Hilda Rasula, ACE, on the freedom of editing with first-time director Cord Jefferson, the importance of sound design even if it’s subtle, and more.
Today on Art of the Cut, we speak with Hilda Rasula, ACE, about editing American Fiction, which won the AFI’s Movie of the Year Award and was nominated for a Spirit Award, a Critic’s Choice award, a Golden Globe, and the PGA Award for best picture … and could be on the list for the Oscar.
Hilda’s previous features include Moving On, Vengeance, French Exit, and the TV series Our Flag Means Death, among many other projects.
Cord found me through the traditional route. I got a call from my agent saying that there was a good script floating around. She emailed it to me. She didn’t mention his name, though. We got off the phone and there was Cord’s name sitting in my inbox.
I realized, “My God! I know Cord socially!” We did not know each other very well at all, but we had a few friends in common, including one very good friend in common who used to be his magazine editor when he was a journalist.
I had heard at least a year ago that Cord was developing a movie, and he was maybe going to direct a movie, but there are a lot of people who are writing a script, and you never know if it’s going to get produced.
Suddenly, there was his name, and there was a script. I opened it up right away, and just started reading and knew within 15 pages, “I want to do this movie.”
This is exactly the right kind of vibe for me.
It was great. Cord is super collaborative, maybe because he was a first-time director. First of all, we really did have the foundation of a really strong script, and I think that that really helps.
Cord also really knew the tone he was going for. He knew the kind of movie he wanted to make. He didn’t have the benefit of a film school graduate’s knowledge of film grammar, so that kind of changed how we could talk about things.
He really was coming to it as a writer’s writer, and I think that he had such a handle on the tone of the movie that he wanted to make and why he was making it, which I think is really invaluable.
I think there are times when filmmakers don’t really know why they’re telling the story. Cord knew that from the inside out of his very being, so that really helped us control the tone, know what we were going for, and have these gut checks about where we were swinging too far in one direction or another.
Honestly, he was amazing at just letting me do my thing and getting out of my way when it came to some of the nuts and bolts of cutting. He really respected what I had to say and listened to me.
And when I had an instinct about, “I really think we should do this,” or “Let’s wait and hold off on that,” he just really was incredibly open to - and for the most part, loved — my ideas. So it was a dream collaboration.
No, it wasn’t. One of the first big decisions we made was that we needed a new Scene 2. So that was a major different element. There was a much slower scene originally in the script.
Scene 2 — as it ended up — is a rewrite and a reshoot that we did at the very end of the process where Monk gets in trouble with his colleagues at his academic job, and he basically has to face the consequences of his actions, of his grumpiness and intolerance.
Yes, his rashness, and he’s forced to go back to Boston, which is where his family is. So that’s what motivates him to get to Boston with a maximum “upping the stakes.”
It also was about adding more jokes in the rewritten scene. Cord did a great job of tweaking the way we get to him before we even go to the main titles. Then he’s on his way, and he’s forced to go back home.
The other big change that happened pretty late in the game was a restructure that I thought of and I really was kicking myself that I did not come up with it sooner, I’m embarrassed to admit.
After months of cutting, we were struggling with this idea: “What is the proper way and the proper pace in which to meet Monk and understand his central beef about the publishing industry, about culture, about the way black literature is received?”
This is what he struggles with emotionally and professionally, and it was a very drawn-out introduction. We met him, he went back to Boston, and then we had many scenes where we met his family.
We met his sister; his mom, Lorraine; and their housekeeper, who’s really another member of the family. We set up these other family drama plotlines, and then we finally met Issa Rae, who plays this character, Centara, whose work is sort of endemic to an issue in publishing that Monk particularly hates.
Though she’s not in all that many scenes of the movie, she’s crucial. She’s a really crucial turning point to understanding what his central problem in life is. We originally met her pretty late in Act One, and that was always an issue. We knew it was always an issue.
American Fiction scene cards on the wall
I had a board in my room with index cards and all of that and every way that I tried to move around the cards, it always messed up the timeline and the narrative in some way that never made sense. I would think, “Well, that can’t happen there because then this happens and…” you can tie yourself into these knots, and you think that you’ve hit a brick wall and it’s unchangeable.
