ART OF THE CUT with “Crazy Rich Asians” editor, Myron Kerstein

Myron Kerstein has edited numerous films including, Going in Style, Wish I Was Here, Movie 43, Glee: The 3D Concert Movie, Little Fockers, Fame, and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.

For this Art of the Cut, we discuss his latest film, Crazy Rich Asians, which was recently nominated for a 2019 ACE Eddie for Best Edited Feature Film – Comedy.

(This interview was transcribed with SpeedScriber. Thanks to Martin Baker at Digital Heaven)

HULLFISH: Let’s start with something simple: the Crazy Rich Asians schedule.

KERSTEIN: Basically we had nine weeks in Malaysia and Singapore, which is where I was putting together the assembly. After that, we started the standard ten-week Director’s Cut and then it expanded to about 18 weeks total. We had four or five weeks on the mix stage for the final but came back a couple of months later to remix for a title sequence and music. All together it was about an eight to nine-month post-process.

HULLFISH: How did you start your relationship with this director?

KERSTEIN: Brad Simpson who I worked with 20 years ago in New York was a post supervisor for this film called Velvet Goldmine. I was the assistant editor on it. Brad and I got along and 20 years later Brad ended up being the producer of this film, so I wrote to Brad and said, hey what are the chances that you could put me in the mix for this thing? Brad handed my name and resume over to Jon, who didn’t know who I was. Jon trusted Brad’s opinion so they set up a Skype interview. It had to be a Skype interview because Jon was in Malaysia prepping the film. I’m sure you’ve done a million Skype interviews at this point, but for me, they can be quite awkward. Especially when you’re trying to convince a director to hire you, but I just went guns-blazing. Just saying, “I have to work on this movie. Please consider me. This is the energy and these are the things I’ll bring to the table.” And it seemed to be enough. I was a fan of Jon’s work before because I’ve done a lot of films that have had a lot of music-related sequences or musical numbers and Jon had that background as well so that was helpful.

HULLFISH: In Singapore did you rent a post house or how did you set up your cutting rooms?

KERSTEIN: They don’t have many post houses in Malaysia or Singapore, so I brought in everything. I used Vortex as my Avid vendor. They ended up shipping all the gear from Los Angeles. We set up in Malaysia for that portion of the shoot and we had to do that again in Singapore and then back to the States. We had three moves. People do that all the time, but they just don’t do it in Malaysia and Singapore! Going through customs and everything was a big process. It was not easy to do anything but once you’re in there, it’s like any other edit room. It’s just a room and a bunch of Avids and it went pretty smoothly, which is good because if your system goes down, it’s a 16-hour flight to get somebody to fix it.

HULLFISH: How many systems on the NEXIS or Unity system with you?

KERSTEIN: It was a Unity and John To, who also works with Tom Cross, came out with me, with David Zimmerman. They got me through what could have been a real up and down rollercoaster ride in the middle of Singapore. We were at a facility that did commercial stuff and they were editing a lot in Final Cut, and strangely enough, they had a big color suite — as big as a movie theater — so I was actually able to watch dailies every Saturday with the director like old-school film dailies and that was fantastic.

HULLFISH: Let’s talk about that. The idea of screening dailies — especially big and with the director — is something that not everybody gets to do. Let’s talk a little bit about what that did for you and how that moved the project along and why you would probably want to do that again on your next movie.

KERSTEIN: My first studio movie was on film dailies and that was the last time I had the opportunity of viewing dailies with the director. When Jon said, “Let’s screen dailies.” I was like, “What are you talking about? YES! Absolutely.” I didn’t know Jon that well, right? So to have the opportunity to sit in a room watching his dailies with myself and the DP and at times, the production designer or the AD, it was just that old-school feeling of getting to know the crew, getting to know the footage, getting to know your director. Even if he’s giving you just the basic sort of knowledge of what take might work or what he was thinking when he was shooting something? That is just invaluable. It’s something that I wish every director would still do.

