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Oscar-nominated 'Moonlight' editors on making history in the era of #OscarsSoWhite

Alex R. Hibbert as
Alex R. Hibbert as "Little" and Jaden Piner as "Kevin" in a scene from "Moonlight."
David Bornfriend
Alex R. Hibbert as
Joi McMillon, John Horn and Nat Sanders.

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The film "Moonlight" tells the story of a young man coming to terms with his identity and his sexuality. The film is divided into three parts — as the main character, Chiron, grows from a boy to a teen to a young man.

"Moonlight" has garnered eight Oscar nominations, including one for film editing.

It’s the first Academy Award nomination for co-editors and long-time friends, Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon. They met each other, and the film’s writer/director Barry Jenkins, when they were film students at Florida State University.

After film school, McMillon and Sanders found work editing scripted and reality TV shows. And while Sanders moved on to work as an editor on feature films, McMillon still had not broken out of the assistant editor role — that is until "Moonlight" came along.

Now, McMillon has made history. She's the first African-American woman to ever be nominated for film editing.

The Frame’s John Horn spoke with Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders about how they approached editing "Moonlight."

Interview highlights:

On editing long dialogue scenes with a lot of silences:

McMillon: I feel like the moments that are silent, they speak volumes. And with these characters, Chiron is a very internal person, you know, so he doesn't speak much, but I think that's conveyed in such a stylistic and cinematic way. And so, as an editor, when you're given these experiences where you have to cut these scenes without dialogue, you're allowed to pay more attention to what the character's actually giving you in their expressions and in their movements. And I feel like a lot of times when you're not trying to cut for dialogue, it's a lot more freeing.

On how reality TV editing skills transfer to an artistic film like "Moonlight":

McMillon: I think reality TV teaches you to go with your instincts. We had to [edit] really fast. Our turnaround time is so tight in reality television. You have to be able to wear a lot of hats and you have to be able to multi-task because, if you don't, someone else is coming up right behind you and will take your spot. 

Sanders: At the time I really regretted having ended up there, but it was a great training ground. Because the footage you're given, you really have to learn how to make the best thing out of [it]. You're not always going to have the most compelling footage and you have to make something that's interesting, entertaining and watchable.

On what it's like to tell a director, who's also your friend, that you think a scene or act should be cut a different way:

Sanders: Yeah, it's interesting. [Barry Jenkins] was actually not very precious about anything ... He was pretty detached, in a good way, like, Let's make this the best thing, based on the footage that we have. So we did our first pass just pretty much isolated on our own without any input from him — just aside from seeing the footage and hearing between takes what direction he was giving the actors and having a sense of what he was looking for. And then once he saw the first pass, he gave his notes. We kind of have a shorthand — there were certain scenes where we could tell he wanted us to push the style further. We have a code word going back to film school called bandry [a professor's mispronunciation of the word "boundary"], so anytime Barry said we had to make this scene more "bandry," we knew exactly what he meant that we had to be bolder and make it bigger aesthetically.

On the importance of making history as the first African-American woman nominated for film editing:

McMillon: I think it's extremely important because sometimes you can tell people, You can be anything, but you know, for a long time people never saw a black president. But now that they have, that dream feels more tangible. And the same thing with being a black female editor. You can tell people they can be it, but actually seeing my accomplishments is more encouraging for them to pursue it themselves.

On increased diversity of this year's Oscar nominees after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy of the past two years:

McMillon: I think looking at the nominees luncheon [this year] and seeing that class photo, I think we have a little more ways to go ... It's encouraging to see a little bit more diversity this year, but I definitely feel like we have a ways to go. 

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