Then finally - extremely late in the process - I suddenly realized that sometimes you just have to do what the film wants.
What the film wants is to understand what he’s all about to meet Centara earlier and to completely solidify the foundation of his cultural complaint before you can move on to really meeting his family. At least, that’s what I thought the film was really looking for.
Then I just finally saw a “new math” to it and a way that that could be done. But in order for it to happen, we had to kill some darlings, and that was a little sad. There were other scenes that had to be sacrificed for the timeline to make sense, but it set up the right foundation for Monk, and it was just necessary. In the end, it just worked when we did it.
Thank you. I should remember that editing is a creative process. You have to sort of get in the mud of it all and get messy. And it doesn’t mean that you have all the answers right away. That’s not what being creative is. Sometimes it is at the 11th hour.
You almost can’t expect it to happen at the beginning. Those answers? You need to live with it. You need to see what it feels like. That just takes time, and it takes patience.
There is that classic adage: There are three times that a movie is written. There’s the screenplay, there’s the movie that you shoot, and then there’s the movie that you cut.
That’s the final rewrite. In this case, the script was pretty damned brilliant, but there are things that you can’t possibly know until you feel it as a human and as an audience member… until it’s finally on screen in front of you.
That’s when you’re getting into the real struggles of you’re doing this ultimately for an audience, not for yourselves. You’re trying to create an experience that’s about sound, music, and images and how that feels for an audience. So there’s so much instinctive stuff that happens at a level sometimes.
You just know that there’s a feeling that something is wrong in this area of the movie, and then it’s your job to — over the course of months — eventually diagnose it. That’s the first problem. Then heal it. Yeah, it’s a process.
Director Cord Jefferson and editor Hilda Rasula, ACE, at the TIFF Premiere.
Yes, that was a really fun thing. It was a quick shoot, squeezing in a lot of location shooting, sometimes with multiple “company moves” in one day. It was a very tight schedule for them.
But that was one of the few times when we actually had the time in advance for me to say, “I have a wish list of things I want you to shoot for this.” And they did it! They got me my wish list! It was so special and wonderful. I just said, “This has to feel different.”
There needs to be extreme close-ups and isolated shots of the typing hands, and eyes. And we need to feel his agitation in some way.
Yeah. Glass of Scotch is being tossed back. It is such a turning point for the movie, so there needs to be something that is different than just some of the types of close-ups or mediums that we’ve been living in.
There needed to be something that really felt like something was afoot, whether he realizes it or not because he thinks this writing thing he’s doing is really sort of a dark personal joke.
But as an audience, we need to feel that a larger plot is being set in motion. We don’t really know it consciously yet, but we need to feel it, and there needs to be a little montage, and the style of shooting needs to change for a second.
Part of the trick happens through the initial camerawork: the first dolly move that starts on his laptop with his fingers typing, then it circles around and pulls back and reveals the characters in the room with him.
So really, that was very designed. It was written on the page that way, and then our DP — Christina Dunlap — helped Cord sort of design how they were going to be revealed. As with everything in editing, there was a little reframing we had to do because the characters got revealed too early in a way that didn’t look right.
So, of course, there’s massaging. I love how that dolly move just reveals them. Then it was a matter of cutting it like a slightly heightened drama. But I think the drama - the dialogue happening between these two fictional characters that are in front of you that materialize - is really engaging.
The actors are great, so you find yourself getting caught up in this mini Father/Son drama that’s happening on screen, even though you know it’s fictive.
Then there was just a little bit of massaging we needed to do to track Monk’s emotions. We repurposed some shots and reordered things slightly just to give the sense that Monk was enjoying this writing process, that there was this sort of dark humor and demented joy to what he was doing…that he was amusing himself with this thing.
But I mostly just cut it like a dramatic scene. Then in the sound design, we certainly played with that. We created a whole thing with our sound designers to have a heightened urban soundscape that didn’t go fully as deep as you would have if you actually had just cut away and seen that scene happening before your eyes.
It’s definitely there, and you very distinctly hear it, but we didn’t go as far as we maybe would have if we were actually seeing the real scene play out before our eyes because they’re still standing in this room, so it was a weird balance that we had to play with.
