This is the fourth in a series of posts on POV’s Documentary Blog about the regrettably underappreciated process and craft of documentary editing. Our guide is Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow Colin Nusbaum.
Colin Nusbaum began editing Stephanie Wang-Breal’s Tough Love before it was really an edit. He was brought on to cut pieces of the film for fundraising, and ended up seeing the film through production and post-production.
Later on in the edit, doc-editing vet Mary Manhardt — whose work includes American Promise (POV 2014) and Street Fight (POV 2005) — came on-board for a few months to lend a fresh pair of eyes to the footage and bring the film closer to a final cut.
POV listened in on a conversation between Nusbaum and Manhardt about working together, building empathy for characters through structure and defining parallels in two stories shot on opposite sides of the country.
About Tough Love:
Tough Love offers a rare glimpse inside America’s child welfare systems. Two parents tirelessly fight poverty and prejudice in order to put their families back together. Tough Love is the second feature documentary by Stephanie Wang-Breal. Her first documentary, Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy aired on POV in 2010. Tough Love was produced by Carrie Weprin and co-produced by Ursula Liang. Find out more about the film at toughlovefilm.com.
Colin Nusbaum: Stephanie [Wang-Breal] and the crew had been filming with Hannah’s story in New York for a good two years before I even really started [editing]. So it was nice for me to have the opportunity to be on the film while they were still doing some of the shooting with Patrick in Seattle. I don’t know if you’ve had that experience, Mary — for me it was really great to be able to have some input into what’s important as far as what they were shooting and how they were doing it.
Mary Manhardt: Generally, because I do tend to come in late on films, I don’t get that experience. Because I come in late, it tends to be that we’re filling in gaps. But it’s really interesting that you say that — did you feel like it was helpful for you, having looked at the Hannah part, which had been shot much earlier? Did that give you thoughts and opinions on how they should shoot Patrick’s part?
Colin Nusbaum: When we were shooting the Seattle story, we sort of knew those more crucial turning points or larger scenes in [Hannah’s] story, so I was definitely looking out for those and what they might be in Patrick’s story. There were conversations about what were the most important things to shoot. I think in the end we had so much less footage in Seattle because we knew some of those signs. We knew what some of the more important moments might be, and we were able to be more audacious.
Mary Manhardt: Right, and be more surgical, because when you’re doing a multi-character film, or a two-character, two-story film like Tough Love, you want both parallels and points of contrast. You only get those by showing court in New York, court in Seattle, family life in New York, family life in Seattle. You do kind of want similar stuff, but you also want to be able to shoot the differences because on some level, the project is about both contrast and similarities. But that’s interesting — I didn’t even remember that we had less footage in Seattle.
Colin Nusbaum: Yeah, I think we really stretched to use all the pieces we had from Seattle, whereas in New York, we had a lot. I know you’ve had a lot of experience cutting multi-character films. You mentioned both contrast and similarity as far as detailed stories, but there’s also emotional contrast and similarities. How do those sit next to each other? I wonder if you have any other thoughts on how those pieces can fit together.
Mary Manhardt: Well, so much of what we were experiencing is like — where do the stories peak? Or, where do they become most emotional? And do we want those next to each other? Like, do you want background stories of the Seattle character next to background stories of the New York character? I think a lot of that work is structural, rather than something that happens in the scene. I’m thinking in particular about a scene that shows Hannah in a Bengali restaurant, and she really opens up about the births of her two older children and how that happened. It’s probably one of her most emotional moments, because you really find out how she got in this predicament in a deep way rather than a mechanical way, and we had a huge struggle with cutting it. Where does that come in? Does it come early so we feel empathy with her? It was actually shot fairly late in the process. Does it come as this big reveal? That scene moved and moved and moved, and when we would screen for people, they would say “Move that earlier,” or if it was early, they’d say “Oh, hold that back.”
Colin Nusbaum: It was hard. Everyone responded to that scene. Everyone said that was the moment when they got on her side, that was the spot when they dropped into her story and started feeling for her in a really deep way. It was like — when do we want that to happen? Are we capable of having someone be with her halfway for a while and then really feel for her two-thirds of the way in, or do we need it to be earlier for people to get on board for the rest of the film and feel her struggle? And for me, since the film, I’ve come to love that challenge of trying to empathize with and sort of humanize people who are traditionally neglected, overlooked, or hard to connect to for some reason. I think that’s such a beautiful thing that documentaries are capable of doing.
Mary Manhardt: Yes, I think that is definitely true. We had a big conversation at some point because that is what I think documentaries do best — they show you lives in a way that allows you to think and feel about them differently. When it’s a good film and it’s exciting, it’s really great. You come in and you’re like, I love these characters and these scenes are amazing.
