Jay Nelson on editing Bryan Buckley’s The Pirates of Somalia

While Cut+Run editor Jay Nelson’s list of credits includes many high-profile commercial spots — such as the Emmy-nominated and AICP-winning The Chase for Grey Poupon, as well as those for Xbox, Skechers, Hyundai and Heinz — he is no stranger to feature film editing. In fact, he most recently collaborated once again with director Bryan Buckley on The Pirates of Somalia. Buckley, who has an Oscar nomination under his belt for the 2012 short Asad, has directed over 50 Super Bowl spots since 2002, many of which were edited by Nelson.

The Pirates of Somalia, starring Evan Peters, Barkhad Abdi, Melanie Griffiths and Al Pacino, follows a young journalist who travels to Somalia to write a book on the country’s pirates. Nelson used an Avid Media Composer to cut the film. Let’s find out more.

Jay Nelson

What were the biggest creative challenges in editing the film?
I’ve had a lot of experience editing with subtitles and foreign languages. Personally, I find it to be unpleasant because you can’t just freeform flow the edit and the dialogue; you have to be cognizant of the translations and the tone. On this film, Bryan wanted to approach these scenes in an original way and not make the viewer have to work through subtitles. The challenge was to integrate Barkhad’s on-camera translation into the dialogue without being clunky, to keep the dialogue flowing from Somali to English.

It’s essentially a dialogue between two people, but with a third person adding their own character into it. Two of the scenes took close to half the time I edited the film in order to get them just right. The scenes went from an initial 12 minutes apiece to about three or four minutes, and I think they work incredibly well. I learned a lot, and I think the approach contributes to the uniqueness of the movie.

Any technical hurdles, expected or otherwise?
Honestly, the hurdles in this film were pretty standard stuff, which is refreshing. The language and the clarity of dialogue throughout is something I spent a considerable amount of time dialing into shape. We didn’t have to “fix” anything. Bryan and his crew just laid it all out beautifully.

As someone who is known for largely comedic narratives, what did you learn on this feature about dramatic content?
I don’t draw too much distinction between editing comedy and editing drama. I just take it one minute at a time when making a feature. But Bryan is a very funny person, and naturally it’s easy for him to infuse humor into things, and it’s natural for me to want to accentuate that because he and I both like to laugh as much as we like making other people laugh. The challenge with this and all things I get to create with him is making sure the humor is deftly placed and balanced with the drama. We spent a lot of time determining the right balance. It is a film with a message, and it’s often gripping to watch. So we paid attention to our beats and reminded ourselves never to cloud the purpose.

How long have you been working with Bryan, and what are some of your favorite collaborations?
I’ve been fortunate to have worked with Bryan for five years now. The first project was an incredible spot for Grey Poupon called The Chase. I think I grasped his vision and we agreed on everything. In fact, rarely do we not see eye to eye. He makes my job easy. I can’t honestly pick a favorite collaboration. We’ve done all manner of media together (including the 2015 feature The Bronze). When I do get to work with him, it’s always purely about the love of doing what I do with someone who is a master at what they do. It’s about the friendship and the laughs for me. I’m lucky to get that on anything I do with him.

How has your process together evolved?
He’s a great communicator and is always available when it’s about the job. I wake up to his emails and get cracking. All great collaborations are about synergy and removing the guesswork. I can relate it to sports or music — the more you practice with someone, the easier it is to know what they’re thinking and what they intend. That’s the evolution, and it’s always been free of the BS and insincerity. I genuinely love the way he sees things. He’s taught me a lot about improving at my profession, and I’ve learned a lot about life from him as well.

Any advice for short-form editors looking to expand into features?
Take it one minute at a time, and don’t be overwhelmed. Any other advice than that might come across as jaded. Features stand the test of time when they’re good, and they actually mark periods of your life as all great works of art should when you suffer for them. There’s a lot of reward in that legacy. But not every editor is cut out for features. It’s a different discipline, the politics are different, and so is the discipline of objectivity. Choose your projects wisely. There’s nothing worse than being two weeks in on a feature and realizing that maybe it’s not your cup of tea, or you don’t connect with the execution. We sacrifice a lot when we vanish to make a film, so make sure it’s worth it and it’s really what you want to be doing.

From having projects at film festivals to editing ads for the Super Bowl, you’ve had an exciting career trajectory. What’s next?
When I started my pursuit of an editing career I vowed to approach it like I was training to be a surgeon. I wanted to understand all the jobs of the people I’d work with — producers, VFX artists, assistants, reps, directors. In some form or another I’ve embodied all of those roles along the way. Part of that vow was to embrace the notion that one is forever a student of the craft.

As I continue that pursuit this coming year I’ll be taking improv and acting classes because I’ve just never done it. I don’t have designs of being on-screen, but I know it will only round out my understanding of editing performance. Beyond that, my fundamental goal as an editor is to expand my knowledge of the language of film — I’m constantly searching to discover that treatment to add a technique to the dictionary of editing — to approach something in a whole new way. There’s an expanding universe of techniques out there, and I’ll keep doing this as long as I feel challenged and retain that desire to search. Inspiration from collaborating with the likes of Bryan Buckley will also keep the sails full. Long may it last.

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