Then there’s a character that breaks the fourth wall at a certain moment, and we did sort of drop out of that urban sound design and we played with that a little bit. There was playfulness.
We wanted to make sure that the audience knew that there could be some laughter and enjoyment to be had with the creation of this story and these characters, but we also had a very funny debate at one point about that scene, which I loved, by the way. I mean, it’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie, hands down.
But we had this funny debate about, “Are the actors too good?” Is it supposed to be a well-written book or not well-written? Monk himself disdains it, but he’s also an artist and an intellectual and clearly a wonderful writer in his own way.
Even though he writes these really inaccessible, esoteric things, he still is a great writer. So does an artist - even when they’re doing something as a joke - do they accidentally put some of their own artistry into a bad joke? I think they do.
My interpretation of our wonderful actors in that scene is that they’re engaging and great in a way because Monk can’t help but put some of himself into it.
There are even shades of this absent father figure in the movie. Monk’s father is not in the movie very explicitly, but it’s like he comes out in that scene - in this father-son scene that Monk is writing. He can’t help but put a little bit of himself into that, which I think contributes, in the end to the runaway success of this novel.
At the sound mix. The sound team decked out for “Track Suit Thursday”
My assistant — Charmaine Cavan — was really instrumental in helping build all of the temp sound design. Scene by scene we would talk about every single scene and what we thought it should be and what needs to be cleaned up about it.
It’s a movie that had a lot of cleanup work because they were shooting on location. There are many scenes that take place out at the beach house or in the beach town. They did a great job recording it, considering, but there was a lot of cleanup that had to be done.
This old house had these incredibly creaky floors. It was a lot of work to clean it up and then, once you’ve cleaned it all up, then you have to artfully add in all the waves and sounds. It was so cleaned up later that I had to say, “This is an old house. The family that’s in it is in decline.
Their finances are in decline. This cannot be some kind of well-built house. You need to put some of that back in. We are so lucky because we got this great team — our mixers, Alex and Rich, were true artists. Alex worked on Everything, Everywhere.
But I think with this, it’s really about making sure that the characters’ voices were crystal clear. Ultimately, this is a talkie and the actors all have just gorgeous voices in different ways, and we really want to make sure that every joke landed.
Everything was clear. That was kind of our going concern. Then in those moments, like when he’s writing the novel or at the end of the film, there are opportunities to be more playful or more interesting with the sound design.
(L-R) Mixer Alexandra Fehrman, Editor Rasula, and Producer Ben LeClaire.
First, I do want a credit Cord for being an excellent writer because he automatically has this great writer’s muscle for understanding that. He writes scenes relatively efficiently, but we really did do a lot of trying to see how late we enter the scene and how early can we get out.
We had exactly those two questions all the time. Can we drop a couplet? Seeing what we could lose and have the scene still hold together.
It was a script that reads very fun with a lot of verve on the page. It’s sort of punchy and fun and interesting. Then — like everything — once you see it on screen assembled, it’s much more languid.
Some of the ideas were getting a little diffuse, for lack of a better word. Once you’ve gotten in there and made your central intellectual point or comic point or dramatic point, I found that there were scenes that were overstaying their welcome, so there was a whole stage of the edit in the kind of the middle when we did a lot of work scaling back scenes and carving them out.
I try to pace as I go. Even in my very first assembly, I try to pace up the actors, and — certainly for comedy — I really control the rhythm of the dialogue. We had to really roll up our sleeves and do some of the work that’s necessary to make scenes stand on their own and not be indulgent. We just never wanted to bore the audience.
This movie is really supposed to be a genuinely entertaining film. We tried to hold ourselves to a rigorous standard. Because of Cord’s training in the TV world, he was amazingly disciplined about doing that, really.
He really was shockingly good about that for a first-time writer/director. They tend to hold tightly to their words. He was pretty good about letting me get the hatchet out.
Timeline Screenshot, close detail
Yes, I loved the choices of when to be on who throughout that scene. Thank you. That scene, in particular, was so fun to cut. The actors who played the publishers are gifted comic performers, and they actually did a lot of wonderful improv that was so fun and great, and that ultimately ended up on the cutting room floor - not because it wasn’t good, but because we had to take seriously the idea of who do you want to be on when exactly?
