[Full interview originally published in Contemporary Theatre Review, Backpages 29.2, August 5, 2019.] Martha Wade Steketee spoke with filmmaker Michelle Memran and film editor Melissa Neidich in October 2018 about […]
Martha Wade Steketee spoke with filmmaker Michelle Memran and film editor Melissa Neidich in October 2018 about their collaboration making the documentary memoir The Rest I Make Up (2018) about the playwright and teacher María Irene Fornés. Fornés was born in Havana, Cuba in 1930, immigrated in 1945 to the U.S. with her mother and sister, became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1951, and died in Manhattan on October 30, 2018 after living for some years with dementia. She tried her hand at painting, loved to dance and sing, wrote more than 40 plays, and taught a generation of writers including Migdalia Cruz, Eduard Machado, Caridad Svich, and scores of others.
Most know the legacy of Fornés through those writers and creators who evoke her memory in conversations and essays about their influences and favorite teachers. Many know her from her poetic, idiosyncratic works on stage including Fefu and Her Friends (1977), Mud (1983), and The Conduct of Life (1985).
The Rest I Make Up provides the world an intimate view of Fornés through the lens of the friendship between Memran and Fornes, recorded on film by Memran. The documentary is crafted from these short pieces of film that feature encounters with friends on the street, playful moments, and conversations over many years. Ten years ago, Memran began to dream that a film might emerge from the fragments. Memran credits her editor Melissa Neidich for the final shape of the film – discussed at length in prior conversations between Steketee and Memran in “The Camera is My Beloved” Howlround 12 June 2018.
Neidich and Memran analyze with Steketee the role of film editing in The Rest I Make Up. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Martha Steketee: In several conversations I’ve had with you, Michelle, you note that the real key of the ﬁlm was ﬁnding the editor.
Michelle Memran: It took us a while to ﬁgure out how we were going to approach structure. We printed out cards and all these other steps like storyboarding that normally you do when you’re editing a ﬁlm. We realized that approach was not going to work for this ﬁlm.
MS: Michelle describes your contribution, Melissa, as following Irene’s lead to edit the hours of raw material. I wanted to talk to you about the art of the ﬁlm editor, as a creative act, then talk about this ﬁlm. Has editing always been your love?
Melissa Neidich: When I tried to ﬁnd my place in the world of ﬁlm, I felt that telling the story and ﬁnding the form and the voice was my interest. That’s what I really enjoy – ﬁnding the essence.
MS: As a dramaturg, I see parallels. I love the art form of playwriting but am not one myself. I’m a deep listener. I’m thrilled by the process of sitting down with a playwright and helping them unpack their play.
MN: That’s very much the editing process. There’s deep listening involved and gaining a relationship, both with the director and with the footage itself. Those are the primary relationships that grow in the editing, as you get a deeper understanding of the essence – what you’re struck by, what you’re moved by, what is interesting. The moments become a language.
MS: That makes sense, particularly in the context of this ﬁlm – ﬁnding these points of resonance, ﬂows of action, around which to organize themes.
MN: That’s exactly what it is, ﬁnding the speciﬁcs while paying attention to the global feel of the ﬁlm too. How do those speciﬁcs contribute to a larger experience of the ﬁlm? This is always in my mind while watching footage, when you start out with a mass of footage as I did in this project. Organizing around those speciﬁcs ﬁrst helps the form come out of the material. The structure and the style develop from there, especially in ﬁlms like Michelle’s where there’s no plot or no mission at the start.
MM: Melissa’s approach is so reminiscent of the way that Irene created a play, too – starting with the speciﬁcs and the details and ﬁnding the scenes, not working from an outline or a preconceived notion of what the piece was going to be. Finding the scenes that are most alive, accumulating them, then ﬁnding the form from there.
MS: Michelle, you told me before that you spent some time in ﬁlm school, did a residency at McDowell, spent some time at Brown and you realized you needed somebody like a Melissa, and so raised funds and got her.
MM: I initially hired an editor in 2005, who became a good friend and one of the producers, Shelby Siegel. We did some trailers that got us some grants. We struggled to ﬁnd a way to make the footage work. I had other editors come on also, for brief periods of time that never coalesced into a real collaboration. I would leave the project and come back to it. Migdalia Cruz had old samples from 2008 she took around to universities, and Erik Ehn, when he was head of playwriting at Brown, saw the samples. He got in touch with me and said, ‘How can we help you? This needs to be a ﬁnished ﬁlm’. He brought me to Brown for two months and I started watching the footage again, organizing and selecting, and realized I could not edit the ﬁlm myself. I sought out other residencies where I organized the footage, and we got a grant that allowed me to hire an editor. I met up with Jennifer Fox, who became Executive Producer, and Shelby Siegel who led me to lots of editors. I spent a long time interviewing and knew immediately when I met Melissa that I wanted to work with her.
