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Oscars 2017: Editors on Bold Storytelling in ‘La La Land,’ ‘Manchester by the Sea,’ ‘Moonlight,’ and More

This year's contenders experimented with time in fresh and insightful ways.

La La Land

“La La Land”

Summit Entertainment

Non-linear storytelling has turned out to be a pivotal Oscar trend, embraced by the three frontrunners “La La Land,”  “Manchester by the Sea” and “Moonlight,” among others.

And although flashbacks and flash forwards are often confusing or cliche-ridden, these editors experiment with them in fresh and unpredictable ways. The results not only provide greater character insight but also more adventurous narrative experiences.

“La La Land”

With the bittersweet love story between Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian and Emma Stone’s Mia, Damien Chazelle constructed a musical bridge between the past and the present — LA and Hollywood as both dreamland and boulevard of broken dreams. It’s filled with flashbacks, flash forwards and dream sequences, but the challenge for editor Tom Cross (Oscar-winner for “Whiplash”) was giving equal weight to the struggling jazz pianist and aspiring actress. He did so with judicious moments, together and separately in a very musical way, alternating rhythm from scene to scene with lengthy camera takes and beautiful choreography.

Indeed, it’s about the rhythm of romance during the four seasons that both conforms to and challenges our expectations. “For Damien, it’s slow during courtship and with an emphasis on round angles, like Vincente Minnelli movies,” Cross told IndieWire. “But in addition, he also wanted to editorially express the fever pitch of being in love. We open the summer cycle with a fast-cut montage of them running around LA, or when he picks her up and they drive down the alley triumphantly, only to drive backward because they’re on a one-way street.”

“Manchester by the Sea”

Roadside Attractions/Amazon Studios

“Manchester by the Sea”

Kenneth Lonergan embraced the flashback memories of grief-stricken Casey Affleck head on. However, editor Jennifer Lame treated the mystery of why he left town and the demons he’s running from as two simultaneous narratives. Therefore, the flashbacks were not visually separated. As a result, past and present flowed naturally and chronologically. “His life is overwhelmed by the past and therefore avoids it by consuming himself with busy work as a handyman so there are never any private moments,” Lame told IndieWire.

The editor had a lot of choices when it came to Affleck’s performance. In the hospital hallway scene, for example, when he learns of his brother’s passing (played by Kyle Chandler), there were takes where he got very emotional but then they decided to pull it back. This repression became the hallmark of the protagonist.

Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland in "Moonlight"

Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland in “Moonlight”

Photo by David Bornfriend, courtesy of A24


Barry Jenkins’ introspective coming-of-age portrait of Chiron, a gay African American growing up in Miami’s tough Liberty Square, has a wonderful circular structure. Told in three chapters (“Little,” “Chiron” and “Black”), Chiron is played by three actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) at ages 10, 16 and early 30s. But there’s a powerful, cumulative effect of jumping ahead, as we’re always aware of the joy and pain that he carries with him.

For editors Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon (who attended Florida State’s film school with Jenkins), it was the first opportunity to work on a feature together. Sanders handled the first two chapters and McMillon tackled the last. “The biggest takeaway [when Barry showed his first cut to the producers] was it wasn’t filtered through Chiron’s perspective enough, and that was the biggest adjustment we made, making him relatable and being immersed in his perspective and experience.”

However, the emotionally-charged reunion between Chiron and Kevin (Andre Holland) was tough to navigate in the single space of a diner and fraught with sexual tension. “So it was super helpful that [cinematographer] James [Laxton] and Barry created these camera angles and movement so everything felt new and engaged in the space.”


Paramount Pictures


There’s an even greater circular structure to Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival,” a parable about the relationship between communication, time and memory. In fact, memories are jumbled for linguist Louise (Amy Adams) — the future invades her present — when she communicates with the alien heptapods and becomes immersed in their thought process.

For editor Joe Walker, playing with time in this unique way was a narrative challenge. But the documentary style of the memories loosened up the narrative and enabled the filmmakers to enter Louise’s mind. “We had the option of interspersing flashbacks in any order in the most elegant and poetic way,” Walker told IndieWire.


Fox Searchlight Pictures


Trauma, grief and legacy underscore Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s movie about Mrs. Kennedy (Natalie Portman) coming to grips with the JFK assassination. Shifting forward and back in time from the assassination to the White House tour to the funeral procession, she tries to process the experience and gain closure.

“It’s a horror film in a way,” editor Sebastian Sepulveda told IndieWire.  “So Pablo made the right choice putting the camera very near to her. We talked about it being an emotional movie — and I was able to navigate through that.”

"Sully" Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks in “Sully”


Clint Eastwood’s recreation of the“Miracle on the Hudson” (the forced landing of US Airways Flight 1549) uses flashbacks sparingly. It was more important to focus on how Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) dealt with the critical inquiry and even doubted his own heroics.

First-time editor Blu Murray (whose father, Alan Murray, has been Eastwood’s sound editor for more than 30 years) kept going back to those moments in Sully’s life to reconfirm that he was qualified and made the right call. “Clint didn’t want the flashbacks into his past to be very long,” Murray told IndieWire. “It was about finding the powerful moments to take you back to the event and to weave in and out of the story.”

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