Hail Satan? Aaron Wickenden, ACE on Cutting the Controversial Doc

Director Penny Lane’s documentary Hail Satan? opens with a sequence of events from a small scale rally: a few people gathered on the steps of a Florida government building, a handful of protesters and media, and a man with horns creating fire from thin air as he thanks Governor Rick Scott for signing a bill into law that would allow prayer in public schools – ”if you open the door for God, you open the door for Satan!” Even the title card – Hail Satan…? – is questioning if any of this is, like, for real. That sets the tone for a wild ride that follows, which traces the massive growth of The Satanic Temple worldwide, from minor pranks to nationwide news and bullet-proof vests.

And no, it’s really not at all what you think it is.

The Satanic Temple is a movement that began almost as an attention-grabbing joke, occasionally taking things a bit far. But the film explores the Temple’s transition into a structured organization seeking to make people ask questions about religious freedom in the United States. While they use Satanic imagery to stir things up, their self-described mission is encouraging benevolence and empathy toward all people. Their argument is simple: the United States was built by people fleeing religious persecution, so it’s hypocritical of people to persecute non-Christian religions.

The execution of this is less simple. Aside from regular lobbying and organized participation in local government, The Satanic Temple often relies upon theatrics and satire to get its point across. A recent example was a request to place a winged statue of Baphomet next to the Ten Commandments monument at the Arkansas State Capitol building. If we truly have religious freedom in this country, then many different religious images should be welcome together on government property, right? Or maybe we should have none at all on our government property?

The conversations that ensue from these carefully crafted initiatives (which also sometimes completely fail) create hilarious imagery, amusingly conflicting images of what “Satanists” can look like, and a much deeper conversation on what it means to be an American Patriot.

And yeah, it makes for a great documentary.

Baphomet in Hail Satan? (Courtesy Sundance Institute)

Similar to the Satanic Temple, Hail Satan? rides a careful line between humor and the serious issues of religious polarization in the United States in a narrative co-edited by Emmy-nominated editor Aaron Wickenden, ACE. Aaron began his film career in Chicago after attending school for photography, initially modeling his aspirations toward being a director after Stanley Kubrick’s path. While Kubrick had started out as a photographer for Look Magazine, the company Aaron ended up at – Kartemquin Films – weren’t looking for photographers. Instead, a considerably less glamorous night position of subtitling a seven hour mini-series was available, and Aaron took it. The relationships built through this initial early opportunity, particularly with director Steve James (of Hoop Dreams fame), led to a ten year working relationship leading Aaron to cut At the Death House Door and The Interrupters.

Since then, Aaron has edited an array of popular documentaries including a favorite of Sundance audiences last year Won’t You Be My Neighbor, an uplifting tear-jerker about Mr. Rogers, and Netflix’s They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, about a comeback attempt staged by director Orson Welles as he tries to finish his final film The Other Side of the Wind. Aaron co-edited Hail Satan? with editor Amy Foote, and I talked to him about his involvement and approach to crafting the story shortly after the film’s 2019 Sundance premiere.

Aaron Wickenden, ACE

Creative COW: What was your path to joining the film?

Aaron Wickenden: Between the start of my career and when [director Penny Lane] had reached out to me, I made a film called Almost There. And I went with my directing partner to the IFP Labs in New York as we were trying to fundraise. And at the time, Penny was fundraising and trying to secure distribution for her film Our Nixon. We met each other and hung out a little bit and really hit it off. And then we’d see each other periodically over the years at film festivals. But Penny kind of reached out to me out of the blue and asked if I would be interested in working with her on a project.

And I’d really loved Penny’s work on Nuts, it had won the best editing award at Sundance. And I knew that whatever she was working on would have so much humor and vitality to it. She used vitality, subversiveness, things that I was really excited about, that I’m attracted to when I look for projects.

