Light From Light: Editor Courtney Ware on Returning to Sundance

Editor/Director Courtney Ware got her start in the industry as a PA, quickly working her way up to producer before her 21st birthday. After her directorial debut on Sunny in the Dark, she realized a pivot away from producing and into storytelling was in her future, and she got started on being an editor in between directing jobs. The first film to bring her to Sundance was Never Goin’ Back, and she’s back at the festival this year with Light From Light.

And she’s made all these career strides from Dallas, Texas, in a tight-knit local filmmaking community.

“The cool thing about Dallas is that everyone gets to work on each other’s projects. People that I’ve hired in the past, I get to work with them and help them bring their projects to board. We’re a pretty cool close-knit family over here in Dallas. We like working together.”

I talked to Courtney about her return to Sundance as an editor on Light From Light.

Director/Editor Courtney Ware

Creative COW: I saw that Light From Light is part of the Next category at Sundance. Why was it placed in that category? What makes it different?

Courtney Ware: The film is really contemplative. It’s something that is really quiet and understated, but we have incredibly nuanced performances from Marin Ireland and Jim Gaffigan. I think it’s in the Next category because Marin plays a character who is a paranormal investigator, but the film is by no means a horror film or a ghost story type film. It is really a dramatic film about these characters, and so I think the cool thing about the films that are in Next is that they seem to always subvert genre or do something really interesting that I haven’t seen before. I think this film does exactly that. It’s a drama that happens to have a ghost investigator in it, but it is not a horror film, which I think is really interesting.

As an editor, what was the challenging part of cutting this film? Was there a particularly challenging scene?

While cutting Never Goin’ Back, our goal was find the funniest take. How quickly can we get through to all of these jokes, because the pacing was really fast. With [Light from Light] everything’s so much more subtle that we were really, really specific in our take choices. We would have just a slightly different line read, and that would of course ripple through the entire film. And so that was challenging to maneuver through these small dramatic changes, and see how drastically these small changes would change the performance, change the feeling, change the tone.

We have a 12 minute scene and within that 12-minute scene is a 2 minute closeup on Marin Ireland where we never cut away. When you have these incredible actors, it’s easy to make bold choices. It was a scene that I was most nervous about and then as we went through it, it ended up turning into my favourite scenee. It was just a really cool way to get the editing out of the way and just let sort of the story unfold.

Light From Light (Courtesy Sundance Institute)

Speaking of sort of getting the editing out of the way, what was your process using Adobe Premiere? Had you been using it before, and did it help you get to the story stuff instead of the technical stuff?

I’ve been using Premiere for – ooh I should count one day. I can’t remember when I switched over! It was whenever Final Cut X came out [ed note: June 2011] and I’ve just been so happy ever since. This is my third feature film I’ve cut in Premiere. I talk about the intangibles whenever I talk about software. I really like the brain-space of how Premiere is laid out, how it just works. It makes a lot of sense to me and my brain. I’ve worked in many, many other editing softwares and those other softwares don’t quite make sense to me on a really basic level.

I’ve really enjoyed working in Premiere, it’s definitely become a requirement. I’ve gotten a couple of other inquiries about editing and using other programs but it’s not a good idea. I’ve definitely been able to work really quickly. Something that’s really interesting about this film is that I cut on set. So I was ten feet away from filming on my laptop, with hard drives and all that, and was literally cutting everything there. And so having a program that could so easily work and be reliable in such a mobile situation, there’s just no other way to do it for me.

What was it like cutting on set? Were you cutting from the original camera files on set or making dailies as well?

Our DP had a few LUTs that she was choosing between, so it actually synced everything and transcoded into dailies that have the LUT applied. And then I would import that into Premiere and be cutting. I was anywhere from a full day to half a day behind, so it was really, really fast. The whole process took very little time for me to actually get into the scene.

[Cutting on set] was something we tried out on Never Goin’ Back, sort of a proof of concept, and it really worked. It’s great because I can be aware of what’s going on. Paul [Harrill] is the type of director that likes to get a lot of variations on the scenes. Depending on what the actors were giving him he might change the script around. So being there it was great, because I knew exactly what I was getting, and knew which direction Paul was leaning.

Being able to give real time-ish feedback and to be able to say ‘hey, y’know, I think we need to push further or hold back a little, I think you’ve gone too far’. Stuff like that on an indie film level saves a ton of time and saves us from having to do re-shoots. Plus, I just really like being on set.

Being a director yourself and also an editor, how do you switch between those two ways of thinking? How does that affect your relationship collaborating with a director when you are the editor?

It’s cool because I think they all intertwine. Being a director makes me a better editor and vice versa. I can lend my opinion on stuff like tone. It’s helpful for when it’s the end of the day and we’re running out of daylight, and we have the AD’s shot list but we have time to get maybe two more shots, it’s handy for me to be able to say for the edit we need at least this. I can be that voice that is an outside perspective. And when the director is maybe trying to focus on how to get the day, or how to continue to direct his actors, it’s all helpful. And I think that’s why I gravitated towards editing so much, because they are so intermixed.

Courtney on the set of Sunny in the Dark (Miah Oren Photography)

What do you think is the most important skill that a storyteller can have today and bring to a film?

I think being able to convey a thought is really important. Storytellers are all about communicating and being able to communicate through technology. I laugh a lot because filmmakers live in this intangible – we’re not painting something that you can then look at or touch, we’re creating zeros and ones in this intangible magic of movie magic. And so being able to technically take that magic and turn it into something that you can communicate and connect with your audience is really important. What that skill actually is, I’m not sure. But I think being able to communicate and use the tools that we’ve been given, I think that’s helpful, important.

What would you say to somebody that’s like ‘oh you’re in Dallas, you should come to LA or you should come to New York instead because then you could do so much more on a coast’?

I mean, I stay pretty busy. For me it’s about the people and who you can work with. You can make some really great connections and friendships wherever you are. I’m not really interested in moving away from here. I can make a movie really easily in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and I can do it with people that I enjoy working with. It’s just different. I don’t know how else to say it.

I think it’s important to find your people. I’ve started working on projects because people recommended me or I got connected through friends of mine, or friends of friends. If you can find those people that make you a better filmmaker and start making stuff with them, then you slowly start meeting more people and working on new or different projects. It’s about finding those people that will push you to make you better. And those people are everywhere. Especially now that, because our world is so connected.

Courtney at the Sundance premiere of Never Goin’ Back in 2018

What are you excited about doing or seeing at Sundance this year?

It’s funny because the first year you go, everything’s so new and you don’t know what to expect and you’re trying to find that balance between how many films you can watch versus how much sleep do you need. I’m the type of person that really likes to know what to expect, so the fact that I know what to expect for this year makes me that much more excited to go. I love watching movies at 9 o’clock in the morning with a bunch of other strangers and then just randomly walking around in the snow. That’s also something I’m really excited about, because here in Texas we just don’t get snow.