Filmmaking: <I>Ma Rainey's Black Bottom</I>
Issue: March/April 2021

Filmmaking: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

NEW YORK CITY — The Netflix film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is nominated for five Academy Awards. Set in Chicago in 1927, the feature centers on the Mother of the Blues (Viola Davis), her ambitious horn player (Chadwick Boseman) and the white management that’s determined to control her legacy. The film is based on August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play and was directed by George C. Wolfe. Davis and Boseman are both recognized with nominations for their leading roles.

Much of the post production work for the film was completed in New York by companies and individual professionals belonging to the Post New York Alliance ( Picture editor Andrew Mondshein, ACE, associate editor Chris Rand, first assistant editor Gordon Holmes and their crew worked from edit suites provided by Company 3 (formerly Sixteen19) in Chelsea. Company 3 also handled dailies, color grading and editorial finishing for the film. PowerHouse VFX, located at the same site, provided visual effects for the project. 

The film’s supervising music editor was New York-based Todd Kasow, and sound editorial and mixing were completed at Warner Bros. Sound NY. HR Casting, located on Wall Street, produced ADR, and Trevanna Post handled post production accounting.

Offering a fictionalized account of a recording session for a new album, the film employs dialogue from Wilson’s play while adding musical numbers composed by three-time Grammy Award-winner Branford Marsalis. The story exposes the exploitation faced by Black musicians of the era, as Rainey and the older members of her band come into conflict with an upstart trumpet player named Levee (Boseman), who dismisses the blues tunes he is expected to perform as “jug music”.

For the picture editing team, a key challenge lay in capturing the visceral quality of the music and the simmering emotions that boil up among the characters. 

“It was unlike any other show I’ve worked on,” says associate editor Chris Rand. “Most of the action is confined to the recording studio, yet our task was to give it scope and make it feel like a much larger world.”

First assistant editor Gordon Holmes adds that the story starts off with a bang. 

“It’s a roller coaster ride as we weave through several strands of narrative,” he observes. “The characters debate everything from artistic control to faith and religion and, of course, race. It presents grand themes in the context of an intimate story.”

The finished cut has a musical rhythm, even in moments that are mainly dialogue. Despite its constrained physical space, the story is visually rich and dynamic. Rand notes that cinematographer Tobias Schliessler captured scenes with multiple cameras in almost constant motion and that allowed the editors to keep things lively by constantly shifting perspective. Mostly, he adds, they benefitted from the incredible performances turned in by the ensemble cast. 

“The actors knocked it out of the park,” says Rand. “Viola Davis could shift the gravitational pull of a scene simply by turning her head. They gave us an embarrassment of riches.”

Holmes observes that their best option was often restraint. He points to a monologue that Boseman’s Levee delivers about his anguished experiences with white men. 

“Listening to that monologue, you lose sense of time and place and get caught up in his world,” Holmes recalls. “We stay on him for close to a minute without a cut because there’s no reason for one. It’s truly unbelievable.”

PNYA member Kafayat Adegbenro, who became part of the team as an apprentice editor, says that working with the story had a deep effect on everyone involved. 

“Upon reading the script, my first thought was, not much has changed,” she recalls. “As an African-American female, I can relate to these characters. The culture remains the same.”

As the film’s supervising music editor, Todd Kasow worked with Wolfe and Marsalis in cutting music tracks for performance sequences and elsewhere in the film. Marsalis, who composed the original score and produced all the music, initially sent cues to Kasow as MIDI demos with stems. Kasow collaborated with Wolfe in tracking those cues to picture and the physical performances of the actors. He later traveled to New Orleans to re-record selections of the music with Marsalis and other local musicians at the Ellis Marsalis School of Music, a center Branford Marsalis founded with Harry Connick Jr. in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. 

Marsalis’ powerful score includes a mix of the traditional blues favored by Ma Rainey and the then new form of jazz advocated by Levee. It also mirrors the flow of emotions that fill the room. 

“The sound is true to the era and true to the characters,” Kasow says. “Branford studied Ma’s work and it’s a tribute to his genius that he was able to create music that is authentic, but also his own.”

Back in New York City, Marsalis recorded strings and woodwinds at DiMenna Center. Kasow then re-assembled and mixed the 5.1 stems to match the tracked and edited cues. Final dubbing was performed at Warner Bros. Sound NY by supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Paul Urmson and re-recording mixer Skip Lievsay.

“The challenge was to leave room for the dialogue,” Kasow says. “It needed significant music underneath to provide a rhythm for the performances but without interfering with them. You don’t want the audience’s attention drawn to what’s happening musically, you want them to focus on the dialogue, the characters and the story.”

HR Casting was just beginning to audition voice actors for crowd scenes and backgrounds when COVID-19 arrived in New York and the city suddenly moving into lockdown. Founders Sienna Jeffries and Cherelle Cargill had to come up with an alternate way to conduct recording sessions that were meant to be done live. 

“We got a call from someone saying we were going to be quarantined,” recalls Jeffries. “How were we going to record sound with 18 actors who were all confined to their homes?”

Jeffries and Cargill immediately began looking for solutions that would allow them to record ADR remotely. They could bring talent together on a Zoom call, but audio delays inherent to the system made it unsuitable for recording sync sound. They then found Cleanfeed, a professional audio tool that could be used alongside Zoom to make synchronous multi-track recordings with multiple parties. 

But other hurdles remained. Cargill had to build a small recording studio in her home. She also had to ensure that all the actors were set up in their homes with suitable recording environments and professional quality microphones. There were Wi-Fi issues to work out and a link needed to be set up to the film’s sound team. 

“We consulted with post production supervisors and others we’d worked with in the past and watched countless YouTube videos,” says Cargill. “We set to work and figured it out.” 

They held mock-sessions leading up to the recording date to work out the kinks. In the end, the actual session came off with barely a hitch. Actors were able to react and interact as though they were in the same room. 

“The sound team was worried about getting quality sound with New York City happening outside every window,” explains Jeffries. “But everyone was very patient and stepped up.” 

In the end, all the PNYA members involved were inspired to give it their best. 

“We all recognized that this was an amazing film,” Cargill observes. “We faced obstacles, but we drew on our experience and delivered our best work.”