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Filmmaker interviewed the editors of just three of the many films premiering at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival that revolve around and focus on music. God Help the Girl, screening in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition section, was directed by Stuart Murdoch, the lead singer of the band Belle and Sebastian, and edited by David Arthur.
Michael Saia, the editor of Jeff Preiss’ Low Down, had a history with both the director and the film’s subject, the music of jazz artist Joe Albany, far before the film was realized. Song One, edited by Madeleine Gavin and directed by Kate Barker-Froyland, utilizes the true talents of singer-songwriter Johnny Flynn in their film. Filmmaker: When editing, did the music influence the narrative structure or did the plot determine the music?
Arthur: The music was definitely central to the narrative structure as Stuart wrote the songs first and then the script followed from them so the songs were always going to be the emotional core of the film. Saia: Aside from the performance scenes – where, of course, the choices of music were pre-determined – the many scenes where records, radio, TV are playing presented a challenge to Jeff and me to find the right tone. One of director Kate Barker-Froyland’s ideas for the film was to show the world of music in Brooklyn and these performances added a lot of texture and a glimpse into a real and vital music scene. On the other hand, the fact that the central relationship in the film is with a musician meant that there were certain songs we knew were critical to the core of the story or were a necessary plot point.  Those songs could not be lost and had to be strengthened by everything around them. Filmmaker: How would you describe your personal and professional connection to the music in the film?
Gavin: For me, a big part of being an editor is allowing yourself to be seduced by the material so that you are inspired to find a way to engage a larger audience.
I remember watching the musical numbers in the dailies each day as they came in and being blown away. In terms of how my relationship to the music evolved throughout the editing, I think like with any film, as you start to shape the story and lose bits here, gain bits there, everything that remains takes on more significance. Saia: Almost 10 years to the day before shooting began, Jeff asked me to lunch and told me it looked like he would be directing Low Down and would like me to cut it.
Gavin: I became involved in the film when I met Kate just a few weeks before the shooting began.
Arthur: As well as having written all of the featured songs, Stuart was also the composer of the scored parts of the film so that was easy as we were in the same room. Gavin: I’ve worked on films where we have composers sending us music during the shoot and coming into the editing room regularly, and on films where the composers don’t touch the film until we are locked. Kate and I knew that with so much music already in the film, if there was going to be score at all, there wasn’t going to be much. We were close to locking by the time we figured out where we wanted score to fall in the film and at that point we began talking with the composers and brought on a music editor.
Arthur: Several songs in the film were recorded live with a full band as Stuart wanted to capture that energy in the performance. Gavin: Pretty much every song in Song One was shot as a live performance and we experimented with a number of approaches to the editing of those scenes. Kate and I knew we wanted people to stay with Franny’s POV as much as possible and when we started to have too much of our own personal experience with the music, we kind of lost that POV. Early on, we had built one sequence where we played a piece of live music over a sort of montage of events (scenes we had cut out of the film) and when producer Marc Platt saw this early cut, he suggested we try that in other areas of the film as a way to extend the music without playing performances on stage to full length. Another thing we discovered in the editing is that when we used discretion and didn’t across-the-board play songs to length, we could direct the audiences’ eye more effectively by making songs that we chose to play long, mean something.
If you stay past the point that people think you should, you make a point; and then if you stay even past that point, you kind of tell people that this is intentional.
In terms of the editing of the live performances in general, we had a number of angles for James’ performances but we use very few of them in the final film. Sonic & Recording Art (formerly Sound Design) examines the role of sound, in music, in entertainment, and our everyday lives.
Scores and soundtracks can become as renowned as a film itself and play a large part in an audience’s emotional engagement with a movie.
All three editors were separately given the same questions about working on a film heavily embedded in music and they answered independent from one another.
Low Down documents the life of Joe Albany — his music, passion, and addiction as described by his daughter, Amy. After her brother suffers a hospitalizing accident, Franny (Anne Hathaway) chooses to explore her sibling’s mysterious world in the Brooklyn music scene. Did the editing of scenes ever have to change because of the songs that were already in place?


