By Patrick Z. McGavin
At this year’s Sundance Film festival, Terilyn Shropshire earned the Sundance Institute/Adobe Mentorship Award for Editing Fiction.
It was a fitting recognition for a picture editor who stands in the center of a new movement.
Shropshire won an ACE Eddie Award for her work “Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story” (2004), an acclaimed FX movie about the founder of the Crips street gang. Since then, she has grown into a key figure in a burgeoning movement of Black independent filmmakers, collaborating with acclaimed talents such as Ava DuVernay, Gina Prince-Bythewood and Kasi Lemmons.
Born in New York, Shropshire lived part of her childhood in West Africa and spent her formative years in Milwaukee. In a recent interview, she spoke about her career, art and mentors.
CineMontage: How did you make the transition from assistant to editor?
Terilyn Shropshire: I came up in an old school way. I started in editing rooms that still had film in them and had a hierarchy of craftspeople. What benefitted me was, I had editors who embraced the notion that when you are working in a craft, you are trying to train people who will come up after you.
I had assistants who I came up with who were very open. I think what made the difference was really the editors and recognizing that when you work hard and show an interest and passion in what you are doing, they are going to try and help you get where you want to go. For instance, I had editors who were open to allowing me to cut scenes or even just practice on scenes. They were open to looking at my cuts, and giving me feedback.
What really made the transition for me was Anne Goursaud, who was a longtime editor. I met her on “Two Jakes” (1990). She started to direct, and we were moving more toward the digital editing room. She knew I was familiar with that format. She asked me to be her editor. I went on to edit the next two films she did. Ultimately that was enough to get my feet through the door to interview for “Eve’s Bayou” (1997).
CineMontage: I vividly remember the premiere of “Eve’s” at the Toronto Film Festival, and you knew immediately this was an artistically distinguished film.
Shropshire: It was a dream, the most perfect kind of experience. What made it incredible for me is that I still remember to this day the first time that I read the script. It was as if this window came open and this breeze came in, and I started to read about characters who looked like me, a family I could recognize. All of those characters who I never saw before who reflected what I knew about. My family was right there on the page. I wanted that job so badly.
CineMontage: Do you believe in the idea of an editor’s style, the equivalent of a director’s style?
Shropshire: I have always thought as an editor you are a bit of a gypsy. The film kind of tells you what the style is, and you adapt to the story and what the needs of the story are. I know as an editor, I always think of myself as the first audience. I am a big proponent of discovery.
I am always trying to find a way to help the audience take the journey where not everything is explained. Even within the script, if there’s a scene that both asks the question and gives the answer, I often just want to lead with the question. When I am looking at footage, in terms of how I am bringing you into a scene, it’s not always the obvious way with the traditional wide shot. I like revealing and keeping that energy going.
CineMontage: Your last feature, “The Old Guard,” counters the more naturalistic stories of your previous work. Was doing a action film a deliberate “going against the grain” move?
Shropshire: If you look at my IMDB page, depending on what lens you are looking through, you could describe my career in many ways. You could also look at all the films I’ve done, and look at the genres I’ve crossed off: comedies, action, drama, animation.
I sometimes wish more people would look at it from that lens. Ultimately, you do get pigeonholed. I think more people do not always look at the broad spectrum of the work I’ve done, but tend to narrow it. I know I am not alone in that. Generally, directors, producers or the studio gatekeepers who initially set up these meetings, look at your resume and if they don’t see something that reflects what they are about to do, they tend to not allow you in the gate.
Studio people who have the ability to say yes or no to a crew member can ultimately push back, especially with young filmmakers because they want to put them with someone who has experience in a certain way. I think that’s unfortunate for those people who are skilled and trying to get that one opportunity of what they are capable of. Not everybody is treated equally. I’d love to do a “Harry Potter,” I’d love to do a “Star Wars,” a Marvel film. For me, growing up, I watched every kind of film. I was such a film geek that I wrote down in a notebook every film that I watched, everything from “Mister Roberts” (1955) to musicals to action movies, “Star Wars” (1977), all of it.
The reason “The Old Guard” happened is that I had a relationship with the director (Gina Prince-Bythewood), and she loved those old films too. She got into the gate. When that happened, she asked me to join her. We both knew we were two people who were being given an opportunity, and we could not fail at it because often, we don’t get second chances. Everything I did prepared for me for “The Old Guard.” I feel grateful that everything I have done put me in a position to cut everything that film needed.
CineMontage: How did you decide to become a picture editor?
Shropshire: I went to USC as a journalism major, knowing that I’d apply to the film department. I also loved writing, and I was interested in journalism. I got accepted into the film department for my sophomore year. Journalism gave me my writing and broadcast experience. I ended up graduating with both degrees.
I had the opportunity to make a short film as an undergraduate. It was a bit overwhelming for me to go out and try and make films and figure everything out. What I (learned) when I brought the short film I was making into my house, splicing together the Super-8, I found the process of being in that space and having the story I was trying to tell to be the most instinctual and the most satisfying.
Editing was the thing I could spend hours doing. It made sense because editing is essentially writing and re-writing. I took some side steps. I worked as a production assistant and production secretary on some television shows, and I edited on the side. What finally got me focused is there was a writers’ strike in Los Angeles, and I really took that time to work on editing. I pretty much decided that was going to be the career I worked on.
I try to help young editors understand that if you don’t know immediately what you want to do, sometimes you have to figure out what you don’t want to do. Sometimes you have to start [in] other fields. There is no one rule. There are other paths to get where you want to get to.
CineMontage: How have your attitudes towards actors and performance evolved?
Shropshire: I still go back to being that instinctive audience member. It’s really important when you are an editor to try and do that, just experience an actor’s performance where it feels organic, where it doesn’t feel forced.
I always say my favorite films are when I’m watching something, and suddenly I feel a tear roll down my cheek and I don’t know how it got there. It just permeates you. I’ve edited some really talented actors. You want to honor their work, honor the character they are trying to reflect. I find myself trying to honor what feels right for me when I watch the performance the first time in the raw form, take moments and build upon them.
CineMontage: The arc of your career also overlaps with the major technological shifts. How has that shaped your work?
Shropshire: Handling film was a more tactile thing [than digital]. It was a thing that allowed you to give yourself time to pause and reflect. I always felt in some ways film allowed you to recognize that you might be going down a path that is ultimately the right path.
One of the things I often tell younger editors is that you will start creating different versions. With digital it’s possible to decide very quickly to switch to another version. You need to give yourself some perspective and take a pause. Maybe you know you are already going down the right path, and you just need some more time and go down a little further before you change course.
The biggest difference I found working with film was that whole notion of “B-negative,” which a lot of people don’t even know what that is any more. In film, they used to print whatever they were told to print on the set. Everything else went into “B-negative,” and may never have been printed. With digital everything comes to you. That means you have a lot more to look at, a lot more to assess. I find myself digitally where I look at everything. It also means you have to be a lot more vigilant in your choices and what you find.
The process of finding the story is the same. Even though you’re told what the preferred takes are, those takes that are not circled but you still have great stuff to look at. There might be a little moment in there, there might be a little spark of something, that they didn’t get printed because the whole of the take was something they didn’t like. Sometimes I think a lot of “B-negative,” and all that film that might be sitting in cans, and all of those moments that might have been missed. We’ll never know.
Patrick Z. McGavin is a Chicago-based writer and cultural journalist.