Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction” has won rave reviews and is tipped to be an Oscars favorite with its satirical portrayal of the exploitation of Black people in media, balanced with sharp comedy and a punch of emotional family drama. Jefferson credits his editor, Hilda Rasula, with striking the right tone for the film. “The thing I appreciate about Hilda is that she never lies, she’s very honest, and she tells me when she doesn’t like something,” Jefferson tells Variety.
“We ended up cutting out 11 scenes, which is a lot for a story like this,” Rasula adds. “The pace ended up being a key ingredient to finding the tonal balance. We had to experiment by pulling back on scenes, cutting them down or omitting them entirely.”
As a veteran film editor, Rasula helped guide Jefferson through his directorial debut. In a conversation with Variety, the duo break down their process and discuss how the film’s opening and ending shifted in the edit bay.
Hilda, what was it like getting the script from Cord, and what made you say yes?
Rasula: Straight out of the gate, I read it and it was brilliant, and I knew I had to do it. But, I remember at the end of our first meeting, Cord said, “This is my first time directing. You have to be comfortable with that idea, and we’re going to be in the thick of things. Are you ready to hold my hands on a few fronts?” I said, “Of course.” I realized as soon as we started working together, he was a quick study. He has a nimbleness to witness something, hear it and pick it up immediately. We were able to jump in.
Jefferson: I said to every [head of department] on the film, “I’m smart and can learn things quickly.” But this was an independent film, and there’s not a lot of money. I told them, “If you don’t want to do your job and serve as a teacher, I totally understand. Your job is hard enough, so if you want to walk away because you’re not getting paid a ton of money, I get it.” But fortunately, they were willing to engage with me on that.
There are a lot of emotional beats mixed in with comedic ones. Can you talk about those moments coming together in the edit bay and hitting the right tone?
Jefferson: I always said I wanted to make a satire but not a farce. Sometimes we missed the mark, but we found the tone of the movie was in post. That scene where Monk tells the publishers that he wants to change the title to ‘Fuck,’ and they’re nervous about it and go on mute, we shot the other side with Miriam Shor and Michael Cyril Creighton, who are brilliant improvisers, and it was funny. On set, it was amazing, but in post, we agreed it was too far. The scene is already funny, and trying to incorporate this is not the film we’re trying to make. Other times, you have to rein it in. There were a couple of scenes where we cut Agnes’ decline and her Alzheimer’s, because they were far too grim. Another scene of hers we cut entirely because it was too deep of a dip emotionally, and how do you come back from that?
Rasula: The satirical comedic scenes came easier and required less shaping than the dramatic scenes. At least in cutting, I would turn to Jeffrey’s face in those comedic scenes because he’s the one who shows you the temperature of the room. He shows you, even with an impassive expression, how ridiculous the other people are. We used those close-ups as comedic counterpoints. To Cord’s point of cutting out scenes … that allowed the boat to keep moving rather than getting stuck in one tone or another.
When Monk is writing “My Pafology,” we see the characters in his mind come to life in front of him. How did that scene take shape?
Rasula: That was how Cord chose to address the novel’s digression. It’s the only moment where we go into this alternate reality. It was always that way on the page. We went round and round about the music, but the cutting was one of the easiest because it was perfectly conceived on the page.
Jefferson: Okieriete Onaodowan showed up to set that day asking if he could wear an eyepatch because he had a scratched cornea. After every take, he’d have to sit in a dark bathroom because he was very light-sensitive. We very rarely got to do more than four takes, and that was one where we tried to do a lot of takes because we knew it was an integral scene. We ended up doing seven or eight takes. To Hilda’s point, it was one of the easiest to cut.
So, which was trickier to put together, the opening or the end?
Jefferson: The opening was slower and more laborious in getting Monk to Boston. There was a slow build with his family stuff, but we’d get feedback saying, “The movie hits its stride in the scene when he’s writing the novel.” That scene [in the original cut] came 35 minutes in, so we worked for a long time figuring out what needed to change. We ended up shooting a new scene for the beginning, and that helped. What really helped was Hilda got in there and said she had experimented on something. I watched it and she had moved some scenes around, and it was a magic trick. All of a sudden the beginning of the film was faster. It was a real lesson in post and what you can do in the edit.
Rasula: We had a different ending that totally worked, but for 20% of people it didn’t. For the other 80%, it would cut to the credits, and they would laugh. It was an absurd, interesting ending. That’s when Cord went away and came up with the Sterling [K. Brown] scene.