Native Son, Richard Wright’s novel about the savage toll of deeply institutionalized racism, shocked readers when it was published in 1940. The story of a poor black man who slips accidentally, then inevitably, into a series of brutal crimes, it remains just as revelatory, topical and challenging nearly 80 years later. A new HBO film adaptation by director Rashid Johnson and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks continues to wrestle with the novel’s difficult themes, bringing the story to present-day Chicago and filtering it through our racially charged times.
This Native Son is not just a modern retelling of Wright’s story, however. It owes much to the critical hindsight of James Baldwin, who is experiencing his own mini revival on film (I Am Not Your Negro, If Beale Street Could Talk). For novelist Wright, the tragic, one-dimensional protagonist Bigger Thomas represented “the moral … horror of Negro life in the United States.” But in his essay collection Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin worried that his former mentor was perpetuating a dangerous black stereotype for sensational effect.
This dialogue continues in Johnson and Parks’ version, which premiered at Sundance. Here, Bigger is more vulnerable and human, less driven by his circumstances than cooly struggling to navigate them. (Screenwriter Parks is also acknowledging her own formative connection: During college, she took a creative writing seminar taught by Baldwin, who wisely suggested she shift from writing short fiction to plays.)
Starring Ashton Sanders (Moonlight), Margaret Qualley (Fosse/Verdon) and KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk), Native Son features the camerawork of Matthew Libatique (A Star Is Born, Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, mother!) and was edited by Brad Turner (Patty Cake$, Paterno). We spoke with Turner about how he and Johnson, a well-known conceptual artist and first-time director, mapped out the edit in Adobe Premiere Pro to find the beating heart of this still-relevant story.
StudioDaily: How did Johnson first describe his vision for the film to you?
My agent got a screenplay and sent me a script and I really loved it. I’ve been a fan of the book since high school. I went to talk to Rashid at his studio in Brooklyn, a giant warehouse space right near the BQE that’s full of his art. So we sat and talked, about Wright and about Baldwin, and I learned a lot about his take at that point. We were going to endeavor to update it by applying a measure of empathy to Big, which is antithetical to the way he’s portrayed in the novel. I felt it was such a clever treatment to use Baldwin’s ideas to do that. By the end of the meeting we both said, “Let’s do this.” We ended up cutting most of the movie at his place in Bridgehampton last summer, and we’ve subsequently become very close. I basically moved in with him and his family and we edited a lot of it in his den.
Were you on set during the shoot?
No, but I was cutting concurrently to production, which is something I like to do, mostly so that I’m able to advise about coverage. Even though this was Rashid’s first movie, he was working with Matty Libatique, who has loads and loads of experience. It’s not like he was ever in any danger. But it was still a low-budget film with a pretty truncated shooting schedule, so we wanted to make sure that we got everything we needed. I was cutting scenes as the footage was being delivered at my studio, SeeThink Films, in Brooklyn. He was looking at stuff I was posting every day then he came and we cut for about six weeks at SeeThink, then we moved the edit to the Hamptons. We screened it for some friends of his who live out there to test it out, then we polished it up back in the city.
I see from the credits that Cleveland was a stand-in for Chicago for most of the movie. But there are a few iconic Chicago scenes you couldn’t shoot anywhere else. Which came first?
For budgetary reasons but also for accessibility the movie was shot in Cleveland. But Rashid had planned from the start to do a second shoot in Chicago. He grew up in Chicago, so he was able to identify locations in Cleveland that felt like they could be in Chicago. What ended up happening, though, was the Chicago shoot took place significantly later in the fall. We built this whole assembly with the dailies coming from Cleveland but then had chunks of the film that were missing. We ended up pulling commercial footage off the Internet and built these functional placeholders of the kinds of things we wanted to feature, so that the movie was watchable holistically before we shot that last chunk. It ended up being a smart strategy because we knew precisely what we needed when we went to Chicago. It made for a very efficient shoot.
Johnson is a first-time director but a well known conceptual artist who works in a variety of styles and media. In what way did he bring that sensibility to this film?
I did some research before I met him and had become, before we even had our meeting, a fan of his art. I was very curious about his process. His art was the first thing we talked about when we met because it was surrounding us in his studio. He explained to me that he makes what he calls “cosmic slop,” which is a reference to a George Clinton and Funkadelic album. I’m a huge George Clinton fan. We did speak at length how he wanted to employ his aesthetic sensibilities in the movie. He worked with production designer Akin McKenzie on populating the film with not just his art but with other contemporary artists, like Amy Sherald, who painted Michelle Obama. His painting Anxious Man hovers behind Big when he meets Mr. Dalton in his home, for example. The film is inundated with these artistic references, and I think Rashid wanted to dig into the ways our society has evolved since the book was written and the ways it has stayed the same. And I think you can track a lot of that through the art that is hidden in the film. A lot of it is pretty subtle but it was one of the reasons he wanted to make the movie from the very beginning — to sneak all that stuff in. The scene in Dalton’s home office was such a blast to edit. It’s just this confluence of very different cultures and subtle communication that produces a ton of subtextual conflict. The tension in that scene is pretty palpable and also a really fun one to cut.
