By Amy Leland
When the buzz started in anticipation of the premiere of Crazy Rich Asians, there was a lot of speculation about whether audiences would fill the theaters for the first all-Asian cast in an American film since 1993’s Joy Luck Club. Or whether audiences wanted to see a romantic comedy, a format that seemed to be falling out of favor.
The answer to both questions was a resounding, “Yes!” The film grossed $35 million during its opening weekend, against a $30 million budget. It continued going strong its second weekend, making another $28M, the highest Labor Day weekend box office in more than a decade. It was the biggest opening weekend for a rom-com in three years, and is the most successful studio rom-com in nine. All of this great success can be explained pretty simply — it’s a fun movie with a well-told story.
Not long ago, I had the great fun of sitting down with one of its storytellers, editor Myron Kerstein, to discuss this Jon M. Chu-directed film as well as Kerstein’s career as an editor.
How did you get started as an editor?
I was a fine arts major in college and stumbled upon photography, filmmaking, painting and printmaking. I really just wanted to make art of any kind. Once I started doing more short films in college, I found a knack for editing.
When I first moved to New York, I needed to make a living, so I became a PA, and I worked on a series called TV Nation one of Michael Moore’s first shows. It was political satire. There was a production period, and then slowly the editors needed help in the post department. I gravitated toward these alchemists, these amazing people who were making things out of nothing. I really started to move toward post through that experience.
I also hustled quite a bit with all of those editors, and they started to hire me after that job. Slowly but surely I had a network of people who wanted to hire me again. That’s how I really started, and I really began to love it. I thought, what an amazing process to read these stories and look at how much power and influence an editor has in the filmmaking process.
I was not an assistant for too long, because I got to cut a film called Black & White. Then I quickly began doing edits for other indies, one being a film called Raising Victor Vargas, and another film called Garden State. That was my big hit in the indie world, and slowly that lead to more studio films, and then to Crazy Rich Asians.
Your first break was on a television show that was nothing like feature films. How did you ultimately move toward cutting feature films?
I had a real attraction to documentary filmmaking, but my heart wanted to make narrative features. I think once you put that out in the universe, then those jobs start coming to you. I then stumbled upon my mentor, Jim Lyons, who cut all of Todd Haynes’s movies for years. When I worked on Velvet Goldmine as an assistant editor, I knew this was where I really needed to be. This was a film with music that was trying to say something, and was also very subversive. Jim and Todd were these amazing filmmakers that were just shining examples of the things I wanted to make in the future.
Any other filmmakers or editors whose work influenced you as you were starting out?
In addition to Todd Haynes, directors like Gus Van Sant and John Hughes. When I was first watching films, I didn’t really understand what editors did, so at the same time I was influenced by Spielberg, or somebody like George Romero. Then I realized there were editors later who made these things. Ang Lee, and his editor Tim Squyres were like a gods to me. I really wanted to work on one of Ang’s crews very badly, but everyone wanted to work with him. I was working at the same facilities where Ang was cutting, and I was literally sneaking into his edit rooms. I would be working on another film, and I would just kind of peek my head in and see what they were doing and that kind of thing.
How did this Crazy Rich Asians come about for you?
Brad Simpson, who was a post supervisor on Velvet Goldmine back in the ‘90s when I was the assistant editor, is a producer on this film. Flash forward 20 years and I stumbled upon this script through agents. I read it and I was like, “I really want to be a part of this, and Brad’s the producer on this thing? Let me reach out to him.” He said, “I think you might be the right fit for this.” It was pretty nerve-wracking because I’d never worked with Jon before. Jon was a pretty experienced filmmaker, and he’d worked with a lot of editors. I just knew that if I could be part of the process, we could make something special.
My first interview with Jon was a Skype interview. He was in Malaysia already prepping for the film. Those interviews are very difficult to not look or sound weird. I just spoke from the heart, and said this is what I think makes me special. These are the ways I can try to influence a film and be part of the process. Lucky enough between that interview and Brad’s recommendation, I got the job.
When did you begin your work on the film?
I basically started the first week of filming and joined them in Malaysia and Singapore for the whole shoot. It was a pretty amazing experience being out there in two Muslim countries — two Westernized Muslim countries that were filled with some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. It was an almost entirely local crew, a couple of assistant editors, and me. Sometimes I feel like it might not be the best thing for an editor to be around set too much, but in this case it was good for me to see the setting they were trying to portray… and feel the humidity, the steaminess, the romance and Singapore, which is both alien and beautiful at the same time.
What was your collaboration like with Jon Chu?
It was just an organic process, where my DNA started to become infused with Jon’s. The good thing about my going to Malaysia and Singapore was we got to work together early. One thing that doesn’t happen often anymore is a director who actually screens dailies in a theater. Jon would do that every weekend. We would watch dailies, and he would say what he liked and didn’t like, or more just general impressions of his footage. That allowed me to get into his head a bit.
At the same time I was also cutting scenes. At the end of every day’s screening, we would sit down together. He gave me a lot of freedom, but at the same time was there to give me his first impressions of what I was doing. I think we were able to build some trust really early.
Because of the film’s overwhelming success, this has opened doors for other Asian-led projects.
Isn’t that the most satisfying thing in the world? You hope to define your career by moments like this, but rarely get that chance. I watched this film, right when it was released, which was on my birthday. I ended up sitting next to this young Asian boy and his mom. This kid was just giggling and weeping throughout the movie. To have an interaction with a kid like that, who may have never seen someone like himself represented on the screen was pretty outstanding.