How many times are we in the edit room where you just have no clue about what to do from day one to the end of the shoot? It was an invaluable time spent to get to know him and for him to get to know me and to watch the images on a big screen — to see it on a big screen and all the details. How many times do I select a close-up when I could have been on a wide because I can actually see the detail in the wide? It informs so much.

HULLFISH: So screening on a Saturday, you’re trying to look at a full week of material, so how long was the screening session and how did you select what to look at, because I’m sure you probably shot more than eight or ten hours of material in a week.

KERSTEIN: At first, Jon wanted to see everything. And it was obvious that was never going to work. So we started selecting takes like old-school circled takes. But even that was 3 to 6 hours. Even with just circled selects, it was still great to get his insight on a given scene. It really meant a lot. Even the talk about construction for two seconds can save you hours in the edit room.

HULLFISH: Did you have the assistant take notes? Or were you trying to scribble madly while you were also trying to watch?

KERSTEIN: It was always me trying to jot down some kind of impression of what Jon liked in the footage.
On features, I’ll create a database of dailies and take notes on the computer in kind of an XML spreadsheet of every take but when I watched with him, I didn’t want a computer, so I was just madly scribbling notes. Just really simple impressions of what the footage meant to him. You don’t want to overload your director with too many questions. Sometimes just to know that he laughed at something or he looks bored. Just trying to feel those impressions.

HULLFISH: How were the screenings done? Burn in clip info and timecode or just slate info? How did you know what take and set-up you were looking at?

KERSTEIN: It was just whatever the DIT burned in. It wasn’t like the old days where the assistant would have print out sheets for you. There was a lot of fast-forwarding too, just trying to get through it all. It’s like hundreds of hours of footage every week. Those same days I was also watching cut scenes with the director, so just to have that time with him as well just to show him any of my work and if I’m on the right track. Just to get that feedback is huge too, especially with a director who you’ve never worked with before.

HULLFISH: That brings up the idea of trying to build trust with him and was it just a matter of showing him your work? Or was there more to it?

KERSTEIN: Being able to screen dailies with somebody and sharing their thoughts means a lot to build a rapport. They start to get a vibe from you and they see that you’re not a complete idiot. To see that they’re trying to do god by you is a good start. Just talking about why these are the decisions I made and luckily there were enough things that he liked that that started to build trust. I didn’t knock everything out of the park, but to get just one part right in a scene is a beginning. And you work from there. I don’t do this often but I did visit him on set more than usual. A) I was so far away from home. But also B) I wanted to be a part of this family that was growing quickly amongst the cast and crew. I tried not to be a nuisance, but it was more about getting to know each other. It also gave him a chance to play some music for me, like “I was thinking about this for a scene.” Those things all start to build little incremental moments towards what he would like for the film and trust.

HULLFISH: Because you basically had to build a cutting room from scratch, did you go out early?

KERSTEIN: It was so bad. I literally finished a pilot two days before and I arrived on the first day of shooting. And, by the way, when you fly across the world like that, you’re jet-lagged for a week.

HULLFISH: Yeah. I just got back from teaching editing in China. I know the feeling.

KERSTEIN: You feel like you’re out of your mind. The good news is that the assistants went out there the week before so I was in fairly good shape from a technical standpoint when I arrived. They wanted me out there earlier, but I couldn’t leave the pilot until I was done.

HULLFISH: Had you ever worked with Tom’s first assistant and the second? Or was that another trust relationship that had to be built?

KERSTEIN: I was actually very lucky to get John and David because a lot of people didn’t want to go to Malaysia and Singapore. I was having a hard time finding a crew willing to travel that far for a show. Some believe it or not some AE’s were also worried that Singapore and Malaysia were Muslim countries. There were also a few incredible female assistants who didn’t want to travel because they wanted to have kids and were worried about the zika virus, etc.

HULLFISH: I’ve been to Vietnam and just got back in China, so I know about those concerns.

KERSTEIN: You really can’t find any two more beautiful countries with Malaysia and Singapore. I was blown away. Malaysia is pretty gritty, but the people and the food are just so mind-bogglingly good. The people were so warm, beautiful and multicultural. It was a great experience and I’m so happy I went.

