By Kristin Marguerite Doidge
Just as the protagonists in “Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” find an instant connection to one another, so too did the film’s editors when they first became involved with the new film. Editors Harry Yoon, ACE, and Stefanie Visser were immediately drawn to first-time director Aitch Alberto’s moving adaptation of the popular 2012 YA novel of the same name by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.
It was selected as the opening night feature for last month’s Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival. Yoon and Visser recently shared clips and reflections on their work on “Aristotle & Dante” during an Editors Guild-sponsored panel at the festival – Editors Talk Craft – held at the Directors Guild of America (DGA) building in West Hollywood.
CineMontage caught up with them beforehand to learn more about their favorite sequences and the importance of the film’s message before its debut in U.S. theaters on Sept. 8.
CineMontage: How did each of you first get involved with ‘Aristotle & Dante’?
Stefanie Visser: I was editing a film called “Space Oddity” with Kyra Sedgwick (who directed it), and the producer was Valerie Stadler. Their company, Big Swing Productions, was producing “Ari and Dante” after “Space Oddity” was wrapping up, so she set up a meeting with Aitch [Alberto], the director of “Ari and Dante,” and we just really hit it off. I had read the script and I really connected to it, so it was hard to contain my excitement for the project. During our interview, I remember her saying something like, “Let’s just do this.” And I thought, “Wait, did she just give me the job?” She had been working on the script and developing the film for years and years, and it was clear how deeply she cared for these characters and wanted to do right by them. She had said early on that ‘they are young philosophers quietly and gently scrutinizing in their external and internal worlds.’ I really loved that and really strived to achieve that in the edit.
Harry Yoon: I had also worked with Valerie Stadler on a small film called “Isa,” years and years ago. She’s such a lovely human being. We stayed in touch and became friends after that project, and she got in touch with me while I was in New York to say that they were looking for an editor to pick up where Stefanie left off. For me, what sounded so appealing was this idea of a coming-of-age story in an immigrant community setting. That always resonates with me because I was an immigrant myself. Hearing about the setting and about how the novel was a kind of love letter from Ben Sáenz to his younger self, it just really intrigued me. And so she sent me a link to watch on the plane ride back from New York.
I think it was really just seeing the heart that Aitch had clearly poured into this adaptation. And seeing Max Pelayo [who plays Ari in the film] – he has such a magnetic presence on screen. I thought, “There’s something really special here.” It was an amazing experience getting a chance to work with Aitch as a first-time filmmaker. I love working with first-time feature directors for whom, so often, the project is so personally important, and seeing how they come to embrace the editorial process and adapt it to their own particular cinematic vision. It’s always challenging. It’s always therapy as well as work, but I think often it’s some of the most rewarding kinds of projects that you can get involved with.
CineMontage: What was most challenging about adapting the novel to the screen?
Visser: We had so much footage. I think the first cut was over three hours. We had to cut some really beautiful scenes that I know people really loved from the book, but it just didn’t quite work in the film. There was a sponge bath scene in the book that was just beautifully shot. It looked amazing, but we all realized pretty early on that it was too intimate for where Ari and Dante’s relationship was at that point, and that we just really couldn’t justify keeping it in.
The opening of the film was made a lot different and it works really well. Some of those were longer scenes that were put into a montage. Harry can speak to this a little bit more, but some of those scenes work so much better when they’re not all just back to back long. It really helps get you into Ari’s world in the beginning in a way that feels a little more concise and helps the audience really connect with him.
Yoon: I think that the opening sequence is actually a really great example of how we recognized that the need for an audience to understand the film that they’re watching sometimes trumps the kind of linear and methodical storytelling that each scene might be doing. One of the things we weren’t necessarily getting early on, because we were sort of carefully peeling back the layers of Ari’s world in an experiential way, was how powerful Ari’s voice is in the book. His point of view comes across so charismatically from the first page, and that’s one of the reasons why we started to collapse some of those linear scenes into more of an essay, a visual essay, that Ari begins narrating to say, “Here’s my perspective, not only on the world that I live in, but on who I am within that world.”
CineMontage: The film is so beautifully shot, and there are so many emotional moments. Do you have a favorite sequence or scene you cut for the film?
Visser: One of my favorite scenes from the script was when Ari talks to his parents towards the end of the film. It’s just so beautiful. It’s basically how every gay kid wants their parents to react to them just figuring out who they are.
Ari’s Dad says, “I see you, I love you.” It’s incredible. It’s not how you would expect a gay person to be treated during that time period in the culture of the film. As a queer person, I want to see Ari accepted by his parents. I want to normalize parents accepting their LGBTQ children. It’s just great to see all that and to see Ari and Dante’s relationship grow and have its challenges, but ultimately for both of them to be happy.
The way Ari’s parents were watching him and paying attention to him – you don’t see that enough. When you see the scene of a kid basically coming out, this time his parents said, “We’re ready. Come out, be who you want to be.” And it’s just lovely to see a positive queer story. The book has already made a huge impact on so many people – I am proud to be a part of the film and hope it will do the same.
Yoon: During editing, we found we needed the letters to do two things. First, they’re a tool that reminds us that this relationship, this lifeline that Ari and Dante have with each other is still healthy. But second, the letters are prompting Ari to not only be a little bit uncomfortable about what’s being revealed – Dante’s secrets – but to then feel moved to confront secrets within himself and within his own family. If at this point, he can’t directly confront his awareness of his sexuality, then maybe there are other things that he can confront. That was a complex ask of the letters, and it took a few different tries and lots of phone reads from the actors to get there, but it was a very interesting challenge as it relates to that section of the film.
I think that’s one of the things that makes Ari’s story so interesting – if there’s a young person that’s coming out in what you assume to be kind of a conservative, traditional culture, you think that the antagonist is external. You think that it’s going to be the condemnation of parents or friends. What’s fascinating about Ari’s journey is that so much of it is internal. So much of it is about him growing up as someone who is a person who keeps secrets, or a person who maybe thinks less of themselves, or a person who’s kind of withdrawn from the world. And he doesn’t necessarily know why. And I think it’s such an interesting perspective. That’s something that we wanted to preserve and protect. I think the love that Dante has for him and the care that he has for him breaks things open in a way for him to get outside of himself, where he has to learn to love himself the way he loves Dante. And that to me is a very interesting hero’s journey, that’s so specific and so beautiful because of what Ben wrote and what Aitch created on-screen.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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