INTERVIEW: The Editors behind Beastie Boys Story (2020)
Editor Jeff Buchanan is a regular collaborator of both Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, including editing both Her and Be Kind Rewind. He also edited a Beastie Boys video in 2011. He was the editor of the Aretha Franklin documentary Amazing Grace which came out in 2018, the TV show Barry and the 2019 Aziz Ansari Special Right Now. Zoe Schack has been editing mostly music videos and short films since 2012.
Beastie Boys Story, which is now available to watch on Apple TV, is a “live documentary” directed by Spike Jonze. It is a filmed live stage show that took place in New York, with surviving Beastie Boys Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz) and Mike D (Mike Diamond) telling the story of the rap pioneers (which of course included MCA – Adam Yauch), while archival footage and photographs were shown on a large screen behind them.
How did you first react when you were told about the concept of a live documentary?
Jeff: We were there right from the start. We were involved in all of the shooting, the rehearsals, all the planning, so it wasn’t a big surprise to us that it was going to be a live documentary. We got brought in early on, about a year and a half ago to do all of the visuals for their book release shows, when they went around and read from their book. They originally asked us to put photos and videos behind them, as they were reading from the book and that evolved into cutting montages that played behind them, doing little videos that helped pinpoint the emotions they were going for in those live readings in 2018. And that started to evolve, once Spike Jonze got involved, turning it into more of a play where Mike and Adam would give the history of the band and their friendship. Zoe and I were at all those live shows, cutting in even more photos and more videos during the live show that you see in the film. So by the time we got into editing the movie, we pretty much knew what we were in for and knew what we’d signed up for, so it wasn’t a big surprise, we were there every step of the way.
So I’m guessing there were two key processes you were going through – the editing of the footage that plays behind Adam and Mike on-stage and then there’s also editing the live event itself, which is a bit like editing a live stand-up show?
Jeff: Totally. The first thing we did was cut the live “stand-up” like show. They shot for four nights and we were able to jump between all four shows pretty seamlessly. So our first pass on it was to cut the entire show, using all of the best stuff. Another advantage of being there the whole time was that Zoe and I sat next to Spike during the performances and he would give us notes and I took a ton of notes during the performances. By night four, we knew in our heads, oh that worked better on night two, that worked better on night one, this worked great on this night, this thing happened that never happened before so we want to use that. So when we went in, we already had tons of notes, so when we got to the story that Adam tells about being at Nickelodeon and meeting Afrika Bambaataa, we had it our notes that this worked great on night three. So it’s like having a first edit of a movie, any movie you work on, the first edit is long and painful and you never want to look at it again. Then we started expanding on all of the editing we did behind them, just layering it and really turning it into a movie at that point.
It is edited seamlessly, because I didn’t even notice that we were watching four different nights…
Jeff: It’s a good job they were wearing the same clothes, but Adam went and got a haircut!
You must have wanted to kill him!
Jeff: It was a little haircut, only Zoe and I could tell. No one has flagged it on Reddit yet, so maybe we got away with it…
A question for Zoe, who hadn’t worked with Spike, Adam or Mike before. How was the process of collaboration with them?
Zoe: Jeff has worked with Spike for around 15 years, so it was great to have Jeff and his expertise and his relationship with them and he’d worked with Adam and Mike before on a music video. So they all know each other, it was great coming into that environment where everyone had worked together and knew each other. They were really on the same level with everything, I already had a sense of what they wanted it to be because they’d already had all of these conversations. I had worked with Jeff a whole lot over the last two years. So it was a really good collaboration, it was a lot of fun to work with them, obviously there are so many great stories, just hanging out with them is a dream come true. These people who I’d grown up watching and listening to, it’s just a dream that you can’t imagine ever happening. So that was obviously one aspect of it.