HULLFISH: Did you guys have time ahead to say, This the way I work. How did you prep that, or how did they know how to prep for you since you arrived the day of?

KERSTEIN: I had John spend some time talking to my assistant editor, who I’d worked with before… just to get an idea of how do I set up a bin, I use Scripter (ScriptSync) later in the process and here’s how I like it set up with improvs. So it was great to have my previous assistant communicate directly with him how I like things done. It was a learning curve though. It always is.

HULLFISH: By saying “how you like improv set up” you’re talking about a method of dealing with non-scripted dialogue within ScriptSync? I know everybody has a different method of including ad-libbed lines and marking them. So how do you do it?

KERSTEIN: If it’s very different from the actual script, I have them transcribe it and usually I’ll have them include it in the body of the scene, but sometimes I’ll have them add all the improv at the bottom of the page. And sometimes I have color code the little nodes — the lines — just to let me know that it’s different. Sometimes ad-libbing can just be one line different and then I don’t bother transcribing. I just need to have a way to find the major ad-libs. Especially when your re-cutting, it’s just so time-consuming to find that stuff, as you know.

HULLFISH: Editing stuff that’s been either heavily ad-libbed or occasionally ad-libbed is definitely different than your typical scripted editing. How do you deal with it? When you’re not following a script, what do you do?

KERSTEIN: It can be really daunting. There’s one scene in the film where Rachel Chu visits Peik Lin’s house is almost completely ad-libbed. There was definitely a structure and lines to the scene, but you basically have three people who can do ad-libbing really well and they just go down these paths. You have to decide ways to build the footage that doesn’t feel like you’re losing the scene.

Basically, the scene is about Rachel finding out that her boyfriend is one of the richest guys in Singapore — and you have to remember that’s what the scene is about. But we have all these tangents — that the cast did brilliantly — but that would end up being a three-hour scene. So you start out by building a 40-minute version and then start whittling down. What really feels like the funniest scene that makes sense to the audience but they don’t lose track of what the story is. Then you start testing those jokes on audience members and sometimes you find out things don’t work, so let’s try another tangent of ad libs to see if they’d work better. There’s a belief that comedies are the hardest things to cut and I mostly disagree with that idea except when it comes to dealing with ad-libs. That can be really like re-thinking a scene, trying to find the balance and the rhythms of what works.

HULLFISH: I’ve only worked on one movie where the director just used the script as an outline and let the actors really say anything they wanted as long as the scene still had the same purpose and that’s so hard because that means you only have a single take of a scene done a certain way. The next take, the lines can be in a completely different order or some lines might never be said again, so intercutting becomes very difficult. I think cutting ad lib is really complicated.

KERSTEIN: Plus, most directors aren’t cross-shooting their actors, so you can either have a great line that’s not on camera at all, or you don’t have the reaction to a certain line. So it can be really challenging, but of course, rewarding when it actually ends up working. I would say 80 percent of the material I cut has ad libs in it, so sometimes I just would love to have a scene where they just say the lines as they are in the script!

HULLFISH: You talked about taking those things to screening audiences, but I’m assuming that maybe the very first audiences for some of those scenes are your assistants.

KERSTEIN: Yeah. I’m a big believer in using your assistants through the entire process — just trying to get their take on things. You quickly learn what works in your cutting room before you ever show it to the director or an audience. I can just watch my assistants’ body language, and then it even gets worse when a scene doesn’t feel right, and I start asking questions. You encourage them to be brutally honest. Those reactions just get you miles ahead.

When we got back to the states the assistant crew switched over to Melissa Remenarich-Aperlo as the 1st AE, Joey Amaron as the 2nd AE, and Rebecca Feingold was the VFX editor. The entire team brought their work ethic, skills, and opinions. Also, want to mention that Melissa did a great job re-cutting the dressing montage that was in and out of the film for months!

HULLFISH: Is that something you look for in assistants — in addition to just technical skills and work ethic — that they can be honest but still be on your side? Of course, you don’t just want the person who’s giving you this brutal feedback because they’re gunning for your job.

