Jennifer Lee is an American producer and editor who produced and edited the award-winning The Skeleton Twins. Recently Jennifer edited Alex Strangelove and See You Yesterday which was produced by Spike Lee.
Hi Jenny thank you for talking to TNC, how are you holding up during the lockdown?
Thanks for having me. I’m lucky enough to be healthy and safe here in New York. But I’m having whiplash. For months the quarantine fatigue made the days run together. It was so hard to make sense of our daily narrative with no end in sight. Now the states are re-opening and there’s such a desire to “get back to normal” when there is no more normal. Just uncertainty.
On a social justice level, I will say that I welcome the way the Black community’s fight for survival has been centered in a way that can no longer be ignored. That feels different.
Is this time offering you creative inspiration?
God, no. I’m finding the daily doses of rage, helplessness, and anxiety I feel when I check the news to be completely enervating. Or it could be homeschooling. Hard to say.
Are there any apprehensions about what the film industry might look back when you are able to go back to work?
I was cutting a feature that was only halfway through shooting when everything shut down. The director and I were new to each other and worked together asynchronously from home during the first few weeks of lockdown. It was definitely a productive time, even with only half a movie. But the first few weeks of the edit, especially when it’s a new relationship, are so crucial. As the editor, you’re learning to read your director and calibrating to their taste. Are you agreeing on the strongest performance for the moment you’re crafting? Are they in love with all the dialogue or can you start omitting some now? Are they open to using shots in ways other than they imagined?
And you’re learning what kind of communicator they are. There are so many cues you take for granted just by being in close physical proximity with someone. And all that goes out the window when you’re working asynchronously or over video conference. So I worry about that rapport and intimacy being lost in a socially distant film industry.
I do think it’s absolutely essential that the editor be left alone to work at times. But ideally you have time together and time apart. I’ve edited films with remote directors before, but the production always took care to bring us together periodically. It really helps the chemistry to re-up your connection in person. Sometimes when you’re trying to figure out what movie you filmed (vs the movie you intended to make), there’s all this spontaneous stuff you do on a whim that just feels easier when you’re in the room together. And it’s those “here’s my crazy idea” moments that often teach you so much about the film and how to execute it.
"But seeing women’s names in the credits made me realize that not only was editing an actual job, but that maybe one day I could do it, too."
Before you got into filmmaking you worked as a comic book editor for Marvel & DC, where did your interest in comics come from?
I started reading comics as a young child with my older brother. We would walk down to the local sweet shop together to buy candy and whatever looked good on the spinner rack. I clearly had the better deal because I spent all my coins on Jolly Ranchers but still got to read his comics! So I started reading them early, and along with a diet of fantasy and horror, it seeded a love of genre and a respect for how strongly those stories can make you feel.
It wasn’t until college that I started to pay attention to comics credits: What does a penciller do? How Is it different from an inker? And what is the role of an editor in comics? It really foregrounded the idea that these visual stories were made explicitly through collaboration.
Back then I was reading a lot of Sandman, published by the Vertigo imprint of DC Comics. And I noticed that there were a lot of women’s names in the editorial credits — and one at the very top of the masthead: then Executive Editor Karen Berger. From a very young age I was aware that comics were a boys’ club. But seeing women’s names in the credits made me realize that not only was editing an actual job, but that maybe one day I could do it, too.
I went on to edit comics for the better part of a decade. First for Vertigo, where I got to work with Karen and also on Sandman, alongside fantasy, horror, crime, sci-fi, and war books. Then I moved to Marvel, where I edited superheroes such as Wolverine, Daredevil, and Black Widow. Still later I edited some of the Millarworld books such as Hit-Girl and Kick-Ass 3.
How much did this experience at Marvel & DC prepare you for getting into filmmaking?
Film and comics are both sequential storytelling mediums elevated through collaboration. The job of a comics editor is a lot like producing. You develop pitches with writers, get them green lit, hire the right talent. Comics are written in script form, so you’re editing those scripts, communicating with the creative team, and troubleshooting storytelling problems as the art comes in. As you get better at it, you learn to spot the creative red flags sooner in the process, since it saves you time and headache to fix it in the script. So it’s an incredible story education.
The other thing is the sheer volume of work you produce. Comics are a serial format. The editor is always juggling several titles with multiple issues in production at the same time, just like a TV show. In my comics career I worked on hundreds of issues from start to finish. And all of those issues involved creative negotiation under deadline duress, which is, as any filmmaker knows, a huge part of the job.
"With this film, I knew that the earlier I could weigh in on major creative decisions, especially with casting and writing, the more it would help me later as the editor. That’s what you focus on in the edit, right? Performance and story."
You co-produced and edited your first feature True Adolescents, what was that experience like for you?
True Adolescents is like the high school boyfriend I’ll always have affection for. It was a great first experience, very classic low-budget indie summer camp. We all lived in the same house in Seattle during the shoot. My workstation was either in the production office with a grumpy cat or at home on a shaky card table with off-brand hard drives on the floor. Mark Duplass lived in the house with us, so it gave me the incredibly rare experience of getting to know the lead actor outside of the edit. There were a lot of really great filmmaking conversations around that dining table. Lynn Shelton volunteered as one of the on-set photographers, and that was how she met Mark.
Back in New York, the edit went on forever because we made a summer road movie but didn’t have enough scenic footage to sell it creatively. We had to wait until the seasons turned again and the grass grew to get the shots we needed. For months we used footage we stole from Old Joy as a placeholder.
What do you think is the most valuable lesson you took from editing True Adolescents?
Don’t forget the B-roll. Also, never count on getting into Sundance.
You also edited and produced The Skeleton Twins which would become a cult classic, how did you balance your role of editor and producer on a project like this?
