“Time” is the best edited film of the year. That rare film that builds a formal lyricism perfectly in sync with story that washes over you like a wave. A social justice documentary able to weave in archival footage that opens the door to emotional nuance, rather than attempting to simply explain the complexity of the larger issue at hand.
The editing of “Time” is also an eye-opening story of collaboration. For this Influencer series, we’ve gravitated toward collaborations between filmmakers drawn together by a similar sensibility and who, over time, have developed a shared language. The editing of “Time,” however, hinged on the alchemy of the very different sensibilities of director Garrett Bradley and editor Gabriel Rhodes, who opened themselves up to each other artistically after having met only once, and spent only eight days in the same room while cutting the film.
“I really had hit a glass ceiling and knew that I had to open up the collaborative process,” said Bradley in an interview about working with Rhodes. Prior to “Time,” the director had edited all of her films, a responsibility she admits she was “terrified” to hand over to someone else. “It presented so many exciting challenges to my core around who I thought I was and what I wanted to be, what I wanted my films to be, and what I thought they were.”
To be clear, whatever ceiling Bradley actually hit was a fairly high one. Before “Time,” Bradley was already an accomplished artist with a unique ability to express her nuanced insights on race, history, and representation through a poetic use of form — a singular vision captured through a highly disciplined approach to shooting nonfiction.
By the time she was 33, now 34, she had made a critically acclaimed feature (“Below Dreams”), four beloved shorts (including the Sundance Jury Prize-winning and Oscar shortlisted “Alone”), landed a prized gig as Ava DuVernay’s second unit director on “When They See Us,” and exhibited work at The Getty, Whitney Biennial, and MOMA — where her 2019 short “America” is currently the subject of a multichannel video installation.
As she had on her previous films, Bradley grew close to her subject, Fox Rich, picking the specific aspects of her daily routine she’d film before shooting even began. Whereas most nonfiction filmmakers position the camera so they can capture events no matter how they unfold, Bradley wields her zoom lens like a scalpel, placing predetermined and often tight compositions on not only what the viewer sees, but how we see it.
New York Times
“When we first talked on the phone, Garrett said, ‘I really know what I want before I go in and film it,’” recalled Rhodes. “Other filmmakers have said that to me, but there was something about the way she said it that had a gravity to it. And then when I started looking at the footage, I realized, ‘Oh, she really does.’ It’s almost like there’s a sculpture, or a painting in her mind.”
Rhodes’ analogy is that Bradley “films like some people fish” — casting her line and, with tremendous patience, waiting until she catches her moment. It’s a visual sensibility and storytelling sense built on the conviction that small moments can actually become the largest ones on screen.
Be sure to check out our exclusive video essays, focusing on Bradley, Rhodes, and their growing body of work, below.
Bradley envisioned “Time” as the sister short film to her New York Time Op-doc “Alone,” the story of a young woman (Bradley’s friend Aloné Watts) examining the question of what it would mean to marry her incarcerated boyfriend Desmond. Fox’s story was 21 years on the other side that equation, having raised six sons and maintaining a strong family bond while her husband Rob was in prison.
Bradley remembers clearly the last day of filming, and saying goodbye to Fox for a few months. “’I’m going to cut this movie, I’ll show it to you as we get toward the end to get your feedback. I love you. Thank you,’” Bradley recalled saying to her subject. “And she was like, ‘Hold on, I’ve got this bag.’ It was a black bag just filled with mini DV tapes of her life that she’d shot, that she hadn’t even seen in 18 years. She didn’t even know what was on them.”
Bradley’s go-to answer in interviews and Q&As about the unexpected emergence of the 100-hour DV archive is to say, “It’s like a dream come true and your worst nightmare.” Which is undoubtedly true, as the implications of what this footage would mean challenged Bradley’s concepts of who she is as a filmmaker.
According to Rhodes, the moment you start watching the young, carefree Fox in the DV footage, you are forced to wonder how this person become the woman Bradley filmed so many years later. It’s a question that overlaps with the original themes of Bradley’s short, but one that would require a feature-length narrative arc to answer, something Bradley instinctively rejected.
Bradley was inherently turned off by what she refers to as “the fetishizing of the feature-length film” in the nonfiction world; after making “America” and “Alone,” she rejected the idea that “longer it was more important.” Creating a narrative arc where the past explains the present is the antithesis of how she approaches her filmed portraits.
