We recently talked to Chris Witt about editing the film Breaking starring an ensemble cast that has already won the 2022 Sundance U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award: Ensemble Cast. In Part One we talked about the real-life story behind John Boyega’s character in Breaking (read Part One here!) and the creative flow of working with director Abi Damaris Corbin. Today, Chris talks about the storytelling growth brought on by strict deadlines, staying on point with editing challenges, and the surreal joy of editing one of Michael K. Williams’ last film roles.
This was one of the final film roles of the legendary Michael K. Williams and what looks like a great showcase for John Boyega’s range (I’ve seen a ton of comments on the trailer about how he gives off Denzel vibes, similar to Washington’s role in John Q). When you’re in Post and you have some pristine acting performances to work with, but need to make some hard decisions for the sake of story flow, do you find this makes your job more difficult determining what stays and what falls to the cutting floor?
“Michael K. Williams was a joy to edit. As Abi and I worked our way through the director’s cut, we got news of his untimely passing. We cried some tears, took a break, and then got back to work. That very day we soberly got to dialing in MKW’s first scene of the movie. As an editor, I often look at a take and wonder where the actor is now. Like, on another set in a different costume somewhere, or on vacation with family, or maybe at some Los Angeles cafe sipping a latte. This was very tough material to work with because he was gone from this world, but his final performance was only starting to come together through our hands. I took great care in the responsibility to do that footage justice!
John Boyega really brought a stellar performance. We found that the more Brian was in the movie, the more we leaned into the story. Not only did we personally feel compelled, we had audience feedback and producer notes to the effect of “more Brian please” or “get back to Brian in the bank sooner”. It was very challenging to balance the need to tighten the movie and at the same time, expand Boyega’s presence wherever possible. We made several exploratory passes to dig into the raw takes and see if there was more head or tail to Boyega’s on-screen moments. We also dug into additional unused footage of Boyega to add more of him by intercutting other bank and non-bank moments with Brian pacing or watching Estel.
Those also weren’t the only stellar performances. You mentioned Denzel. His daughter Olivia Washington played Cassandra, Brian’s ex-wife, and brought such warmth and humanity to the character. Selenis Leyva touched my heart in her craft as Rosa. For a story where she is so traumatized and so often in tears, I was really amazed by how consistent and honest she could play that emotion take after take after take. Connie Britton was so sharp and professional in her role, you could choose any of her takes and it was always spot on. And of course, Nicole Beharie brought such intensity as Estel. Like Boyega, you could keep adding frames to her takes to expand and deepen her nuance and it was a challenge sometimes to know if you over seasoned the moment and should pull back. In my opinion, the Sundance Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast was well deserved.”
Was there any particular scene in Breaking that you felt was particularly thrilling or challenging for you in the editing process?
“Both thrilling and challenging, Scene 15 starts when Brian first enters the bank and goes all the way to when Estel walks into the bathroom 20 pages later! There was 10 hours of footage for that scene. One huge aspect of editing for me is honing algorithms—essentially workflows—to parse through hours of footage to choose the best series of frames for every second of the movie. You have your toolbox of algorithms and like hand tools, you pull one out and try to shape the scene. You might need to change your chisel right away for a different approach or perhaps somewhere mid-scene you discover you need a handsaw moving forward. I think I used every tool I know to put the assembly of SC15 on the timeline. It was 30 minutes long (the final version of the scene is 20) and it was complete shit.
You often watch an assembled scene and know it’s not even close to being baked, but now at least you have something to build on. At this point, one of my cutting algorithms entails putting the scene to memory as a baseline, then sitting back on my sofa and watching every frame of footage for that scene, weighing everything I see to what I remember assembling. As I see or hear something worth comparing, I splice it to the end of the sequence to audition later. I took an entire day to watch those ten hours of footage and came up with 3 hours of alternate clips to try out. If need be, I will rinse and repeat. And repeat I did. By the time Abi first watched it, it was a very solid foundation for us to refine and from that point on, the bones didn’t change much even though we kept finding ways to make it sharper.
They say there are 1,000 ways to cut the same material, so how do you make decisions? Well, with sometimes hundreds of hours of footage in a movie, there is only a fraction of that time of footage per scene, and within any given scene there may be a modest number of setups with fewer than that for coverage of any particular beat. Sometimes it comes down to one or two ideal setups to choose from. You then review the performance variations in those takes to find the one that delivers for the moment. If cutting any individual scene is like a bite of a meal, then cutting SC15 of Breaking was like shoving an entire short film into my mouth all at once.”
You’ve edited an eclectic array of genres in the past few years, from romantic dramas (Finding You) to family comedy (Family Camp) and now Breaking. Does your approach vary with the type of film you’re working on, or do you have a very specific workflow and sort of editing signature? Has Breaking given you any different creative challenges compared to previous films?
“Breaking was challenging because there was always a looming deadline a few weeks away. The first was the Sundance deadline six weeks after we wrapped. Once we had shot our Atlanta unit and got into Sundance, we only had a couple weeks to lock the movie to get it to the festival. We graciously were able to edit for a week for final touches after Sundance in anticipation of our theatrical release. It was creatively challenging to find the space and the mindfulness under those deadlines to feel confident that every choice was the right one. The movies I cut tend to have an opportunity to rest and allow a refreshed perspective. In this case, it was a new pressure to feel pushed into a corner at every turn to make decisions instinctively without any guarantee to adjust later. It’s challenging to find the poetry when you’re hardly able to breathe. I feel we all met that challenge and grew as storytellers.
Based on the different kinds of projects that have come through my network of contacts, there really is a wide variety of genres and styles in my repertoire. Notably, many of my movies are in languages I do not speak. This is only possible because human emotion is universal. So is guiding an audience on a journey through moving images and sound design. So in that case there are many more similarities in how I approach different types of movies (and languages) than differences.
In any movie I cut, it’s crucial to intuitively tap into the vision established during production by my creative partners on the movie. The director starts with a vision and the actors make performance choices, the production designer creates a world, the cinematographer lights and frames what we see, and so on elevating and refining the initial vision with their own creative talents that gets captured on set. And what is captured is never quite as anticipated. It’s as though the movie acquires a kind of personality or voice that you can discern if you only listen. I can sense the pace, rhythm, flow and sequence the movie is whispering to me.
If you ignore that voice and try to make it into some other movie you’ve seen or cut, eventually you and the director will find the movie throws a tantrum and pouts like a teenager. The movie will demand you craft it how it’s supposed to be. It’s best to let the footage guide you. I suppose through my own creative sensibility, the accent in that voice I hear and translate on the screen might be different for each editor, and in that, I think you could identify my own signature touch. But it’d be subtle as every feature is such a chorus of creatives in this endeavor we call making a movie.”
When and where can people watch Breaking? Is it streaming or in theaters?
“Breaking will premiere in theaters across the US on August 26th. Streaming will start a month after that!”
This article is the second part of the 2-part series. If you missed the first part, read it here!