Tough Love was a very good experience for me. I felt like it was at the place where we could all work together to get it to the next level. At that point, I feel like the film is in view. It may be up the road a little bit, but you can see what it’s going to be, or what it can be. It’s much harder coming into a film if there’s a cut that exists and the director isn’t sure what they want. [Stephanie] is a confident director, which is tremendously helpful. She knew what she wanted to do. She knew what the issues were to her and it was just a matter of us putting the pieces together in a way that was both clear and also emotional and interesting. Often, the biggest problem coming in late is just that you don’t know what was already tried and you don’t want to be reinventing the wheel.
Colin Nusbaum: Working on the film with Stephanie was an amazing experience for me. She was determined from the outset to create the film that Tough Love deserved to be. So in my case, once you came on board, Mary, that was probably the most fun time of the edit.
At that point, we had these sort of puzzle pieces that we started to create and we can sort of look at them and see what they are and how they need to be reinvented and sort of argue about how they can be best utilized. The four of us — with Stephanie [Wang-Breal] and Carrie [Weprin, the producer] — worked hard to find the best way to tell the story.
Mary Manhardt: Right, because it’s the most collaborative. It’s fun to have all these brains in the room batting ideas around because editing can be very isolating and once you can take off your headphones and start discussing everyone’s different reactions to the same scenes, it’s very fertile. It really does give you more ideas. You’re happy to move stuff around and it’s great to see your own opinions change over time, like about a scene that maybe you didn’t like originally, but in context it works awesomely well, you know?
Colin Nusbaum: Right, but that means you have to admit you were wrong about something, which is no fun.
Mary Manhardt: But when it’s working when you’re honesty happy to say “Oh my god. I was wrong.” When I left [Tough Love] — I was only on for like two months — there were still a couple of issues that were unresolved. When I saw the film finished at Full Frame for the first time, I wanted to like get up in the auditorium and run across to you and say, “You fixed it!”
Colin Nusbaum: There were a lot of places where there was some fat that needed to be trimmed to make something clear and you know, you talk about trying to elicit a specific feeling or emotion or understanding of a person. But I think it was actually incredibly subtle things, some of the biggest changes with the scenes that you were able to come in and do. At one point you turned to me, and I think said something about how sometimes you just need one extra look at the end of a scene, one extra…
Mary Manhardt: Like a beat, hold on a face, right.
Colin Nusbaum: Exactly. And those things would solidify points because of the expression on someone’s face after something had been said, in ways that made scenes sing. Those looks were sort of things that I was able to see you bring out in the edit that I was able to learn from in order to understand how you could make scenes sing a little bit more.
Mary Manhardt: But I have to say hats off to you, Colin, because I’ve never been in that situation where I’ve been the editor and they bring someone else in, but you were extraordinarily gracious and helpful. For me, it’s like, here’s my colleague and he has incredible information. It would take me another year to get to his level of understanding the story. I can bring a fresh eye, but he can bring experience and knowledge of the footage as well as understanding of the story.
Colin Nusbaum: Yeah, and it was exciting to do that.
Mary Manhardt: It was so much fun. I’m so proud of that movie. You should be so proud of that movie.
Colin Nusbaum: I am. I think it’s beautiful and it was a beautiful experience to be able to see it through to that, and I had a great experience watching it with the people in the audience at Full Frame.
Mary Manhardt: I was sitting next to a friend of mine, and he was gasping at stuff in the movie. And nothing is more rewarding for an editor than to see audience reactions. Whether it’s crying or laughing or gasping. That’s exactly what you want, because then you know they get it and they’re getting it emotionally.
Colin Nusbaum: And there were so many laughs that we had sort of forgotten about.
Mary Manhardt: Yeah, stuff gets less funny when you watch it a hundred times and it’s a real danger that you’re going to cut that stuff out because it doesn’t seem funny anymore.
Colin Nusbaum: Which is another nice part of fresh eyes. There were things that were maybe on my chopping block next, but then I was able to see your reaction to it and I became confident in keeping it in the film.
Mary Manhardt: Over time, you get jaded, or you’ve just watched it too many times, and then that’s a real danger — that you’re going to forget how important it was the first time you saw it. I think a real editor skill is remembering how you reacted the first time you saw [raw footage]. But it does come down to this practical thing: What do we have? Documentaries are made up of what they have shot. So what have you shot, and what are we going to use here?
Colin Nusbaum: And those limitations are part of the excitement of being a documentary editor. What do you do with this very constricted palate of things from which you can create those scenes and those emotions? Working within those confines is why that struggle is so fun.
Mary Manhardt: Absolutely. Because it makes you think more deeply, but it also makes you think outside the box.