Music was such an important part of this film. The soundtrack is so crucial to moments in the film that it almost felt like a musical. Were you editing scenes with specific songs in mind, or did you edit and then come back and add music?
Jon gave me a playlist very early on of music he was interested in. A lot of the songs sounded like they were from the 1920s — almost big band tunes. Right then I knew the film could have more of a classy Asian-Gatsby quality to it. Then as we were working on the film together, we started trying out these more modern tunes. I think the producers might have thought we were crazy at one point. You’re asking the audience to go down these different roads with you, and that can sometimes work really well, or sometimes can be a train wreck.
But as much as I love working with music, when I assemble I don’t cut with any music in mind. I try not to use it as a crutch. Oftentimes you cut something with music, either with a song in your head, or often editors will cut with a song as a music bed. But, if you can’t tell a story visually without a song to help drive it, then I think you’re fooling yourself.
I really find that my joy of putting in music happens after I assemble, and then I enjoy experimenting. That Coldplay song at the end of the film, for example… We were really struggling with how to end our movie. We had a bunch of different dialogue scenes that were strung together, but we didn’t feel like it was building up to some kind of climax. I figured out the structure and then cut it like any other scene without any music. Then Jon pitched a couple songs. Ironically enough I had an experience with Coldplay from the opening of Garden State. I liked the idea of this full circle in my own career with Coldplay at the end of a romantic comedy that starred an all-Asian cast. And it really felt like it was the right fit.
The graphic design was fascinating, especially in the early scene with Rachel and Nick on their date that kicks off all of the text messages. Is that something that was storyboarded early, or was that something you all figured out in the edit and in post?
Jon did have a very loose six-page storyboard of how we would get from the beginning of this to the end. The storyboard was nothing compared to what we ended up doing. When I first assembled my footage, I stitched together a two-minute sequence of just split screens of people reacting to other people. Some of that footage is in the movie, but it was just a loose sketch. Jon liked it, but it didn’t represent what he imagined this sequence to be. To some extent he had wondered whether we even needed the sequence.
Jon and I discussed it and said, “Let’s give this a shot. Let’s find the best graphics company out there.” We ended up landing with this company called Aspect, led by John Berkowitz. He and his team of artists worked with us to slowly craft this sequence over months. Beginning with, “How do we get the first text bubble to the second person? What do those text bubbles look like? How do they travel?” Then they gave us 20 different options to see how those two elements would work together. Then we asked, “How do we start expanding outward? What information are we conveying? What is the text bubble saying?” It was like this slowly choreographed dance that we ended up putting together over the course of months.
They would make these little Disney-esque pops. We really loved that. That kind of made it feel like we were back in old Hollywood for a second. At the same time we had these modern devices with text bubbles. So far as the tone was concerned, we tried percussion, just drumming, and other old scores. Then we landed on a score from John Williams from 1941, and that gave us the idea that maybe some old-school big band jazz might go really well in this. Our composer Brian Tyler saw it, and said, “I think I can make this even zanier and crazier.”
How do you work with your assistants?
Assistants are crucial as far as getting through the whole process. I actually had two sets of assistants; John To and David Zimmerman were on the first half in Malaysia and Singapore. I found John through my buddy Tom Cross, who edits for Damien Chazelle. I wanted somebody who could help me with the challenges of getting through places like Malaysia and Singapore, because if you’re looking for help for your Avid, or trying to get dailies from Malaysia to America, you’re kind of on your own. Warner Bros. was great and supportive, and they gave us all the technical help. But it’s not like they can fly somebody out if something goes wrong in an hour.
On the post side I ended up using Melissa Remenarich-Aperlo, and she was outstanding. In the post process I needed somebody to hold down the fort and keep me organized, and also somebody for me to bounce ideas off of. I’m a big proponent of using my assistants creatively. Melissa ended up cutting the big fashion montage. I really struggled with that sequence because I felt strongly like this might be a trope that this film didn’t need. That was the debate with a lot of them. Which romantic comedy tropes should we have in this movie? Jon was like, “It’s wish fulfillment. We really need this. I know we’ve seen it a thousand times, but we need this scene.”
I said let’s try something different. Let’s try inter-cutting the wedding arrival with the montage, and let’s try to make it one big story to get us from us not knowing what she’s going to show up in to her arrival. Both of those sequences were fine on their own, but it didn’t feel like either one of them was doing anything interesting. It just felt like we were eating up time, and we needed to get to the wedding, and we had a lot of story to tell. Once we inter-cut them we knew this was the right choice. As Jon said, you need these moments in the film where you can just sit back and take a breath, smile for a minute and get ready for the drama that starts. Melissa did a great job on that sequence.
Do you have any advice for somebody who’s just starting out and really wants to edit feature films?
I would tell them to start cutting. Cut anything they can. If they don’t have the software, they can cut on iMovie on their iPhone. Then they should reach out to people like me and create a network. And keep doing that until people say yes. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people.
Also don’t be afraid to be an assistant editor. As much as they want to cut, as they should, they also need to learn the process of editing from others. Be willing to stick with it, even if that means years of doing it. I think you’d be surprised how much you learn over the course of time with good editors. I feel like it’s a long bridge. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and it took a long time to get here, but perseverance goes a long way in this field. You just have to really know you want to do it and keep doing it.
Amy Leland is a film director and editor. Her short film, “Echoes”, is now available on Amazon Video. She also has a feature documentary in post, a feature screenplay in development, and a new doc in pre-production. She is an editor for CBS Sports Network and recently edited the feature “Sundown.” You can follow Amy on social media on Twitter at @amy-leland and Instagram at @la_directora.