Terilyn Shropshire on Gina Prince-Bythewood, Evolutional Editing and THE WOMAN KING – Leslie Combemale interviews

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Terilyn Shropshire has been building a career as a film and television editor in Hollywood for over 30 years, working with some of the best directors in the business. With Eve’s Bayou, she cut the feature directing debut of Kasi Lemmons, which became the highest grossing independent feature of 1997, and Gina Prince-Bythewood’s now classic Love and Basketball in 2000. She has gone on to collaborate with both directors over their entire careers.

Now she’s in the spotlight for her work with Prince-Bythewood on the new and critically acclaimed release The Woman King, which is already garnering awards buzz for star and executive producer Viola Davis. The Alliance spoke to Shropshire about her process, and the joy of a project that highlights powerful Black women in a positive and dynamic way never done before onscreen.

Leslie Combemale: You’ve been working with Gina since Love and Basketball. Every director has a different process for collaborating with their editor. But can you talk about what your collaboration with Gina is like both historically, and specifically on The Woman King?

Terilyn Shropshire: The great thing about having a relationship with Gina is that she really values bringing me into the process rather early. We were actually finishing up The Old Guard. And I remember we were in the editing room, and she said, “I think we have our next film.” So immediately your adrenaline level already starts to rise. What I love about our process is that as she received the script, and and then she and Dana worked very hard together on this particular one, then I get access early on to the story that we are about to tell, and I can start asking questions, and we can start talking about everything from transitions in and out of scenes, to ‘how are you planning to shoot this?’ Or ‘what do we think we’re going to need to prepare for?’, even before she goes on set. I think the advantage of having this relationship is that I have the ability to be involved early. And then, from the moment that she starts shooting, I was on location in Cape Town with them for the 4 1/2, almost 5 months that they were there, and being able to have that immediacy of communication of what I’m seeing, and what she’s shooting and what still needs to be shot, and if there are any, from my perspective, editorial adjustments that I feel like we may need to look at… do we need to do anything additional here? I just think that having the relationship and trust that’s been built over the years really is always beneficial on any type of project.

LC: Having worked with a number of directors, you must have different levels of interaction, but I know that Gina is very interested in being present and enjoys the collaboration of editing.

TS: I feel like as an editor, you’re a bit of a gypsy and kind of adapt to the needs of your directors and the film itself. With Gina, she is someone who is very collaborative, she actually enjoys being in the space. Generally, I’m left to my own devices during production, while she’s shooting, though we talk every day. I usually either send her a text or phone call after I’ve seen the dailies, depending on if there’s something I feel like I need to talk to her about or not. But once we’re in the cutting room, she’s there pretty much every day, and there are times, obviously, where we’ll be working on a scene, it’ll be something that she wants to see and I’ll go off into my space and prepare that and then show it to her. I present her a first cut, usually anywhere from 10 days to two weeks after she finishes principal photography, and that becomes our foundation. We work the next 10 weeks on her director’s cut together. We usually try to give ourselves a schedule, backing into showing to the studio. The first person we ever show it to is her husband Reggie, who’s also a filmmaker. And then we start to broaden it out a little bit. We have friends and family screenings. That’s our process. I find with writer directors specifically, because they’re so used to being in the process of editing even as writers, they actually really appreciate the process of editing the film itself.

LC: You worked on The Old Guard, which had some great action and fight choreography. How did you approach putting together the fight scenes in The Woman King?

TS: When it came down to the actual cutting of the fight scenes, to me so much of it was literally choreography, right? I always say it’s an aggressive dance. You’re having to tell a story within each scene. So what I found myself doing was working almost in a vignette mode, where there would be something that came in first, let’s say, and it wasn’t necessarily an order. Maybe it was the fight between Izogie, played by with Lashana Lynch, and Amenza, played by Sheila Atim, we’re doing their choreography. doing their fight together. I would build that as its own vignette. I would basically put together a kind of quick, early build of that, and then I would move on to the next one. I had these pieces of the fight or movements, and then I ultimately started building an intricate game. And then it was just like building a very, very long, aggressive dance. What was really important was for me to just get something down quickly, because if there was something additional I needed, I needed to be able to immediately communicate to the set, because they were moving so quickly. Once they had finished shooting, which is the moment I know I have everything now, that’s when I get into the cutting room and go back in and really do the surgical type of specific minutiae work that it takes but you also have to step out and look at it as a whole. So many people wanted to kind of look at this as “Oh, this is an action movie.” And it’s like, no, this is a historical epic with what we hope to be great action. What’s always important within these fights is that each fight is telling a story about the characters that we’ve hopefully introduced you to, and set the stage so that by the time we got to these scenes, you cared about them, you were invested in their struggle and their fight. The goal was always to have them be badass, but also keep the humanity and show the humanity of these women.