She sent me the demos for a couple of projects that she had in development and one was ‘Hail Satan?’. And I remember watching this 20-minute demo and then excitedly showing it to my wife and being like I think this is the next film I want to work on. From the get-go the demo showed how much fun the film was going to be, how surprising it was going to be, and the level of intelligence and emotional intimacy that the film was going to have.

I got on the phone with Penny and her producer Gabriel [Sedgwick] and one of the most striking things was how much fun they were having and how much they were laughing. And I just remember getting off that phone call and just feeling so excited that there might be this possibility to work together because there was so much joy in the process of making this film and exploring those topics.

My schedule was pretty booked up for a while. I was finishing Won’t You Be My Neighbor and then right after that I had a commitment to do another film with the same director called They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead. And so I wasn’t immediately available to do Hail Satan and Amy Foote – who’s an amazing editor and cut a film called The Work which is one of my favourite documentary films in recent years – was hired to come in and start cutting the film. The idea was that Amy and I would work simultaneously for the bulk of the edit.

Director Penny Lane (Courtesy Sundance Institute

What was the nature of the working relationship between Amy and Penny and you? Were you working separately on different parts of the story all the time, or was it highly collaborative?

Every independent documentary that I’ve worked on has been extremely collaborative, and this was no exception. The one thing that was unique about this was that I was working from a home office in Chicago and the rest of the team was working from an office in Brooklyn. And so the way that we made that work is on a project level, Amy, Penny and I all had identical hard drives with the same media, and that made it possible for us to share Premiere sequences and have them open up seamlessly and be able to view each other’s material without having to do exports all the time.

So that was wonderful. But then when we did have exports, we would put them up on Frame.io. And that’s a really wonderful tool because it allows you to leave notes directly on a frame. Penny is such a wonderful director because she invites a dialog about the creative process. And so, each of us would go in and we would have debates, and we would give each other a hard time, and we would fight for our ideas. And Penny allowed for that creative exchange to take place. Everyone’s ideas were respected.

What was the process of figuring out exactly how to piece together these different threads? There’s a lot of jumping different locations, several different main characters, and different initiatives within the Temple. What approach did you take to figuring out the best way to weave these together?

From the time I started, we knew that the whole film was going to take the viewer on a journey from the original gesture of the Satanic Temple, which was that it was a couple of friends who got together with this idea for assuming the identity of a Satanic group as a way to make a statement for religious freedom. And at the beginning there was a lot of humor to it, and there were people involved who didn’t necessarily consider themselves Satanists. But by the end of the film there was the fact that we showed they had become a world-wide minority religion. And so the journey of the film essentially was from a humorous prank to something incredibly serious.

Along the way they would have to grapple with how they defined what Satanism was, or re-defined what Satanism was. And also how as an organization, as they were growing, they also had to deal with codifying the idea of their organization and struggled with controlling it. I think that once we knew generally where we wanted to start and where we wanted to wind up, that gave us a great framework for building the film.

Oftentimes I like to think about editing and putting together these really complex films as almost like you’re building a puzzle. A puzzle with a thousand pieces. If you were to put together a jigsaw puzzle, you look and you build the corner pieces first, because it’s clear those are the key moments. And then you build the edges, and then you build in.

And so, I use a similar method on the films that I edit. I try to identify with the director ahead of time: what do we know is absolutely going to be in the film? What are the tent-pole scenes? We build those and then we build into and out of them. And that method proved to be pretty useful in terms of not getting lost. The interviews Penny would do were sometimes hours long, six hours long for a single sitting and so much of what people had to say was incredibly interesting. And you could have made many movies with that material. So, knowing the story and always coming back to ‘What is the thread?’, ‘What is the story we’re trying to tell?’, allowed us to stay on track and make this film for Sundance.

Penny Lane with producer Gabriel Sedgwick and Satanic Temple co-founder Lucien Greaves at the 2019 Sundance Premiere (Courtesy Sundance Institute)

Did you have to work to maintain that sort of humorous tone that runs throughout, or was that just inherent in the subject matter? Or was it easy to slip into a sort of tone that was a little too serious?

