Editor Phyllis Housen on Shaping Sundance Jury Prize Winning Drama ‘Clemency’

Death row drama Clemency debuted at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival (winning the US Dramatic Grand Jury Prize) and explores themes of the prison industrial complex through the eyes of warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) as the emotional weight of state executions begins to take its toll on her. Directed by Chinonye Chukwu, the film has created a renewed conversation around capital punishment, and editor Phyllis Housen worked alongside Chukwu to bring impact and realism to the story.

New York-based editor Phyllis Housen first fell in love with movies at a young age and had that love reinforced by a high school teacher who taught film history instead of English class. Her first love to spring from this experience was toward writing about film theory, which naturally evolved into editing, including both chapters of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill saga, among many others.

“I was an English Lit major and a drummer,, and I think those two things – storytelling and rhythm – came together and made me an editor.”

I talked to Phyllis on the challenges of working with difficult material contrasted with the joy of collaborating with someone who loved going to work.

Creative COW: How did you get involved with Clemency and what drew you to a story about a female prison warden?

Phyllis Housen: The script is what was so great. My agent got me in touch with the producer Bronwyn Cornelius, and she and I met and had a great meeting. And she said ‘you have to meet the director, you guys are going to be great.’ We met and hit it off! But the script was so well-written and interesting and textured. And the pace of it was really interesting, It’s not a quickly paced film. You really get to feel the daily life in a prison, and that was part of what Chinonye was going for, to help the audience sort of feel what that day to day tedium is like.

What aspects of cutting this film were the most challenging?

There are a couple of lethal injection scenes that are pretty challenging – not only to create, but to watch. And so you might imagine the chaos that ensues when a lethal injection doesn’t go as planned. That scene was particularly challenging. It was a lot of moving parts but we put it together and it’s pretty impactful.

Chinonye did such a great job in getting what she wanted that it wasn’t as challenging as one might think. We really clicked. I understood her vision, and we found the movie. While it’s such a difficult film and a dark world to be in, we actually found a lot of joy in creating the movie every day. We loved coming into work, we loved working together, and I think that regardless of what the subject matter is on the screen, when you have that kind of chemistry in the cutting room, it shows up on the screen later.

What was your working relationship with Chinonye like, and how did you figure that out together?

She wanted to talk to me one more time before she hired me, basically to tell me how bossy she was. And I said I’m okay with bossy. Bossy is good in the cutting room – it means you know what you want, which is the best thing. We both showed up every day and we worked really hard. And you know what happens after a little while between an editor and a director is you sort of become two brains ingesting the same information and the same imagery. And my hands are working, but we’re both so focused on getting the film made. We both go into this flow space and get the movie made. I think we were both excited. We had our joy. I don’t want to sound cheesy, but we really enjoyed the work.

Two women working together and working with a female director, it doesn’t happen very often. A lot of times, directors look at my resume and what pops out at them is the fact that I worked on the Kill Bill movies. And I tend to work with a lot of 30-year-old guys. It was really refreshing to work with a female director, and hopefully that will happen a lot more in the future.

Director Chinonye Chukwu

When I was looking at the film’s crew list and who else worked on it, I was really excited to see director, editor, composer, a lot of women in head roles telling a story with a female protagonist in a situation where you wouldn’t traditionally think a woman would be in that role.

Exactly. Bronwyn did a great job producing this. It’s important to everybody now, to try and get women to be department heads and to be telling their story. I’ve been talking to a lot of people about what new jobs exist and what’s out there, and I’ve talked to a lot of people about editing TV series, and many of them are mandating female directors. I think it’s really interesting. And look, you’ll find some are better than others of course, but everyone’s starting to get a shot at it. I think that that’s really, really important.

When you were working on this movie you said some of the subject matter was difficult. Have you ever worked on a movie where the actual subject matter was hard to cope with, and how do you protect yourself from being too affected by that?

I think through the Kill Bill aspect, I get a lot of violent scripts. And I’ve had to cut scenes where people are really beating the crap out of each other. And it’s interesting – when I’m doing it it’s a work product. You just want to make it seem as real as you can and put the pieces together to create the impact. What I found with one particular film I cut, I invited my family to come to a screening and they couldn’t watch it. They were like ‘how can you create this violence?’ It’s interesting, I didn’t think about that, that it would impact them that way. So when you’re working, you really work with the material to try and make it as believable as you can if that’s what it’s demanding.

I don’t know if it’s compartmentalizing, but you sort of have to in order to create it. I will say one thing about Clemency that I found really interesting: there was a scene, a very, very impactful scene, that there was really not a dry eye in the house when the scene was playing out. But when we were putting it together, I was creating emotion, I wasn’t feeling it. But if anyone else would come in the room and we’d watch the scene and I’d hear them, then I would feel the emotion. And I thought that was really interesting that you could move away from the work enough to be an actual audience member. I found it particularly interesting and surprising.

Clemency. (Courtesy Sundance Institute)

During your long career you were an assistant editor during a time when that role was quite different compared to today. How do you think that role has changed, and what do assistants need today?

