Dustin Waldman on Giving Into the Mob in “Never Fuggedaboutit”

Michael (Nick Nazmi) is about to quit his job as “Never Fuggedaboutit” begins, the tedious work of double checking the spelling of names in title sequences clearly taking its toll on the young editor who yearns for more creative opportunities than this. He gets one in Dustin Waldman’s devilishly amusing comedy, though surely has to wonder if he should beware of what he wished for when he has the opportunity to make his mark on one of the greatest TV shows of all time as “The Sopranos” enters its fourth season and the tragedy of 9/11 has meant removing the Twin Towers from the famed opening title sequence that sees Tony driving across the New Jersey turnpike. The split-second shot might be a simple thing to snip, but not when Michael finds himself caught between the competing interests of Pat (Tara Bopp), the head of the post-production house who just wants to appease the suits at HBO, and Frank (Jonathan Dauermann), a fellow editor with seniority and some proactive notions about showing patriotism at this time on such a massive platform.

Set in the darkened rooms of an edit bay where only the reflected glow of the monitors offers much light, “Never Fuggedaboutit” finds a great deal of grim humor as well as some well-considered reflection on times of crisis when cultural narratives are subject to change and can be more easily modded by those with questionable intentions. Waldman, who has cut such films as Jessica Beshir’s “Faya Dayi” and Lance Edmands’ “Deerfoot of the Diamond,” is able to bring both an editor’s experience and a director’s vision to the short, inching towards a killer punchline for the premise he sets up, but building in ideas about escapism and rewriting history to make it more palatable that pay off just as much. Following its premiere at SXSW earlier this year, “Never Fuggedaboutit” is now online and Waldman spoke about the reactions it’s provoked, growing closer to “The Sopranos” during the pandemic and how a few judicious edits reshaped his own film.

How did this come about?

I’ve worked as an editor for almost 10 years now professionally and during the pandemic, my fiance and I were finally watching “The Sopranos.” I’d been avoiding it for a long time because I I could never really get into prestige TV shows, and “The Sopranos” just completely pulled me in in a way no other show had. Once we got to season four, I noticed that the intro was different than the previous seasons and they’d taken a shot out [of the Twin Towers] and I started thinking about that time period. I just couldn’t get the idea out of my head of what was it like in that edit bay faced with a decision where it’s this essentially trivial thing, but it has in it all these huge implications and emotions [attached to it]. I’m used to being an editor and things can feel extreme at times in an edit, so it just felt like a very potent story and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

This may be something I’m putting on the film that isn’t there, but as you hear all this talk of shows getting pulled from streaming services or the potential to remove things from preexisting movies and TV shows, was the idea of cultural erasure there in the initial idea? I’ve also heard Tara Bopp say that the response may have been a little more political that you might’ve expected.

I wouldn’t say that was an impetus for the idea, but I did realize that it contained more than I had even anticipated, and I do think it talks about that issue. It’s a touchy subject and I don’t know the answer, but it does seem useful to look at a question of [something that seems] settled and to inhabit that conflict [when] there’s the distance from that time that allows us to see it a little more objectively. With stuff [that’s being released] today, it’s much harder because we’re in it.

Ultimately, I don’t have a true ideological position on whether they should have removed the shot or not, but I did realize while making the movie that it’s wading into a political or cultural issue, and my goal as a filmmaker is to contain both sides of the argument in the movie [because] that’s what movies can do, which is exciting to me. I don’t think stuff should be didactic. I don’t think that gets us anywhere. But we were making it during COVID where it was obviously a different time, but a similar national crisis [to 9/11] and it felt like this was a way to process some of that cultural conflict that seemed like it was everywhere.

There are some very subtle references to the period in this – “John Q” as part of a resume is a deep cut. What was it like to put yourself back in that time?

On one hand, it was fun because a lot of that media feels different and of a [particular] time. There is a very hard mark of okay, this is pre-9/11 and post-9/11, and it did change obviously the tenor of the culture. But I had a lot of fun watching stuff from that time and I tried to think also about these characters would have potentially worked on professionally and then also what would they like to be pursuing in that time as well, so it was an interesting process.

How’d you find your cast for this?