LC: The major difference between the fight and the dance sequences is that there are two stories going on visually, especially in the battle dance sequence. What were the challenges of doing the dance sequences?

TS: Well, I think the big challenge was being able to allow the audiences to feel like they weren’t just watching. They weren’t just sitting back and watching these women in some kind of performance. I was actually on set that day, and part of it was, anytime you’re doing some kind of choreography, you want to show the scope of it, but then you want to show the intimacy and the passion of it and the energy that the women were putting forth. Every one of these actors, they rehearsed so intensely for that moment, and when you were on set, it was electric. As you’re watching it, it’s like, oh, ‘I want to get in and I want to see their feet, and I want to see how the machetes are hitting on the ground, and see their feet picking up the red dust and the passion of them preparing for the fight. So once we had all of those pieces, then it became a matter of okay. There’s a lot of storylines going on here. We have the Agojie women preparing for battle, we have Nawi, who’s going through a certain thing on her own, having just become an Agojie, but with a certain degree of complications to it. And then we have Nanisca, who is ultimately this woman who trained every single one of these women, and showing why is she the leader and how does she prepare for battle? The idea of being able to put all that story together and let one feed off the other, that’s what I just love so much about what I do, and what I do with Gina is, we don’t always go into anything feeling how we’re going to cut it, and then there’s an evolution to the editing.

LC: There are a lot of strong characters with their own arcs in this story. What are the some of the challenges of keeping the integrity of those arcs and also showing these tremendous actors work to best advantage, because you really had a lot of very powerful actors, very strong characters, all within the context of action.

TS: There are moments in the movie, where we purposefully slow down the moment. We slow down something to allow the audience to imprint on a character or imprint on a moment that is necessary to that character. Whether it’s the first time you meet, Nawi, and Fumbe and Ode, the three recruits, and they say, “I’m not a soldier.” And yet, by the end of the film, you’re cheering for Nawi, because she has become a soldier. There are the moments where Nanisca and Amenza, who have a been together for as long as Nanisca has had Amenza as her wing gal, for lack of a better term, and we see their relationship. That relationship you learn has a very, very involved history.. or having Nawi learn about Izogie’s past. You have to allow those times to build in, within the overall space of the movie. There’s a reality to a movie like this, because there’s going to be an expectation, obviously, of a certain type of pace, and yet, when you challenge that a little bit, some people can understand it, some people don’t. But it’s all deliberate and there’s a reason to it and I really believe that part of the reason why so many people are really connecting with this film on a level that maybe they didn’t expect to is because we gave our audience time to get to know these people a little bit more than maybe the usual type of film like this would.

LC: You’ve worked with a number of female filmmakers, but there’s been a very masculine visual language and film for a long time. What are some of the discussions around visual parity and feminine perspective in your work? How do you see that as an editor?

TS: I always feel like as an editor, we’re inherently the ones, our jobs are to keep all the good things in, and I feel like in working with both male and women filmmakers, I’ve been very, very fortunate to work with filmmakers who are looking to inspire and uplift, and show a different perspective to who we are as women, and even within the male characters. Editing, in some ways was one of the first fields that really did allow a degree of women in this particular career, and yet, it’s still very male driven. With a film like this, I couldn’t say that if I hadn’t worked through my career with Gina and other female filmmakers I’ve had the benefit of showing what I’m capable of, because these women have trusted me to be on their journey. I think people are hungry for these type of stories, and I just want to see more of them. I think that as women, we are under attack. This year has been extraordinary, and in not necessarily the greatest kind of ways. Anytime that I can be a part of showing, and just solidifying who we are and what we’re capable of both behind and in front of the screen, those are the types of stories that I want to see as an audience. I mean, at the heart of it, whether you’re a journalist, I’m an editor, Gina is a director, we’re also an audience to the things that we want to see and the type of characters and people we want to see reflected back at us.

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren on her own website, CinemaSiren.com, and is a frequent contributor to MPA's TheCredits.org, where she interviews filmmakers above and below the line, with a focus on women and diverse voices. She is the Senior Contributor at AWFJ.org. Leslie is in her 9th year as producer and moderator of the influential "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. She is a world-renowned expert on cinema art and her film art gallery, ArtInsights, located near DC, has celebrated cinema art and artists for 30 years.