What other references did you talk about, especially in terms of pacing?
We luckily liked a lot of the same films, but the movies we discussed the most were classic American films from the 1970s, especially Taxi Driver. When you learn that you can see it right away in Big’s attire, but that definitely influenced the pacing, it influenced the way that Matty shot the movie. Most of his work for Darren Aronofsky is mostly handheld, over the shoulder and very dynamic vérité. For this, we wanted to do much grander setups, with grander architecture that lingers and frame things, like Rashid’s Anxious Man painting, in a way that nodded to movies like Taxi Driver and Dog Day Afternoon and felt they were part of that time.
Beyond using VO narration to frame certain scenes, what are some of the other ways you used the edit to let us get inside the protagonist’s head?
Ashton Sanders is an extremely subtle actor. He conveys these very subtle emotional cues, what we began to affectionately call, at the back end of the edit, “Ashton-isms.” One of the reasons Rashid thought he’d be perfect for Bigger Thomas from the beginning was because of the way he and Suzan-Lori Parks had imagined Big as a much more empathetic character. The original Bigger was kind of a goon, but these days, you can seemingly be impugned for being a person of color without doing anything. Editorially, I tried to lean into Ashton’s subtlety and did similar things with KiKi Lane, who plays his girlfriend Bessie, and Margaret Qualley, who plays Mary Dalton. We did whatever we could editorially to let those performances live. There’s a lot of communication that happens in the film through looks alone. Without a line being delivered, it’s a more subtle human cue. We talked a lot about how communication between human beings has changed, especially since the dawn of the Internet age, and how that affects the conveyance of truth, and news, and misunderstandings, which happens very easily. It used to be people could detect, when speaking face to face, things like sarcasm, or you’d know if someone was angry or serious. There are scenes like the one at the dinner table where Big first hears about this job at the Daltons where there is just a whole lot of unspoken communication and a lot of looks. That’s a good example of one of the things we were trying to emphasize when we were editing the film.
Why was Premiere a good fit for this particular film?
I cut films on Premiere and Avid, but Native Son was a particularly appropriate one for Premiere, in part because we were using various kinds of source material. Just ingesting that kind of stuff in Premiere is much easier and much easier to hand off. And we also needed to be able to transport our edit system easily, so it was the obvious choice. With everything happening now in the cloud, there’s a lot that that software does for anybody who wants to move an editor around. We moved three times, and my assistant, Jeffrey Star, was in New York while Rashid and I were in the Hamptons. Trading stuff off was facilitated tremendously. It’s always a case-by-case basis, but I’m certain I’ll cut more features on it for those very reasons.
Were the timelapse and bike handlebar POV shots in the Chicago scenes planned from the beginning, or did they evolve organically?
They were actually influenced by some of the material that we pulled in as placeholders. In the scene [above and in trailer, top] that depicts the bean sculpture in Millennium Park [officially known as Cloud Gate], I initially pulled a bunch of timelapse clips of grand Chicago architecture. The VO line being delivered there is about how human beings in their daily routines in the city resemble rats running around, and Rashid devised the scene because the placeholder stuff was working really well. As for the handlebar shot, there’s a scene at the end of the film where we use Snorricam in a really noticeable way, and we really loved that device, so we wanted to use it in another scene to make it a much more deliberate choice. It’s also inherently dynamic and cool looking for a bike messenger scene.
Was Suzan-Lori Parks consulted as you edited?
We consulted her throughout the cut. We didn’t show her much of it until the end, though, because we wanted her to be able to approach it as objectively as possible. We knew that the advice that she could convey would be invaluable. Some of the VOs were reworked, and we needed VO in new places. We roughed some in that we wrote, then she rewrote it. She gave us some extensive notes once we did show it to her on how we might improve the movie and she was seminally important to how the film was refined at the back end. Her insight was invaluable.
Were there any scenes that proved difficult to get cut and why?
There were a few, but we also excised a number of scenes altogether, so there was a lot of deliberation about what we needed to tell the story and what we could lose. Those conversations are always fun and last the duration of an edit. But in terms of just the granular stuff — and spoilers ahead, though the book has existed for nearly 80 years — the seminal murder scene is a really subtle negotiation. The audience needs to believe that the physical act that is being witnessed is enough to kill somebody, but not enough that Big would actually know he’s doing it. That one took a lot of noodling. One of the things that’s happening there is the actual hallway in that house is nowhere near as long as it seems in the movie. It’s probably a 40-foot hallway, but we needed Mrs. Dalton to spend the duration of that physical struggle traversing the hallway. We could use a portion of this follow shot, and a portion that happens half a second later, but within the scene, of course, something significant would have elapsed in the bedroom. We employed that as a tool to convey time and to intensify the film. There’s this whole set of approaching mechanics that happens there that feels terrifying, I hope.
And the simplest?
The following scene with the furnace, mostly because Ashton is such a talented guy. He really carries the whole scene. There are a lot of long takes, because why would we ever cut away from what he’s doing here? It’s so compelling. Let’s just let him do his thing.
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