Editing: <I>BlacKKKlansman</I>
Issue: January/February 2019

Editing: BlacKKKlansman

Filmmaker Spike Lee once again called on his go-to editor Barry Alexander Brown to cut his latest film, BlacKKKlansman. The feature is nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, and Film Editing.  BlacKKKlansman stars John David Washington as Ron Stallworth, a rookie cop in Colorado Springs, who tries to make a name for himself by infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan. As an African-American, that is easier said than done, but with the help of a fellow detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), he’s able to develop a rapport with Klan leader David Duke, portrayed by Topher Grace.

Brown, who has worked with Lee on Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, Crooklyn, He Got Game, Summer of Sam, and numerous others, took time to speak with Post recently about his decades-long collaboration with the filmmaker, and how this project came together.

Your relationship with Spike Lee goes way back. Is that what led to this collaboration?

“You know the answer. Spike calls me up and says, ‘I am doing a film in October. Do you want to do it?’ That’s how I get hired. We are friends, so he knows if I am working or not working, and he knows I was not working. I had wrapped up this Netflix pilot called Altered Carbon and he knew that. Then it just comes down to calling me up and telling me I am doing this movie. And I say yes!”

BlacKKKlansman is set in Colorado Springs, but it was actually shot in New York?

“They shot around Albany, New York. There is stuff that is Colorado Springs, to set it there, but they couldn’t go off to shoot in Colorado Springs. They had to shoot in New York and found this town that really doubled for it. It’s near Sing Sing.”

Are you editing on-location or in a studio somewhere?

“Spike has 40 Acres in Fort Green, Brooklyn, and he has his editing rooms there and that’s where I worked. I go to set from time to time, and there are certain things in the process of the shoot that I have to go to set for. There was a thing that we introduced into the idea of the movie, which is these takes of David Duke that they are listening too. I came up with this idea and Spike really liked it - it was to come up with something for Topher Grace to record. He knows I write, so Spike says, ‘OK, write something,’ and he knows it is going to be good. We are then going to have Topher read and it’s going to be long enough that we can take bits and pieces of it and use throughout, in and out. The idea that these guys are always listening and always getting indoctrinated. That’s a point where I go to set with this one page of monologue for David Duke for Topher to record. And they will go off and record it.”

This goes beyond the on-camera telephone conversations they are having?

“Yes. This is the stuff that, whenever they are in the car, they are hearing David Duke and this white supremacist propaganda that is going on and on. All that hate speech.”

Are you working closely behind the dailies?

“Spike does not like me to cut until we can see it together and we can talk about it, and he can give me his take on the footage, and tell me what he likes, what he doesn’t like, what he wants me to avoid, what he wants me to really center on. He really does not want me to cut, so I have to wait until he has some time to get in and sit with me. And often times it’s on the weekends.”

What was the timeframe for production and editing?

“When we were wrapping in December (2017), I was about 50 percent behind, where if we kept up on a daily basis, like we did with Malcolm X or Do The Right Thing, I would have only been a few days behind. But on December 8th (2017) I was 50 percent behind. Then that next month, even though we had Christmas and New Year’s, I had to work through the hiatus and finish it.

“I had to finish in Paris, because there was a death in my wife’s family, so I spent the holidays in Paris just on a table with very small Avid set up for myself, cutting. I came back on January 8th (2018).”

Is Avid your preferred system for editing?

“I really only cut on Avid. I did this Fu Fighters thing two summers ago. They did this concert at the Acropolis, and I had to do it on Premiere. Oh boy was that tough! I work on Avid.”

Was this a film shoot?

“He shot on film - for first time in a long time. And it really gave it a great look — a subtle look, but a great look. It really feels kind of like that moment of time.”

How were you receiving material?

“[The film] would go to Kodak, and then from Kodak it would go to Company 3, and they would transcode it so that we would have Avid media. They created a master file, which we went back to, to color correct. They were massive files.”

What resolution are you working at?

“It’s an HD edit. There are these different levels in Avid. The compression was [DNx36]. There are bigger levels that we could have done it at, but I found that even at the lower resolution, it looked great enough for any kind of screening of the film. It looked fantastic. I showed the first cut to Spike on January 8th (2018).”

What kind of feedback does he give you after an initial cut?

“The basic feedback, overall is, how is Spike reacting to it? And man, he got excited! For him, there was so much there already, to the point he said where going to go out to Cannes, which means we had to show something at Cannes that is in really great shape — almost a fine cut by early March to be considered for the festival in May. And we had to keep going and finish the film up by the end of April. Even if we didn’t know right away if the film was in Cannes.

“Oddly enough, in that very first screening, Spike invited (composer) Terence Blanchard, because he knew he was in New York, and that was shocking to me, because Spike never, never, never has people in the room with him when he screens something for the very first time. Never! And it was so great to have Terence there because Terence could now take what he saw and start thinking about the score. And about two months later they were in LA recording the score. Two month later!

The dance sequence stands out as different in the overall context of the film? 

“I am glad you brought that up because nobody really talks about the dance sequence. I thought that was really great. I am really proud of that sequence, because it has do to a couple of things. One, it has to be entertaining and set a place in time, and also be this quick shorthand of their romance. By the end of that dance, you have to think, ‘These two people are crazy about each other.’ Without dialogue — just dancing and singing. You also go into a scene like that and in a movie like this, you can’t feel like, ‘Why are we here?’ I think it accomplished all of those things. I am very happy about that sequence.”

Can you talk about the scene that contrasts the induction of the Klan members with Harry Belafonte’s character recalling his painful memories?

“I am really happy about how that came together - how that looked and how that feels - and how integrated the two events are and feel like one thing, even though they are diametrically opposed to each other. Emotionally they are one. I am really happy with how that looked.”

The calls between Ron Stallworth and David Duke are also interesting because Duke has no idea that Stallworth isn’t white?

“I like what we did with the split-screen on the telephone. It was fun, but it also has a place. It’s a technique or gimmick from that period of time, but at the same time, you really do see the two people on the phone.

“Spike shot the David Duke and Ron Stallworth phone calls simultaneously. He shot them at the same time. They were in separate places - far enough away so that you don’t actually here a bleed through, but he shot them at the same time. I wanted it to feel that when you see these two people on together, they really are on the phone together. And I love the diagonal split screen, which was Spike’s idea.”

Is that something you could easily do in the Avid or did you need effects plug-ins?

“Yeah, you can. You can create it. It’s something when we were in film, there wasn’t a chance in hell that we could do it. We would kind of guess what it would look like, but now you do it.”

This film is seeing a lot of attention during awards season. How does it feel to be nominated for an Oscar for Film Editing?

“It’s very satisfying and really exciting, and a little overwhelming. I am going out to LA for the ACE awards and then I will go out a few weeks later for the Academy Awards.”

You are an independent editor?

“Yes I am. Mainly, I work with my friends: Mira Nair and Spike Lee. Every now and then I work with somebody else, but mainly it’s with them. Those two are enough to keep me busy, and I love working with them. They are friends. Those are the two people that turned me into an editor.”

Does this go back to your days in school?

“I was already out of school and had made my first film, which was a documentary, and it got nominated for an Oscar in 1980 - my one and only other time. So every 39 years I’ve got to get nominated [laughs].”

What’s next?

“I’m in Montgomery, Alabama, in preproduction on a film for a script that I wrote calledSon of the South. And I’ll be directing that. We go into production in about two months.”

Will you edit it too?

“I will.”