an abundance here that was exciting but daunting to tear that down -  to rein that in - was possibly the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, editorially.

On New Year’s Eve, Jon and Suleika are hanging out. It’s not big New Year’s Eve craziness, it’s just the two of them on a couch basically. Right at the end of that, she takes some pills, and I thought that was very interesting, because - as an audience member - you don’t know what’s to come, but that’s a little bit of foreshadowing. Was that the thought there that let’s let the audience know something’s going on?


I give credit to Matt for that one. I was really hard on that scene and for a long time to the point where I kind of felt bad. Prior to that edit, there was, there was that beautiful scene on the couch and there was this beautiful scene on the bed with the two of ’em, and it was intimate and it was meaningful to all of us, which is why it was in that film.

But my reaction to it was, you’re always looking for, for a scene to progress from kind of A to b something has to happen It doesn’t have to be huge, but something has to kind of evolve within the scene.

And for the longest time, those two scenes just were kind of floating a little bit and I wasn’t quite sure where they were going, and they were kind of placed at the top of the film.

And Matt, to his credit, really hung on to those two scenes because I think he thought they belonged there, but we hadn’t, as a team kind of cracked how to get them to play kind of narratively and cinematically.

And one day Matt inserted the pill scene. I hadn’t screened that footage. I didn’t know it existed. I’ll pat myself on the back. I approved it immediately. 

Immediately my half year long incessant annoyance with how we were structuring that dissolved in a second with that one shot and everything came together immediately.


It’s amazing because we were struggling with that, then it’s amazing how one shot, one moment can do that.  


Yeah, we tried so many different things with that. And that moment in the bedroom, we tried all these different versions where someone had sent Suleika a basketball with all these signatures from friends of hers saying, “kick cancer’s butt,” “you’re gonna win,” “keep fighting” all this stuff.

And John was reading it and palming the basketball and trying to help her to palm the ball too. And we loved it, but it was just, it was too much and we wanted to just do these little samples of her story and drop it out in installments.

So the next time you hear about it was when they’re having the snowball fight and she says, “no one can hit me with snowballs. I have leukemia.”

And I think something that Matt really strives to do - and this achieve that in a really interesting way - was he always wants the edit to feel the way he felt in the room capturing the moment.

And I think for that moment with the pillbox, it was their first day of filming, there was so much uncertainty ahead and Matt was still trying to build trust with them.

He wasn’t necessarily gonna ask for all this access immediately. So to just be allowed to see a moment like that of her taking these pills and she had this entire bag of pills that she had to take for chemo and to be let into their world like that so intimately, so immediately, it was like just the right amount.


What we’re really talking about is foreshadowing - if you want to get kind of into the wonky storytelling aspect of it all. But on a human level, I think we really wanted to let Suleika exist in the story without her illness - let her exist as a character not burdened by the illness - and as a human being before we embarked on the story of her cancer.

So that was that little subtle shot. The reason why I kind of initially reacted the way I did was it served a storytelling purpose where you’re foreshadowing something, you’re not revealing to the audience right off the bat what is going on in her life.

You’re letting them know that something is, but you’re simultaneously letting her be a human who’s not yet burdened by her illness. So in other words, she gets to exist in the film in a way that is not attached to her condition.  

I appreciated the fact that you gave the audience a lot of credit in tracking the story because she’s not introduced, her disease is not introduced. Their relationship is obvious because they’re cuddling on a couch, but you figure that the audience will figure this stuff out.  


I think we do underestimate audience a lot, especially in a lot of the expressions I’ve seen out here with documentary filmmaking. Context is a slippery slope.

There are things you feel you don’t need to be told. And if you have the courage to allow that, that’s where artistry lives. And it resonates more so than someone telling you how to feel.

The amount of time that we were allowed, which was a gift to spend with it, is why it is what it is and why it resonates the way it does, because you can find those ways of connecting with just an image and people feel that we know you’ll get it ‘cause we get it. 




