Co-Editing The Joi Of Moonlight: Meet Film Editor Joi McMillon

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Co-Editing The Joi Of Moonlight: Meet Film Editor Joi McMillon
Posted by Wilson Morales

December 29, 2016

Moonlight posterCurrently playing in theaters is Barry Jenkins’ critically acclaimed film Moonlight, which stars Naomie Harris, André Holland, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, Alex R. Hibbert, Jaden Piner, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, and Jharrel Jerome.

Based on the play by Tarell McCraney’s “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” Jenkins wrote and directed the film.

MOONLIGHT is the tender, heartbreaking story of a young black man’s struggle to find himself, told across three defining chapters in his life as he experiences the ecstasy, pain, and beauty of falling in love, while grappling with his own sexuality.

Among the talented crew behind the scenes who helped Jenkins craft together this beautiful film were some of colleagues from his alma mater Florida State University, including producer Adele Romanski, cinematographer James Laxton, co-producer Andrew Hevia, editor Nat Sanders, and co-editor Joi McMillon.

As co-editor, this is McMillon’s first feature-length editing credit. Prior to that, the Florida native had worked up the ladder from editing short films to serving as an assistant editor to a number of reality series such as The Biggest Loser, The Surreal Life and Beauty and the Geek; then segueing to films as a first assistant editor to films such American Violet, which starred Nicole Beharie, Not Easily Broken with Morris Chestnut and Taraji P. Henson, and seven of Tyler Perry‘s films including For Colored Girls and Good Deeds.

In the middle of these projects, she even took a lesser position on Kasi Lemmon’s 2007 Talk to Me to work as an apprentice editor to Terilyn A. Shropshire. Teri’s history as an editor to a number of Black films has included Eve’s Bayou, The Caveman’s Valentine, Love & Basketball, Waist Deep, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Biker Boyz, Talk To Me, American Violet, Jumping The Broom, SparkleBlack Nativity, and Beyond The Lights. 

If the accolades continue to come in for Moonlight, McMillon could make history as the first African-American woman ever nominated for an Oscar for best editing. Hugh A. Robertson (Midnight Cowboy 1969) was the first and only African-American person to be nominated for Best Editing so far. recently spoke with McMillon on her work for Moonlight and her journey to getting that position for her first editor credit.

How did you come onboard for this film?

Joi McMillon: Barry and I have been collaborating since we were in film school at Florida State. After we graduated, I edited projects he was creating with Strike Anywhere Films, including his short Chlorophyl back in 2011. I knew Moonlight was in the works, but didn’t know exactly when it was filming. When the pieces of the project started falling into place (and this all happened so quickly), I remember having a conversation with Nat (Sanders) and Barry about the turnaround on Moonlight. The feature didn’t have a super long post schedule. Basically, when it was all said done, they told me when the film is a go they would like me to be a co-editor.

Does that typically happen, having two co-editors on a film? What exactly is each person’s role?

Joi McMillon: Working with Nat as a co-editor was a very seamless process. For Moonlight, we would show each other cuts and give each other notes or suggestions – it’s a great way to test a scene that you haven’t shown your director yet.

When Barry came into the edit room, we separated. I worked primarily on act three and Nat worked on acts one and two, but we would still collaborate because our work spaces were so close to each other. I could hear and see what Nat and Barry were working on, and sometimes I would turn around, watch, and say, “Oh yeah, that’s really working,” or, “Oh, I actually sort of miss how it was before.” It was close quarters which made it literally a close collaboration.

Does it make it easier when you’ve known both individuals for years as opposed to working with somebody new?

Joi McMillon: Definitely. When you’re working with someone new and you’re co-editing, you don’t want overstep your boundary. There are very fine lines between being helpful and micromanaging or even trying to come in and tell your co-editor how to cut. Since Nat and I worked together before, we were comfortable in our working relationship. During this whole entire Moonlight collaboration there was no ego, so there was never a time where anyone was fearful of having an idea or saying what they thought. It was a safe space. That made the process more fruitful because we felt comfortable telling each other how we felt about certain aspects of the film.