Nick [Nazmi], who plays the lead assistant editor Michael, is actually my good friend who I met as an editor at the Museum of Modern Art [where we worked] together. I was looking for someone like that for that character because every character is important, but [Michael] did feel like the heart and soul of the movie and I think maybe my friend mentioned to me, “Have you thought about [Nick]?” We have an easy rapport and he was always going to help me make the movie, but we ended up co-editing the movie together as well and he’s the producer on it, so that was very fun. Then the other leads are from Actors Access and I was very lucky to find such talented people online. Jonathan Dauermann [who plays Frank] was immediately amazing and Tara Bopp, who plays the producer Patty, was also incredible. It was still COVID era, so I don’t think I did in-person auditions, but I met them before the movie and we rehearsed together online, and I’m very grateful that they turned out to be such excellent actors.

Was there anything you could get excited about after getting the script in the actors’ hands that you might not have expected?

Jonathan played Frank with such a pathos and every take was really intense. I like to take stuff pretty seriously and Jonathan really brought the weight of that time to the performance. It’s a character who you could see people making fun of and that was not my interest. I wanted to portray this conflict and he just brought so much of real raw emotion to the character, it was like you had to step back and watch him work. That was the biggest surprise, seeing this character come to life in a way that’s intimidating.

It’s a film that largely takes place in darkened rooms. Did that make it interesting to light?

Yeah, that’s just the reality of being an editor. You spend a lot of times in a dark box feeling stressed out, so we wanted this space to reflect that. I looked at a lot of other locations for movie and I went to a lot of more modern post houses to scout and they all have done an excellent job making themselves feel much more homey and chic. And in the broadcast era — and I have been in post houses like this — there were no windows at least for where some of the [assistant editors] worked and we wanted to reflect that.

We were also a pretty small operation — all of the props and gear fit into one little van, and my [cinematographer] Matt Clegg, and gaffer Gulab Singh did a really amazing job with very simple lighting setups in each space because it was very important to me that the focus is the content on the screen and the subjects, and everything else is detail, so [I wanted] to actually shoot the CRT monitors practically, and you do get some light from those monitors on the subjects, which is cool and they have a particular rhythm that you can’t quite get with a screen replace. I really wanted those rooms to feel like a slightly heightened version of the real thing, and I’ve got to credit Matt Clegg and Gulab Singh for nailing that.

I don’t want to spoil the film, but you do actually have to actually go through the motions of filming the Sopranos’ opening credits – what was it like to go for that drive?

There’s actually amazing fan groups online where they have detailed latitudes and longitudes and descriptions of each location. Never in my mind was I going to fully do it, but it just felt like this thing of inhabiting the image and letting the emotion be inside of it in a way, so it was very fun to do. We did cut some stuff out [of the film] because of the modern cars and we didn’t follow the exact path, so I just wanted to loosely suggest [the opening title scene]. We did go through the tunnel and we went to the toll booth and [some of the] early iconic stuff and then the rest is gestural. I hope at least that it suggests the characters processing it and as a big “Sopranos” fan, that day we did also go out and shoot a little shot in front of the Tony Soprano house in New Jersey, which was cut from the film. But that was pretty cool, that felt like a pilgrimage.

Was there anything that happened that may have come up that you may not have anticipated but is in the film now and you really like about it?

We spent a long time editing the movie. Life stuff was coming up and it was just hard to get right and Nick and I were going back and forth working on it, and when we realized that the movie had to have some editorial language in it — once Frank plays his version of the [opening credits], the film itself had to get a little edity. Once we started doing those flashbacks and [other] little editorial interventions, that was never [a planned] part of the project, but when we did that, it was like, “Oh, this is starting to fly.” That’s when I started to feel that it was actually working, and we realized that to reflect Frank and Michael emotionally, the film had to become a little more threaded a little more editorially whereas the [cinematic] language before was super straightforward.

What’s it been like to see it play with audiences at festivals and just getting it out into the world now?

It’s been amazing. It’s always extremely nerve-wracking, but we had a great premiere at South By and it’s played at a bunch of other fests since then and people seem to really respond to it. I think the movie can work in different ways, depending on the viewer and that’s something that I really appreciate and respect, so hearing from people who received it in different ways is very, very rewarding. It’s been great finally getting it out, and I’m excited to release it online.

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