In recent years film editor Wyatt Smith has been working steadily on big budget studio films like Mary Poppins Returns, Doctor Strange, and Into The Woods. Smith was looking to do something smaller when the opportunity to work with director Kasi Lemmons on Harriet came along. He jumped at the chance to take on a project with such historical significance and modern-day relevance.
In our interview, we talk about the heavy responsibility of portraying such an important figure the right way, while also embracing her legend. Because in the case of Harriet Tubman, the legend is real.
AD: How did you come to Harriet?
Wyatt Smith:I was looking for a very different type of film than what I’d been working on most recently. Thankfully, I’d been working on major studio films. I’d gone from Dr. Strange to Mary Poppins Returns and I was looking for a smaller film where it was strictly performance driven. When I heard Harriet was looking for editors, I got incredibly excited. It’s such an important story for such an amazing woman and it’s long, long overdue. When I heard about it, through my agents, I pursued an interview.
AD: There’s a lot of classical editing in the film, but also a certain muscularity that I found different for this kind of story. Was that intentional?
WS: It comes from a couple things. There’s a great physicality to the role of Harriet. Cynthia Erivo is such a dynamo and such a physical presence and that’s coming through in her character. That’s very true of Harriet Tubman. She was incredibly strong even though she was only 5 feet tall. Also, in talking to Kasi and her overall vision for the film, she wanted this to be an inspirational story and how she was in many ways a real-life superhero. So, there are aspects of my experiences working on big action movies that feed into the film.
AD: There was a moment in the film when the camera centers on her in a black cloak and I literally though she looked like a superhero. With that intention in mind, how did that impact your editing?
WS: There’s three phases of Harriet Tubman in the film. Which informs the tone in the three acts and styles of telling the film. It starts when she’s Araminta “Minty” Ross. She’s a slave on a plantation with all the oppression and horror that comes with that. When she realizes it’s time to escape and goes into freedom, she becomes Harriet. But Harriet is incomplete. She doesn’t have her family; she doesn’t have her friends. Now she’s a free woman, but as she was quoted as saying, “I’m a stranger in a strange land.” Without her family and her husband, she didn’t know how to be in the world.
Through successfully freeing her family from slavery, she becomes part of the Underground Railroad and then she becomes Moses, the “slave stealer.” Who really was a legend, a ghost, larger than life, and very much a superhero. It was all there, it was a matter of capturing the tone of those three phases of her life and making sure the last one was as big and epic as it could be. Because the legend of her comes from that.
AD: I imagine the weight of responsibility in getting this story right was enormous.
WS: It’s an interesting thing with Harriet. We looked at this as an origin story. We wanted to get her into the consciousness – where she’s deserved to be. Unfortunately, it’s been hard for black filmmakers to make these types of films, and then black female filmmakers at that. It’s finally time and it’s finally having its moment. There’s a huge feeling of responsibility. Aside from the importance of the story, I’m just your average, white, privileged American. So, to be a part of this project, I definitely felt some pressure from that and wanting to tell the story right. At the same time, we were hoping this unlocks many other Harriet stories that can be told.
We focus on this ten-year period of her life, which starts with her escape of slavery to the day she gets her family out. We then allude to many of the things she did after that and hint at other things she did along the way. Her escape to freedom alone could be its own film. Her time with the Underground Railroad could easily be its own series. All her different roles in the Civil War, what she did for women’s suffrage, there’s so many more stories to tell. Part of the challenge was getting this out there in a way that we could draw in as many people as possible to discover her, and then see where the rest of filmdom takes it.
AD: The Civil War piece where she led an armed regiment was a revelation to me. That is a movie all by itself.
WS:I came into this project knowing a base level of education about Harriet Tubman. You kind of learn about her in the context of the Underground Railroad, but you mostly learn about Frederick Douglass. I expanded that knowledge a little bit, but only a little. Because I really wanted to discover through Kasi – who had been doing extensive research for several years, and all the research that Cynthia had been doing – what I could learn from what the film was trying to tell, as opposed to bringing a lot of my own knowledge into it.
There are a few composite characters to make things work. It has to be cinematic, it has to be a movie, but it’s remarkable how true it is. Also, the complexity of the time that Harriet experienced – the fact that she was in Maryland, which is not the deep south in the way we traditionally think of slavery. The fact that her father and her husband were free, it’s such a complicated, interesting period. In trying to put as much of that reality into the film as possible, we were very careful with the story.
AD: The only other major depiction of Harriet Tubman that I can recall is a two-part TV movie, A Woman Called Moses, from 1978 starring Cicely Tyson. Did you look at that at all?