MS: What it was about Melissa that seemed a good ﬁt?
MM: You enter a marriage when you ﬁnd an editor. You don’t know how long the process is going to take. As a ﬁrst-time ﬁlm maker, I wanted to feel I was in good hands, and that I really trusted the person who was going to be watching all this footage. I met a lot of incredible editors but didn’t have the same kind of instantaneous connection. You can tell in a conversation whether there’s reciprocity and interest. She and I had the same sensibility – we’re really attuned to the other person. I felt she was going to understand the material and that we were going to connect in a deep way. I loved the ﬁlms that she had worked on before and the process she had used. She’s edited some remarkable idiosyncratic ﬁlms: Dark Days (2000) and Soul in the Hole (1997).
MN:Soul in the Hole was my ﬁrst. Two Towns of Jasper (2002) was also in the mix. With Michelle, I felt there was tremendous chemistry between us from the beginning. There was a shared excitement, respect for each other as a person, and respect for each other’s creative process. That was there all throughout editing, which enabled an ideal atmosphere for a form to emerge, to allow for the ﬁlm to show through. This allowed each of us to be honest and true to our own gut and our own feeling of what is important. We were both interested in exploring certain themes in the ﬁlm, and valuing the lessons that Irene gave us. She’s so generous to the camera.
MS: Melissa, did you know much about Irene when you began this process?
MN: I knew nothing of her. I saw the trailer, so I knew that Michelle’s approach was not typical. I shared a desire for Irene to shine through; her slide into Alzheimer’s was unique, and Michelle’s relationship to Irene in this slide was a unique approach, through engagement in play and creativity and allowing Irene’s humanity to be there. Not treating her at all like a person with Alzheimer’s, not seeing her or the loss of being able to write as a tragedy but engaging her in the creative process in the way they communicated. That moved me. It was a real pleasure and learning experience connecting to this material and to Michelle.
MS: Michelle mentioned that you have a personal connection to the subject of Alzheimer’s? Is it your parent?
MN: I was very inﬂuenced by my own personal journey with my mother in dealing with her Alzheimer’s. I never asked the question: do you know who I am? I never really cared about that. I cared more about the feeling between us, how to be engaged and have a relationship that’s not based on what she’s like or what she remembers. Those things were never important to me and it was wonderful that Michelle and Irene shared that. The ﬁlmed sequences explore what the creative act and memory mean, how they inﬂuence each other. This was right up my alley.
MS: I saw a screening at MOMA during the ﬁlm’s run in August 2018 and sat next to a young ﬁlmmaker whose mother had Alzheimer’s and passed away young. It was very clear to me in experiencing the ﬁlm in that audience, that a huge audience for the ﬁlm are caretakers or families of folks touched by Alzheimer’s or memory-affecting diseases. And I didn’t go into the ﬁlm thinking about that – I was thinking about the artist and the art that she’s created and the people that she’s touched through her work.
MM: I am surprised by the response from the Alzheimer’s community. We didn’t go into it to make an Alzheimer’s ﬁlm. We kept saying that we want to make a ﬁlm about Irene who happens to have this disease. In allowing her to have agency and following her lead guiding us in that way, we’ve made a ﬁlm about Alzheimer’s that hasn’t been made yet. A doctor on a panel with us recently observed that as her creativity is going, she’s ﬁghting back with her creativity. The way that you come in as a caregiver is not to have any expectations that the person should remember you. What was key for me was that I didn’t know Irene before she had stopped writing or before the onset of this illness. I had no history with her, so I didn’t have the same sense of loss others might feel when she didn’t remember my name, or when she didn’t know exactly how we met. I didn’t want anything from her in that way. Who she was in that moment was the Irene that I knew. We were able to ﬁnd the joy in that, and Melissa found moments where Irene is incredibly captivating and funny and can ﬂip a moment on its head. In the screenings, I’m always amazed and delighted by how much laughter there is. You have people crying and you have people laughing.
MS: The moments you selected underscore the point that Irene wasn’t railing against the loss, she wasn’t frustrated. The way you edited it together, you weren’t creating a source of pity or pain.
MN: There’s no question that Irene related to the camera and to Michelle in a unique way. It was always a personal conversation. She was just delighted to be in conversation, to play in the way that she plays, and to make stories. I always felt in watching the material that I was experiencing Irene. I wanted to be true to the spirit of her character rather than the spirit of the disease, you know? You can so easily forget and try to ﬁt somebody with Alzheimer’s into a pigeonhole, into the world before. I wanted to just experience Irene as she is and what’s happening then.
MS: Melissa, can you tell me more about your process and your approach to this project? You were involved for some time watching raw footage before ﬁguring out some of these themes. We’ve hit upon what some of the ﬁnal conclusions were, and we see them in the ﬁnal product. I imagine it was after days and weeks of watching the raw footage.
