Because of the unique nature of how “Tramps” was made and what a special film it is, we’re devoting this week to celebrating many of the artists behind the scenes that made it possible with a series of interviews illuminating their work before its premiere on Netflix.
Before she became a filmmaker, Sara Shaw was a musician, first learning to play the cello before entering a punk rock phase (quite literally) in high school when she picked up the guitar. Tooling around with licks gave her a sense of what she liked to do as an artist while the repetition contributed to a keen feel for rhythm.
“I just like spending many hours in a small room synthesizing pieces to make something new,” says Shaw. “The rewriting process and constantly having to push yourself to reenvision things and rethink things and stretch things further than you thought possible, that’s all pretty thrilling to me.”
It has been equally thrilling to see what has happened when Shaw traded in her strings to play the keyboard of an Avid, finding great comfort in the editing room after spending years on nearly every part of a film set, most notably making shorts as a writer/director. Becoming a trusted partner of some of the most exciting new directors out there, Shaw has dazzled with her work on Joey Kuhn’s romance “Those People,” articulating the otherwise ineffable whirlwind of emotions of being young and carefree in New York by matching the exhilaration of the film’s frequent invocation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” beat for beat in her cutting, while decelerating agreeably for the deadpan humor of Desiree Akhavan’s slowjam “Appropriate Behavior,” in which the actress/writer/director plays a woman who struggles to find her groove.
Somewhere in between these two speeds is her latest film, “Tramps,” which soars by at a breakneck pace in keeping up with Danny (Callum Turner) and Ellie (Grace Van Patten) as they hop bikes, buses and trains to make good on a briefcase exchange gone bad that they’re handling for some low-level criminals (led by Mike Birbiglia), but still leaves room for the nuances of Adam Leon and Jamund Washington’s finely tuned script to settle in as Danny and Ellie get to know each other. Maybe that’s because, as Leon says, he and Shaw got a “dossier for the Russians deep” understanding of each other over the course of six months in the edit bay for “Tramps.”
“She just cares that this story is told the best way it possible can,” says Leon. “She’s like me in that way – we want to care less so we can focus on enjoying life, eating food, listening to music, but we care too much about whether this fucking scene is working to do that. It’s an invaluable trait to have.”
That relentlessness is evident not only in the pacing of “Tramps,” but how no detail goes without being ultimately paid off, and recently, Shaw took the time to explain how a rigorous editing process that actively involved reshoots helped birth such a thrilling adventure, as well as finding a balance between the Danny and Ellie’s burgeoning romance and their criminal connections and creating a vibrant sense of place.
How did you get interested in “Tramps”?
I think my agent sent me the script and I knew of some of the people involved. I just liked the aesthetic choices [of “Gimme the Loot”] and I thought it would be fun to make a movie with that same director, but from a different stylistic vein, so I met with Adam [Leon]. We had a really great conversation and talked a lot about music and of the films we both liked. Adam specifically liked “Appropriate Behavior,” Desiree [Akhavan]’s first movie that I cut and I think just having aligned tastes really means a lot when you’re trying to make a film. Also, I knew Ashley [Connor] socially and liked her work. When Adam told me that he had hired Ashley in our first meeting, I thought that was good sign.
And you actually inherited an assembly cut of the film from Morgan Faust, who cut “Gimme the Loot.” Was that an interesting way to come into the process?
It was. I was finishing up another project before I could start on “Tramps” and Adam and Morgan had worked together before, but Morgan was about to have a baby, so she wasn’t going to be able to stay on and timing-wise, it worked out. It really was an assembly [when I came on] and Morgan didn’t have quite enough time to get to a solid one, but she was really smart in helping me to get oriented with the film and to have conversations with Adam during the shoot. I was watching dailies while they were shooting, so I was getting familiar with the footage, but not in the same way that Morgan was, and she was good to have as a reference for both me and Adam to find our way through the movie. When I was watching the dailies, Morgan and I could chat, compare notes and see if we have the same opinions about certain things that we were afraid maybe weren’t quite as we would expect they would be. We weighed in a little bit from the sideline, but mostly we didn’t want to distract Adam too much from the process.
You mentioned talking about music with Adam, and he’s said he created a playlist before shooting. Were you privy to it?
Yeah, Adam has a really encyclopedic knowledge of music and since I come from a music background, we had a great time talking about it and connecting. He really did a great job of pulling together a big palette and we’d go through together and try out things [while editing] and sometimes he’d just give me a huge batch of [music] that he thought was in the right realm for the film — had some kind of feeling or tone that he wanted the film to share and I would go through and pick out music from that that seemed to have a resonance with those images. Sometimes that would be Adam coming in with things that he thought would work for a specific location and sometimes that would be me pulling out things, but usually we shared opinions about whether or not something was working and it was good to be able to connect on that.
Adam has talked about this idea of movement, both in terms of editing and cinematography. Were there certain references you may have looked to?
We talked about a lot of references, but in the end, it just ended up trying to inject some energy into those moments and harnessing what we had to create a youthful momentum and energy. We talked about Altman, [Eric] Rohmer and [Ernst] Lubitsch, and [those] were probably more useful tool to envision the story. Really, what I was going for was more of an energy more in a general sense from the French New Wave, making some choices that weren’t so obvious like putting in footage that was never intended to be used, like junk shots at the end of a reel, like when [the crew] were walking through Grand Central to steal a shot, and the camera was just [roaming] and captured some off-kilter things. We were trying to keep it feeling a little bit rambling and [have] a little bit of looseness to it that didn’t always feel so composed or expected and meticulous. In terms of the pacing, the characters often speak more than references that you could impose on the footage.
