Last night I had the pleasure of attending a panel discussion with Oscar-nominated filmmakers Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders as part of a new partnership between the Atlanta Film Festival and Florida State University. The two FSU alumni sat down with the College of Motion Picture Arts dean Reb Braddock to talk about working as editors on the Academy Award winning film Moonlight and about their experience while at film school.
The conversation began with Joi and Nat talking about what got them interested in filmmaking and what drew them to FSU’s film program. I’ve spoken with plenty of directors, actors, writers, and even producers but this was my first time being a part of a conversation with not one but two editors. While the director’s are often the face of the film, it’s the editors who tie it all together and make it into the finish product we see on the big screen. “Editing is the final draft of the same script,” Sanders stated when talking about what they do.
McMillon, Sanders, and Moonlight director Barry Jenkins all went to FSU at the same time, but travelled separate paths before ending up working together on what would be one of the best films of 2016. Looking at their IMDb profiles you’ll notice that both McMillon and Sanders made their Hollywood big breaks editing TV shows like The Biggest Loser and Fashion House. For them, it was a paycheck and a foot in the door.
“To me, it sounded like a prison sentence,” McMillon recalls about her early days in reality TV. It was steady work but she wanted to move to feature film, which turns out isn’t as easy as it may seem. Even editors are not immune to typecasting as many end up staying within their respective genres once they get into the industry. Both of them took a risk when they left comfortable and well paying jobs to work on feature films.
McMillon worked on a handful of Tyler Perry projects and Sanders worked on Short Term 12, and then a couple of years ago they reunited with Jenkins for Moonlight. Jenkins had actually shot McMillon’s thesis film while at FSU, and Sanders did some editing work for him back then as well. "It was like we were back at film school,” she says.
Because they all knew one another, it made communication throughout the editing process a whole lot easier. They knew what Barry Jenkins wanted for the film. McMillon talked about how she would often put together multiple versions of how a scene could play out, knowing full well that Jenkins would pick the last version she showed. That was one of the tips she offered to the audience; always save the best for last. They even had a code word that Jenkins would say when he wanted them to up the style of a scene. The three of them spent many days and nights together editing the film. “It’s almost like a short term marriage between an editor and director,” Sanders explains. With Moonlight, they learned to trust the silence in the scenes, and that’s what they relied upon most.
As the panel wound down they eventually got to what was clearly in the back of everyone’s mind; the Academy Awards. In one of the most memorable and horrific Oscar moments of all time, presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway mistakenly announced La La Land as the Best Picture winner only to have Moonlight be the real winner be announced minutes later when everyone was already on the stage giving their speeches. McMillon and Sanders were in the audience sitting right next to La La Land’s editor, Tom Cross,as it happened. They would go from congratulating him on his win to eventually on the stage themselves over the course of a few minutes. The most awkward moment, they recall, was walking past everyone from La La Land backstage right after the fiasco. Both sides were still in good spirits, however.
The evening ended with McMillon and Sanders talking about what they loved most about their days at FSU and whether or not their was anything they wished they had done while still in college. It was an absolutely pleasure in getting to experience this panel with them and get to hear their stories and experiences as editors. This was the second special presentation in partnership with FSU at the Atlanta Film Festival, but it won’t be the last. The Atlanta Film Society plans on partnering with FSU again on future events throughout the year. This has been one of my highlights of the festival this year so I can’t wait to see what they have in store next. You can guarantee I’ll be there.