Mahershala Ali and Alex R. Hibbert in "Moonlight"

Interview: Editors Joi McMillon & Nat Sanders on Shaping “Moonlight”

In the years since leaving Florida State, Nat Sanders had been keeping an eye out for his classmate Joi McMillon. The two editors had both worked on projects with another classmate  Barry Jenkins, with Sanders editing his first feature “Medicine for Melancholy” and McMillon cutting his 2009 short “Chlorophyll,”  so when the director was putting together his second feature “Moonlight” after an eight-year absence, Sanders, who had been mystified that McMillon had yet to be given a feature of her own to edit while sharpening her skills as an assistant editor on such diverse projects as “Talk to Me” and Tyler Perry’s “For Colored Girls” while he had gone on to become a sought-after editor, having cut “Short Term 12” and “Your Sister’s Sister,” made the suggestion that the two take on the project together.

“Barry and I talked about it beforehand – he told me a couple years back that I wasn’t the only person from our film school that had been waiting for him to make his first movie ‘Medicine for Melancholy,’” says Sanders, with a hearty laugh. “It cut pretty deep – I imagine this alternate life because that film gave me such a start in indie film and if it had been somebody else, I’d still be cutting reality TV. It had done so much for me that I wanted to pay it forward and give someone else that opportunity.”

Perhaps the collaboration was fitting for a film that shows the devastating effects of living in a place without opportunity of any kind – in the case of “Moonlight,” a young African-American man named Chiron growing up in the poverty-stricken community of Liberty City in Miami – but it was also fruitful creatively as McMillon and Sanders take the complex narrative of Jenkins’ adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s semi-autobiographical play, told in three sections focusing on Chiron as a young boy (nicknamed Little), a teen, and a man in his twenties (going by Black), and convey it so effortlessly it feels as if you’ve slipped into his skin. While the duo rises to the obvious challenge of shaping a consistent narrative out of three disparate sections complete with different actors playing Chiron, they also create a hypnotic experience where moments of silence and contemplation of their actions is as riveting as the actions themselves.

Allowing the raw power of a strong acting ensemble’s performances to come through while accentuating them in inventive ways and giving cinematographer James Laxton’s arresting imagery the room to breathe, McMillon and Sanders fashion a rhythm for “Moonlight” that never overwhelms but constantly arouses, working bit by bit to piece together a feeling as transformative for an audience by the end as you can see in the eyes of Chiron. Recently, the two spoke about collaborating with each other as well as Jenkins, in addition to the lighter version of “Moonlight” that could’ve been, the third act fixes that made all the difference and sweating it out quite literally in the editing room as they worked on the film.

You’ve worked together before, but is co-editing actually any different?

Nat Sanders: Neither of us had done it, but we had been working together for several years. Joi would take some scenes and I would take some scenes when we were assembling, and the way it was working out it just seemed I was cutting more scenes from the first two stories and Joi was cutting more from the third story, so after the assembly was together and Barry came in and started working with us, we just split it up. I stayed working on the first two stories and Joi took the third story and we separated it that way.

Joi McMillon: Yeah, it just made sense.

How does that work when you’re putting together an overall story from the three separate segments?

Joi McMillon: When we first did it, we were just going scene by scene and then when we watched it all together, we found there’s a rhythm and flow in one section that needed to be applied to the second act or vice versa.

Nat Sanders: Yeah,for some reason, we, and Barry in particular, had these arbitrary numbers in our heads that we didn’t have to abide by strictly [for each segment]. He always thought that ideally we were going to end up around 1:45 and that the third story was going to be 40 minutes, 35 minutes for the first story and 30 minutes for the second story…He had that in his head really early and that is really close to what it was.

Barry has said that he had so much fun on the set that the initial cuts of the film were significantly lighter in tone. Is that true?

Nat Sanders: Yeah, like one example that’s really easy to point out is early in the story when Juan has just met Little and he takes him to get something to eat at the diner. When he’s driving him home, they were doing improv and Juan was joking about something [having to do] with Prince Zamunda from “Coming to America”…

Joi McMillon: He was trying to guess what Chiron’s name was.