What creates the maximum impact for the comedy? It was important to sometimes use Monk’s face and be on him listening to the publishers a little bit more. We really tightened the dialogue until it was as tight as a drum, for comedy’s sake.
And Monk’s face is also so great. I mean, Jeffrey can do such stillness, but he can do it in a way that a little look in his eye or a little curling of his upper lip or something seems to say so much. In those comic scenes, you could cut it with an even balance, but if it was cut too evenly, it actually felt wrong.
The scales need to swing more in Monk’s direction so that we were still understanding that he was anchoring the scene with his face and his looks. There was this crazy, absurd merry-go-round going around him. He had to be the center of that, so that affected the balance of when we were on who at what time.
It also works sometimes as these like short little reactions, almost like in jazz music, the way you’d have a trumpet doing a short note, like this little off-rhythm thing. Jeffrey can be used in all ways, basically. He’s so wonderful.
Director Cord Jefferson at the monitor on location.
It was a perfect place to be.
I think it changes a little bit over the course of the edit, but for me, I tend to work a lot upfront with pacing. Even in assembling — even in my very first cut of a scene — I work hard to take out some of the things that feel extraneous or wrong.
It bothers me unduly if it’s too loose when I’m watching dailies. Especially with an actor like Jeffrey, I’m paying attention to the rhythms of what he’s giving and the looks in between. To understand some of those rhythms is important — following a sort of natural rhythm.
But I think it’s better if you manipulate it. I just think it is. It’s better for comedy. It’s better for juicing the drama. You get such wonderful gifts from actors. You just have to watch their eyes and their faces and all the little moments to shine a spotlight on each perfect little nugget of gold that you’re given means that you do end up really using some elbow grease in pacing, too. It’s really a matter for me of almost like, I love the actor’s look there, but then I also love what the other person is doing in this moment.
So it’s really a matter of just trying to squeeze in all of my favorite things and then somehow make it feel natural. That’s the trick, for sure.
I think our first cut was 2 hours and 28 minutes. That was not including credits. So we cut out more than half an hour. We omitted 11 scenes. So for a movie of this sort of scale and shape, it was kind of a fair bit. I just really wanted to try to hold ourselves to a strong standard of, first of all, how long we thought the movie should be.
Overall, we were adamant that it was not going to be over 2 hours long. It didn’t feel right for this film. Some of the deleted scenes were wonderful. Each of us had our little babies — that were different at different moments — and we were each fighting for them.
We would have these really intense discussions about why to cut. Some went right away, of course, which is normal, but we had a lot of discussions with our producers about “What is the value of a scene?” Ultimately, you get into these deep philosophical things: “Does the romance hold up without this extra bit?
Does this long philosophical speech that Monk has on one of his dates with Caroline reveal a little bit about him as a writer?” It’s nice and interesting, but it’s also a long speech when maybe it comes at a point in the movie where we already understand who he is as a writer. Is that really necessary?
Hilda’s work-from-home set-up.
That’s a good question. Yes. One thing that went and we experimented with was just a tiny scene where he’s in his hotel room watching Hollywood TV and a Hollywood movie, and it’s making a sort of cultural critique… that was definitely one where we talked about cutting it.
We wondered if we even needed to make that if it was clear enough what Meg felt about things. But Act one ended up getting, as you said, into such a kind of tight pace. It really does roll along.
Exactly. I think it is true. It’s important to kind of broaden the target. It’s not just the book publishing industry that ends up being critiqued. I think that’s important. We did have that other scene after he’s written the book.
When he gets the phone call from his agent, there’s a little short montage That’s definitely about as absurd, I think, as we get in some of the the comedy, where he’s watching a promo on television for Black Stories that gets into a zone. It obviously gets quite absurd, but again, laying the track for what’s going to happen later with the Adam Brody character, I think it’s important to do some of that.
I think that was the last scene that we locked because of clearances. It is very short, but it was very tricky.
No, those are all real movies, so that was a tricky thing for our poor producer. Nico really had to hunt down actors and widows. We’re pretty happy with what we ended up with.
At the mix.