“I’m somebody who wants to lean into how people see themselves,” explained Bradley. “How people move through their world, how they want to present themselves in the world to me is their truth, and their truth is the truth of the film, to a certain extent.”
For a filmmaker who creates meaning through images and sound, and the daughter of two celebrated abstract artists (Suzanne McClelland and Peter Bradley), the literal and its attendant cause-and-effect linearity was not how she saw people, nor thought about her art.
“It addresses one of the great challenges I feel I’m facing as a filmmaker, which is, how does one really show the totality, in the context of documentary filmmaking of an individual,” said Bradley about what she describes as a two-dimensional art form trying to capture 360-degree beings. “How do we show the history and experience that one endures, that makes them the person that we are when we meet them, without being reductive? It’s a huge challenge. It is maybe the challenge.”
Although she “stubbornly” continued to hold onto the idea that “Time” (at this point, still titled “Fox”) was a short, the DV archive was making that impossible. “It just so happened at that moment that Concordia (producers of ‘Time’) had this fellowship,” said Bradley. “They reached out to me and said, ‘What do you need?’” Bradley is still proud that she was in the headspace to know she didn’t have to skillset to make the film work as is, and accepted that she needed an editor for whatever the film was destined to become.
At Sundance, Bradley had been impressed by “Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.,” and wanted to talk with Rhodes, the film’s editor. “What I saw in that was someone who could see a strong woman, who was an artist and was politically engaged, and also had a huge personal archive, and was looking at that present day footage,” said Bradley, concluding, “It had all the complexities and issues that I was dealing with in my work.”
Rhodes had also cut “1971,” a film with recreations of a break-in at an FBI office 50 years ago, and increasingly considered himself a nonfiction editor who embraced fictional elements of hybrid docs, hoping to one day try his hand at editing a scripted narrative.
“I watched Garrett’s films and we talked on the phone and I said, ‘Listen, I don’t think I’m the editor who’s going to make the super-artistic version of this film,’” recalled Rhodes. “‘I’m more of a narrative storyteller, but I have a very artistic sensibility and I love artistic films. It’s just that I’m going to have to kind of find my way through it with you.’”
It was exactly what Bradley wanted to hear: a narrative-minded editor, looking find the alchemy between two opposing sensibilities. Bradley and Rhodes would meet in person only once, while the editor and his wife were in New Orleans with their kids for spring break, the couple met up with Bradley and her husband at a bar to get know each other over whiskey.
But if this was going to be a true collaboration, Bradley felt it was important to meet Rhodes through his work, to let him play with the footage. Her instructions: “Come back with your own ideas, your own impressions, and then let’s see where there are points of connection, where there’s disconnect, and develop a conversation from that point.”
Rhodes embraced an unencumbered seven-week edit; what he really worried about was that, in just under nine weeks, he and Bradley would present their cut at the Sundance Documentary Edit and Story Lab in June of 2019. “I remember thinking, if she doesn’t like this, we’re in deep shit,” said Rhodes.
Rhodes’ goal with his first cut was to build a bare-bones version, a dialogue-heavy retelling of the story — through Fox’s stage performance and the interview with her mother — that would be digestible for the fellows and mentors at Sundance. It wasn’t meant to be his proposal of how the film should be, but rather a way of laying out the narrative so Bradley, still not convinced it wasn’t a short, could see what the skeleton of a feature would look like.
His goal with the cut was to pose the question, “How can we take a lot of those narrative elements out of it, as much as possible,” explained Rhodes. “And make it more poetic, bringing Garrett’s style into the film, as much as possible?”
Bradley admits that the cut, on some levels, terrified her. Seeing a dialogue-heavy version of the film felt unrecognizable to her, but at the same time, she started to see the potential to build layers on top of it. The key would be identifying pivotal moments that progressed the story in a way that felt true, and that opened up the door to move back and forth in time more freely.
At the labs, Rhodes and Bradley found a moment in the archive they had both breezed by their first time through the 100 hours of DV footage. It was when Fox apologized to her church for the robbery she had taken part in with Rob. Bradley could see her friend, the passionate activist, emerge at that moment of owning her past.
“It was sort of a defining moment for us of, not only is this a feature, but this is a major turning point in the story, this is when her new life begins,” said Bradley. “It was the first time Gabe and I had been able to sit in-person to talk through the work. If we hadn’t, it would have been a lot difficult or harder to get to that point.”
They would spend most of their six days at the Sundance lab in conversation, preferring ski lift rides and walks over the editing room. They would talk through the mechanics of what would essentially become a long-distance relationship, as the director would be in multiple different countries traveling while Rhodes was editing.