KERSTEIN: Well I have this attitude that if my assistant wants my job so bad, they can have it. (laughs) and that gets me pretty far because most of them don’t want to be in this hot seat! They may think they want to be there, but…

HULLFISH: Sometimes a new assistant — if I ask them a question — they’re wondering if they should speak, or if it’s a trick.

KERSTEIN: You definitely want people who are articulate, thoughtful individuals who shouldn’t be fearful to offer their opinions. Of course, there’s a time and place, right? I do feel like you really need to encourage — especially people you haven’t worked with before — just to be part of the team.

HULLFISH: To hop on another thought, this movie seemed like it had a huge cast with a lot of people to keep track of. So, what are the difficulties of juggling multiple storylines, multiple characters? How do you handle that?

KERSTEIN: I wasn’t always sure if I was making an ensemble movie, a story about Rachel Chu, or a story about Astrid. There was a desire to represent the book accurately, which was very popular, and also had the pages to handle all these different storylines. But with this movie, I knew I was making a romantic comedy, a fish-out-of-water story, Cinderella, and a film about Singapore.

There was the added pressure to deliver on Astrid’s storyline because she was so popular in the book. Even though Gemma was beautiful and her storyline made a lot of sense, I didn’t know whether or not she should get equal treatment as Rachel. There were a lot of discussions about who should get how much screen time but quickly it just felt like the more we focused on Rachel and how she was able to navigate the family and turn Astrid’s storyline into a cautionary tale for Rachel. The more we were able to focus on that idea, the clearer the movie became.

My first cut was three hours. But it was just too much of everything.

HULLFISH: Those were discussions you were having after production, I’m assuming — during and after the director’s cut.

KERSTEIN: Yeah. In the beginning, we were giving many of the characters equal screen time. We had sequences at Tyersall Park and on the containership that easily could have been their own movies. So cutting dailies I knew I was cutting a lot of scenes that probably would not exist in the final movie.

HULLFISH: With that kind of assembly, the only way you get close to a two-hour movie is dropping whole storylines or entire characters.

KERSTEIN: Thankfully, we didn’t lose any characters in this, but some were really limited. Harry Shum Jr., who is a star on Glee, only got a little cameo in the credits. His character is huge in the book. Although his character Charlie shares a big storyline with Astrid, for better or worse, we had to focus on Rachel and Nick.

HULLFISH: I’ve done numerous interviews of editors who cut movies based on books or other media and there’s kind of a split between people that said that they wanted to read those things and the people that said they didn’t want those in their head. What did you do?

KERSTEIN: I did not read the book before editing the film. I knew that the movie wasn’t going to be the book and that to some extent, reading the book beforehand might be a hindrance, so I really wanted to come in there clean and react to whatever storyline is strongest… that’s what’s going to survive. I’m respectful to the fans, but that doesn’t mean something should make the movie. So I think I made the right decision. I believe fans of the book feel like it’s a good representation of Kevin Kwan’s book… we were all honestly so thrilled that we pulled off our version of the book, that the response was positive critically, and at the box office.

HULLFISH: I think an editor has a hard enough time keeping objective about the material and by adding all that additional information that a book would give you that would just make it worse.

KERSTEIN: Yeah. Absolutely. That’s the same philosophy about whether the editor should visit the set. But I was so far away from home and I felt like, “I need to get to know SOMEBODY here.” Also, the sets were gorgeous. I just didn’t know how I will have that objectivity after reading the book.

HULLFISH: If you’ve got a book in your head then you’ve got all this knowledge that you may not want to have.

KERSTEIN: Yeah, and there were already so many liberties that had been taken in the script stage anyway. I think that if you capture the spirit of something well and you try to find the right tone and the joy of the source material, then you’re on the right track.

HULLFISH: Do you know if any Asian editors were looked at for this gig? Any editors of Asian descent?

KERSTEIN: I think that it was a consideration whether or not Jon should have someone in the editing room who was of Asian descent, but I I don’t think he wanted to make that decision based on just that criteria. I don’t know Cantonese, Mandarin or Hokkien, which are three languages in the movie — and that was a big learning curve for me.