Nat Sanders: Yeah, because Chiron wasn’t saying his name. And he’s like “Oh Zamunda, you’re Prince Zamunda!” And he was laughing and being big. We had that in the cut for a little while and also, it was after Little has to make the dishwashing liquid in the bathtub and put the hot water in – we had this stuff with Alex, who is actually a very energetic, dancing kid and they had footage of him doing a Michael Jackson routine in the bathtub.

Joi McMillon: [laughs] [That was] the opening of the movie too!

Nat Sanders: Yeah, at one point, we were opening the movie with that Michael Jackson dance footage. [laughs] And it’s weird to think about that now, but that was part of the discovery process of the movie, especially for Barry who hadn’t made something in eight years and had to regain that confidence and trust in his voice. As we were working and started showing it to people, he realized it’s really working. The silences are working. People are really invested. We don’t need to try to fill it with laughs or too much temp music.

Were there things that when you were working on the third act that you’d need to go back to the first two acts to figure out?

Joi McMillon: Yeah, because of how acts one and two played out, the final structure of act three was a bit different than how it was written – like the rehab scene [with Chiron’s mother Paula, played by Naomie Harris] used to come earlier.

Nat Sanders: Pretty much right at the top of act three.

Joi McMillion: And basically what I thought was done so well in the first two acts is that you had a sense of who Chiron was at this moment in his life [by following him incrementally]. In act three, it was like you were instantly in it with him and you’re like “Wait, whoa, where is Paula? What is she doing now?” So pushing that rehab scene back, the moment is more earned from the audience because you’re now seeing the result of him getting beat up in high school, who he’s become now, his life and his reconciliation with his mom.

Nat Sanders: When Joi and I watched the first assembly together with Barry, we saw really early that [Joi and I] were able to have a little more objectivity than Barry because he’d been living with the script for years. [In] the first five minutes of the second and the third story, there’s so much power there that you’re trying to figure out what’s happened in the five or ten years since, and [we felt we] can be more of the ciphers for the audience of knowing that you need get situated [since] there’s a lot you’re trying to put together quickly. If that rehab scene is happening right away, you’re not ready to be emotionally invested yet – you’re seeing this jacked up guy [in Black] and you’re trying to put it all together. It was just happening too quickly. Barry was like, “No, no, no, we’re getting rid of that.”

And Joi came up with a really diplomatic move of pitching [moving the scene so] that one, he feels like things are resolved with his mom and [two,] this would be the thing that would propel him to feel like he could try to figure things out with Kevin or give it a chance. [Joi] coming up with that pitch was the thing that made Barry like, “Oh okay…that could work.” So he let us try it and once we tried it, it was immediate that that was the right choice. And then the montage that [now] begins the third story, with him washing his face, and he’s got a gun – that was all little pieces of scenes that were coming after and Joi repurposed.

I wondered whether the idea of Paula in the doorway, moving in reverse, was something that might’ve come in the editing as opposed to something that was in the film in the start? It felt like once you may have known the power of that image, it might’ve inspired what came later.

Joi McMillon: That was something that Barry distinctly had in his mind. It wasn’t in the script, but I remember when we first watched the assembly and he was like, “I know how I want act three to start…” I was just writing down all his notes and he was like, “You got that, Joi?” [laughs]

Nat Sanders: Yeah, sometimes Barry’s ideas are pretty out there. [For instance] there were some weird choices for some of our temp music, and sometimes it really works, but this one, it sounded crazy to us when he told us she was going to be walking in reverse. It just didn’t feel like the style of our movie, but once Joi did a pass on it, it was like, “Oh yeah, that really works.”

Joi McMillon: Yeah, and that pretty much stayed the same from very early on.

In general, the idea of motion is handled in such an interesting way in this film, and the momentum you create with the editing is a big part of that, but with a bunch of fluid steadicam shots, are you locked into certain things?

