Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody stars Naomi Ackie (Master of None) as the titular singer, and it’s the first family-approved biopic of the Grammy-winning superstar, as it was produced by Whitney’s former manager and sister-in-law, Pat Houston.
Kasi Lemmons (Harriet, Eve’s Bayou) directs from a script by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Anthony McCarten, (The Two Popes, Darkest Hour) and Ackie crushes it as Whitney Houston, even doing her own singing, which was then mixed with Whitney’s iconic voice.
Emmy winner Daysha Broadway (A Black Lady Sketch Show) pleaded her case to edit I Wanna Dance With Somebody after being recommended for the job by fellow Editor Teri Shropshire. She hit it off with Lemmons and landed the gig of a lifetime, though that would eventually mean removing a ton of footage from her initial four-hour-and-15-minute cut of the film.
Below the Line recently spoke to Broadway, who discussed her experience editing the Whitney Houston movie and how much fun it was to cut the musical sequences, as well as the challenge that Covid presented, as VFX teams had to build up the audiences for some of the big performances in the film. While Houston’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl will never cease to cause chills, it’s the medley of songs she performed at the American Music Awards that serves as a stand-out moment in the Sony movie, which is now playing in theaters.
Below the Line: How did you become attached to edit Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody?
Daysha Broadway: I was recommended to Kasi Lemmons by a fellow editor, Teri Shropshire, who I’ve worked with — she’s done four films with Kasi. I met with Kasi, interviewed for the job, [and] pleaded my case. I really wanted to be involved with the film. I found out while I was getting dressed for the Emmys, actually, that I got the job. I kind of walked out of the door [and] headed to the Emmys with the knowledge that I got the job. It was a crazy, crazy day.
BTL: How close of a relationship did you have with Kasi Lemmons during the editing process?
Broadway: I actually flew to Boston and stayed there for a little over three months to work on the director’s cut with Kasi. We spent a lot of time together, lots of long days and nights trying to figure out the film, trying to make sure we were telling the story in the best way possible. I communicated with her a lot, obviously, while she was shooting. They shot in Boston and I was editing in L.A. We spent quite a bit of time together just trying to get the story down.
BTL: What editing software did you use?
Broadway: Avid Media Composer.
BTL: How long after production wrapped did you have a rough cut ready?
Broadway: After they wrapped shooting, my editor’s cut was screened for Kasi two weeks later. It was around the holiday season as well. I think we had New Year’s, the break, and then I had to travel to Boston. When I got to Boston, I had a few more days and then I screened the editor’s cut for her.
BTL: How long was the initial cut?
Broadway: Oh, that cut was about four hours and 15 minutes, somewhere around there. There were a lot of scenes in that script — a lot of scenes and a lot of musical performances as well. She thought it was going to be five hours but it ended up being four hours and 15 minutes. I tried to be judicious with it.
BTL: That’s still a lot of footage that got cut!
Broadway: A lot. A lot. Not all of it was about cutting scenes, sometimes it was about intercutting scenes, which helps with the pacing. It helped to amplify the story and the musical performances because you’re not just watching a musical performance and listening to a song, you’re getting story beats with it when you intercut it. That helped bring the time down as well.
BTL: Did you find it hard to cut any dramatic scenes or performance sequences from the film?
Broadway: There were two scenes. There was a beautiful scene with Whitney and her mother that got cut from the film that was so beautifully acted by Naomi and Tamara Tunie that it breaks my heart every now and then that it’s not in the film. There’s [also] a great scene between John Houston and Bobby Brown that had to go as well. It was one of those things where every time we tried to put it back in, it interrupted the flow and the rhythm, and the pacing. It was like, ‘G-d, it’s such a great scene but we have to keep the story moving.’ It’s devastating, but it’ll live on in my heart and probably [on] DVD.
BTL: Yeah, let’s hope it ends up on the Blu-ray.
Broadway: I hope it does. I hope it does. They’re [both] great.
BTL: Was there a sequence in the film that you found to be the most challenging to edit?
Broadway: Oddly enough, it wasn’t any of the musical performances. Those were fun. I had a great time cutting out those. Some of the more intimate moments between two characters were actually scenes that we have several versions of. There’s a scene between Whitney and Clive Davis towards the end of the film that is really important [and] really emotional, and you can make a mistake and stay in it too long, and then the emotion gets sucked out. It was more challenging because I wanted to make sure right up until the moment we needed that release of breath you were holding during the scene, that’s when you get out of it.
