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Jamie Kirkpatrick panicked during his last semester at BU when a film editing class he wanted to take was full. But that hiccup set in motion a series of jobs and apprenticeships that eventually led to his becoming a professional film editor. Two weeks after opening in New York, his latest film, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete, is already earning early buzz about Oscar consideration.
The melodrama, starring Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson and Emmy-winner Jeffrey Wright, is about two boys, Mister (Skylan Brooks) and Pete (Ethan Dizon), and their adventures during a sweltering summer in the Brooklyn projects. Mister teams up with his friend Pete to search for food and hide from Child Protective Services after his prostitute and drug addict mother (Hudson) is arrested. Throughout the film, the resourceful Mister stays positive against seemingly unimaginable obstacles.
The independent film has earned strong reviews from critics. “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete is a moving bit of mischief and mayhem that will break your heart, give you hope, make you laugh, possibly cry,” writes LA Times critic Betsy Sharkey. “Director George Tillman, Jr., uses a great deal of restraint, allowing the script, cowritten with Michael Starrbury, to make its points with more subtlety.” In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis says that the two principal characters’ “hold on you is fierce.” Entertainment Weekly writes that “future Oscar buzz may kick in swiftly for Brooks and Hudson, who plays against type as Mister’s heavily abusive, tattooed, prostitute drug addict mom.”
Kirkpatrick (COM’95) is a New York–based editor with more than two dozen editing credits: among them, as an assistant editor, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut and Lost in Translation, and as editor, The Groomsmen.
Bostonia spoke with Kirkpatrick about how he became an editor, why he enjoyed working on The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete more than any of his films, and his advice to students.
Kirkpatrick: My senior year, second semester, the film department offered the first digital editing class. They only offered one section, and I panicked when I didn’t get in. I had previously had an internship in Los Angeles, and I knew editing was what I wanted to do. A friend of mine was working as a tech-support representative at Avid and was leaving. He put in a word, and I got the job not long after I graduated. I worked tech support at Avid for about a year and a half and then I moved to Los Angeles to work as a freelance assistant. I was an assistant for about eight years before I started cutting. In 2000 I moved to New York.
It’s very difficult for assistants to make that transition to editor. You either need an editor you work with who bumps you up, or you start cutting a lot of really small things like short films. It’s the old maxim “You can’t get experience without experience”—generally no one is willing to let you cut their feature if you’ve never cut a feature before. That first feature is the trick.
I had been her assistant for several years on a number of movies, including Lost in Translation, which is probably the best-known one we did. She is an incredibly talented editor. She had come up mentored by some old-school editors, where the assistants would work very closely with the editors, so she was really big on that idea of mentorship and letting me take the lead. When I expressed interest in cutting my own scenes, she let me do it to get experience. The scenes didn’t always end up in the movie, but I was learning how to go about it. I’d often sit with her and watch how she put scenes together, or I’d put the scenes together and she would give me feedback, which is incredibly helpful.
Unfortunately, with the way schedules and budgets have been in the last few years, it’s very difficult to do that anymore. There isn’t the time for the editor to sit with their assistants. I try to do it with my assistants, because I think it is an invaluable way for them to gain actual experience editing.
I can honestly say it has been my most recent one, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete. It was a really wonderful experience. The director, George Tillman, Jr., is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet and a true collaborator. That is what any editor hopes to have in a director, someone with a strong vision, who knows what he wants from the film, but is also open to the ideas of their editor. We had an amazing, inclusive dialogue in the cutting room. I feel like we ended up with a really good film that I’m very proud of.
For the most part he would leave me alone to do my thing, but he would first explain what he was looking for. He did not micromanage the film in terms of saying, “Trim this shot a few frames more.” A lot of times I would show him a scene and he would just say, “Great.”
In an example of how small our industry is, Flack recommended me to one of the film’s producers. The producers contacted my agent. Tillman is a Los Angeles–based director, but the film was being shot and edited in New York and they were looking for a New York–based editor.
Even though on the surface it’s a movie about poverty and people struggling to survive in a really tough situation, the script made it clear to me that it’s really a story about friendship. In well-written movies, the surface plot is rarely the most important aspect of the film.
