In One Night in Miami…, currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, the meeting of four cultural icons becomes the chance to explore how society deals with racism and discrimination. Directed by Regina King, and written by Kemp Powers from his play, the movie weaves the lives of Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) into a story that’s alternately funny, honest, and painful.
Editor Tariq Anwar first read the script in November 2019 after seeing the play several years before. Anwar, who was nominated for Academy Awards for American Beauty and The King’s Speech, spoke with Below the Line by telephone from Los Angeles.
Below the Line: This is the first feature Ms. King has directed. What was she like to work with?
Tariq Anwar: Like all good directors, she created a comfortable environment. She welcomed ideas and discussions. I think her casting choices were brilliant, as was her ability to get the best out of everyone, cast and crew. From an editing point of view, I couldn’t have asked for better coverage, performances and staging.
For the duration of the shoot, which was in New Orleans, I was a day or so behind the filming. I would get the material and work on it and be able to show Regina the next day, or a day or so later.
Because she was so busy, we generally tended to upload the edits to her to watch when she had a moment in the evening. Sometimes she would come to the cutting room over the weekend to have a look. We talked about how it was working, what was needed. She would ask if I felt she needed to shoot pick-ups, would a scene be helped by additional shots. Those kinds of discussions happen on all films.
BTL: Were there instances where that happened?
Anwar: Occasionally. For instance, when Clay looks in the mirror and asks, “Why am I so pretty?” I felt we needed a closer moment, and suggested getting a pick-up, which she and [Director of Photography] Tami Reiker did. Also, for the Johnny Carson show, I thought they should get a shot of the audience, something they had intended but couldn’t because of time limitations.
BTL: Did you have any apprehensions about tackling a dialogue-heavy play with four main characters?
Anwar: Regina and Kemp were conscious of trying to make the play more filmic. Kemp addressed a lot of those issues in his script by opening up the play to include the two boxing matches, concerts at the Copacabana and Boston Ballroom, the liquor store, and The Tonight Show. Also, he took the group outside, in Malcolm X’s case the parking lot, then all four of them on the motel rooftop.
One of the things Regina mentioned to me when we first talked was that she was very conscious of transitions, she wanted to think about them before production. For instance she wanted to go from the Copacabana performance to Jim Brown driving to the Carlton plantation. She had in mind a kind of glint on a glass as it’s picked up by Cooke to the sun through the windshield Brown’s car.
BTL: Conversations, long scenes of dialogue, are at the heart of the film. Were they storyboarded? Were individual lines broken down into shots?
Anwar: To the best of my knowledge there weren’t storyboards. I’m sure Tami and Regina worked out a plan in preproduction. But one of the things Regina was very aware of was to keep things moving. She was very conscious of putting movement into the scenes, whether it was a case of having the actors move around or moving the camera wherever possible.
Also they shot multicamera, which eliminated a lot of continuity concerns for me and also gave me more control over scenes by giving me choices. It was easier to vary shot sizes and pacing, for example.
BTL: How a conversation is edited — which character is being shown at any point — helps determine how an audience will react to a scene.
Anwar: I don’t over think how I’m going to construct a scene. I’d rather go with my instincts, a feeling about how I want to start, who I want to be on any one time, what reactions are important, and how long to hold them. When to be on a closer shot or a wide shot. Those things I think are intuitive for editors, I don’t think many of us actually think too much about how we’re going to construct a scene.
A lot depends on the director, whether they feel comfortable in giving you the freedom to put the scene together the way you see fit. Some directors are very controlling, they’ll tell you beforehand, “Look, I want you to start the scene on this shot, and then I want you to go to the wide shot here, and then the close shot.” Directors who do that are very inhibiting to work with. The ones who are very happy for you to stage scenes are the best directors to work with.
Directors mark selected takes on the script supervisors’ sheets. Being able to move away from those choices, having the freedom to make your own decisions and not feel constrained in any way, is important in building a healthy and constructive relationship with the director.
BTL: Did Ms. King want to change some of your choices?
