INTERVIEW: BlacKkKlansman Editor Barry Alexander Brown On His Creative Process & The Importance Of Layering
BlacKkKlansman has more than a handful of powerful moments; a speech with floating portraits spliced in, a disturbing contrast between the oppressed and the Klan, and some harrowing real-life footage. Spike Lee’s vision of Ron Stallworth’s story is blistering, but its lightning essence is down to the pacing set by his go-to editor, Barry Alexander Brown. School Daze marked the start of a very fruitful and meaningful friendship that has produced some fantastic work. The editor talked to us about his ever-growing relationship with the prolific director, securing an Oscar nomination and the importance of layering.
Spike Lee keeps his collaborators close; similarly to Terence Blanchard on music, you’re his go-to editor. How has that relationship evolved?
It came about because we met early on, like we met in 1981. We became friends in the early 80s; Spike was at NYU, and I had already made my first film (The War At Home). What drew us together too was how similar we both felt about movies and entertainment. Funnily enough, we both also loved Broadway musicals – I could talk to Spike in those early days about all of this stuff. You’d talk to independent filmmakers and they’d be like, “What are you talking about? You like Broadway musicals?” and I’d be like “Yeah!”
So Spike and I became friends. When he was making his first film, he asked me to help him out, and I did, because a friend of mine was making a feature – a very, very low budget feature, but a feature. We came along together through those early films that followed, and we learned how to make a movie, learned how we wanted to do it and how they should move, what the rhythms were, how to use comedy and how to develop drama. By now after all these decades it’s a shorthand between us, you learn from every movie. Even now we’re still learning. It’s a very easy relationship, we get each other and by now I have a pretty good sense of how to read him and what he’s after in any particular moment of a movie. I’m there to try and help deliver that. My job is to deliver his vision; in the meantime though I have a lot of freedom to add stuff myself.
From starting work on BlacKkKlansman, what was your creative process?
We look at dailies together but I don’t cut anything until Spike and I have seen it together. Then, I start the editing. As they’re shooting, I’m editing. Whenever he can, he comes in to look at what I’ve done and comment on it. So you know, we’re tweaking things all the way through. A lot of times by the time we’re finished, and I cut for the next few weeks after, the film has gotten close to what Spike liked and envisioned. I’m not off in some crazy place and he comes in and says, “What is this?” you know. We almost always have a good foundation.
The contrast of the “organisation” watching The Birth of a Nation and the story of the lynching is strengthened by the editing; did you have a vision of how it’d run before cutting?
In the script there was this idea of big blocks of dialogue, mixed with the Klan inductions and more blocks of dialogue – you don’t really know until you’re in the act of cutting how it’s all going to smooth together. The interesting thing is when you have to play with it, to make it all into one big sequence with two very different pieces.
There’s another scene with big blocks of dialogue near the beginning of the film, with the Kwame Ture speech, where floating portraits are blended in through it. Did Spike specifically direct that to you?
The first thing we did was we worked the speech out, and the speech worked as a speech, and stood on its own. But then there’s the audience reaction, and Ron, and cutting to the car outside. So you had the speech that worked. Once that worked, Spike said, “Now we’re gonna add the portraits”. But I don’t think Spike really knew how it was going to come together. So we had a conversation about it; he knew where the first one was going to come in, but he didn’t even tell me which guy was coming in first. I asked him if he wanted it to be single portraits, or if I could marry them together because they were all shot as singles. He said we should try it and see what we’ve got. He wanted me to start at a certain place, and that allowed me to put it in other places and see how they worked in the rest of the speech. A lot of that he really liked, and then he came back in and made some more suggestions of more places to put the faces. But that came together pretty fast.
I just think that, often times with stuff like that, it comes down to concentrating just a couple of bits that aren’t quite working. I think Spike likes how I think and the kind of things that I try, probably because we came up together. What’s great about Spike is he’s all about layering, about creating a visual depth. Whether it’s the great scene in Malcolm X with the flag burning into an X, and he asked me to put in the Rodney King beating, and then this incredible score by Terence Blanchard, and finally, the sound of a speech by Denzel Washington playing Malcolm X – it’s constant layering, so that’s what it was like with that Kwame Ture speech.
Despite the film running at 134 minutes, it feels very, very fast, and I think that comes from the pace struck by the editing in the conversations.
Spike and I both like a fast pace. There’s very, very rarely a frame of space between lines of dialogue. I used to do more overlapping, like back in Do the Right Thing, but it’s still very, very tight. But also, it’s a story that pulls you in, and keeps you there, and as long as that story is working and moving forward, you can do a longer film that feels shorter.
You’re absolutely right that the story holds you, right until those closing shots of Charlottesville. Is there an extra weight when it comes to editing footage like that?
There’s always a different sort of demand around something like that, but I’m originally from the world of documentary anyway. My very first film was a documentary. There’s been a handful of documentaries over the years I’ve worked on with Spike too. So that form isn’t completely unknown to me. There certainly is a different demand on you; for one thing, it can’t feel like an addendum. It can’t feel like, “oh my god, where are we now?”. Even though it’s an epilogue, it has to feel like one piece, which means you can’t stay in that place for very long, I don’t think. It’s got to go through fast, have a similar pacing – but at the same time, you have to tell a little bit of a story there so you can make a point without losing people.
What did you think of the decision to end on the upside down flag?
That flag is completely Spike’s idea. That’s a point where I just become a pair of hands and Spike is telling me exactly what to do. “Let’s put in an American flag… okay, let’s make it black and white… okay, let’s flip it upside down… let’s hold it for 10 seconds” – with something like that, he’s completely calling the shots. He’s got such a specific idea of what he wants to do that the only thing to do is to hear him and deliver it. Not even to come up with an idea for it, I’ve just got to do it.
I haven’t said already, congratulations on your Oscar nomination. It must be a nice feeling that you, Spike and Terence have all been nominated after working together for so long?
Oh yeah, it’s really, really nice. We did an interview for the L.A. Times, and it was very fun. We were serious but we there was also a lot of joking because we’ve known each other for so long. For decades! [laughs]