The story of Harriet Tubman is part of America’s fabric. After escaping from her master’s plantation in Maryland, she headed north to Pennsylvania, where she found temporary freedom. But rather than make a new life for herself, she returned south to liberate her family, putting herself in direct danger, over and over. Her unselfish actions and work as part of The Underground Railroad helped free dozens of slaves.
Kasi Lemmons recently directed a new feature film for Focus Features that looks at this chapter of Harriet’s life. Cynthia Erivo stars in the title role. Shot by John Toll using the Sony Venice camera, the feature was edited by Wyatt Smith. The project marks Smith’s first collaboration with the director and a very different style of film than the others he’s worked on recently — the VFX-heavy Doctor Strange and the musical
Mary Poppins Returns. Smith took some time out to speak with
Post about his work on the film, his relationship with Lemmons, and the challenges of creating just the right tone for
How did you get involved in this film?
“When I heard that there was a Harriet Tubman film about to be shot, that really intrigued me. I knew what you kind of know about Harriet Tubman in just the public US schools — her work with the Underground Railroad. But even then, it's really about Frederick Douglass and she's just kind of thrown in there. So it just dawned on me how insane it was that this story hadn't been told? And also, personally, biopics have been very tough…and have often been challenging for me. I often have an issue with just what I'm meant to feel and how much I’m meant to take away as just fact. I find it a very tricky style of film. So I wanted to take that on for the first time.”
How did you connect with director Kasi Lemmons?
“I had a Skype with Kasi Lemmons, the director, writer and director, which was arranged through our agents. And we had a really long chat. And through the process of this film, she became a very close friend. She's a wonderful woman. She's an excellent filmmaker. And she had a really clear vision for the things she wanted to portray, and how she wanted to portray Harriet.
“I was able to talk very openly…about the challenges, like [Harriet’s] visions and precedents for that. It's very hard to get that across in our film. And the dialog was just very comfortable. It was someone where I felt like I could earn her trust. She was very inspiring. I really wanted to help her make a great film.”
You were still working on Mary Poppins Returns at this point?
“I think it was probably, at that point, maybe four or five weeks away from when Harriet began filming. They were they filming mostly around Richmond, VA, and I pretty much was in New York, barring a few days when I asked that I go down to set just to meet her in person and kind of learn a bit more about her so that I could do a better job putting the film together. The entire timeline of the film for me might have only been about seven-and-a-half/eight months from beginning to end, which for me is pretty short. That was also a new experience.”
How far behind were you from receiving dailies?
“I got the dailies the next morning. I was definitely up to camera, and I was starting assembling the film. I talked to producers and I would email or talk to Kasi a bit. We did reach a point a few weeks in where she wanted to start seeing some scenes…I should note, Kasi had only really worked with one editor ever prior for all of her films — the absolutely brilliant editor, Terilyn Shropshire. But Teri was on another show.”
What were your thoughts on helping to tell the story going in?
“Knowing how important a story this is, but also knowing the true story of it and not wanting to overly research Harriet. I wanted to learn what the film was going to teach me rather than what I knew. So that was interesting. And Kasi and I talked about the tone of the film, which is quite different from a normal slave narrative in that we wanted to be inspiring and we didn't want to kind of lean into the tropes of slavery.
“If you think of a movie like 12 Years A Slave, which is an absolutely brutal and beautiful movie — that movie has been made. We didn't want to put that level of physicality and torture on the screen. We really wanted to focus more on the emotional aspects and the decimation of family — how Harriet's whole journey was really dictated by her family being torn apart.”
Director Kasi Lemmons and Cynthia Erivo, on-location
tory goes well beyond The Underground Railroad.
“And we only tell a small section. Every piece of her story could easily be its own film. Her escape to freedom could be its own movie. That's part of that challenge of a biopic: how much ground you cover. So (we) really focused on the section from the day she leaves to the day she frees her parents, the last of her family.”
You cut the film on an Avid system. What was your workflow coming from the Sony Venice camera?
“Regular Avid HD dailies - DNx 115. There was no reason to be anything greater than that. At the same time, I didn't want to be anything lesser than that because, ultimately, we do preview these things and look at them on the screen, and I make sure that it's the best presentation possible.”
Do you have a home studio, or do you set up at a facility?
“We worked out of a post facility — Sixteen19 in Chelsea. I cut Mary Poppins there. I'll be cutting Little Mermaid there.”
Is there a scene in Harriet that you feel strongly about, either through editing or because of unforeseen challenges?
“It’s a brutal scene…which is weird to refer to it as a ‘favorite’ scene. It's when Harriet returns south for the first time, risking her life to go back into slavery to get her husband…she discovers that he's been remarried and is expecting a child, something she was never able to have. Cynthia Erivo is such an unbelievable actress. She's such a dynamo and a powerhouse. But her performance in the film — everything hinges on it. And Zackary Momoh, who plays her husband John Tubman, is equally as incredible an actor…But the two of them, I believe them from the instant I saw them. And it's a really tough scene because he thought she was dead. So he kind of moved on, even though it was a short time frame. So there's a lot of emotion in that scene. It's definitely one that you hear the gasp in the audience…So for me as an editor, anytime I can hear and feel that with an audience. I know that the scene was working...I'm very proud of the cutting of the scene. I think the performances are incredible. The choices are good. I love the way it was filmed simply. And it really just gave the actors their moment.”
You mentioned The Little Mermaid. I know you’re in London right now. Tell us what you’ve got lined up?
“I'm at Pinewood. I'm in preproduction for Little Mermaid. I've done on a lot of the big visual effects films. Right now, I'm kind of the head of visualization. And then as we move into filming, I'll be the editor. So right now, I'm overseeing storyboards and animatics, and putting together previs and rehearsal footage, and working with the director (Rob Marshall) on story beats in that capacity, helping to figure out how we shoot it, because a film like this that's so technically complicated. We're trying to conquer all that now so that our director can work with our actors like he normally would.”