What would the character be listening to, watching, connecting with at this moment of the narrative?
There were times when the music directed the narrative and times when we had to forgo wonderful music for the sake of the narrative. Song One is the story of a relationship between a young woman and a budding musician – his music and her experience is a huge part of their connection. Sometimes that meant cutting scenes and music to make those scenes stand out more and sometimes that meant reordering events to turn that musical piece into a sort of climactic moment, but in any event that is what we had to do. The tunes still pop into my head often when I am cycling or doing the dishes, say, and that is the sign of great pop music: it stays with you for life. Over the years that we’ve worked together, our record collections have become more and more similar. If you don’t love the material – or find something in the material that moves you – how can you possibly help to make the story inspiring to others? He also sent me the script at various points during writing it, got me involved in helping out on videos for the Kickstarter campaign and said early on he wanted me onboard as the film’s editor. I knew Johnny Flynn’s music a little and I had heard Jenny Lewis but I was coming in much later than the others. This was a novel way of working for me as usually you use temp tracks and scrape around for interesting potential music.
Not only did we collaborate closely and intensely on John’s performance scenes where the music was pre-determined, but when the music was extemporaneous and post recording was necessary, we – Jeff, Ohad, various players, and I – huddled in my cutting room with piano, trumpet, tenor, and made it happen. In Song One, the composers (Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice) didn’t just write the score, they wrote the songs that are played by James and Henry in the film. We also knew we wouldn’t want the score to compete with the live music and that if it was going to be there, we had to find a reason for it to exist separate from the music already shot. We didn’t want to limit Jenny and Johnny by asking them to fit sounds into the areas we had temped, though, and wanted them to be free to try different sounds so we asked them to create long free-associative musical pieces. When cutting the featured songs we had one outstanding rule: that the lyrics were the most important thing so we tried never to allow the cut to step on an important lyric in favour of pace, choreography or a great shot that might distract you from the lyric. The audience in a jazz performance is a part of the experience and that was always paramount in our approach. It was as if when we cut back to Franny and to the narrative, we were feeling, “What’s this story doing here? It was a great idea and was the seed that led us to what is now one of our favorite sequences in the film.
I know Kate and I both love that sequence and producer Jonathan Demme, who has made so many music-driven movies, really encouraged us to go with our instincts.
We go to Franny’s POV a couple of times just to sort of plant ourselves with her but largely we hold angles without cuts. Your general web browsing experience will be much improved if you upgrade for free to Internet Explorer 7, Internet Explorer 8 or Google Chrome.
Human beings are pre-dominantly visual, however, how much do we know about how much sound can govern our daily lives?
Awards are distributed honoring Best Original Song, Best Original Music Score, Best Film Music, and Best Music Direction at multiple film festivals and award ceremonies. The film was inspired by Albany’s daughter’s memoir, Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales from Childhood.
Once there, she meets musician James Forester (Johnny Flynn) who not only enchants her but also helps her understand her brother’s life and injury better. We experimented a bit with various second-act structures, trying the songs in different places to see how that changed the emotional arc of the film and even tried losing some songs to see how the film played without them (one song was cut from the final film). But it’s like every film; there is so much that has to be lost or to be restructured in the editing room. Because ultimately I believe it’s pretty true that film is largely about structure, pacing being part of that.
I hope the same happens for audiences of the film and more people fall in love with the music of Belle and Sebastian as a result. Sharing the differences in our libraries and the library provided to us by Dondi Bastone over the course of making Low Down, was an experience I’ll never forget and I believe was integral in making the movie what it is. So in the first cut of any film, I’m always looking for the moments that capture my imagination, or the theme that ties me to a character or those specific highlights that cement me emotionally to the film. The editing and the storytelling is about preserving and protecting that and ultimately making the structure serve the goal of communicating that to a wider audience.
I had received the script just the night before and had read it a couple of times and loved it.


After discussing a scene that could do with a transitional music cue for example he would often nip off home with a clip of the scene and work out some options on the piano and email them back to me. The writing of that music predated my involvement, however, and because there was so little score as a result, I interacted with them creatively less than on most films. In the end, we decided that a tiny bit of score could help us to track Franny’s internal arc in a way that the live music couldn’t.
From those pieces, we all worked together to create the sparse score that exists in the film today. It was often about simply seeing the character sing the lyrics, feeling their emotion and hopefully landing the song’s meaning.
In particular, it’s important that Amy’s reaction to Joe’s performance – her unique connection to his genius – is clear and resonant.
It was interesting but we found that there was a line that was crossed at a certain point where we became so immersed in the song that we sort of lost the movie and became more of an audience at a concert. It is long and the violin portion of that performance is to length (and does not cut.) It holds way past the time one would expect in a film. That is the one moment in the film where we felt like, as much as we want to be in Franny’s shoes, we also want to fall in love with James.
Again, there is something about holding one angle for a long time that tells people that, yes, we want to do this. That didn’t make it easy to decide but it did provide many blissful hours of watching monster movies, vintage cartoons and listening to jazz from both of our record collections.
Painful as it was, we had to lose some wonderful performances by local Brooklyn artists because the story couldn’t hold a place for them.
Once you have that, you have a standard for yourself that hopefully pushes you to really try and elevate the material. Its sparseness was exciting to me because it was clear there was going to be a lot of room for invention.
A lot of those pieces Stuart had worked out on his piano were later taken into the studio, coloured with other instruments and ended up in the film. Beyond that, I had the unexpected opportunity to play with Ohad during the course of the edit – a beautiful humbling experience which had a huge impact on me as a musician and I believe my work on Low Down, as well as rekindling my desire to continue my long ago study of music and percussion.
Also, there tended to be other story elements playing out during these scenes, so Amy’s and other participants’ involvement is as important for the audience to experience as John Hawkes’ brilliant piano performance as Joe. So we had to strike the right balance of not holding pieces so long that we fell out of the story but, at the same time, giving the music the screen time it deserved. His violin is like a wild wave that you ride and what’s great is that even though there will be people who feel it is too long, it doesn’t really matter because we came to the conviction that this is what it had to be. Struggling musicians to sensational bands, and everyone in between, have been captured in film. Song One is a musically driven film and we had to be very intentional with the ways in which music and story interacted otherwise it could become a laundry list of performances.  So we had to make some hard choices and cut things we loved in service to the overall story.
In Song One, I had to find this on a story level of course, but I had the added advantage of working with music and this brought so many more possibilities in terms of connection. It was really great fun working with Stuart and throughout post we also had producer Barry Mendel there as an invaluable and supportive collaborator. That’s a long way of saying that we cut around the room pretty liberally in most of the performance scenes. The Sundance Film Festival is often the first venue at which these movies premiere, and this year is no different. I love working with music and Song One was a gift because the music is laced into the fabric of the story. It was obvious she was a serious director who was weighing all her creative decisions carefully and who had chosen the specific musicians with a lot of care. She always had her eye on what really mattered to her in the film but she was open as well.
She was able to make a lot of hard choices for the benefit of the larger story and, once we had examined things enough to be sure of what was best, she never looked back.



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