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‘King Richard’ Editor on Cutting Will Smith’s Performance, Oscar Broadcast Backlash, and Judging ‘Best Editing’

Oscar nominee and ACE winner Pamela Martin talks to IndieWire about how the subtleties of editing are vital to a film — but rarely noticed.

Will Smith King Richard

“King Richard”

Chiabella James

 IndieWire The Craft Top of the Line

Film editor Pamela Martin first met director Reinaldo Marcus Green in 2016, when she was mentoring at the Sundance Institute and Green was workshopping his first feature, “Monsters and Men.” The pair didn’t team up for a feature until six years later, but the budding partnership has already been fruitful: Martin has now received her second Oscar nomination for editing Green’s third feature film, “King Richard.”

“‘King Richard’ is so well-written, with complicated real-life characters,” said Martin a wide-ranging interview with IndieWire. “It was my job to tap into all of that and get it calibrated right, and to be truthful about the depiction of the Williams family.”

Martin’s ability to calibrate the film’s complex real-life stories is something she feels is a direct product of her experience, both in and out of the editing room. “There are some films that I edited later in my career that I don’t think I could have done as well in my early years because I didn’t have enough life experience,” Martin said. “As a fully formed adult who has lived a lot and experienced a lot of joy and pain, and the gamut of what life has to offer, I now have empathy for certain types of flawed characters. I think that’s extremely important, which is why I think editors get better with age.”

There are countless ways that even a great script, like that of “King Richard” (Zach Baylin’s screenplay was nominated for Best Original Screenplay), can be strengthened by an editor. “The first act was scripted differently than what you see. In the script, the movie opened on a series of shots of Richard [Will Smith] collecting used tennis balls from various country clubs and tennis clubs. But the material that you now see at the front of the film is Richard shopping for coaches. That was scripted a little bit later in the film,” Martin said.

“Very early in the edit, Rei [Green] and I were shuffling scenes around and we came up with this idea of: ‘Why don’t we try Richard shopping for coaches at the very beginning and use some of the picking up tennis balls within that?’ That allowed me to break up a long coach-shopping section into two parts,” she added.

Will Smith King Richard Behind the Scenes

Director Reinaldo Marcus Green on the “King Richard” set

Chiabella James

The result was a subtle shift in focus, setting the audience up to appreciate and connect with its main protagonist. It’s one of the many ways Martin was able to shape Smith’s performance (which landed him an Oscar nomination). “There are a lot of discussions about the intention of scenes and performance and why a performance may need some help one way or another,” said Martin of collaborating with Green in the editing room. “Sometimes in the overall story, it’s a great performance, but you decide to do another pass where you try to tilt the emotion in a different direction for the sake of the story. I think there’s a level of empathy and sensitivity that you have to have to understand people and be an intuitive person and understand human emotion in a very deep way. That’s part of the job, too.”

But sometimes the editor’s biggest contribution is to get out of the way of a great performance, like the scene after Richard is beat up by gang members and delivers an emotional monologue to his girls in the family van. Martin lovingly holds on Will Smith’s performance without making a cut. “I did not want to look away,” she said. “That’s my inner voice telling me, ‘Don’t cut, don’t cut.’ When I watch something like that and it’s giving me so much pain and beauty at the same time.”

Such behind-the-scenes subtleties of storytelling is why “Best Editing” is such a difficult category to judge. Martin, who recently won the ACE Eddie for Best Edited Feature Film, explains the challenges of judging her peers’ work.

“I look at the whole film. It could be that the film was flawless. I didn’t notice the editing. I was on the edge of my seat. The tension was palpable. The emotion was palpable. There are lots of different elements woven together in a seamless way with the maximum emotional punch. That gets my vote,” said Martin. “I personally prefer movies where you’re not really noticing the editing, but I make some exceptions to that. Sometimes the editing is very stylized and cool with interesting atypical edits, but if it serves the story of that movie in the perfect way, then that is an excellently edited film. If I look at a film that has sort of disparate elements that have really worked their way together in a beautiful way and told a very emotional story, then that one’s got me. A movie like ‘Dune’ is beautifully edited. It’s very elegant.”

"King Richard"

“King Richard”

Warner Bros

Like many editors, especially those nominated this year by the Academy, Martin is disappointed with AMPAS’ snub of her branch, which, like her colleagues in makeup and hairstyling, original score, production design, sound, and short form productions for animated, documentary, and live action, will not be awarded live during the Oscar broadcast.

“Often the editor is on the film longer than anybody else, except for the director, the producers, and the writer,” Martin said. “We are the ones who solve the problems — who makes the movie, who paces the movie, who decides with the director what’s in and what’s out of the film. The editor is doing all of the heavy lifting. I just cannot understate the magnitude of the job.”

Despite being relegated to “edited content” in the live telecast, Martin plans to make the best of it. “I am overjoyed that I’ve been nominated by my peers. It is the highest honor in my business and nobody can take that away from me. It’s an amazing experience to be included with so many filmmakers whom I admire.”

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