Editing The Emmy Award-Winning Phenomenon, Wild Wild Country
COW Library : Art of the Edit : Matt Latham : Editing The Emmy Award-Winning Phenomenon, Wild Wild Country
Wild Wild Country premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival to great acclaim, and when it hit Netflix a few months later, it quickly became a phenomenon. Maclain and Chapman Way's 6-part documentary tells the compelling story of the Rajneeshees and their takeover of a small Oregon town in the early 1980s.
With editor Neil Meiklejohn navigating the story’s many twists and turns and tracking the cult members’ escalating (and sometimes violent) tactics to hold their position of power within the small town, Wild Wild Country feels less like a telling and more of a re-living of these events.
Neil found his passion for filmmaking and editing in particular while at university, where he dual majored in Film and Sociology. He landed the coveted internship with the American Cinema Editors and moved to LA. “They took us to labs, to color and mixing… you get to experience all the different kinds of shows,” Neil says of the internship program, “You get to meet your heroes. It was really cool.”
Around that time, Neil got a job as a production assistant at Rock Paper Scissors, one of the premiere commercial editing houses in Los Angeles. He stayed and worked his way up over the years and is now one of their top editors.
With tons of music videos and advertisements at under his belt, Neil was able to wrangle an extensive amount of archival footage and interviews for Wild Wild Country with a style that feels fresh, dynamic, and surreal, drawing the audience into the mystery of what will happen next.
Wild Wild Country has been a massive success, winning the Emmy for Outstanding Documentary of Nonfiction Series and netting Neil an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Picture Editing for Nonfiction Programming.
In my interview with Neil, we cover how he got his start as an editor and the genesis of Wild Wild Country, as well as some nitty gritty about the way he approached his edit and organization of footage within Adobe Premiere Pro.
Creative COW: While you were making films at university, what were the aspects of editing that you found yourself especially drawn in by?
Neil Meiklejohn: I wasn't really such a big fan of being on set or tinkering with the cameras, and I liked the idea of “this is what you've got and you've gotta just figure it out.” These are the elements and you have to figure out how to put it together in the best way to tell the best story. That's the biggest aspect of it. I like the limitations.
How did you get connected with directors Maclain and Chapman Way?
They needed help with their first documentary, The Battered Bastards of Baseball, so they actually went through Rock Paper Scissors and I sat with them for a couple of months before Sundance. They had a loose film, so we worked around the clock for a couple of months and got the film ready for Sundance. It premiered at Sundance and was acquired by Netflix, and I worked with them for another month to get it out to Netflix. So we were in the trenches together and got to know each other.
When they were working on Battered Bastards in Portland, one of the archivists said, “By the way, have you seen any of this footage of the Rajneeshees?” When the Way Brothers came back to work with me, they said, “Hey, check this out!” And I said, “Well, whenever you want to make that film, let's do it!,” so that's how it got started.
Did any of you know about the Rajneeshees before?
I'm from Seattle, even though this happened around the time that I was born, it was a significant Northwest thing. I'd heard about it, but definitely not all the details.
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in Wild Wild Country (Courtesy Netflix)
I didn't know anything about this before. The series does an excellent job, especially in the first half of the first episode, of creating this mystery and drawing you in, and you really don't know what's going to happen. What was the process of breaking down the structure, and what were the first steps in tackling this project?
The first step was to read a bunch of books to get familiar with the story. Then, for me, I really like to go through the interviews first. I watched down all the interviews, and then I started with Sheila, because she's kind of like our main character, and then I organized her entire story and broke it down by topic.
Then I went through the other interviews and did the same thing. I had soundbites from everybody about each topic and could put them in the order of how things unfolded.
By the time you get through the interviews, you have a really good idea of the story, and you can say, “Well, okay, when they were in India, what happened?” And you already have all the soundbites about India.
Did they shoot all the interviews before the edit started, or did you have to start while interviews were trickling in and have to adjust the edit along the way?
We had done a teaser beforehand, with some temp interviews, so I had gotten a little familiar with the story that way. For the actual series, we went out and reshot everything, and I think about 98% of the interviews were done by the time I jumped back on to really start editing. We got a couple of pick-up interviews. But we pretty much had all the archival gathered and most of the interviews in the bag.
From the teaser, I'd gotten familiar with the archival footage, and so when I was going through the interviews, I understood what people were saying and where the archival footage was for that. So I would have archival sequences organized by topic, just like I had interview sound bites organized by topic. Then I could say, “Okay, this is all my talking head stuff on the homeless people, and this is all the homeless people stuff in my archival footage.”
Did you start working with the directors collaboratively from the start, breaking out the order of how the information would be presented, or did you have a period of time where you were able to work with the footage on your own, and do a first stab on your own?
It was a little bit of both. Structurally, the directors had written out a bible of how they wanted to present the story. At first we were gonna try and get tricky with it, and jump around in time a bunch, but we quickly realized that it made the most sense to tell the story from the beginning. Jumping around in time would not be more interesting but would actually kind of ruin the pace.
It's really a story of these two groups of people, and one group does one action and the other group reacts, and you really have to tell that in a very A + B leads to C kind of way. We knew where we wanted to end and where we wanted to begin with the entire series, and the bigger thing was trying to find our ins and outs for each episode. Once we figured that out, we then knew all the things that would go in-between.
Did you approach editing the sequences in linear order, or were you editing each story point on its own and then arranging them in order?