WS: I know of it; I have not seen it.
AD: To think that it took 40 years to get this story on film is a little sad, but it’s gratifying to see it happen now.
WS: I agree. Part of the sadness is when you look at the state of racism in America, which is still very present. One of the themes Kasi wanted to focus on in this film was less of the physicality of slavery, because we’ve seen that very successfully in so many amazing films that have shown us that horror, and more on the emotional damage that came through separation of family. Harriet’s family is torn to pieces by slavery. Even the Brodess family is destroyed by slavery as well. Racism has been such a relevant topic in the news over the last two years. I think it put an extra spotlight on the work we were doing every day and it did add a lot of pressure to do it justice.
AD: What was it like working with Kasi? Talk To Me and Eve’s Bayou are two of the more overlooked films of the last 25 years in my opinion.
WS: It was amazing working with Kasi. I miss her dearly. We finished up in late June, early July, I think. I haven’t seen her much in a while. Kasi’s a really hard worker and very talented. She brings the experience of being an actor, which is always very special with a director. She knows the risks that performers take and what it’s like being in front of the camera, while also being strong behind the camera, and having such a good sense of dialogue and story. She was with me every day in the edit and we became very good friends. She had a very strong vision for how she wanted to tell this story. She wanted to focus on the mysticism of Harriet, in terms of the literal visions in the film, which are part of the lore of Harriet Tubman – to bring that style into it, and this superhero, Moses. She wanted to show Harriet Tubman as a real, feeling woman and then have her transform into this very powerful, historical figure.
AD: I would think working the visions in would be a challenge in a film that’s otherwise very grounded.
WS:It was a massive challenge. In fact, when I first had a Skype interview with Kasi, that’s what I went for. Telling her this is a really risky thing. There’s not a lot of precedent for this being done well in films. In the script, you heard the literal voice of God. Which is also dangerous. (Laughs). It’s probably one of the things we worked on the most. There were definitely sections of the film where it just felt right and we knew we got it and we moved on, but the visions were – up until picture lock – we were constantly playing with, in terms of where they occurred in the film, what the imagery would look like, the style and the feel visually and sonically – which ended up being a big group effort, with sound designer, our colorist, our DP, our mixer, and of course, our composer, Terence Blanchard. We all fed into it and we each represented something in a different way, but thankfully, Kasi brought Harriet to the cutting room every day. It was very easy for her. When it felt right, she knew it and she said it. There was certainly a lot of trial and error with the visions. There were times where it felt forced. It took a lot of effort to get them in there and get them right.
AD: I would imagine finding the Goldilocks balance was difficult. I could see a version of this movie being directed by Terrence Malick that would really lean into that…
WS: It would be half the movie. (Laughs).
AD: As you said though, it is a part of her lore, and it would probably have felt irresponsible to ignore it.
WS: It would have been very irresponsible. They came to her as dreams, sometimes they would stop her in her tracks, most of them came in the form of seizures. They say she may have had between six and twelve a day. It’s astonishing that she would be able to do the things that she did with these blackout periods. You can call it God, you can call it instinct, whatever she was tapping into was very real to her. She always spoke about it. It’s been written about by people in her time who she spoke to. They took all sorts of forms. They were very fluid in time. She saw the past, she saw the future, and we worked from that. We know she was always haunted by the image of her sisters being sold into slavery.
We knew that past was something we wanted to seed into the visions. Sometimes they came in the form of animals and nature. We looked to incorporate as much as we could without getting too crazy, nor did we have the funds to get into some of the wilder stuff where she saw human heads on beasts and that type of imagery. It all came in complicated ways, but then sometimes it would be as simple as hearing God say, “turn left.”
AD: It’s impossible to talk about this movie without discussing the performance of Cynthia Erivo as Harriet. She’s such a powerhouse in the role. How did you go about editing her performance?
WS: You don’t need to cut Cynthia much. She’s always there. There’s never a take where she’s not ready. So much of the strength of this film is in the relationship between Kasi and Cynthia. It was very aggressive to shoot that many scenes in just 40 days. A lot of it was shot in the woods at night, or day going into night. Which is very hard on your crew. The fact that Cynthia was always dialed in is the only thing that made this movie possible. If she wasn’t standing there as Harriet on a moment’s notice, it all would have crumbled, or we would have had to made major concessions. Cynthia is an incredible actor. If you were to cover up the entire frame except for her eyes, I could tell you whether she was Minty, Harriet, or Moses. It’s that clear.