With those shots you mention from Grand Central, they set up the scene so well and in general, you’re able to create such a great sense of place with these quick-cut sequences that feel like a new way in without resorting to traditional establishing shots. How did you figure those out? Was there a lot of B-roll to work with?
An entire reshoot was dedicated to just getting B-roll. There’s that montage when they get back to the city that’s dogs and people walking and it was a matter of striking the right balance not to have too much of that because it was detracting from the story if you lingered on those things too long. But you wanted it to feel like this is a real world in which these characters are living in and these aren’t the same kind of images you always see to establish New York, whether it’s people on the subway that you wouldn’t usually see or whether it’s a shot [that feels] half-drunken walking up the stairs in Grand Central. You’d never find any of it in stock footage libraries — this is Adam Leon’s New York and it is supposed to be a little bit more the filmmaker’s point of view, but also getting the audience immersed in the characters’ experience through these really unusual views of the city.
Adam seems to have a pretty extensive reshoot process, particularly for an independent film. Could you just see something that wasn’t working and ask for a reshoot?
It was through a lot of discussion with audiences and his trusted friends who were watching the film and also the producers. Adam is really committed to just picking at a problem until he finds a solution and he definitely is a director who embraces reshoots. There were a number of reshoots done, [some for] scenes that we didn’t end up using. It was a real exploration process. Sometimes we had to actually see it to realize it wasn’t actually what we needed, so it was a long process, but I was really impressed with Adam’s ability to keep reaching for greater clarity and greater character. We definitely spent a lot of hours in the room beating our heads against the wall, trying to solve problems and coming up with other ways of thinking about things and [Adam] cares about the film above all else and really, really wants it to be as good as he envisions in his head and he wants it to have a strong effect on an audience and he’s just indefatigable until that’s been achieved.
Jamund had said the balance between the crime elements and the relationship between Danny and Ellie was tricky. Was it difficult to give the right weight to both?
The performances were good, so it was not the hardest time to make them click, but ultimately, it is a romantic story with the heist framework and getting the details of the heist to play was a challenge. It felt a little bit like you had these two stories and the heist one was not quite fully clear, so we did rework a lot in the edit [with] creative recontextualizing of scenes and rerecording of lines to help with clarity and to help the primary storyline of Danny and Ellie’s journey to be offset properly with everything that was going on in the city.
There were some reshoots done [for the heist scene, specifically] The original heist scene was beautiful in its own way, but it actually was creating more questions than it was answering, so we needed it to be a little bit more minimal. When Adam went to reshoot it came up with the idea of just having it be totally on Danny and Ellie because they’re ultimately the center of the story anyhow and once you started to get too bogged down in the mechanics of the heist and how it worked and who was involved, audiences started to ask more about the specifics when really we wanted them to stay oriented with Danny and Ellie. As is often the case, less was more and [the reworking] helped you feel more aligned with Danny and Ellie’s experience.
Was there a particularly tricky sequence to get right?
Establishing Ellie and [Mike Birbiglia’s character] Scott was a tricky thing, figuring out how to set them up and then figuring out how to get the beginning working. Originally, you see Ellie, then you see Danny, then you meet Ellie again, then you meet Danny again – and Adam came in with that great opening track that allowed for those two scenes to exist together so we get a lot of the exposition out of the way while we’re also meeting Ellie. But figuring out some things about her character were questions that we grappled with — how much her backstory mattered and how much we were going to tell the audience about what her life had been like before and how much her relationship with her ex Ricky featured in the present tense of the movie. Through trial and error, we came through in the film that you see.
Were you locked into certain things because of Adam’s style with the long zooms and long takes?
No, [because] when he knew he wanted something in a long take, he would spend the time getting 20-plus takes to get it right – all the choreography, the performance and the camera. Specifically, I’m thinking about the scene where Danny gets back to her after having screwed up the heist. He encounters Ellie at the subway station and they have that whole confrontation on the street and the camera follows them for a while. He would shoot wide thinking he would want to do it that way [on a lot of things], but then we realized we wanted to use the coverage — of the evening [Danny and Ellie spend the night in the] pool shed where he had it playing a wide for a while and ultimately, we realized we could do more with the timing and the emotions of the characters if we used coverage and closeups. So he was pretty flexible and he mostly did shoot alternatives to the single wide shots, so he definitely had a plan B and that allowed us to experiment with things more. We ended up going through quite a bit of cutting as opposed to staying in a wide both for the sake of pacing, story, immersion in character and story beats.
How did you actually gravitate towards editing? It sounds like you have a lot of artistic interests.
I’ve done a lot of things around editing that make me a better editor because I’ve experienced other things — I’ve directed things. I’ve been a musician, I’ve done sound editing — and I think there’s just something thrilling about collaborating on a film, which is something I really love, so that’s how I got to be an editor. Also, I’m not the biggest fan of set life, so editing is a nice, safe environment in which to be creative and you really have a huge amount of input on the final film. Through working with Adam and basically every project I cut, I become more in awe of the enormous power an editor has to reshape a film, even without reshoots, which I thought were essential to significantly reshape a film. But the more time I spend playing with things, the more I realize there’s a lot of sleight of hand that can really transform a film in the edit room and it’s a constant learning process. As long as I continue to edit, I continue to learn new tricks and new ways to shape things and I’m becoming more confident all the time. That’s another thing I love about it.
“Tramps” starts streaming on Netflix on April 21st.