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When preparing the footage for “R#J,” director Carey Williams and editor Lam Nguyen were determined to make the movie stand out. Though the film, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is based on the familiar story of Romeo and Juliet, its tale of love and loss is bound to wow audiences anew for one major reason: It takes place entirely on iPhone screens. By adapting traditional filmmaking techniques to the new “Screenlife” format, Nguyen and Williams construct a narrative that feels fresh, innovative, and endlessly surprising.
What drew you to this project, and what were your initial impressions of it?
Lam Nguyen: It’s such a classic story, and it’s been done so many times, but when I read the script, I was like, this is different. This is definitely for our time. I had concerns that the Screenlife format would feel too technical, or people might put a stigma to it. But Screenlife isn’t really a genre. It’s more of a visual language. And Screenlife cinematography is perfect to tell this modern version of Romeo and Juliet, with the tech savvy and social media addicted generation.
Carey Williams: I remembered Romeo and Juliet from school, but more so I remembered seeing the Baz Luhrmann version of it. That blew my mind back in the day. I wanted this movie to be a mash-up of old and new, from top to bottom. With the language, the music — everything was old and new mixing and butting up against each other.
What did it mean to you to cast actors of color in this familiar story?
Carey: For this movie, I was very much attracted to having Romeo and Juliet be people of color — putting them in these iconic roles, and being able to use my platform to put that kind of thing into the world.
Lam: I think it’s bold to change the ethnicities of the characters. That’s what got me more invested in this project. This just opens up the world to more ideas, to not be afraid to try things. As you notice, Carey chose a lot of great songs. I think that helps add personality to the characters. So the diversity of the project with the diversity of music was a nice combination, instead of just one score for the movie.
What was different about making a Screenlife movie?
Carey: When I first thought about it, I was like, how the hell do you do this? Everything is such a subjective POV. But there was a great pathway to empathy, being on our two lovers’ faces as much as we were, and also being able to peek into their personal lives through their devices.
Lam: We began trying different techniques, like moving across the text messages, and that got our creative juices flowing. We just had to treat these elements like movie clips, adding motion to the screen as if we were filming actors onset. We often decided to punch in, very zoomed in on the iPhones, and just use every square inch of the screen to tell the story. Once we started relying on traditional filmmaking techniques, we grew more confident that audiences wouldn’t be distracted by the form.
Can you give an example of how you adapted traditional editing techniques to a Screenlife format?
Lam: I thought a lot about pacing. When you edit a scene of two people arguing with each other, it cuts really fast. And so I would do the same with these text messages. When Juliet’s arguing with her dad, I would speed it up a little bit to keep it engaging. Then when it’s a montage and they’re falling in love, I would slow it down — like how it would be in a regular film when a couple is falling in love and you see them grow together.
How would you describe your collaboration?
Lam: Carey works emotionally, which I like, because I edit the same way. I edit with my heart.
Carey: That’s a good assessment of me. I’m such an emotional kid. I mean, literally, I don’t know what happened to me. I’m just like, mush sometimes. But I’d like to think that makes me a better filmmaker, because I’m being receptive to my own feelings and others. I definitely think a lot about — what’s the emotion that we’re evoking? What are people going to feel?
When did you start using Adobe Premiere Pro?
Carey: I hadn’t used Adobe Premiere a lot before this project. And then after this project was over, I got a subscription. Because I saw how integrated it was — being able to pull things or go from Illustrator to Photoshop. It was seamless.
Lam: I transitioned to Premiere Pro about eight or nine years ago, when Final Cut Pro changed their software. It was an easy transition for me, because the layouts were very similar and the software felt similar with the shortcuts and such. Then Adobe evolved throughout the years, adding the color tab to the editing program so we could do color correction. That really helped us, because we could present our cuts with a certain look in mind for directors and producers.
How did using Adobe help your process on “R#J”?
Lam: Initially, we used a temp screen record of everything, just to see how we could keep the texts and Instagram messages accurately animated. Then the graphics team got involved, probably midway through the post-production process, and they would actually draw or build templates in Illustrator files — large templates of Instagram, Facebook, and iMessage layouts for me to use and animate. We would use Illustrator connected to Premiere, or Illustrator connected to After Effects that links to Premiere. So it was just a web that all linked together. For this project, that was specifically very crucial. It definitely would have taken longer otherwise.
Carey: I was trying to think, and I couldn’t imagine doing it on something else that didn’t have that cross-platform ability. We’d still be editing right now, probably.
Watch the 2021 Sundance Film Festival “Art of Editing” panel featuring R#J
This Q&A was conducted in separate interviews. It was edited for clarity and length.