Sofi Marshall Talks Editing Horror Feature ‘I Saw the TV Glow’

"I Saw the TV Glow," with Justice Smith, left, and Brigette Lundy-Pain. PHOTO: A24.
By Patrick Z. McGavin
As an undergraduate in the film department at Boston University, Sofi Marshall made a crucial early connection with the filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun.
“We had this very parallel existence .. and [we shared] very specific references to ‘90s media,” Marshall said of her fellow Boston U. alum.  “Our creative aesthetic has always been pretty aligned.”
When Schoenbrun showed Marshall the script for what became their second feature, “I Saw the TV Glow,” Marshall, now a New York-based independent picture editor, was eager to climb aboard the production. The horror film, released by A24, is now playing in theaters. 
Set in the mid-90s, “I Saw the TV Glow” charts the complex friendship of two teenage outcasts, the hyper self-aware Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and the unformed Owen (Justice Smith).
Their friendship is deepened by their self-identification with a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”-styled cult television show called “The Pink Opaque,” about two kinetically connected teenage girls who fight malevolent forces.
Sofi Marshall sat down with CineMontage to talk about making the picture editing work with Schoenbrun’s visual style, as well as an  original score by Alex G that also features the music of Phoebe Bridgers, Caroline Polachek, Bartees Strange, L’Rain, and King Woman.
CineMontage: Jane Schoenbrun talked about how deeply personal material was. Did you feel as though you were eavesdropping on their world?

Sofi Marshall: I watched the film again recently with some friends of mine. We were talking about this idea in film or writing or just creative work  that the more specific you make something the more relatable it ends up being. The experiences are so specific to Jane  that it makes them all the more relatable even if the circumstances are different. The emotion behind the is something other people can tap into. 

Obviously my experience is different from Jane’s, but there’s just so much in this film emotionally that I can connect with. It can feel like a little window into someone else but it also really feels like a window into yourself, which I think is really driving a lot of the reaction to the film and why so many people feel so personally moved by it.

Sofi Marshall, picture editor. PHOTO: Courtesy Sofi Marshall.
CineMontage: What was your creative back and forth like?
Sofi Marshall: We cut the film remotely. We worked together in real time a lot, but we actually did it all over Zoom. I would just stream my timeline to Jane, and we would work that way for a couple of hours. 
There were other notes that I could do on my own. I’d go and execute those, and the next day we’d go over that. It was a lot of collaborative work, but it was very malleable. Jane trusted me to work independently. When we worked together, it was very targeted and specific to make sure we could work through something and get it exactly how we wanted it.
CineMontage: How would you describe your own manner of working?
Sofi Marshall: I’m a very rhythmic editor where I let the footage dictate what’s happening. The film, of course, is full of music, with a lot of montage. Whenever I cut something like that, I cut it totally silent. I cut it without any music. I just want to see how I feel about the shots and where I think the right cut points are going to be. I’ll add music later and make some adjustments.
Otherwise, I’ll watch a take, and if I have a thought or an idea, I’ll put it on the timeline. I’ll go back later, and see if it can be improved upon. I’m very first-pass instinctual.
CineMontage: The imagery is hypnotic and surreal, like the repeated use of the aquarium. How did that influence the cutting rhythms?
Sofi Marshall: Something I really enjoyed about this edit was just how striking the visuals were, and seeing how those visuals really engaged with the film.
So there’s a lot of repetition, like the fish tank, the scenes with Owen at the campfire, and there are the shots where he is walking to and from Maddy’s basement. There are a lot of things we return to throughout, like the TV on fire and melting. It was a really fascinating creative process to decide where to put those shots.
They were in the script in certain locations, but when we got to the edit and started moving things around a little bit, where those shots needed to be changed. So there was a lot of just kind of rhythmically looking at the film in its entirety and deciding where do we want to repeat these, what do we want them to feel like, and what are we trying to say with them. That was not really an experience I had with other films, and it was really cool.
CineMontage: The soundtrack is also allusive and gorgeous, and seems to really shape the movement.
Sofi Marshall: Pretty much all of the tracks in the film Jane commissioned from artists that they admired, and they were made specifically to sound like ‘90s pieces. The composer Alex G was on more or less from the beginning. He just worked so quickly that once we had some scenes that were in decent shape, we could send them to him, and he would get us back a track that was amazing, and we could put that in the edit. 
Once we saw how different tonalities of music felt under the scene, it would definitely inform some of the decisions that we made. We realized, we have two music cues back to back here. We were thinking of these as two different sequences, but now that we’re seeing it with music, actually, they’re one and the music should connect them. There was definitely a lot of back and forth engagement. It was very helpful having Alex on from the beginning, and being able to iterate music very quickly.
CineMontage: The narrative ruptures are marked by the live musical numbers, like the King Woman performance of “Psychic Wound.” What was that process like?
Sofi Marshall: That performance is fantastic, and always gives me just such a gut punch when we get to that point in the film. We always knew that’s what the scene was going to be, and it was going to transition from the Sloppy Jane song into the King Woman performance. So a lot of the edit was making sure that everything that led up to that moment was preparing us for the intensity of the scene. 
We wanted to make sure that the intensity we see in Maddy as she explains to Owen where she has been leads into the transition into the King Woman song. You need to feel this huge moment, this huge potential release emotionally, and I think we got there. That’s a lynchpin moment of the film, and that and everything around it had to morph a bit to make sure the feeling was right when we got there.
CineMontage: What about constructing the final form of Maddy’s monologue, where the ideas and themes profoundly color everything the film has been trying to say.
Sofi Marshall: That was definitely the most challenging part of the edit. Starting with Owen watching the final episode of “The Pink Opaque,” through the end of the film, it is almost shaped like one giant montage.  It just has this very flowing, musically connected vibe. Just getting that rhythmically correct took a lot of iterations, with a lot of back and forth. 
Specifically with Maddy’s montage, we just had a ton of choices. We had a bunch of footage to cut to with Owen. We had her in the inflatable planetarium. We had to choose when to have Maddy on screen and what to show with Owen arriving there. Initially they were two separate events. We watched Owen arrive at school, enter the planetarium and Maddy’s montage starts. 
I think we just realized that it was feeling too slow there for that moment in the film, and there was no reason not to combine that stuff and just make it a montage. 
Patrick Z. McGavin is a Chicago-based cultural journalist and writer.