No, no, I don’t like to read the original source material until later. I read the book this fall after we’d already finished the movie. I really just wanted to have Cord’s screenplay being the guiding thing.
I think it’s possible for me to get sidetracked by reading something in the original novel that doesn’t need to be there in the screenplay and getting almost distracted by it or getting frazzled into thinking, “Yes, I see all these themes, and they’re there in our movie too!”
When actually, maybe they’re not, and maybe you have to work harder to elucidate them. So for me, at least, it’s better if I just don’t read the source material.
Yeah, you can trick yourself into thinking that a character’s motivation is there when it’s not. People are connecting dots that might not be there for the audience. And you have to cut the movie for the audience who hasn’t read the book. You have to think about that.
There were a few cases in the script where Cord wrote those in. I love it when that’s built into the writing that there was a kind of slingshot into the next moment. So in some cases, that was Cord’s own doing. In other cases we did build in more montages or stretched out time, and that was just a feeling of realizing that we actually did need to build in a montage.
We did need to stretch out time here and there. Then in some cases, some of those more elliptical things were cases of some of those 11 scenes that got cut.
I think it’s up for debate — first of all — as to whether that is the story or not. The logline is the satire, for sure. It’s the professional book storyline that Monk is having, but I think that the other thing that’s going on with this movie that Cord really wanted to do is to tell a family drama.
And there’s romance and drama and family drama and sibling relationships that tell a story that is incredibly relatable, that is about a black family. That is just a story that we don’t often get to see on screen.
It’s a sort of part of the central critique that the movie is trying to make: which is that the projects that get greenlit are so often period pieces about a very particular time in American black cultural history or just very particular characters or dramas. And quite explicitly, we wanted to subvert that.
So I do think both of these storylines to me are of equal importance, but it did provide a real quandary sometimes of how to juggle them, how to checkerboard them because so much of the edit actually was really struggling to figure that balance of what is the right rhythm and tone of how to achieve the movie that we wanted to achieve.
For a while, it seemed so far away. If you go too far into broadness in the comic scenes, you start to step into a version of the movie where you cannot get back to that family drama properly.
It just starts to swing out into this direction that is absurd and heightened enough that you almost can’t get back there. Then if you go into some of the dark family drama — and we had darker stuff originally in some of the scenes and darker beats and moments — we had to carve some of those things out and eliminate them because they ultimately weren’t important to tell the core story we wanted to explore. Also, the deeper, darker valley we went into with the drama made it so much harder to get back out into one of those comic scenes.
Exactly. It started to feel too swinging too wildly, like a pendulum between those. So part of the trick was to try to smooth that out and try to find a way to also just have each scene have a certain core level of authenticity that we could believe that some of these absurd comic things were really ultimately — as crazy as they are — could happen in the real world.
Ultimately, is it possible that this could happen, this sort of staggeringly wild thing that happens? We wanted to at least keep it in the realm where “Okay, technically, yes, this is possible.
This could happen.” There have been stories of authors of these alter egos that have been found out later. All the different tones that we wanted to have, we wanted them to feel real.
Yeah, exactly. In a hopefully not too didactic way, you can allow the audience to understand that, too, and allow the audience to just feel how frustrating it is for Monk to have his work be perceived because of certain external characteristics or something, and you can illustrate that just through watching these very simple, normal sort of basic family dramas.
Composer Laura Karpman’s keyboard... not the same as editor’s keyboard.
No, we temped with vintage jazz, which was difficult editing-wise. My God, I can’t even tell you. Really I don’t want to think about that. I spent so many hours in the chair just working on music editing.
There were a few weeks where we were getting ready for screenings or whatever, and that was a lot of the work I was doing.
But, with a character named Thelonious Ellison and his nickname is Monk, it was clear. Cort knew right from the get-go that, of course, that was the kind of tone that he wanted to go for musically. Luckily, my dad is a major jazz-head. He has like 5000 jazz records in his house.
Not an exaggeration. So I grew up with jazz and classical are actually, that was pretty much the only music that was ever played at my house when I was growing up. Not that Cord knew that when he hired me, but it just so happened that I had a lot of that music in my head from at a kind of deep level: genetically almost.