Anwar: Sometimes, but not to any great extent. For example, one of the early scenes I cut was when Clay is in Malcolm’s motel room. In their exchange after the prayer sequence, my choices were a profile two-shot and single shots of both characters. Regina thought my use of the singles was too cutty, preferring to hold on the profile longer. But by and large she didn’t get too much into the internal editing of scenes.
BTL: Can you talk about how you approached the boxing matches?
Anwar: Because of the volume and quality of the material, there’s always a temptation to make more of it, and to not be faithful to the original fight. That was a self-inflicted problem. Regina would say, “Okay, this didn’t really happen, he’s throwing several punches here that didn’t happen.” It was great in terms of a fictitious fight, but I had to go back to what actually happened.
I pushed in at times, got tighter by enlarging some of the shots. Some of the punches we speeded up the action. I did temp them in the Avid, but the VFX department was able to do it better, to make some of the punches quicker than they actually were. Or to make the punches land on the face much closer than as shot.
BTL: What happens when you are editing on camera movement? There’s a moment when Malcolm X is in a phone booth talking to his wife Betty [played by Joaquina Kalukango] at their home, and the camera is moving in both shots.
Anwar: That did create a slight problem because the camera movement wasn’t quite the same in the shots. I had to manipulate the image in the Avid to make a smoother transition between cuts. That meant enlarging the frame to allow for the lateral movement.
And then some of the shots are static. In order to continue the movement across the screen on the computer, I was limited in Avid to just lateral movements, left or right. But of course I had to consider the parallax movement in the shots I was trying to match — not just lateral, but curving in and around. And I couldn’t do that. So a lot of those shots were handed to the VFX department to finesse.
Another thing we did was to go in tighter for each cut. Once I had the sequence put together, I had a better sense of when I should be going in closer on both Betty and Malcolm. That was an added manipulation apart from the tracking.
BTL: Do you work with a temp track?
Anwar: When I put the scenes together I thought a piano track, a solo piano track, would work best. I experimented with a slow blues piano, I downloaded several tracks with different kind of feel to them, one a kind of gospel feel to it, one more playful and mischievous, and so on.
I tried all these different pieces for the scene transitions and for the most part Regina was on board, and the score [composed by Terence Blanchard] I think developed out of that. But with those things, you never know when you throw up temp pieces whether they’re going to be accepted or rejected.
BTL: Sam Cooke’s songs were phenomenal. When he sings “Chain Gang” at the Boston Ballroom, you had to build that without using music.
Anwar: I did have the beat and the clapping to drive the editing, along with Malcolm’s commentary — his text determined the cuts to the ballroom in terms illustrating what he was saying. It’s a percussive scene that lends itself to quick cutting and again, the great coverage allowed me to vary the shots, to build the tension, to build Malcolm’s growing excitement and admiration, and to avoid too much repetition.
If there was any difficulty with the scene, it was to balance Malcolm’s storytelling in the motel room with what was happening in the ballroom. Getting the balance right so it didn’t feel you’re with one too long. Not in the ballroom too long away from the story, and not in the motel room too long so you’ve forgotten about what’s going on in the ballroom.
It wasn’t that hard to put together. Conversely, what you might think was a simple scene, the concert at the Copa in the beginning of the film, that created more problems for me than the Boston Ballroom. My original assembly of the scene was probably about 45 seconds to a minute longer. And it’s surprising how much difference taking out those 45 seconds made.
You’re introducing the characters at that point in the story so you didn’t want to dwell too much on each of them. I think the Copa concert kind of stalled the momentum of the film. And also the humor — the mike crackling when he picked it up, the stand falling, Cooke’s anxieties — wasn’t playing for me. It’s only when we reduced the length of the scene that I think it started to work.
But it took a surprisingly long time to get to that point. You just never know. Some scenes just fall together and others for no apparent reason are really difficult to cut.
One Night in Miami… is now playing on Amazon Prime Video. You can also read Below the Line’s interviews with Cinematographer Tami Reiker, Production Designer Barry Robison and our earlier review.
All photos courtesy Amazon Prime Video.