How do you feel about having your first feature as an editor, and getting all this acclaim and being recognized for it?

Joi McMillon: It’s a little bit surreal because the experience is something I’ve been working toward for a long time. As it was happening last year, it hit me – this is going to be the first feature I’m getting editor credit on AND I’m making it with some of my best friends, which I was so pumped about.
Telluride was what we were working towards. Everything was falling into place so perfectly that when we got into that festival, I feel like we made it – that was our big moment! Then the acclamation continued to role in. We all were kind of like pinching ourselves, like, “Guys, is this really happening?” Four or five months ago, we were just this small, little movie in downtown LA; and now basically every morning I wake up to text messages telling me “Barry’s on this for Moonlight” and “Barry’s doing that for Moonlight.” I would say it’s been an amazing ride so far.

When did you know you wanted to be an editor?

Joi McMillon: It’s an interesting story. In high school, I was asked to be a part of Junior Achievement, which is a group of high-achieving juniors from each high school in my district. Through the program we were placed into a career shadowing experience based on our top two areas of interest. My goal at that time was to be a journalist for a newspaper, so I selected Orlando Sentinel. Little did I know, everyone else wanted to pursue journalism as well, so I had to go with my second choice which was film. For this, I went to Universal and observed an editor working on an Avid cutting a show of Animal Planet. He was showing us the different scenarios that could happen with him changing his edit – the dog could catch the ball; the dog could miss the ball; the dog could not even run after the ball at all. He completely changed the story in 10 minutes. I was like, “That’s amazing.” I now wanted to be an editor so I went and looked up all the schools that you could go to for film school.

I told my parents I wanted to go to this school in Chicago, and my parents were like, “Oh, that’s great. You’re going to a school in Florida.” Florida has the Bright Futures scholarship where based off your GPA they would pay for either 50%, 75% or 100% of your tuition. Since I qualified for Bright Futures my parents were adamant about me going to a Florida school. That’s when I refocused my search and found the Florida State Film School.

Although there are well known female editors, this as a male-dominated position. What is the procedure before one is given that opportunity to edit a film? Is it tough for Black editors or females?

Joi McMillon: Very early on my parents told us as kids, and I come from a family of six kids, that in this world you’re going to have to work 150% all the time to get where you want to go. I remember being bummed about that because I was like, “Why do I have to work 150% when my friends can just work 100%,” she chuckles.

We lived in one of the most recognized school districts in Central Florida (and by default we grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood), because our parents wanted us to go to the best public schools that Florida had to offer. Again, I remember thinking, I don’t understand why we must work that much harder; but as I advanced in school I realized I truly did have to put in 150%. Unfortunately, as a black person and as a female there’s connotations that are placed upon you – people come in with these preconceived notions about you – and it’s an unwritten rule that we must be better than the best.

When I moved to LA to try pursue editing, I was selected to be an intern with the American Cinema Editors. ACE has a great program where they select two interns to be a part of this internship – a four-week program where interns visit a different editor in their cutting rooms each week. It was an awesome opportunity, but the thing that stinks is you meet these talented editors that are working on awesome projects, but they can’t hire you yet because you’re not in the union. Then you must find a job where you can lock in 100 days to join the union and then go back to these editors and say, “Hey, do you remember me? I’m in the union now.” Thankfully, I had a friend who helped me land a job on a reality show. I started out as a logger, then I was bumped up to an assistant editor, and then finally moved up to a lead assistant editor. I was then offered a job as an editor on the show Biggest Loser, but I turned it down. I knew I wanted to work on feature films and needed to exit TV. That’s one of the hardest lessons to learn – knowing when you need to leave.

Can you talk about working with Terilyn A. Shropshire on Talk To Me? She is one of the most known editors in the black community considering she’s done about 80% of the black films you’ve ever heard of.

