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Cutting “Moonlight” : A Discussion With Editor Joi McMillon

Working on “Moonlight” was something of a college reunion for editor Joi McMillon.  McMillon, who received her first Best Editing Oscar nomination for her role in the film, worked on many of classmate Barry Jenkins projects while studying at Florida State University along with “Moonlight” producer Adele Romanski, DP James Laxton and co-editor Nat Sanders.  Working with Jenkins over the years on commercials and his 2011 short “Chlorophyl” enabled her to maintain the shorthand she developed with the FSU team, an asset that proved valuable cutting “Moonlight” with Sanders.

“We’ve known Barry for a really long time.  We know his aesthetic and how he likes to approach cinema,” said McMillon.  “We had a sense, cinematically, how Barry was trying to tell this story.”

Jenkins’ cinematic style involved defining nuanced shots and camera movements that, coupled with the excellent performance of the cast, highlight very specific mental and emotional states.  Jenkins works without a storyboard, allowing the details of location to dictate the style of shots.  In this manner, he allows the viewer to become completely immersed in the world of the story, such as through the rotating shot of Juan’s street corner that opens the movie.

Under Jenkins direction, Laxton and his team captured a “oner”, or key shot, along with a limited amount of safety coverage.  As the editors explored the best ways to shape the scenes, specifically those with multi-character interaction, they paid equal attention to the performances, camera movements and silences to determine the desired tone, resulting in the strongest editing choices.  McMillon and Sanders broke up the workload by splitting up the movie’s three acts.  Sanders tackled act one and two’s coming-of-age scenes and McMillon wrangled the complex adult sequences in act three. While working on dedicated scenes allowed them to manage their timeline, the two editors regularly shared advice and suggestions on all scenes throughout the process. Their editing suite: a small office with two computers set up on opposing sides of the room, made it easy to maintain this style of collaboration.

Careful observance of silence, performance and camera movement guided McMillon through some challenging editing on sequences where Black reunites with former best friend, Kevin.  During a phone call that reconnects the two men, McMillon purposefully manipulated the information presented to the audience, extending the camera’s slow reveal, awkward silences and included some vocal stutters to heighten each man’s nervousness.

“We treated it as if Black was trying to piece together what grown-up Kevin looked like,” said McMillon.  “We played with whatever information we gave to the audience and what we decided to take away.”

McMillon also used her skillful eye to tackle the challenge of cutting the two men’s diner reconnection.  She first experimented with cutting between the two men for the scene’s exit.   Upon reviewing the clips, she noticed a take were Trevante Rhodes (Black) takes several beats before slightly glancing at Jharrel Jerome (Kevin).   She realized that playing with the silence, and holding on a shot at a point when the audience was anxious for that “What comes next?” moment, would make the perfect exit.