It was a challenge, but it was so fun to cut with that music and try to find the right cues at different moments. It’s never going to work fully for a movie, of course, because this movie also has some elements that are very classical to it: the romance and the drama and it needed a score in different moments, but it needed a score that could be both jazzy and reflect a little bit of Western canonical classic film music score.
Our composer, Laura really was able to work in both of those modes or find a way to meld them together, which was great. We started working with her and her music editor, Alex Leedy, who’s also a genius. Working with both of them was really tremendous because then, finally, we were able to give the movie what it really, really needed.
All of the things that we worked so hard at and struggled with in this high-wire act of tone-straddling in the picture were what we also, of course, needed to do with music and with the score. So Alex Laura, and I, at the late stages — and even on the mix stage — were working on that together.
Composer Laura Karpman’s cozy studio.
Our composer Laura had this wild set up at her studio with these dense mattresses on the floor that I think she deliberately puts them that way so that her director and producers and editor are on a level one level lower than her!
So that we’re looking up into her eyes, she’s as just playing cues and auditioning them for us. We had some great moments there.
I remember there was a really wonderful moment where I could not express how to talk about the music. Talking about music is hard, and how to give notes on a cue without just getting up and dancing, you know?
So I said, “Look, Laura — she’s a very kind of groovy lady who immediately got what I was going for — but I said, “I just have to stand up and dance out this note. I think you’re going to understand.”
Because of the vibe and the rhythm that I thought we needed, I could show her better with my body than I could try to come up with some sentence about it. She just watched me and went over to the piano and just kind of looked at me and started improvising the piece. It was just so fun.
The moment just AFTER the danced note… cool to see the creative process.
Yes. I remember hearing that.
Recently, I was listening to an interview on the radio with this woman who is a classicist an academic, and a translator of The Odyssey and the Iliad, and I was drawing these crazy connections between what she does and what we do as editors.
Hearing her, I felt this really keen identification with her that I think any editor would be able to relate to, which is she was talking about translating the Iliad and how she can’t do a direct translation from the Greek. That’s of no use to anyone.
She has the original text, and we have our screenplays, and she then needs to — stanza by stanza, and for us, I think it’s beat by beat — and she needs to take whatever the feeling was supposed to be — the feeling that is given in the Greek— the intent of the original Greek.
She needs to take what Homer was trying to say, and then she needs to find the right way to translate it. Hearing her talk about it, I realized that I was listening to an artist. It’s not a simple thing to translate the Iliad — not that anybody would think it was — but I was listening to an artist talk about her work in the way that we, as editors, do.
We have this guide of what’s on the page that sometimes — in this case, luckily — was fantastic. It was a great screenplay, but then you’re given this raw material, and you have to kind of really spend time working out what this going to feel like for the audience.
And every emotional beat, whether it’s supposed to be comedic or sad or sweet or romantic, it’s up to us ultimately to be this kind of divining rods and translate the moment. The footage has to go through us and come out the other side.
Avid Timeline Composers Window
When we put it together, it has to come out as a new form. I guess it’s sort of that final rewrite thing again — that maxim. But I just thought it’s so interesting that a woman who translates classical literature from Greek into English is the closest I’ve come to recognizing what it is that editors do, which is so strange and funny because it’s not direct writing, but it’s a form of rewriting. It’s a translation.
It’s finding the emotion and the tone and finding a way to give that to the audience. It’s not a word-for-word translation, which wouldn’t give you the feeling. It might be more technically correct, but it doesn’t emote the same.
We have all these images, but we have to find a way with music and sound design and repurposing footage and looks sometimes and altering time and space in a scene. All that translation is to be true to the original intent of the author.
Exactly. That’s our job, of course. It’s what we do. But that process is such an interesting, creative one because it’s kind of very intellectual on one hand, and then on the other hand it’s mechanical: what we do in the Avid, and then it’s auditory, and it’s musical and it’s rhythmic.
It’s hard to talk about our art and what we do with non-editors. But I think editors will understand we’re just playing with all these different tools simultaneously and somehow keeping all the plates up in the air. It’s ultimately just the magic trick of manipulating people. That’s what our job is.
Thank you so much.
Killers of the Flower Moon.
I got mentioned In the same article as Thelma. My God. Pinch me. It’s a dream.