Another aspect was that they just wanted it to be the best it can be. Because of their fun spirit, Spike, Adam and Mike want to do things that are in the moment and spontaneous and loose, so really being able to be creative with the whole thing was really exciting. I was working with a lot of the archival footage, so one of the really fun parts was being asked to look for a certain moment and thinking yes, I have the perfect moment and playing that to Spike Jonze and having that dialogue is pretty cool.
I can imagine that there must have been so much archival material to go through to find the footage to go on the screens behind them. You said you’d already started that process because of their book tour, so how long did it take to wade through it all and narrow it down to what was eventually used?
Jeff: When we first started it for their book event, it wasn’t being filmed and was therefore pretty loose legally, so we were just ripping things from YouTube and projecting them. It was all their stuff, so we just scratched the surface with the archival for the book tour and that led to us having a relationship with MTV. We’d been using some MTV clips that we found on YouTube, our producer Jason Baum set Zoe up with one of the archivists at MTV and they just started feeding us footage, it started coming in and coming in. I think people feel like it must have been overwhelming or that it must have been so hard or awful, but to people like me and Zoe, we were excited. The more that comes in, the better. If you get an interview with the guys from 1984, you don’t look at it and think “urgh, I’ve got to go through this” you think “God, there’s gonna be so much great stuff in there.” The same with photos, when Zoe would find out that a photographer was at a certain event.
I guess the cliche is that it’s like putting a puzzle together, but it’s so enjoyable when you find out that someone was at this event so many years ago and maybe we can get their footage. Jason would find their contact information, then you’d get it and you’d have this amazing moment. The last week that we were editing, we’d always needed footage of them recording Paul’s Boutique but all we’d had were photos. They were living at the Grasshoff house in LA and they were recording at a studio, I think in Hollywood and we were like “it’s too bad that we don’t have any footage.” We saw this document in the archive and it just said “1989, 16mm” and we sent in a request to have it processed and sent to us. On the Wednesday before we were locking on that Friday, we got all of that footage in, filmed black and white footage of the guys in the studio, running between the microphones, writing lyrics and we were just able to drop it right in. That’s what you’re waiting for, you’ve done all the work putting the music in and telling the story through their dialogue and the audio from the stage and then you get that footage just to lay on top of all of it, it was just such a great moment for us.
What about the really early photographs, of their pre-fame days in early 80s New York? Did that all come from them personally or was there any detective work you could do around that?
Zoe: There was a lot of detective work. The good thing is that they had a lot of great friends who took photos so we were very lucky to get a lot of their contact sheets. A really exciting thing was that for one of their early shows that they talk about, there’s a photo montage. Jeff had the great idea of using the contact sheet and cutting between them like it was a little photobook, like a flipbook. So we went through and pulled out the best frames from the different contact sheets and blew them up and they held together pretty well. That was pretty fun because you’re seeing these photos that people really haven’t seen. Especially with film photos, you’re able to cut them in and create a different kind of story than you could with film or a single image. So that was a lot of fun. They’re still in touch with a lot of their childhood friends so we were able to get a bunch of photos from them so that was very exciting.
Jeff: One of the things I love about the movie is that as the band evolves, the bigger they got, the better quality the archival footage got. I love this moment when they’re on tour for Licensed To Ill, all the video you see before that point is kind of crappy, handheld, really poorly shot kind of stuff and then when we do that montage when they’re on tour for Licensed to Ill, all of a sudden it’s like super-slick. So even the production value is helping you tell the story of them going from nobodies to this huge band. It’s so cool that there’s a moment in that montage where they run out on stage and every time you’ve seen them on stage up to that point, it’s been a dimly-lit low stage and now all of sudden, it’s shot on film and it has huge lights and I love how that tells you that this band is getting bigger. All of those subtle film inserts are helping you tell the story.
Zoe has kind of already answered this, but I was going to ask how you edit still images together to make them dynamic and interesting. It’s only going back and playing close attention that you realise how much of the footage is made up of stills, but because of the way they’re edited, you make them come alive, it almost tricks the viewer into thinking that they’re moving.