In this case it’s about two boys and how they forge a friendship born out of their hardship, so that really drew me in. I remember telling Tillman, “This entire film is going to hinge upon whether or not the audience buys these two kids.” He told me right off the bat that we were in good shape, because the two young actors were amazing. Sure enough, once I started to see the dailies, I thought we really had something special in the performance of these two kids, which was rounded out by this amazing supporting cast.
In my first film, there were several child actors. It’s the old maxim “Beware of working with children and animals.” It can present its own challenges, usually because younger actors don’t have the technical training that older actors do, and sometimes in film acting that’s very important, because there is so much repetition in a scene. On set, actors have to do the same thing over and over again until it’s right, so the technical training that a lot of adult actors have is very helpful. Adult actors understand how to hit their marks and why continuity is important—they shouldn’t grab the glass or a prop with a different hand every time. The younger actors often don’t have those tools yet.
That said, what was so refreshing in working on this with both Skylan Brooks, who plays Mister, and Ethan Dizon, who plays Pete, is that they just have this raw talent, and sometimes you lose that with very trained adult actors. Sometimes with adult actors there’s a spontaneity missing that you have to craft with the editing. In this case, our direction in the cutting room was to let the kids play the scene, because they have this incredible chemistry with each other. In several places we tried our best not to overcut their performances, because we knew that was the heart of the movie.
Yeah. There’s a scene where Pete reveals to Mister something about his own traumatic past. When I saw the dailies of this, both with how Dizon handled the revelation, and how Brooks handled the reaction, I was in tears. That’s a pretty rare reaction for me. I am always fully aware that I am watching actors, especially when you’re just cutting a scene and you’re seeing all the moving parts. Having now seen it in the finished film, it is always a scene that has audiences crying. It really, truly is because of their ability to relate that kind of pain and closeness with each other without saying a whole lot. I think it’s an extraordinary scene, because they are so young and inexperienced and they’ve managed to pull something off that a lot of adult actors sometimes don’t.
Let me put it this way: as an editor, it’s always something I’m aware of and often distracted by, but I learned early on that the audience won’t catch most of those mistakes if the scene is working. And that’s a big “if.” If your audience is engaged in the story and in the characters, you can get away with a whole lot. It’s amazing how many films I’ve edited, and when I see them later on TV or on DVD I’ll see something that strikes me as a really bad continuity cut. But then I’ll attend a screening and see that no one in the audience notices it.
I tell people to try to find someone they know or make a connection to someone involved in film, and just stay in touch with them. Several of my assistants have been people who did exactly that. I wasn’t able to hire them immediately, but I promised if they kept in touch I would keep them in mind.
It is a difficult question for me to answer because of the fairly standard path I took, which was to start as an assistant and work my way up for a number of years until I was given my first shot. That can still happen today, but because of the explosion in content, what’s happening now is a lot of people are coming straight out of school and immediately starting to edit a lot of short-form content, whether it be web videos or web series.
When I meet someone who tells me they want to get into film editing, I tell them they need to focus, because it’s very easy to get lost in the jungle of short-form content that exists now. If you want to work in film, you have to work in film.
It’s funny, I would never say that it is not an art form, but personally I think of it much more as a craft. I think of it almost like carpentry. You can study it all you want, but until you are putting your hands on the wood and using the tools to try to make a chair, you don’t really know how to do it. The first chair you make is probably not going to be as accomplished as the 10th chair you make. I think editing goes the same way. You can talk about it as much as you want, but until you have sat there and struggled with the footage and looked at which little nuance from the actor creates the best performance, you won’t catch on.
On my first film, The Groomsmen, I remember the first day of dailies and the very first scene I had to cut. I just sat there looking at the dailies, feeling completely overwhelmed. But then I just forced myself to get into it, and at the end of the day I knew inside that this was something I could do and that I had better instincts than I thought I did.
I always say to people who are coming up, “Cut everything you can.” It’s probably going to mean a lot of student films, short films, and things that you’re doing for free, but the more you do that, the more you will acquire confidence in what you’re doing.