MN: It was about three months before I really started editing.
MS: Would you watch and then meet with Michelle? How did that process work as you were digging in?
MN: I would watch, and we’d discuss what I felt was the core of what I watched, Michelle would tell me the same, and that would often open a larger understanding for me. I take notes while I watch, getting to know all this footage. In the beginning, it’s not apparent how anything ﬁts together. I start by watching the footage and asking questions. What does this mean? What moments might make up a scene? There are themes that are continuous throughout. Michelle and I would talk at the end of a day or at the end of watching a batch of similar moments. It’s hard for me to edit without some kernel of understanding – cognitive understanding and a visceral connection. So, at the beginning of the editing process, there’s got to be a kernel that really speaks to me strongly, something that is a guiding, larger … something.
MS: Do you remember what that initial hook was for you for this ﬁlm?
MN: The themes of memory and creativity. Irene’s guiding lesson, in a sense, of how she approaches life and playwriting – I never felt there was a difference. Following the memories gave me permission to play in a different way. You don’t have to feel like you’re saying something; you’re allowed to let Irene take you by the hand, and Michelle to guide. Being in Irene’s world and experiencing Irene rather than looking at her.
MM: She’s so full of joy. We talked a lot about how to use third party interviews. Melissa would watch, and we would talk a lot after. We really didn’t want it to be a talking heads experience, but we also knew that we needed context for Irene.
MS: So, it was ﬁguring out how to place them or whether to use them.
MM: Or when to use them, so it doesn’t feel like they’re just giving you information. We wanted the focus to be always on Irene – through our relationship, through the exchanges that she has on the street, through other people talking about her. It was about three months of Melissa watching the footage and I would come meet her before or after my day job. Melissa would take her time with a sequence and when she felt it was ready, she’d call me in and we would talk about it and take the next step.
MN: Michelle is great at seeing the intention. I didn’t have to ﬁnish something in order to show it to her.
MM: That’s when we didn’t know where it was going. We were making it up as we went along.
MS: You felt safe as a creator, Melissa, to have Michelle see raw edits.
MN: There was such respect for the whole process with Michelle, for my need to get to know the material, to have time and space. I feel an unusual respect and ability to collaborate that is ideal.
MS: Are there pieces that you edited together that didn’t end up in the ﬁnal ﬁlm? Were there difﬁcult edits toward the end?
MN: There’s lots more of Irene showing her way with language and making story. Sometimes she would just go off on these fabulous stories or tangents. You wish you could put it all in, but there’s a time limit to the ﬁlm. You must choose.
MM: There’s a moment where she talks about Susan Sontag in the ﬁlm and people say, well why didn’t you go into that whole relationship more? We were working with fragments and playing with memory, a memory can be only a second – it lasts as long as it lasts, you know? The ﬁlm that you see is made from fragments of footage. We never shot anything to be a scene, I didn’t know about coverage – shooting from one angle then another so it felt like a scene. Melissa took this verité footage that was all fragmented and made no sense at all. There’s a moment in Miami where Irene and I are talking about whether she would stay in Miami that I had no idea could work as a scene. When I saw the edited scene, I realized I was working with someone who completely ingested the material and was so incredibly skilled that she can take these shreds of material and create story around them. The ﬁlm that you’re seeing feels like a ﬁlm, and there are scenes in it, but it wasn’t shot with the intention that we were making a ﬁlm. Everywhere we go people comment on the editing. I wish they could sit in that room looking at that footage. They would be even more blown away.
MS: Sounds like master classes for ﬁlm schools might be in your futures, taking raw material to ﬁnal edited piece. It’s not just the mechanical details of assembling bits of ﬁlmed material, there’s also the artistic instinct that you have as editor, Melissa, and the trust that you two built with each other.
MN: Irene gave permission when she talked about trusting your unconscious. Her approach to playwriting, her Alzheimer’s, the nature of the footage and Michelle’s openness gave me freedom. There must be trust, otherwise you can’t make a single edit. It may not make any sense and you might make something that’s not very good, but you must have trust in your gut, in your intuition, in your sense of craft and sense of story that what you’re doing is going to add up to something.
MS: Melissa, in what ways was this creative process different from experiences you have had before? You felt you were a peer creator in the evolution of this ﬁlm. Is this the kind of working relationships you expect as a professional?
MN: Every situation is unique. I respect the needs of directors, their process, what they need in the collaboration. Sometimes you must work for trust; it’s not automatically given. And sometimes it takes longer to feel like each point of view is getting on board with the larger sense of what the ﬁlm is. Working for trust – this is such a large topic. The process of editing is really like a marriage in its intimacy, in understanding how you think. You need to ﬁgure out with your director how you process; how you work; how can you be in this together; how can you relate to each other; how you relate to the footage. What I’m given is often very personal to the director. I really respect that. I must be allowed the space and the freedom in the creative process.