HULLFISH: How did you deal with those language differences?

KERSTEIN: Each one of those languages, even though one could group them as “Chinese”, are very different. It was a painstaking process of literally combing through word by word, sometimes syllable by syllable, just to get it each language right. Jon would often play clips to his parents on his phone, asking, “What does this mean?” We also had dialogue coaches on set help guide us through the process, and our sound co-supervisor, dialog/ADR editor Nancy Nugent, helped take the dialog to another level… so it really was a group effort to get all the nuances right.

HULLFISH: Lots of editors who get to work with top-notch actors say that they’re usually just trying to stay out of the way of a great performance. You had some actors who were very new to film acting.

KERSTEIN: I disagree. I don’t think we’re ever just trying to stay out of the way. Our job is to find all the little kernels to make a really great performance. It’s always my job to be a real earnest observer of the actors, and try not to be judgmental of what the actor did on the day of shooting.

One of the first indies I worked on was Raising Victor Vargas. That whole movie was improv. Many of those actors also had never been in front of the camera before. At first, none of it seemed to work… but over time as you construct the performances the magic starts to happen. I just don’t think there’s any difference between Michael Caine and Henry Golding. They’re both trying to do their best job in the moment and I’m there to keep mining the best pieces.

HULLFISH: And when you’re trying to mine that gold — let’s talk about the process of how you do that. How are you finding those moments?

KERSTEIN: I don’t use selects reels in the beginning. I use the notes as a guide to remember where a piece of performance exists. I use those notes in a linear fashion begin to build a scene, but oftentimes, later, I’ll go through all the dailies all over again pull those pieces into selects reels. I end up doing that sort of homework later on. Although with my latest project, I’m working with a bunch of kids and I have to do selects reels from the get-go because it’s sometimes harder to cut kids. But most of the time I use the notes to begin straight out of the dailies bins.

HULLFISH: It’s interesting that you’ve got a structure of a scene that you’re looking at and then you’re talking about going back and re-watching dailies, but with the advantage that you know the specific angles and moments you’re looking for.

KERSTEIN: The structure and the construction of the scene really helps you be more mindful about exactly what you’re looking for. I often like to do a character pass with the director and just watch all the dailies for just one character, and make selects based on that one character. We’ll spend a week of doing nothing but looking at that one character and looking at their dailies. Now let’s do it for the next character. Or sometimes we’ll make a comedy pass. We’ll just look for jokes. Or we’ll make a “great epic shots pass.”

I just try to dive in. Especially when you’re first cutting, they just want to know if the scene works. They want to know if they have any shots missing.

HULLFISH: So let’s talk about structure compared to the script.

KERSTEIN: Well the biggest problem we had was in the middle of the film when Rachel and Harry go to their bachelor-bachelorette parties. It was like an albatross hanging over the movie for months. It was literally the last thing we cracked. How much time do we spend with these characters and why? And when do we get back to the main storyline? When do we get to this wedding? And it just took us the longest time to figure out that we need to condense this to its purest form.

But also — I kid you not — I watched this great film Arrival. Actually, I watched it a few times. And in discussions with Jon, we were talking about intercutting and about how beautifully done it was in Arrival. I said to Jon, “I would love to try to do that on a movie someday.” Cut to two months later and we were like, Why not intercut these two scenes together of Rachel talking to her nemesis while Henry is talking to his best friend about why this relationship isn’t a good idea. And suddenly you start unlocking things. Those two scenes were never meant to be inter-cut. I must have cut 30 different versions of that section of the movie. Every screening of the movie had notes on that middle section, so it was really satisfying to crack something that you’ve been wrestling with for months.

Studio notes spreadsheet (right-click and choose to open in a new browser tab or window to see this at full resolution)

HULLFISH: I love the idea of just having patience and believing in the process. You knew that you had a problem through there but you just have faith that eventually we’re going to solve this.