It’s like we’re all humans.


Amen to that, man. We’ve all evolved for thousands and thousands of years to read expressions or be sympathetic human beings, so I’m responding to something on a visceral level in the screening of the footage.

The more and more I do this, the more and more I trust that the audience will as well. I’m not special. I feel like our job as documentary editors working in verite footage is - if we have a skill - it’s to be cognizant or be aware of our visceral emotions and our visceral reaction of the footage.

So it’s just noting the moments. Like if I react to that, you have to trust that other human beings will likely react in a similar way that I did by virtue of the fact that we’re all human beings.   

Our commonality is what allows you to edit those scenes together.  


Exactly, exactly. 

Can somebody talk to me about the montage that’s built around the Zoom call that Jon has about the symphony. Meeting all the people that are gonna be part of the symphony?  


Yeah, that one was so interesting because the initial conceit of the film was a “process film” of Jon creating the symphony and really traveling the country to find the perfect musicians to make his vision come to life.

And as they say, “then life intervened” and they had to change course. So that two minute montage was kind of the remnant of the first idea, and it was all centered around this one vocal performance from this group of siblings.

They’re a group called Infinity Song, and it’s the Boyd siblings, these amazing singers who Jon gave them an idea of what he wanted the piece to represent and they created this one verse, “dawn day to dusk the night it comes for us, but we shall overcome.”

And lyrically that was supposed to encapsulate the entire vision for the piece. And so we just started intercutting it with Jon scouting. He was in North Dakota working with indigenous musicians and he is in the studio working on his own projects and he’s doing some crazy project with like 30 musicians for Disney.

And so all these different influences that are going on in Jon’s mind come together and get in the pot and become American Symphony. The Zoom call is also Jon talking to what was at that point, the entire symphony orchestra and trying to explain to them the vision and the process.

And he’s referencing Duke Ellington and Coltrane and talking about how this process is gonna be different. And so I think Jim and I both took a crack at bringing his monologue, his thesis down, but there were so many parts of that that were so interesting and we just had to be disciplined.

It goes back to discipline. What are the three sentences that distill this epic vision down? And then how can we pair that with imagery that elicits all the emotions that the piece is hopefully going to elicit in Carnegie Hall.


The biggest struggle in verite nonfiction editing is to sometimes provide context for what’s happening. And really what I’m looking for is in storytelling language or cinematic language, is the inciting incident.

What sparks Jon to wanna make the American Symphony? The answer to that dates back to Jon’s upbringing and Jon’s training as a musician. It’s the culmination of his entire personal life and his career. But we didn’t film all that obviously.

So you’re walking in into a moment where Jon in some ways had already decided to make American Symphony, but you’re trying to convey to the audience why is Jon making the American Symphony? What led him to that?

A real challenge is always to kind of fulfill that, that need in the story for the inciting incident in this case, why is Jon making the symphony? The real answer to that was not captured by us.

I think that scene was a moment where we really had to kind of work with what we had in real life in the footage to give an answer to that. We kicked that back and forth.

There were a million iterations. I don’t remember who did what. It was a combination between the three of us and Matt and a million notes from other folks who were kind enough to weigh in. That scene was pivotal and tricky and hence went through a million different cuts,  


Especially because we did not do the interviews in a traditional way. We didn’t have master interviews, we didn’t have people helping us to move the story along. We were literally pulling narrative from moments that happened months apart.

And to have that in your lexicon to construct the core of that narrative, it wasn’t a soundbite from an interview. No! It’s a construct of this thing happening through months. And then to condense that down to a scene, for me it is a miracle that even happened that we didn’t say “Oh my God!

Let’s, let’s go shoot an interview now to help us.” But that’s what makes it beautiful. Let’s put in the heavy work to find the reality in the moment, to construct a narrative,

To be able to have a memory of 1400 hours or 1500 hours or 2000 hours of footage and say, “Oh wait. He says something when he goes to that studio in Omaha, that sentence would work over here.”


