Over the years working with director Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman editor Barry Alexander Brown has developed a shorthand where they don’t necessarily complete a whole sentence. Brown worked on She’s Gotta Have It and School Days when they both were figuring out how to make a movie.
“We have known each other for 37 years, since ’81 at NYU where we met,” said Brown. “As filmmakers, we grew up together. We got attracted to each other because there is something very similar in the way we think about film and entertainment. We both love Broadway musicals. We’ve loved them since we were little kids and teenagers.”
Based upon a true story from the 1970’s, BlacKkKlansman was shot in film, giving it a very subtle look that captured the period. Brown also used spilt screen phone calls reminiscent of the filmmaking style of that time.
“It really came down to when I was cutting the film, I felt there were a lot of phone calls. So I thought, let me try it. Let me try this one thing where I slide somebody on and we pick up a split screen,” stated Brown. “The split screen really harkens back to that period of time. It makes you feel the seventies.”
The decision to use the filmic device was not solely a stylistic choice. It had a practical reason. Split screens not only gave the filmmakers the ability to make the phone calls more visually interesting, they also allowed them to show the character speaking, while at the same time showing the reaction of the character listening. The David Duke phone conversations were also shot with the characters on both ends of the call being filmed simultaneously at two different locations as they were talking to each other, creating a real dialogue.
The film remained true to the screenplay. No scenes were deleted in, but certain sequences were enhanced by the editing. In the script the scenes with Harry Belafonte talking about Waco Texas in 1915 and the Klan induction ceremony were intended to be cut together, but it was only after the footage was shot that Brown discovered the best places to intercut between the two scenes.
“Then you see how things can connect. You see how things can connect emotionally,” explained Brown. “When I started editing I was very intimidated about getting that done and getting it done well. I edit from my gut. The material starts to speak to me, almost telling me where the connections lie.”
If an actor is in character and being very creative, Lee will let them go, but Brown can see in the dailies where the director is pulling a performance back. Lee has a vision. He gives the cast room to work, but not enough room to get in trouble.
There are moments where Brown is guided by rhythm in keeping the story going. Because so much of storytelling is emotional, the edit has to go together in a certain way to make the sequences work as one complete piece. It can’t just be separate moments.
“That part is created on the page itself,” shared Brown. “I have the luxury that they shoot it and now I can play with it.”
Brown really liked the Alec Baldwin scene at the beginning of the film. When he got the dailies, he cut a very straightforward scene, but during the shooting the actor was adjusting his performance, asking the script supervisor if he got the line right, playing with different readings of the lines. Lee decided he wanted to use those starts and stops. Brown enjoyed the creative freedom to use the unscripted elements of the footage to craft a more engaging sequence, which showed that Baldwin’s speech was not so much from the heart, as it was artfully crafted to capture the emotions of the audience; The power of editing.