ESSENCE: We never really hear about the job of a film editor. What does it entail?
JOI McMILLON: Editors are responsible for taking the first pass on a scene and choosing the best takes and moments based off the script and performances. Then we assemble them into one shot. The first time directors watch a scene, they see all the choices the editors have made. We’re known as the fixers, because we try to fix problems that have arisen on set due to locations and timing constraints. We shape the film to the best of our ability and try to make the directors happy when they view the first cut. One of the best compliments an editor can receive from a director is, “You’ve made all the choices that I would’ve made.” In that moment the trust is built
ESSENCE: How did you get into this?
McMILLON: In high school we took a tour of Universal Studios, and on that tour there was an editor from Animal Planet who was cutting a scene of a dog catching a ball. He had the ability to rewrite the story. I wanted that power. After that I went home and researched film schools. Barry [Jenkins, the Moonlight director], the movie’s cinematographer and I were all in the same class at Florida State. My coeditor was a year ahead of us. And one of the producers was a year behind us.
“The first time directors watch a scene, they see all the choices the editors have made.”
ESSENCE: Before collaborating with them, you spent years working on reality TV shows like NBC’s The Biggest Loser. What made you go there?
McMILLON: When I first started, I wasn’t qualified for some projects, because I wasn’t in the union. To get into the union, you have to complete 100 days of nonunion work. At the time a lot of the nonunion work was in reality television. Initially I went there to get 100 days of work, but I ended up staying for two and a half years.
ESSENCE: How is editing reality TV different from editing a feature film?
McMILLON: With reality television…there were a few execs who would come and see a cut, but it was hands off. At film studios there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen. You need to know when to speak and when not to speak, and basically anticipate people’s needs. Politics is just a lot more intricate in that world.
ESSENCE: What was it like trying to break into such a male-dominated industry?
McMILLON: It’s funny because the first editor I worked for in feature films was a Black woman. She was the first and the last. But I also worked with Maysie Hoy, who’s Asian-American. She’s a boss. She taught me to have confidence in who you are as an editor, and to speak not only with consideration and compassion but also with control. You walk into a room and people have preconceived notions of what you can do and how smart you are, but you can’t focus on that, because it will distract you.
ESSENCE: What did you learn from editing Moonlight?
McMILLON: One thing I learned was to trust the story. I often feel as if people try to quicken the pace or add music or cut the scene really fast to keep the audience engaged. But you can trust the silences and the moments you see and don’t necessarily hear.
This feature originally appeared in the June 2017 Issue of ESSENCE Magazine.