The humorous quality in Penny’s demo is what attracted me to doing the film in the first place. I think the Satanic Temple is incredibly provocative. But part of that provocation is through their actions and sense of humor. That quality was pretty baked into them – Penny and the subjects were incredibly well suited for each other. If you’ve seen any of her previous films, humor is an inherent technique that she draws upon in her storytelling. The humor in the film wasn’t a struggle for us to arrive to, it absolutely was inherent in every gesture that the Satanic Temple was doing.

If there was any struggle, it was how to fit in all of the incredible actions that they did. One of my favorites is their “Snaketivity”. They built a nativity for the Satanic Temple but they want it displayed in Detroit alongside a Christian nativity. But the Satanic Temple had a giant snake and they called it ‘Snaketivity’. And so, things like that are just so funny, but underneath the humor is a real deep political point, pushing people to reconsider their notions of religious freedom and the possibility of religious polarity in this country.

Were there any aspects of Adobe Premiere that really helped you in the documentary space in making this happen so quickly?

Yeah, absolutely. One of the things that was extremely useful with Premiere is that they have this proxy toggle feature. The film was shot in 4K. And all of our master footage was converted into 1080p Apple ProRes proxies. With Premiere all you have to do is push a button on your timeline and it will immediately flip between the 4K and the proxy.

We were all editing on fairly old systems as far as computer tech goes. All of us were editing off of iMacs, like 2014-era iMacs. Having the proxy feature allowed us to cut with the footage, and then we knew from visual tests we had done that we could push into the footage 200% and not lose any visual quality. We could edit more playfully and seamlessly just by pushing in.

But when you’re cutting with a proxy they became incredibly blurry and when we submitted to Sundance or had a test meeting, we didn’t want to show like something really distracting like that. So all we had to do was flip the switch. It would go to 4K, you would export, and it was beautiful.

Official trailer for Hail Satan?

You’ve cut a lot of documentaries, including some very recent popular Sundance stuff, and then Netflix docs. How do you find the style for each one?

I think one of the things I do when I’m like watching the material from the beginning of my involvement with the project is I just watch it to see what resonates with me. What lights me up, what’s funny, what’s moving? And I try to stay fairly open to that when I’m first evaluating the material. Keep a real openness. The footage could be used in any type of way. Just because it was conceived in one way, it can be re-focused and extracted for a variety of purposes.

I try to keep track of my initial vibes that I had from the material. And then I start to think about the grouping of ideas and concepts and usually that comes in direct collaboration with the director. You start having these idea clusters come together. The movie eventually gets to a place where it starts to tell you what it wants. The decisions you make start to have these echoes and ramifications throughout the entire edit. You can start to feel whether something makes sense to the totality of the film.

I think if I’ve done my job well, the film has a sense of cohesion that is ingrained, that starts from the material and comes out of it. A symbiotic process, it’s a reflection of the content rather than imposing too heavily on the content.

What advice do you have for people that are interested in cutting documentaries and want to get more into that themselves?

I benefited tremendously in my career from finding incredible organisations, such as Kartemquin. It was a company that I had sought out because I loved the films they made. I was very lucky to be able to get an internship with them. In particular there was a film Kartemquin made in 1968 called Inquiring Nuns and it’s basically a film where two nuns walk around the streets of Chicago, interviewing people and asking them if they’re happy. And it’s scored with Philip Glass’s music and it’s really one of my favorite films.

I think one of the pieces of advice I give to people is to not just look at film in a general sense. Like, oh I want to work in film, I’ll find a job somewhere in film. But to really try to identify: what do you love? Who are your idols? Try to seek those people out and see if there’s any opportunities near then or adjacent to them. Don’t worry about skipping ahead so fast to cutting.

Another thing that helped me tremendously early on was I attempted, and failed, to make my own feature documentary film. But in the process I taught myself a lot about the filmmaking craft and about editing. And it gave me enough experience so that then when I went to do the internship at Kartemquin, I was prepared and could speak the same language as the editors were using in the edit room.