I cut everything very much in order. It would be too difficult to dive in not knowing what happened before, because, say with the homeless people situation, you would have the opinion of the ranchers or the people or the people outside the commune, and then go back and add in the perspective of the people in the commune. That then all affects the next chunk, which is about voting. You really need to know what happened before and how those events played out and how those scenes played out to even move forward.
One of the things that's tremendously well done is the momentum that's generated in the intercutting, and music definitely has a big part with that. I was wondering how early on the score came in, whether you were working with music early on to build that momentum, either with temp music or if you had some early versions of the score to work with?
[The directors] have a third brother named Brocker Way, who did the music. In terms of the editing, I would use temp score from soundtracks. I would use that throughout the edit, and then as cuts got closer and closer to being locked, we would send them to the composer. We played the series at Sundance, so we had to get it ready, and we probably didn't get the final music until about a week before Sundance!
You edited this in Adobe Premiere Pro. Were you already comfortable with Premiere Pro, or did you use it for a particular reason on this project?
I've been working with Premiere Pro at Rock Paper Scissors for years. It's the program I love, and also it just really made sense for this project, because we had footage from around the world, from different decades, so we had every imaginable frame size, frame rate, and we just needed a program where you could pull everything in and start organizing without having to do too much transcoding.
Interviews were shot on the RED Dragon in 6K and that was the only thing we transcoded to ProRes. Everything else we pulled in natively, whether it be archival footage or photos, and we just started cutting with them. It just really made sense.
In addition to the benefit of not having to transcode, were there other features in Premiere Pro that you loved using or were really useful in editing Wild Wild Country?
My assistant, Martin Hsieh, is really good at After Effects, so I could string out a bunch of photos, and he could Dynamic Link to After Effects to give it more dynamic movement, and the Dynamically Linked clips would stay in my timeline. So we were able to seamlessly be working at the same time and it would just update for me when he saved his work.
That's great! What was your approach in wrapping your head around the sheer amount of archival footage? Can you describe the system you had in place so that you could find what you needed when you needed it?
Everything was organized by story point into a sequence. News footage, stills, newspaper clippings would all go into that sequence. So I'd start with the interviews about a particular topic, and then grab my “Archivals” sequence and I would make a new selects sequences of my favorite bits. From there you could just cut with those and start having fun with it.
A series like this is really written in editorial. Do you feel like there were things that were unique to your voice, your history, your interests and skill set that you brought to shape the particular style that this series has?
Oh yeah. Growing up within Rock Paper Scissors, I worked on a lot of commercials and music videos. We'd also done a bunch of title sequences, so I was exposed to a bunch of different projects. So it wasn't like I was just working within documentary. And I think with each project you add to your bag of tricks, whether it's something about people, whether it's something technical, whether it's something creative, and you bring your bag of tricks with you to every new project.
It helped a lot with this project because each scene feels like new information, a new tempo, a new style, so it's constantly refreshing. Some scenes feel like a vérité doc, some scenes we cut almost like a music video, kind of stealing from all genres of filmmaking helps to make the documentary the most interesting thing it can be. And we very much wanted it to feel cinematic. I think we took a lot from scripted cinema; you want to sit on the shoulders of these characters and experience it, and not be just told about the past but to have an experiencing of the past. It was more of a re-living than a re-telling.
Wild Wild Country (Courtesy Netflix)
Yes, that's something that can be a trap, especially with a documentary that's very rooted in interviews – how to keep hooking the audience. This series does such a great job with hooking you, not just within the episode, but where after an episode you immediately want to go to the next episode. Do you feel like the binge-ability of the series was in mind while working on it?
Yeah, most definitely. We thought of this like an 8-hour film.
And I think that's the thing with Netflix. They're not really making regular episodics, they're making like long films and I think the filmmakers are encouraging the audience to watch their shows in a week.
The bingeing thing is just really happening now. We always wanted to end the episodes on a big story point, so that audiences would be fascinated and want to click on the next episode. You have to have a good beginning and a good ending, and I try to do that with all my scenes, as well. You want to end things on either a cliffhanger line or like a period on the end of a sentence. I try to make sure all my scenes have very strong ins and outs.
Were there any feedback screenings or chances to put it in front of an audience that didn't really know anything about it, and if so, were there points of confusion or things that needed to be clarified?
We didn't really do feedback screenings. I think we had talked about that but it felt like too much. And we had The Duplass Brothers as Executive Producers and we would post all the episodes for them and they would weigh in, and of course we had a round of notes with Netflix, so we were able to get some outside perspective from them. We would show some parts to people whose perspective we valued, but for the most part, it was a pretty internal process.
Getting your start with the ACE Internship and growing up within a company that offered so many options seem like important formative experiences. What would be your advice for young folks who are just approaching the industry in this day and age?
My advice is to just start making things. In terms of editing, just saying yes to whatever freebie projects. That's how you're going to get practice, that's how you're going to earn your chops.
And also it's an amazing way to meet people, and you never know where these people who you're doing a favor for are going to end up. They could end up making a great film, which has happened multiple times to me.
So my advice is, if you're an editor, just start editing. Or whatever it is you want to do. It doesn't take a million people to make something. You can just start gathering articles, photos, you can start interviewing people, and you can start making a film. It's the most fun part of it, so just start doing.
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And to see the more of Matt's work, including music videos, promos, shorts, and more, visit MattMakesMovies.com