Joi McMillon: It’s funny because the one shot that I’m thinking about is in act three, [when Black is] picking up Travis and I remember the director that we’re working with right now was watching that and was like, “That was all one shot?” The thing is where they chose to place the camera a lot of times, you as an audience member are just locked in and experiencing the film and then afterwards, you’re like, “Oh, that was one shot.” And a lot of times when we were editing, we wanted it to be seamless, so when you’re watching elements of the film, you don’t know [whether we cut or not] because it all just felt like one shot — that’s how we tried to pace it.

Nat Sanders: Yeah, I had that when Juan is trying to teach Little to swim in the first story. The waves were lapping up over the camera, so I realized I could hide all my edits when a wave would go over the lens, then I would make my cut and then I would cut on the other side, so all the cuts were invisible. But one of the great parts of working with James and Barry is they shoot it so cinematically that it’s really fun to get to kind of cut the look of it like it’s another performance. Sometimes you have movies where they’re just kind of mumblecore-y where they’re just capturing what’s happening with two cameras and you’re really not thinking about the cinema of it or cutting the cinematography as if it’s a performance. With this, you really want to do as much justice to the cinematography as you would any actor in the movie.

When I first saw the film in Toronto, I believe it was Mahershala Ali who said how much he appreciated how the film presented the opportunity to be seen cerebrally, particularly as an African-American, which isn’t only visually but in the pacing as well. What was it like to give that room to the characters to observe them thinking and processing emotions?

Nat Sanders: That really was part of the discovery process, realizing that all that silence and that those spaces were working and we didn’t need to try to pace it up or fill it with sound or music.

Joi McMillon: It was such a delicate process because I think the first ten minutes of the movie, your main character doesn’t speak for what, seven minutes? You don’t hear from him, so how do you keep the audience engaged for these moments early on where they’re just being introduced to these characters and get them onboard so you’re following this kid all the way through?

Nat Sanders: We struggled with that a lot. We did keep coming back to the beginning and [see] whether we could cut a scene in half where you’d still get all the information, but not pace it up inorganically. We were worried it was going to be too slow of a beginning. It ended up somewhere in the middle, and part of it may have been that we were just underestimating how well it really was working.

Joi McMillon: We did some additional sound work after Toronto, and I feel like that totally elevated the silences that we had because even though they were silent, there’s still a world outside of the crack den that needed to be its own character and [have] its presence felt, so that helped that opening sequence.

Nat Sanders: Yeah, for a variety of reasons, we needed to have a pretty quick and dirty sound mix before Telluride and Toronto. That was supposed to be the final mix, and Joi and I couldn’t be at Telluride, so we saw it for the first time at Toronto and we were blown away by the movie and the reaction, but the sound mix… we were a little horrified. Within five minutes of the screening, we were lobbying Barry, “The movie’s doing so well with critics, we think you’re going to have the leverage – please, please get some money for us to do a little bit more sound mixing.” Barry did and we got the ability to really fill all that silence and really create a world.

Was this a crash process towards the end? It probably always is for indie filmmakers, but to make the festivals?

Nat Sanders: That part we actually had a lot of time because we shot in October of 2015, so obviously, we weren’t going for Sundance and there was some discussion as to whether we’d try for Cannes, but pretty early on, it was decided that the Telluride/Toronto thing was the way we were going to go. We definitely had a lot of time, but not a lot of money. [laughs] The first couple months of the edit, we were finishing a television show, so we had to do double duty as [the “Moonlight” crew] were shooting and as we were doing our assembly, [the TV show] had such nice equipment, we were secretly on the sly using the equipment of this television show because it was so much nicer than anything we could afford. [laughs]

Finally, when the TV show finished, they kicked us out, and normally, Joi would have her own office and all of her own nice equipment and I’d have my own office and all my nice equipment, but we didn’t have any of that. We had one small room [where] Joi was working 10 feet behind me and she had to be on headphones [with] Barry going back and forth. The room would get really hot, so we had a floor air conditioning unit. We would turn it on and it would be too loud to be able to hear ourselves edit, so we’d have to stop working for five or ten minutes as we’d cool the room down, turn that off, go back and work for a little while and it’d be too hot to work again, and stop for the air conditioning again. So it was real indie filmmaking for sure.

“Moonlight” is now in theaters.

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