AD: I loved the use of Sinnerman by Nina Simone in the film. The cuts match the rhythm of the music beautifully. Was that a hard edit?
WS: No, that was probably the only thing for me that was not stressful. (Laughs). I came up as an editor in music, doing concerts, videos and music documentaries. Even in features, I’ve worked on so many musicals – I’m working on one right now. It’s very natural for me to call up music, set imagery to it, and tell a story. I asked Kasi, when you were writing was there mood music or scores that you were listening to? She said, no, I don’t write to music, but I’ve been listening to Sinnerman a lot. There’s often a time during a shoot where you want the crew to feel good and see what they are doing. So, I took Sinnerman and cut it to some of the dailies and sent it down to Virginia to have a “rally the troops” type of screening, and apparently, it played really well. At that point we knew we were going to have a montage in the film, and it became evident that Sinnerman was going to be the song.
AD: The sequence where Harriet is on the dock after leaving Marie’s was really beautiful too. The way all the dialogue and sound drop out leaving only the score and silence was very effective.
WS: That’s a big turning point in the film. That is Harriet’s lowest moment in the story. She gets probably the most devastating news in her life about her sister. How do you get to that rock bottom moment without just playing sad music? We also had the chaos of a riot going on and a gun going off, and people running and screaming. It gets very hard to focus an audience’s attention onto the fact that she’s basically numb from what she just witnessed with Marie. How you represent that numbness is by going hyper-real. You shut out the world. Thankfully, Terence (Blanchard) filled it beautifully with a great piece of score. It’s such an important part of this film, what Terence brought to it. We had a decent piece of temp score there to set the mood, but Terence took it to a whole other place.
AD: The other segment on a dock was with Harriet leading a Union regiment. The use of silence and then the slaves running out of the field towards the boat was very moving.
WS: Everything we were trying to achieve with the visions had to work in that moment. That’s what makes it function and sing. I was talking about how time is fluid in the visions, one of the things we started to seed in was these glimpses of running feet and this image of water, which was the River Jordan as far as you could intellectualize it. To have those glimpses of the future, so you knew to have Harriet there on the boat with soldiers, that she was brought to that moment by that instinct, by that “voice of God.” I’m happy that that’s the last vision in the film which then becomes reality. All the work on the visions had to come together in that final moment.
Part of why it resonates with an audience is because that was the “long game” in the storytelling of the film. It had been building up for the entire two hours of the movie. Fortunately, when we filmed that, I was on location. That was one of the very few days that I made it down to Virginia, because I was cutting in New York while they were filming. Even just to stand there and feel the rumble as all of the slaves come running was incredibly powerful. The image was probably always going to work on its own, but we were doing everything we could to take it to the next level.
AD: You are working on The Little Mermaid now which took on a ridiculous racial controversy around the casting of the lead. I think after electing a man of color for president we might have mistakenly thought we had come much further than we actually have. It seems like we have a long way to go still.
WS: We do. If there’s any kind of weird hope to that it’s that I feel like America is very on the surface now. There was a bit of a pretense and a sham to how we really felt, how divided we actually are. None of which is a good thing, but I appreciate that we are not hiding it anymore. Because now it is something we have to deal with. One of the ways we are going to deal with this is with education and some of that education is going to come through cinema and documentaries. Movies like this right now are more important than ever. It’s really because of the tone of the country. I don’t know how much change it will affect.
The tone of Harriet was not what you might expect from a slave narrative. A slave narrative will generally leave white people horrified by the atrocities of the past and can certainly leave a lot of African American people incredibly angry with the environment around them. It was very much our purpose, and Kasi’s intent, to make a movie that would inspire. Not just African American people, not just older white people, but also children. A fairly young audience can go to this movie, take in this story, and be inspired to think differently and think better. Harriet was one of these people at any crossroads in life there was a harder path, but it was a higher path, and she always took it. She always heard the call and rose to it.
AD: It has to be gratifying to see the film be both a critical and commercial success. A film like this doesn’t necessarily find an audience or make a lot of money. And to tell more stories like this, the movies that are mad about these subjects need to be successful.
WS: Also, importantly to me, I hope it opens more opportunities for Kasi Lemmons. I think she’s an excellent filmmaker and I want her to be able to tell any of the stories she wants to tell, because she’s got a lot of amazing ideas. She was so integral to bringing this to life. The women who drove this film to make it happen is also something to speak about. It’s not just Kasi, it’s Debra Martin Chase and Daniela Taplin Lundberg – our producers, it’s Cynthia, of course, and it’s Harriet herself. It’s not just the racial message that comes through, it’s also the female message that comes through.
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.