This is where the teamwork and part of being an nonfiction editor on this sort of project, you simultaneously have to be a really great teammate and be open to everyone and everyone’s thoughts and everyone’s memories. It quite literally would have been impossible for one single editor or person to have cut this film.

So I think all of us leaned on each other and our collective knowledge and our collective hard work to not only just put in the work to watch the footage, but also to record our memories of the footage. And that’s not just the three of us.

That includes Matt, that includes Lauren, that includes Joedan, our producers, that includes Tony Hardman and Thor our cinematographers because they’re taking notes as they shoot. 

The editing of this sort of film requires the teamwork of the wonderful people who were included in making this film. And it also includes Joe DeGrand, our assistant editor, who was a wealth of knowledge of just what happened in the footage, what transpired.

The editing of a film like this, given the realities, requires a mass of people. We we’re really blessed to all have worked with each other and know each other.

I wanna give you guys a chance to just hug.  


I have not met either one of these guys in the flesh.  


I’ve not met Jim in real life! I wanna hug him right now!  


We really need that. 


It’s so crazy, isn’t it?

Avid timeline

The three of you have never been in the same room together?  




Me and Sammy, we live in New York, so I’ve worked a lot out of my little troll cave here as an editor. But I would make it to the office a bunch just to be re-inspired.

That was the beauty of this film. Every person inspired you to really wanna focus and say, “What are we doing here? What are we saying and where is the medicine?

Where is the medicine that we can put into this film?” It was a beautiful experience and it was rare and I’m so blessed to have experienced it with these minds that I did. I learned a great deal.  

Fernando, can you explain what you mean by “put the medicine into this film?” 


Early on I understood what it is that we do with storytelling. It’s a double-edged sword. It can either create or destroy. We can uplift the human condition with the stories that we tell, and that’s by injecting medicine into it.

And the medicine is the acknowledgement that we are all in this together. We are all experiencing this together and we’re not alone. And if we shine a light upon the darkness with the story, then we can subside the fear that creates a division between us all.

And that to me is my north light in everything I put my work into. It’s like, how can I put a word or an image in there to help someone understand that you are not alone and we are with you. That’s medicine.

Thank God for my father who adopted me from the streets of Philadelphia and taught me that it’s the stories we tell that make us who we are.

And there are forces out there that want to tell us a different story, that want to take our power. So always involve yourself in the stories that give us power, that re-empower us. That’s the medicine.

Avid timeline from a scene

Amen. I love that. The next scene I wanted to talk about is, I think one of those medicine scenes, which is the sledding scene. Why is that in the film? I think it should be. If I was part of the editing team, I would say, “Hey, the sledding scene’s gotta be in there,” but why did it make it in the film? Especially as it leads into the Suleika scene.  


That was one of the earliest scenes I cut, which was a 10 minute, 15 minute scene. But it was such a great moment of them being this young couple, experiencing new things together.

As Jim said, how do we get into Suleika and her illness without us just hammering you that she’s this sick woman. We needed to give her a life, and that was a great way of doing it by introducing that they’re experiencing this moment in the snow, but at the same time she then lets us know “Hey, I have leukemia.”

And that was a great place to do it because I think in the beginning of the film, they weren’t sure whether or not they were wanting to share that with Matt. It slowly started to happen.

That’s why it had to make the film. That’s when it really started to come out that we can slowly introduce this idea of what’s happening in their lives without it being this hammer, “BOOM!” she’s sick.

It’s like it was a beautiful moment where they were free, healthy, alive, but yet knowing that the storm was coming.

The mix stage

Let’s talk a little bit about intercutting because there’s a nice moment where Jon is working on testing out the symphony and you’re intercutting it with the painting in the hospital. Just talk about why intercut those? Why aren’t they separate scenes? And how do you take maybe what’s one person’s work with Suleika and the other person’s work with the symphony?  