Jeff: There’s a bunch of different ways we did it. Zoe talked about using a bunch of stills and almost using them as animation. I think that the reason that they feel like they’re moving is because we paid so much detail and care into putting the exact right photo in the exact right place over the exact right line that was being delivered. That is the nitty-gritty of the whole thing. When you’re working with someone like Spike, that’s how they make your work look so much better. He’ll see something and say “this is great and if the movie comes out and we’re using this photo, it’s going to be fine, but I feel like we could find something where, yes they look sad but could they also kind of look mischevious too?” or “could it look like Adam is having a good time, but Mike’s not?” In your head, you’re thinking “I’ve seen every photo, Zoe has seen every single photo of these guys, I’m sure we found the right one” but you go “alright, let’s go digging, let’s jump back into the sandbox and keep looking” and sure enough, you’ll find exactly what he’s thinking in his head will be perfect for that moment. You put it in and all of a sudden, everything totally clicks in. It takes something that was working and makes it so much better, so much more emotional. So I feel like that helps the photos come to life, because you’re having so much more of a reaction to seeing the photo.
Zoe: One of the things we were talking about earlier was what it’s like working with Spike and he’s all about the emotion, what do you feel in this moment? Part of it is taking it to the max and part of it is that even though we’d seen so many photos, there was always more. There was always footage and photos coming in and we’d think “oh my God, I can’t believe I haven’t seen that before.” You’d be really digging for something and then you’d think, “oh wait this whole batch just came in, maybe this would work instead?” And then you’d find something. It’s an endless treasure trove of content.
How did this differ from your previous work? Jeff – you’ve had a lot of experience editing narrative films, TV shows, traditional documentaries – but this must have been quite a unique experience, it must have been different from things you’d edited before?
Jeff: Yeah, definitely. In a weird way, it was a mix of a lot of things I’d done before. I’ve done concert films, I’ve done a lot of music work and I’ve done stand-up comedy stuff and done a lot of stage stuff. I’ve done a documentary about Maurice Sendak, so the sort of archival photo-interview documentary. It was a lot like working on a narrative film because there were four nights and in any kind of fiction work, you’re always going through and finding the best take. In this instance, there were four takes, you’re constantly cutting between the takes and the performances. The end product is vastly different from Her or Be Kind Rewind or a music video or commercial but the intention is always the same, especially with Spike. What is the most honest way of telling the story? What’s the most emotional, impactful way of telling the story? Or the funniest way, how can we enhance the comedy? It’s always just finding that honesty. That’s the through-line in anything I try to work on. So that’s the way you attack it.
I just noticed, on my most recent watch of the doc, that there’s a whole bunch of stuff after the credits. Was that Spike’s decision, what would be left as a post-credit treat for people?
Jeff: Yeah, we call that the mix-tape, that comes from skate-boarding films, you just throw it in the end and there’s no rhyme-or-reason or structure. The more sort of clunky and random it is, the better. So along the way, we would find these great moments and we’d think “this is great, but I don’t know if we can use this in the film,” especially the archival stuff. Like the guys ragging on each other, it would be great but not exactly fit with the moment you were trying to tell. So it’s kind of like a bin of deleted scenes and yeah, it was definitely Spike’s idea to just jumble it. I think we did the first cut of it and he was like “this is too polished, it makes too much sense” so we threw it back into the blender. Of course, we showed it to Adam and Mike and Adam was like; “the whole movie should be like this!” and we were like; “well we’re done editing the movie, we’re not going to re-edit it!”
Zoe: One more aspect to it was throughout the whole film, they were really trying to add Yauch’s voice throughout. The Ben Stiller moment (in the post-credits) talks about how Paul’s Boutique didn’t get the acclaim that maybe it should have in the moment. When we were going through the archival footage, we found these perfect moments of Yauch talking about it which completely encapsulated the theme and was exactly what we wanted to say, so really having his voice be a through-line.