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Best Editing: Moonlight – Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders Discuss Co-Editing Moonlight

If Joi McMillon earns an Oscar nomination for Best Editing for Moonlight, she will make history as the first African-American woman to garner that honor.  McMillon is a delight to sit with. She’s in high spirits, bubbly and full of giggles.  Sitting next to her is Nat Sanders, co-editor, and just as amusing to talk to as McMillon. There is such a  visible rapport and working chemistry between them. They’re enjoying the reception Moonlight has received since it opened and celebrating its widespread success with critics awards groups.

Both are sitting in Beverly Hills, about to attend their first awards season luncheon, but I snuck in a brief ten minutes to talk about working on Moonlight, working with director Barry Jenkins. Take a read below, and make sure you listen to Sanders do his impression of Jenkins.

Awards Daily: You’re off to a luncheon after this?

Nat Sanders: [laughs] Yes. You look down and wonder what’s happening today? What’s happening next? But, it’s all new for us.

AD: You’ve known Barry for a long time, since film school. What did he say to you about Moonlight?

Joi McMillon: I was in the same class as Barry at Florida State so when we first collaborated together, I was his production designer, and he was my Director of Photography and we go way back.

He hasn’t changed [laughs]. He’s definitely always had a very different perspective of filmmaking. He likes to push boundaries and likes to take films in unexpected directions.

NS: I was one class ahead of him and we’ve been close friends for a really long time. I lived in this big frat house. We did Thanksgiving together, we’d rent a house together. It was such a tight-knit group.

I edited Barry’s first feature and Joi has cut multiple shorts with him. We’ve been working together for years. Joi is years past ready to cut her first feature. Barry and I decided really early on that we wanted Joi to co-edit the movie.

That movie really helped me get my start cutting independent films and set me on my way. I imagined this alternate universe where if that hadn’t happened, I might still be editing crappy reality TV shows, and so that had been a real opportunity for me, and so, I wanted to pay it forward. Joi was so ready for it.

AD: Was that your Barry impression? I wish we were filming this.

Listen to Nat do his Barry Jenkins impression below:

AD: How does the collaborative process work on this with both of you working on this?

JM: We watched each other’s scenes and would give feedback on it. At first, I cut some scenes in Act I and Act II. It just ended up that I was cutting a lot of scenes in Act III. Barry came in, and I stayed on III.

Working with Barry doesn’t feel like work. Working with him feels like we’re having a really good laugh. We’d get excited over a scene. I kept telling myself to remember this moment as I knew it wouldn’t come around often.

I think with Barry, he said something that was the best compliment I’d ever received. He said, “All I have to do is tell you how I want to feel in a scene, and you totally deliver on that.”

A lot of times he would never tell me to make something longer or shorter. He would tell me the essence of what the scene was about.

The rehab scene was something we worked with a lot. There were birds and planes.

AD: Nature. [laughs]

JM: [laughs] Yes. It was such a powerful scene but you have all these other elements conflicting with. It was one we probably worked on the longest, but it definitely paid off with the attention to detail.

NS: It was easier on this one because it was so low budget. Normally, Joi would have her own room. For this one, we were all in a small room, Joi and I were ten feet away from each other, one of us had to be on headphones. Barry was going back and forth between the two of us. [laughs]. We’d turns the air-con unit on to cool the room down, and then it’d get so loud, and we could not hear ourselves edit.

[Joi laughs]

We’d leave for ten minutes, let the room cool down, and come back. It would get hot again, so we’d turn the air-con on and then leave for another thirty minutes, we’d stop editing, and then come back. It was very intimate.

JM: A lap of luxury. [laughs]

AD: It sounds like it was a room at the Four Seasons. Where did you do that?

NS: It was downtown, a block from Barry’s apartment. That was really convenient. We were finishing a TV show, so the footage was coming to us from Miami. We were cutting from here. We did the first cut at the offices of a TV show we were finishing, and we were doing it on the sly. I think they kind of knew we were using this expensive equipment to work on this side project. [laughs] Sometimes Barry would come in.

AD: I don’t feel so bad now, taking an early lunch at 10 am to come here and sit down with you.

JM: Exactly.

AD: I spoke to James. He said he used a single camera. How does that work for you?

NS: I love it. Two cameras are great to be able to move fast, but one camera is so fun because it’s so cinematic and so beautiful because you get to treat the cinematography like it’s another performance that you’re editing. You are always trying to show the actors in the best light and maximizing what they’re doing, and that’s the same with the cinematography when it’s James’ work. You get really excited about this shot or this camera move. It’s just another performance you’re editing.

JM: It speaks to the actors. They never let up on their side when they’re not being filmed. They gave it when they were on camera, and they gave it when they were off camera. That was so helpful. The actors were just amazing across the board.

AD: I’m so glad I got to speak to you today.