Joi McMillon: I was super excited when I received a call to interview with Teri. At the time, I was finishing my first scripted television show, The Sarah Silverman Program, and had about two more weeks on the project. I remember speaking with Kenny Marsten, who was Teri’s assistant editor then, and he was so great. After our meeting, he asked if I realized this position would be a slight step down for me, an apprentice editor, because I had been a lead assistant editor for the previous two years. I told Kenny my goal was to work on feature films so this position wasn’t a step down but a step in the right direction.

I learned so much from Teri and Kenny. Prior to this job, I had always worked with more than one editor at a time, but with Talk to Me there was only one editor in charge, and it was Teri. She was one of the classiest women I’d ever met, with this distinct air of elegance, and she was also extremely knowledgeable about editing. She led by example, while also teaching me the other duties as an editor, which included the balance of politics, knowing when to be supportive of your director, and presenting yourself in a way where you are a help to the film and not a hindrance.

As an editor, we are there to edit films, but sometimes we play the part of a therapist. With directors, they’re juggling so many different parts of a project and it can be hard to concentrate when they enter the editing room. But I have found that once they talk it out, they feel relaxed, and then they are ready to go. From my experience with Teri, I realized that there’s multiple roles we take on as an editor and she showed me how to do it all with style and grace.

Going back to Moonlight, was there anything left on the cutting room floor?

Joi McMillon: There were a few things left on the cutting room floor, but I wouldn’t say we had any ‘kill your darlings’ moments. Once you have a film working, there are certain elements that start to stick out because they don’t quite fit with the flow of the story. I must say, one of my favorite moments that we cut featured this character, Tip. It was great, but unfortunately, the scene didn’t work with the overall rhythm of the film anymore.

With Nat editing the first two acts and you coming in on the third, did you watch everything from the beginning to make sure everything’s flowing consistently, so that way you can’t tell a difference in terms of the editing?

Joi McMillon: There is a pace and a subtlety that is applied to Barry’s filmmaking – it’s so nuanced and it’s very specific to his style. If you understand Barry, then you understand how the scenes should play out. Many times, Nat and I were editing on our own, but because we had this natural “Barry” rhythm when we were editing, the scenes all felt so fluid. It melded together so perfectly that we didn’t have to adjust our editing technique to fit into the film. It was a natural process.

Now that you got this off the plate, are you ready to do a film on your own?

Joi McMillon: It’s funny, I am asked this question a lot. Yes, I’m beyond ready and I’m already working on a feature. After we wrapped on Moonlight, Nat and I moved onto the Glass Castle with director Destin Cretton. While I was on the Glass Castle, I was then offered to work on a project with Janicza Bravo who is this amazing, amazing director. We previously collaborated on a short earlier this year while she was waiting on confirmation for the funding for her feature film Lemon. The finances came through and I’ve been working with her since this Summer. Lemon will premiere at Sundance in January 2017.

That’s right, and that also features Nia Long and Marla Gibbs in the film. Am I correct?

Joi McMillon: Yes, it does.

What do you tell females, black or white, as far as getting into the editing game as far as what is it they should be prepared for?

Joi McMillon: I’ve been mentoring a few female editors and one is a fellow Florida State Film School alum. Another one I was introduced to by editor, Craig Hayes. The first thing we do is review their resumes. This is a lesson that I learned from Lori Jane Coleman, who was the head of the ACE Internship when I was a part of the program. Resumes are the first representation of yourself and it’s what gets your foot through the door. Therefore, you must create a resume that outlines the best version of yourself.

The second thing we do is talk about being prepared for rejection. Mentally you should be ready for the rejection because it will come. It is upsetting because you feel like I’m so right for this role; I know this is the job for me. Then you don’t get it, and it’s such a blow. Yet, when this happens you must keep pushing forward and stay focused on where you want to go.

Lastly, we discuss the reality that they will need to give 150%. When you put in that amount of effort, it speaks for itself. Quite often people have told me, “You’re so good at your job.” Being who I am, I don’t have the option to not be good at my job – I can’t coast on my laurels. I must be the best I can be at my job to move ahead in this industry. There’s no room for second best. It’s tough, but each day you must prove to people that you have what it takes to be an editor.

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