During the edit of True Adolescents director Craig Johnson and I realized we made a good team and wanted to keep working together. He wrote Alex Strangelove during that time, but a few drafts in, he dusted off the script for The Skeleton Twins, which he co-wrote with Mark Heyman several years back. The script was better than he remembered it. The story back then was heavily weighted towards Milo and his relationship with Rich. I read it and saw instant promise in focusing on the sibling relationship; it’s just so universal. So we decided to start working on that as our follow-up project instead.
Producing and editing The Skeleton Twins always made perfect sense to me because in comics, the editor oversees the script and manages the execution. That workflow was already baked into my background. With this film, I knew that the earlier I could weigh in on major creative decisions, especially with casting and writing, the more it would help me later as the editor. That’s what you focus on in the edit, right? Performance and story.
By that point in our relationship, Craig knew that I was the kind of person who gets things done. But more importantly, he trusted my taste and creative judgement. So when I would say, Look at this amazing DP Reed Morano, we have to hire her, or Bill Hader can do this role, I know he can — Craig would take me seriously. I’ll always be grateful for that. I could only do both those jobs because the director never stopped believing in me.
Did you imagine you would get the type of reaction you got for The Skeleton Twins?
You hope, but you never know. Indie film will break your heart if you let it. You really can put your all into a film, but no matter how good it may be, there are so many other factors that affect how it’s received. Think of all the filmmakers whose festival premieres were cancelled this year due to Covid-19; who could’ve predicted that? I feel so deeply for them. All you can do is make the best film possible, because the rest is not up to you.
So for The Skeleton Twins to have been received well was like winning the lottery. It’s wonderful that it found its audience, that it moves people, and that you can still find people who randomly watch the Starship lip sync scene to make themselves feel better. I’ll always love that film.
You've worked with Craig several times, most recently on Alex Strangelove in 2018, is this a filmmaking partnership that will continue?
I hope so. I think we bring out the best in each other.
How important is the collaborative relationship between a director and an editor?
It’s the difference between going into work energized to tackle the day, knowing you have each other’s backs, or having a muscle spasm in your face as your director invites an outsider to the dailies to give notes.
Recently you edited Yes, God, Yes and See You Yesterday, what attracts you to a film project?
It’s always the script and the director. With Yes, God, Yes, I loved the frank humor of the script, and when I got on the phone with Karen Maine, the director, we clicked right away. I didn’t grow up observing any religion, so I was so interested to learn about these Catholic retreat camps and how they encourage you to have these really public cathartic experiences. And how the performance of those experiences confers status. So to set a teen sex comedy against that backdrop was just really fun. And knowing that Chris Columbus and Eleanor Columbus were producing under their Maiden Voyage banner made it attractive as well.
See You Yesterday was something I wanted in on right away. I thought it was so smart to tell a story about police brutality in the Black community using time travel as a device. It brought such clear urgency to the issue, without making it feel like it was forcing the message. That’s the great strength of genre and specifically sci-fi, right? To examine critical social issues using a speculative lens. But for it to succeed as a piece of storytelling, it has to engage you. And if your characters feel like they’re just puppets for your agenda, you will lose the audience. Because they don’t feel real anymore. One of the early indicators that we were on the right track was that people who screened the rough cut kept saying, “I know that guy.” Not that they recognized the actor, but that they recognized the character as someone from their lives.
The director, Stefon Bristol, wanted very much for the film to be a celebration of Black and specifically Caribbean culture, full of color and life, which kept a sense of lightness to it, despite the heavy subject matter. You can see how the body of work of our producer Spike Lee was a huge influence in that way. And I loved that this film centered two Black teens and their friendship. I grew up in the 80s, when there was no shortage of teen adventure movies — but the leads were always white. I’m Asian-American, and it really does a number on you when you’re a kid and the only time you see someone on film who looks like you is, at best, Short Round. So I know first-hand that representation matters.I’ll always be proud of working on that film, but it’s deeply depressing that it remains relevant. I hope we’re in the midst of writing a future where that changes.
Where did your passion for editing come from?
I never get tired of visual storytelling. I’m always chasing emotional resonance in the stories I take in as a viewer and always trying to conjure it in my own work. The big question is always — How do you make someone care with the narrative choices you make? It’s endlessly fascinating to figure out how to get there.
What are some of the hardest choices a film editor has to make when editing a film?
When to pick your battles. Every film has different challenges, but the hardest issues to deal with are the political ones. Because it has nothing to do with craft and editorial skill. It’s the messy human stuff: How do I deal when the producer and director hate each other? How do I handle this crew member’s sexist behavior? How do I address notes that are harmful to the film? You’re always aware of your place in the hierarchy and have to tread lightly.
I trust the creative process and believe that given enough time and good collaborators, we will solve the film’s biggest problems — or come to peace with them by exhausting every other option. Even when it’s hard, the creative side is still satisfying.
Is your approach to a project different depending on whether it’s a short, feature or TV project?
Creatively, no. What’s different is how much time you have and who you answer to.
Do you find it hard to 'let go' of a film once you've finished editing a project?
As the editor I know every frame of the film backwards and forwards — but I also know every alternate cut, every restructure, every lost joke. By the time we lock, the film exists fractionally in memory. By the end, I’m living with ghosts. It takes at least a few months and the presence of a brand new audience before I can shake it. But even years later I’ll watch a film or TV show and hear a music cue that I used as temp on something and instantly flash back to the edit.
And finally, do you have any advice or tips you would offer someone thinking about becoming a film editor?
It’s very hard to get your first feature; nobody wants to be the first one to take that risk. But after the first one, the rest will come easier.