There was a lot more dialogue in it that ended up being cut from it because it was just too long. This scene has to really invoke a certain specific emotion and that’s what made it really hard to cut because I wanted to make the audience feel a certain way. If it’s not cut correctly or if it’s too long or too short, or if reaction shots aren’t what they need to be, then it’s not going to give you that. I would say those moments were the hardest.
BTL: You mentioned that the musical performances were the most fun to cut. Were there any in particular?
Broadway: Yeah, there’s a beautiful AMA [American Music Awards] medley that Whitney did in 1994 that we recreated, and Naomi was just on fire that day. It was very apt for the cinematographer and Kasi, [and it’s] just beautifully shot, beautifully performed. The music is obviously amazing, but I had such a great time building that sequence because — again, it wasn’t just about the music, but I also was able to give her family moments to react to her performance. You can see how emotional it is for her mother to watch this, how emotional it was for Robyn to watch her, and for Rickey Minor to watch her accomplish something so insane that was just vocally [so] triumphant, it’s emotional. You’re watching and you’re stressed [but] you’re enjoying it because you know the music, you know the songs, but it’s also emotional, so I had a great time.
BTL: I had to check the production notes just to find out if it was Naomi really singing live, or if Whitney’s songs were added after the fact.
Broadway: She sang live. Naomi sang live. For the majority of the beginning of the film, it’s Naomi singing. The good thing about Naomi is, she can sing. She’s a great singer and she sings in Whitney’s register as well. But there’s no other Whitney, and we definitely wanted the audience to come to a Whitney movie and hear Whitney, which hasn’t happened yet. We wanted [it] to be very specifically her voice carrying the film. But John Warhurst, who was our Music Editor and one of our Sound Editors, had this plan to blend Naomi’s voice with Whitney’s and it kind of flawlessly transitions to Whitney when it’s necessary and when we want the audience to feel these big notes that she can hit. But on set, Naomi was singing live, that’s why you see some veins popping out of her neck. She’s really going for it. So yeah, it helps with the realism, [and] it helps really sell it.
BTL: What were some of the challenges that came with editing a film during the pandemic?
Broadway: Quite a few. I really wanted to… working from home is always interesting. I think the last four projects I worked on from home were Insecure, A Black Lady Sketch Show, The 40-Year-Old Version, [and] even Between the World and Me. We were all working from home and sometimes, that’s hard when you’re trying to collaborate and get feedback, but it ended up being fine. I mean, there’s just a lot of Covid testing, a lot of nose swabs, and things like that.
After we did the director’s cut in Boston, we came back to L.A. and we were working in Santa Monica at a post house. It was really just about being cautious at [that] point. I feel like there was a process that had everything kind of [manageable] and anybody new [who] came into the [editing] bay, it was like, ‘please just wear a mask and just take a test and let’s be safe.’
It was limiting for the shoots because you wanted really big crowds, right? You want all of these huge crowds in these performances, and you can’t do that [during] Covid in 2022. That meant our VFX team really [had to] build out those crowds for us [to] make it feel real and believable.
BTL: I would have never guessed that the crowds were VFX.
Broadway: Good. That’s great. Yeah, they did a good job then.
BTL: How did you first develop an interest in editing?
Broadway: I’ve been interested in editing since high school. I was always obsessed with Robert Zemeckis‘ films and I was obsessed with Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It wasn’t really something that I understood, necessarily. I didn’t understand the craft until I got to college. Watching City of God really made me interested in editing because the opening sequence of that film was just so beautifully edited. I was interested in [how] there was a lack of dialogue [and] how you understand what’s happening, even though no one’s saying anything.
The beginning of the movie puts you in the point of view of a chicken. If you really look at it, that movie could have opened six different ways, but through editing, they were able to open it this way and reveal the protagonist and reveal the antagonist. They’re not the first people you see. The first one you see is a chicken and a butcher and you’re like, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ I think it was really the movie that made me start to dissect films based on the editing.
BTL: Do you have a favorite Whitney Houston song?
Broadway: I have two favorite Whitney songs because I cannot pick. One is “All the Man That I Need” and then the other one is “I’m Your Baby Tonight.” That’s my jam.
BTL: I will say that “The Star-Spangled Banner” gives me chills every time I see that performance.
Broadway: It’s amazing. I guess it was a cultural shift. No one had ever performed that song like that. They ended up releasing it and selling millions and millions of copies of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It’s crazy… she was so phenomenal. One of my favorite sequences in the film is the Super Bowl sequence. It’s really chilling.
BTL: And seeing the military flyover is pretty cool.
Broadway: Right, yeah, yeah. And seeing the military watching it. People might forget that we were at war at that time and how she really just brought people together in the country, just through song [and] through her talent.
Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody is now playing in theaters nationwide courtesy of Sony Pictures.