We go through so many iterations of these cuts and so many passes and so many experiments that we probably intercut it at some point, but I do think that we go from the first symphony to the hospital to her painting, but the music continues.

I’m pretty sure that’s what ultimately is in the film.  


Yeah. The music carries through all throughout that introduction to her painting. 


Both those scenes in the hospital and Jon at his first rehearsal come at the beginning of act two. Our main characters are embarking on their journey.

They’ve kind of left the normal ordinary world of their previous life and now they’re both embarking on their quest or their journey, which in our cases, Jon’s journey would be to create the symphony and Suleika’s journey would be to enter chemotherapy and beat cancer.

So at that moment in the film, it was really important to all of us - certainly important to Matt, certainly important to me and Joedan and Lauren - somehow at that kind of stage of our story, create a really stark declaration of both of their individual journeys and then also connect the two of them, which would be their art.

So John is creating his art in the American Symphony rehearsal and then Suleika in the hospital, but leaning on on her creative works and her self-expression. 

So it becomes a story of: they’re both embarking on their individual journeys, but together they’re both leaning on - for lack of a better word - artistic endeavors to get them through the challenges that have presented them in their personal lives, both as a couple, and as individuals.

How to do that? There are probably a million different ways. What we arrived at I think was kind of just smashing them together and then tying it together with the music was a way to kind of present their individual journeys while simultaneously joining them as lovers and as a couple.

Some of the post team.

One of the other thing I wanted to talk about is transitions. The difficulty of doing them. And the one that I can think of - you can talk about any one that you want - transitioning between the touring montage of Jon out on tour and then at some point he comes back to the symphony. So let’s talk about transitions between some of these verite sections or some of the tonal sections.  


That one in particular was so hard to make work because that first performance, when he dedicates a song to Suleika, that entire performance was improvised piano.

He started the show by telling the audience this music has never been played before and it’ll never be played again.

And so finding the way to incorporate that performance into the film was beautiful and it was a nightmare at times, and I think Nando really took to it as score throughout the whole first act, and so beautifully incorporated it into those moments where we’re getting to know them.

And so this is like right at the halfway point of the film, but it’s kind of the culmination of their connection at that moment. We have a 95 second moment of silence before he goes into this unbelievable moment and just letting everything out there.

Suleika’s parents are in the audience, he was wearing her hospital bracelet as a source of strength and a source of connection between them as he quite literally tried to heal her through this music and coming off of the tour, and you’ve heard about her ups and downs in the hospital and how hard it’s been when she had to be away from Jon.

But finding that rhythm of letting that moment play was really tough. It was something that I didn’t quite have the gall to do - to pitch to Matt, “let’s just sit in this moment”.

So I took so many different cracks at trying to cut that moment down. And then one day in the edit Matt and I were sitting there and Matt said, “Let’s just roll this out. What’s on the head of this? What’s on the tail of that? And just let this moment play.”

And I think getting to collaborate individually with your director sometimes is the key because you might think something is too audacious to try on your own and pitch to your director, but when they’re sitting there with you, you just have the freedom to try anything. And that’s how that moment really became so pivotal. 

That was actually one of my notes after that, which was, there is a huge pause before the dedicated song to Suleika and it’s a very emotional moment. I mean, that is a powerful moment, but it’s also one, as an editor you’re thinking, “How long are they gonna let this go on?” ‘cause he says, “I’m gonna dedicate this song, and his hands are on the piano and the audience is listening and he is just… sitting there. It’s very powerful.  


It’s the middle of the film. It’s the midpoint. And in an action film that’s where you may have the big fight scene or a car chase and in verite film, the equivalent of that, ironically might be a long pause. Its placement in the film deserves attention.

And one way to call attention to that scene I think is exactly what we’re all talking about is that long pause. I think collectively as a team - and Matt’s included in that and Lauren’s included that and Joedan’s included in that - where that scene landed and the way that we presented it and cut it … or didn’t cut it in this case … was a wise choice.