KERSTEIN: You’ve got to be a believer in the process. The process will unveil the secrets. While you’re cracking other parts of the movie you can start to focus more on that one thing that you still can’t solve and keep putting more energy into it and you’ve got more audience screenings and more data. We could easily have a 30-minute movie where they’re on the freight ship. At first, we thought people were going to eat this up — there are supermodels and debauchery! But from the first screening, people thought it was unsavory, we needed to get off that ship as quickly as possible. But you don’t know that until screening and having the patience of just learning from your screenings and having the patience to solve what’s in front of you.

HULLFISH: Let’s talk about some of the musical decisions.

KERSTEIN: First of all I’m a strong believer that putting in music too early can be a crutch and can be almost detrimental to finding the right rhythms and trying to find how a scene works. Music can make anything work really easily. Almost everything I work on has a lot of music in it, so there’s one side of my brain that just loves music and can’t wait to put it in, but the other side of me says, “STOP IT! TAKE IT ALL OUT!” Keep making the scene work without it as long as you can. The longer you wait, the better off everyone is.

But it’s hard because people expect all the bells and whistles as quickly as possible. You just have to know when the right time to start putting music in the cut.
That being said, Jon gave me a playlist of music before I even started on the film to get an idea of what the tone of the film is. Right away I knew that what we were making potentially could be classier than I expected.

There were these big band tunes, but they were in Cantonese or Mandarin, and I was realized that we were really going to be making something that felt like it was from the Golden Age of Cinema. It felt like we were making Imitation of Life meets Pillow Talk meets the Great Gatsby.

That same playlist helped inform the tone of our temp score, which composer Brian Tyler would eventually turn into our beautiful score. We didn’t want comedy score all over the movie, because in my opinion it telegraphed the comedy, and may have reduced our film to just a broad comedy.

I was also attracted to the melodrama in the second half of the film so we temped in Road to Perdition (laughs). We used jazz score over the texting montage and Cantonese and Mandarin covers of pop songs in some of our montages. All these choices informed the tone of the film, which also elevated it to something fresh, classy, and I think in a good way, familiar.

HULLFISH: Tell me about that mahjong scene.

KERSTEIN: That scene was maybe the most beautiful thing I’ve ever cut and it looks so simple. I think oftentimes people look at the really good editing as the flashy editing. Flashy editing is like a guitar solo, and what I was doing in that scene was more like playing classical guitar and I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to cut something between two people in a room with something that has to feel like a big challenging fight scene at the same time.

HULLFISH: That kind of goes to one of my classic questions: How do you judge someone else’s editing. It’s so hard to do because you can’t tell from a finished scene what it took to get there. What were the specific challenges of making that scene work or what were the difficulties that were keeping you from getting it to work

KERSTEIN: The biggest challenge was that — not only did I not know how to play mahjong — but I knew that most of my audience wouldn’t either. I needed to find a way to be able to communicate not only what the scene was about — which is basically Rachel standing up to Eleanor, but also to communicate how you win the game. How does a tile represent a character? The tile that Rachel holds in her hand represents Nick and she’s going to sacrifice him not to win the game, but to basically show Eleanor that she could have won — she could have taken her son away. All of those things are really challenging because I knew that the audience wasn’t going to have anyone narrating that scene for them. That was kind of the hat trick to get people invested in something with this subtext that this is the finale of the film.

HULLFISH: Is there a key to editing subtext? So much it plays on the actors’ performances but when what’s being said is different than what the actors are saying, how do you execute that in editing?

KERSTEIN: Looks and what people are saying with their eyes or what people are doing in between the words communicates the subtext. Most of the things that work in the mahjong scene are basically looks between Rachel and Eleanor about what’s NOT being said, and I think that helps fill in the gaps — that what we’re really talking about is: Wow! I can’t believe you didn’t say yes to my son, communicated in this look from Eleanor that looks like “I just dodged a bullet.” Those looks, sometimes pacing as well, can really just communicate so much more than what’s happening with the dialogue.

HULLFISH: Those were two great answers. I really loved those. I’m really glad that we got a chance to talk.

KERSTEIN: Thanks man I can’t tell you how much of an honor it is to have you, of all people, interview me. That really means a lot.

To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish

The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.

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ART OF THE CUT with “Crazy Rich Asians” editor, Myron Kerstein