At the Toronto International Film Festival we had a chance to catch up with Wyatt Smith, the film editor who cut the potential awards contender “Harriet.” Wyatt, whose woks includes a large variety of styles—from musicals such as “Mary Poppins Returns” to “Into the Woods” and action films like “Doctor Strange“—told us what it was like on this transcendental story with director Kasi Lemmons, his interest in the film, and his upcoming work, including the live action “The Little Mermaid.” When we first attended TIFF we reviewed “Harriet,” and now you can read on for our full interview with Wyatt Smith!
AwardsCircuit/J. Don Birnam: Congratulations, I thought the movie was excellent. How did you get involved with this project and what attracted you to it?
Wyatt Smith: Well, the subject matter. Harriet Tubman is a very underappreciated and not well enough known figure in American history. We are very loosely taught about her in U.S. schools, usually just linked to the Underground Railroad and usually you learn more about Frederick Douglass, but very little bit of Harriet. As a subject, specially with our times right now, she is the type of figure we need to know more about right now. She had such an incredible life. And, of course, Kasi Lemmons is very intriguing. When I read her script and take on it, we got on really well away. We found we had a lot of similar taste in films. It must have been hard for her because she had only worked with one creditor in her career and I knew how hard it would be to find someone new, but it worked out well.
AC: You have done a lot of work all over the map in terms of genre, but this movie has it all, it has some action scenes. Did you bring in some of that?
WS: My philosophy is, I watch all kinds of films, and I try to catch everything in the theater. Sometimes I go three or four times a week. I have that luxury living in New York. If I see all these types of movies and get drawn into them, why can’t I work on them? Why do I have to be limited to one style? ‘Harriet’ is interesting in that it is a pretty abstract
character in terms of how she is written. It’s the evolution of a character when she goes from a slave to a free woman, with a lot of sorrow. And then, Moses is like a legend, so superhero work helped. More than that evolution of the character, it allows us to work in three styles. At the beginning when she is most vulnerable, there is a lot of close up to see what she is feeling. By the third act when she is a legendary figure, she has courage and bravado, and we lead into that. It almost culminates into a ‘High Noon,’ Western-like film.
AC: You also have the dreamlike sequences she is having or thinks she is having. How did you approach those?
WS: Well sometimes she is portrayed as having seizures, due to an injury she had as a child. It was spirituality, not necessarily God’s face. So, how to see that in a film? It is really hard. It is so internal that it can be very artificial. We worked with many different styles for these. Sometimes we played an actual voice of God. That was challenging, there is not a lot of precedent for that. We found the right balance of the right amount of those scenes, of when she needed them. Terrence Blanchard, our composer, brought in a very talented piano player, and all of these elements came together for those important scenes.
AC: How was it for you working with Kasi—similar or different from past experiences? Did she have more of a vision?
WS: In terms of the style of cutting, she and I were very much alike. Finding the shape for a scene, we were pretty simpatico on that. We also were willing to explore enough options to figure out what we did and did not like, and to try radical things. We were also blessed with really good performances but, due to the limitations of budgeting—it was a large scale shoot for a low budget—there was not a lot of footage. That was an exciting challenge because you have to be more creative and flexible in how you use the material you do have. They do not roll five cameras for eight hours that day. It was a much more stripped down process, strictly about get the performance, get the story, get the pace.
AC: Are there any scenes that were not in the version we just saw at TIFF, that you struggled with, or any scenes that are in there you were glad to save?
WS: There are a lot of characters in the film and one of the characters we struggled with was Walter (a young black man who is technically is free but does not really have a life and has to scavenge to survive, which means he has to turn in other slaves). He goes through a massive visual turn in the film—it is an important figure for an audience, and he is a composite historical figure. Playing with the storyline of where he was introduced and when, we played with a lot. He was first a lackey in the background and then come forward. It was hard but it worked out well and I am very happy with the story arc that makes his character as strong as possible, for the audience. That is one that we explored some very radical changes.
AC: What about Marie (Janelle Monae’s character)? She is also a composite, right?
WS: She brings such a shine to the screen. I just get a bounce and have to stay focused. But, in terms of screen time, she has a limited amount, but she represents the life that Harriet never had and never would have. She represents the hope. She has a business, and represents compassion, without a scarred past. She is a devoted emotionally figure. So, those scenes are incredibly important. There was never any question of keeping them or not. They are so important to keep in. And the tone of the film, Kasi really wanted it to be uplifting. There has been a lot of stories about slavery that were of a different tone. We did not want that here because we wanted the film to be more accessible to people of all ages. We wanted to focus on the emotional damage of slavery. Harriet’s family was torn apart by slavery.
AC: How does it feel being at TIFF and getting all of this attention?
WS: I am really bummed that I do not get to see any other films! I am in London working on something else, but I did not want to miss this. It is amazing. I really wanted to give Kasi that hug before she walked up the stage. It was also hard to watch and think—I wish I could change that, but you can’t obviously. And it is always great to see how it plays with audiences. You make these things and see how people react.
AC: Well, so now tell the readers about that new film, ‘The Little Mermaid.’
WS: Well, there is so little that I can tell you. It is in the earliest days. It’s great to be back with a large family, it’s all about a large cast. The large cast of ‘The Little Mermaid’ is great. I am so excited with the screen tests I have seen. It has the grounding of “there is the thing that came before.” And the only reason we are making this is because that was so great. So you have to respect it but you also have to make your own film. The greatest challenge for me before this was “Mary Poppins Returns.” It is such sacred ground. It’s a tough line to toe. We are constantly referencing—well, how did they do it back then, how did they treat this? But, at the same time, we do not want to just mimic it. Now, we are miles away from those conversations, it is such early days. But I am obviously familiar with the movie, I babysat kids, I watched it many times. I do not need to rewatch it, so I have it in my head. It is tough having to make half the movie under water. There is no precedent for that. That is probably ten times more than I should have told you!