I have so many thoughts about that. I was so lucky to have come up when I did, when we were cutting on film. It was a much more labor-intensive job. The main thing I feel that has changed so much is that we would be five or six or eight people in a cutting room, and people had work. And now, we’re lucky to get one assistant. I think it’s too bad in terms of the industry hiring people, but also I was so lucky to learn how to edit from editors.

Whereas now, you barely have the time. Your assistant works in a different room. Y’know you yell things: ‘Can you find me this bin, blah, blah, blah?’. And then they’ll put it in a folder on your desktop without even coming into your room. Whereas, back in the old days, when I always say dinosaurs still roamed the earth, as an assistant I would have to stand there holding the actual shot – the film – in my hand in preparation for when the editor was going to cut it into the piece.

You were an integral part of the workings of making the film. You would actually see what they did at every step. I think we’ve lost something in that, in terms of mentorship. A legacy has gone away. I try, I do the best I can. I’ll give an assistant a scene to cut and then we’ll talk about it. Because I had editors who let me do that, and that’s the way you learn.

When the digital world came in, it certainly created a lot more time, but it created a lot more time for a lot more work, more versioning. When we were cutting film, the film would tell you when it was ready to be done. It would start breaking down, it would start tearing here and there, it would be, like, okay – we’re done. But it’s the versioning that happens with digital. You could keep cutting until forever. And sometimes that’s what people want to do.

As this film was cut in Premiere, were there aspects of the software that helped you get past the technology and dive deeper into the story?

I love Premiere. I am a huge, huge fan, and I came out of the Final Cut Pro world. And I held on to Final Cut 7 as long as I could, until the software couldn’t handle the media any more. It just kept breaking down and crashing, and I did not switch to Final Cut X, I was very much on the unhappy side of that.

But what happened, which people weren’t realizing at the time, is because of the split between Final Cut 7 users and Final Cut X, Adobe kinda grabbed the ball and ran through the middle. And they created software that I find it so intuitive. And so I love what it looks like, I love how it works. If there’s something you don’t know how to do, you can poke it and prod it and figure out what it is you need to do.

And in terms of the story, of getting to the story through the software, I just think of its ease. If you don’t have to stop all the time and ask someone ‘how do I do that’, or go on YouTube, which is what most people do, it just becomes a part of my hands.

The ‘other guys’, I find that to be really rigid software. If you don’t know how to do something in that software, you really can’t figure it out, you’ve got to stop and either ask someone for a trick or a tip, or go on YouTube. That’s been my experience.

I read that you worked in Paris for the first few years of your career and you also went to London. Do you think that having a global education and experience makes you a better storyteller? Is the global nature of stories changing?

Absolutely. I went to grad school in London and I had a choice of going to California. I took my semester abroad in LA. I went to USC for a semester, took a lot of classes, and I was lucky enough to have a fine arts advisor who helped me put all those classes through the Arts and English department. It was great so I could get credits for taking film classes.

I travel a lot. I’m a huge, huge fan. When I finish a film, usually the first thing I do is throw a dart at a globe, basically. Where haven’t I been? Where do I want to go? I love to travel. It opens up your mind to different kinds of stories. You’re also storytelling a lot when you travel, especially on your own. There’s a lot of trying to figure out how to communicate. I don’t really know how to speak Icelandic, so you have to figure it out.

I have another interesting story about language and the globalization of storytelling. And it was with this film called Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, which came from a young adult novel. My friend who was directing this film sent me an email, and he basically buried the lede. He said ‘You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to, it’s crazy, if you don’t do it I’m going to have to do it myself. But will you edit a movie in Japanese?’

And I just said I don’t know if I can. [I asked him to bring me] to Japan. I go to the movies everywhere I go, so, I took myself to the movies and I went to two films without subtitles. I sat in the dark and I watched the movies and I understood them – what was going on, the emotion – and after that I said ‘I can cut a movie in Japanese.’

So ultimately, I got a Japanese assistant. She sat next to me and I kept just hitting her shoulder saying, ‘What does that mean? What does that mean? What does that mean?’ And she helped me not cut in the middle of words and sentences. But you could feel where you wanted to go to a close-up. You could feel in the storytelling what was required. I needed a little help language-wise, but I think filmmaking is storytelling on such an intuitive level that it’s not necessarily about language.

You’re no stranger to going to festivals. What are you looking forward to most at Sundance this time?

I am excited that this is really the first time I’ve gone as the editor of a film. I’ve gone many times as a hanger-on, I’ve gone as an assistant, and I also have just been to Park City to ski because it’s a great place to go when it’s not the festival. I keep thinking of the hot chocolate at the Stein Eriksen.

I am excited to go and be with this film. I just think this film is going to get a lot of attention. It’s a really impactful film. As I said, it’s moody, it’s not a happy movie. But it’s poignant and it really makes you think. It doesn’t direct you in any way, it’s the kind of movie that you go out afterwards and talk about your opinions over a cup of coffee.

And they’re big issues. They’re big, important issues about the prison industrial complex, about the death penalty and the value of life and death. And they’re important issues to discuss. This film looks at them in a very grown up and intelligent way. And Chinonye, she really had a vision for this. It was on the page and it’s on the screen. And I think we’re going to hear a lot more from her, that’s for sure.