And it’s tied to where it is in the movie. You place that scene in another point in the movie and it may not resonate in the way it does.  


It was definitely perfect to allow you to absorb all that you had witnessed thus far. The gravity of all that’s happening, you feel it with him.

He just went through this turbulent experience of touring, meanwhile being there while his wife was going through this incredible painful experience, and it allows us all to take a breath, and feel the gravity of what’s really happening in their lives.

Fernando VILLEGAS and Sammy DANE

Yeah. The audience has been able to see how important the moment is because of all that’s gone before it. Yeah, I love that. Let’s talk about how long something - like the piece of music Jon plays for Suleika - can be? That piece was - in person - a 15 minute song, which you obviously can’t use all of. But how long CAN or SHOULD it be? How SHORT can it be?


There are some phantom edits in there that, that Jim pretty masterfully hid through camera work and sound editing. It was a 15 minute song, so we got it down to like six.  


It’s a great question. I’ve worked on a couple films about artists. You wanna present their art in a fair way, particularly with music, it gets really tricky because when you make an edit in a live performance that Jon Batiste is playing, you’re changing his art in a way that wasn’t meant to originally be heard.

So I think the approach that I took to that musical moment, was to do my best to not be seen. I was just trying to cut the song in a way where it got it down to a digestible length for the context of our film, but also didn’t disrupt what my interpretation of the essence of the performance was.

And that’s a tricky dance and I don’t think you ever get it a hundred percent, but I think that the attempt there was to just cut it in a way that didn’t mess it up - and that includes the camera work.

There was a real connection between Jon expressing himself into the piano and then our camera work responding to Jon and the music. And I felt like when I was trying to edit that song, I was on the receiving end of a lot of creative energy. I was just trying to like receive it and not mess it up, for lack of a better word. 


I’ve got one more question, which I hope will tie in everybody. There’s a section of the symphony where the power goes out on stage and it’s kind of a disaster and you choose to go into a series of flashbacks at that moment. So talk about why flashbacks then? How do you take the contributions of multiple people, the love story that is in there and all these other things are in there. Talk about that montage between the three of you and the collaboration of that.  


Matt knew that early on, he made that note early on. Let’s play with recollection. Here we are now and let’s recall what it took us to get here. It was in different places before, and the collective wisdom has to come in.

That was an hour and a half concert that we cracked down to about 13 minutes, 10 minutes, 15, 12 minutes without losing the thesis of what he was trying to express. I just think Matt already knew it’s like a perfect place for us to not just be immersed in the music, but to understand what all it took for that moment to happen. 

Fernando VILLEGAS with director Matt Heineman and producer Lauren Domino

But you said that was in other places in the film. You had moved that? 


No, no. It was in other places within the concert. Ultimately, that’s where it belongs. It was more towards the end in some earlier cuts.

Then Jim edited that beautifully. That was a great way of honoring their journey and saying, this stuff does not come from just the moment. It takes everything that’s happening to us, our life experience to create this artistry.  


It’s so funny, man how other people’s ideas kind of motivate me. The idea to intercut moments from the film into the symphony itself was floating around for a long time.

And that seemed like a bold move in a challenging way in the sense that I kept saying, “If we’re gonna do that, we gotta earn that.” You’re doubling down on your entire film. It’s like sitting at the poker table going all in.

My instincts are “Let’s go all in.” But my motivation was “If we’re gonna do that at the end, the previous 85 minutes have to be banging. It was like a driving force for me pretty early on because that, that idea was floating around for a long time, let’s say for a year. If we’re gonna do that, we gotta up our game in every scene prior to it. And the hope is that we did. 

I think you definitely did it. Gentlemen, thank you so much for joining me. I just loved American Symphony and you guys did a masterful job. 


Thank you Steve.


Thanks for all you do, Steve. 


Thank You so much. We appreciate it.