“July until December, we probably spent another two days together, tops,” said Rhodes. “Time” would premiere at Sundance that January. “So that really did just give us that trust and foundation to understand each other for the rest of the process.”
Fox’s apology to her church family opened the door for an almost, as Bradley describes it, “fairy tale”-like way of going back in time. That ability to move back and forth would be key to working her poetry back in, but Rhodes and Bradley would need some form of road map for everything else, guidelines of what to pull from the treasure trove of footage.
“It really boiled down to three things, which then became the rule book from which we decided when we were going to pull something from the archive or not,” said Bradley. “Those three things were: unity, their ability to stay together over the course of 21 years; it was love; and it was individuality, their ability to hold on to themselves amidst a system that is intended to break one down, to keep one from realizing their full self.”
If the archival footage spoke to any one of those three things, Bradley was convinced it would keep the story grounded, while freeing her and Rhodes from linearity, which Bradley calls “falsehood in filmmaking.”
“None of those [three] things are chronological, none of those things are linear,” explained Bradley. “Love surpasses all space and time, and so that allowed us then to pull from the archive and allow it to be something that was narratively driven, but that wasn’t bound by any sort of chronology. It was also unique to them. It allowed us to move forward and come backwards at the same time.”
In piecing together this poetry, both Rhodes and Bradley repeatedly came back to a key element in their own story: patience. Patience with each other, but more importantly taking a beat, sometimes a few, to be able to understand what the other person was doing.
“Everything I pulled was just totally about the formal, what I was seeing formally, being able to see Fox at profile at her desk and saying, ‘Holy shit. That’s where our camera was 21 years later. Let’s make those visual connections back-to-back,’ and Gabe was very much like, ‘Yes, we can do that, but let’s also try to understand how to build this from an emotional place that isn’t just relying on these formal elements,’” Bradley explained.
Part of the poeticizing involved going scene by scene, taking out moments that felt like they were explaining anything and not being afraid to go too far, cutting exposition and the story to the bone.
“Garrett has a lot of tolerance for that. She basically was just like, ‘Peel it back, peel it back, keep taking it out, keep taking it out.’ I think anyone who has worked in narrative form would be like, ‘You can’t, then no one will know what the hell is going on,’” said Rhodes. “I didn’t understand why she would take certain things out at first, it didn’t make any sense to me, but cumulatively over time, I started to see it. I think we both started to agree on certain elements that we had taken out that maybe we needed to push back in.”
As they got into the rhythm and logic of the way the movie moved back and forth, both filmmakers found themselves falling in love with their footage, approaching montage with a sense of liberation because the elements of story were underneath. It was also at this point that Bradley admits she didn’t always know how to translate what she was seeing. “Editing is very physical,” said Bradley. “And Gabe was very gracious and patient with me [and invited me to edit].”
“I didn’t know exactly what she had in mind,” said Rhodes. “And she would send it to me, ‘Oh, I get it. I never would’ve seen it that way.’ Then I said, ‘But I think we can go one step further and I would kind of do one more thing.’” Down the final stretch, pre-pandemic and Zoom, the two filmmakers were texting each other screen grabs of where to precisely cut. “I would freeze frame and text her and then she would text me back and say, ‘No, no, no, this frame,’ and an image would come back. So that’s how we were working.”
Bradley said she is grateful to have been freed of her thinking that images were the only way to create emotion, and that there could be an emotional structure that allowed for both narrative and form. “I think Gabe, his brain works in a very different way than my brain works,” said Bradley. “The two of us together were able to completely elevate the work in a way that would have been impossible if it were just me.”
Rhodes, who has plenty of experience collaborating in the editing room, is keenly aware of how unique this collaboration has been. “She obviously has a particular way of seeing things and I learned so much for her artistically that I could never have made from my sensibilities. I hope I can retain that going forward.”
“Making films is such a collaborative process,” added Bradley. “When you work with people who are, in some ways, better than you, to be in a room with people that you can grow just by being in proximity to them, and maybe, hopefully, you can offer them something, too, there’s nothing more powerful than that. Now, I don’t want to ever let it go.”
It seems neither artist will have to, and they are already tackling their next project together: Rhodes and Bradley are editing a docuseries about tennis player and activist Naomi Osaka that Bradley is directing for Netflix. This partnership, it seems, is only just beginning. —Chris O’Falt