MM: have ﬁnancial constraints and there were times when we’d have to raise money. When you’ve been working on something for so long, you just want it to be the best thing that you can possibly make. I’ve worked with people under deadlines, like a festival deadline or a grant deadline, and that can really hinder the creativity of the editor and the director. It was a gift that we had the time that we had on this ﬁlm. It really was a different kind of process. Most people shoot in a year. I didn’t know how long things took, which was good and bad. I would not have made the same ﬁlm in 2005 that we made in 2015. I just didn’t have the perspective. And the big question of how to insert me into the ﬁlm was a big question that Melissa was able to answer in the editing. That is the heart of the ﬁlm.
MN: That ’s a big dilemma many directors have: deadlines and raising money that can hinder the process. Often the ﬁlm isn’t given the time it needs to come to being and what is sent out is not satisfying and you go back into the editing room again. The pressure is always between making the ﬁlm the best it can be, and the money or time running out. Michelle didn’t expect me to have answers immediately, so the editing could be a process of the two of us ﬁnding answers, unfolding the story. We were together with the same goal of being true to Irene and making the most compelling story.
MM: I was learning as I went along. If I had had more experience, I might have been operating on different clock. There were times when I was freaking out about money, but we found the money, and we were able to ﬁnish. We launched a Kickstarter that helped enormously. There were things to do in post production with sound and color correction and video format and music, that were challenging after Melissa ﬁnished cutting. It was tremendously helpful having Melissa’s music skills cutting to music. Irene’s love of music lives in her. To have an editor who really understands that, to incorporate Irene’s own singing and the music she wrote, and a composer’s music is not an easy feat. Melissa selected from a music library the composer gave us. She also found music to put in, and it was really thrilling to watch that happen. Everyone cuts to music these days, but not always well. When I interviewed editors, a lot of people said: well Irene’s an amazing character but she’s a writer and it’s really hard to make writing visual. That didn’t scare Melissa at all. Others said, if you have a musician, that’s visual,you can show them playing music. If you have a painter, that’s visual, you can show them painting. But writing is so internal and footage of someone sitting and writing – who wants to watch that? Not showing Irene’s work was a choice that we made. When I met Melissa, she wasn’t afraid of the challenge. There were many challenges in the material, and she wasn’t afraid of any of them, which was very comforting to me because I was terriﬁed of it all.
MN: I would say that I was excited and interested by the challenges. Max Lichtenstein, the composer, provided his library of music. There were certain aspects to a lot of his music cuts that felt very much connected with Irene.
MS: Thematically, Michelle, we have talked about the role of music in the ﬁlm and in Irene’s life. We talked about a surprising cover of a Fred Astaire song you use. That musical choice and her love of American musicals might have been one of those kernels that you lit upon, Melissa.
MN: And I would add movement. Irene was a mover, very interested in body language and expression. She painted a picture ﬁlled with movement and color and music in her personal expression; music and rhythm are inherent in her speech. Looking at it that way is helpful for me. It’s not information she’s imparting but rather you feel it’s the play of language and music. Rhythm inspired her language and song.
MS: Many moments in the ﬁlm – including the ﬁnal sequence of Irene singing and dancing – underscore this as a major theme: music and movement and singing and calling back to musicals.
MM: And to the roots of music in Cuba, her heritage, how she grew up, and where she was returning in our ﬁlm. As her short-term memories were going, her long-term memories of Cuba were growing exponentially. She was returning to the roots of that rhythm and movement and the music. And then we physically go there, we get to see her embodying not only her childhood again but her creative process, which was really thrilling.
MS: Melissa, what have we missed in describing the role of ﬁlm editor?
MN: When I describe editing, I ask people to think of choreography. You’re choreographing moments, choreographing scenes, choreographing clips or relationships. That’s the easiest way to relate the art to someone who doesn’t quite understand the editing process.
MS: That makes sense. That evocative description ﬁts in all that we’ve been talking about: rhythm and movement and dance.
MM: The editor is the key to documentary ﬁlmmaking. The tone, style, structure, form, innovation comes out of a collaboration; it feels like we co-directed it. That role is the ﬁlm, to me. There is no way we would have this ﬁlm without Melissa. The unsung hero of the documentary world, the role of editor. I want to highlight how important it is to the process.
MN: Thank you Michelle. I appreciate your kind words.
MM: There’s so much emphasis on everything else that goes into the process, but there’s no ﬁlm without the editor. With a narrative project, you’re shooting with intention. When you go into documentary, when you’re not shooting with intention, all the intention has to come through the editing. You’re directing in the edit. A lot of editors now are getting writing credits for documentary.
MN: It does come out of the collaboration. The ﬁlm will be different with a different editor, no question about it. It is birthed from the collaborative process.
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