Joi McMillon made history in January when she became the first black woman (and only the second black person in nearly half a decade) to be nominated in the Best Editing category at the Academy Awards for Moonlight. McMillon got her start in the industry by working in the reality TV world, eventually making her way into assistant roles on a string of features, including the 2007 film Talk to Me and, more recently, Sausage Party.
In the latest episode of the Slate podcast Represent, Aisha Harris spoke with her about how she crafts a scene, navigating and making connections in the industry, and working alongside co-editor Nat Sanders on Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-nominated film. Below, a transcribed and edited excerpt from that conversation, in which McMillon breaks down a pivotal piece of the film. You can check out the full episode in the audio player below.
Aisha Harris: What was it like for you [to edit the third act diner scene between Black, played by Trevante Rhodes and Kevin, played by Andre Holland]?
Joi McMillon: It's funny, because I remember when I was first putting that together. Because basically the first two acts are based on Tarell [Alvin McCraney]'s play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. And the third act is completely made up of Barry; Barry wrote the third act. To me, I was kind of nervous about the third act because not a ton happens in that diner scene, and I think we're in that diner for five different scenes, because there's a time jump.
Yeah, there's quite a few long takes.
Definitely. And so when I was first watching the dailies, I was just amazed at how James and Barry were able to take this diner and create this environment by angles and long takes and camera moves, they were able to make each scene feel different, even though we're in the same location. And so for me, like in editing that, my main goal was to preserve the long takes as much as I could, based on performances and the camera movements, and making sure that they were all in sync. But another thing is that we are—Moonlight's a single-camera movie. So we didn't shoot multicameras. When you don't shoot with multiple cameras, it's hard sometimes when your actors aren't giving it when they're both on camera and when they're off. But in the diner, it was, you know, Trevante and Andre just did an amazing job. Whether they're on camera or off camera, they're both challenging each other and really embodying the essence of these characters.
And there's one take when Andre turns around and he's next to the jukebox and he looks at [Trevante]. And I remember just being like, almost kind of feeling like a person—I was like, I'm watching this, but does he know he's being recorded? Because it felt so personal. You know? And it felt so intimate. And I'm like, Oh my gosh I feel like I'm peeping in and spying on people having this real private moment. And it was just because their acting was so good. And so then as an editor, you're working more [from the standpoint of] preservation. You know, trying to preserve these moments and these beats and these looks and these amazing camera movements and trying to combine them and make them reflect everything that Barry's trying to say in this scene.
And so for me, it was looking at every take and choosing the best performance from each actor. Also looking for the hidden gems that sometimes actors will give you. There were some lines of improv that I kept in, because, it's funny—when you're nervous, people tend to make a joke to kind of break the tension. And Andre did that, and it was so nice and so organic, and I remember keeping that in.
Do you remember which one it was?
Yeah, he says, “Better than your Spaghettios.” And then Trevante says, “My Spaghettios go hard.”
Yeah, I remember that!
It's so good!
Yeah, that's a great moment. I love that that was improvised. One of the other things that Barry and I discussed [in our conversation] was just how unique that scene was. Like, we rarely—we see people making food all the time, to the point that it's almost like food porn in certain movies. I think of the movie Chef with John Favreau where it's just like, We're going to show him chopping and dicing and sprinkling. And it's always about the love of the food. But with this movie, with that scene—we've never really seen a man make such a beautiful and loving meal for another man. Especially two black guys.
Yeah, it's one of my two favorite scenes. Because I'm a foodie. So I watch Chef’s Table and Top Chef. And the fact that I got to cut a scene of someone making a meal I was super pumped about. But with that, it's funny, because I remember asking Barry, “Does Andre cook?” And Barry's like, “I don't think so.” I'm sure he knows how to cook, but there's some things that he did that felt like a little professional, like cleaning the plate and putting the rice in the plastic, you know, and flipping it over. And I'm like, this is great. I remember watching the dailies and being like, It's so detailed. And to me it showed how much he was excited to make this meal for Black …
For me, a lot of times when I'm cutting together a montage I do it without music. And the reason I do that is because I want to pay attention to the natural movement, be it the actor moving or the camera moving. And to me, they blend themselves naturally into this whole kind of constructed—I don't know exactly how to put it, but they're moving together in this kind of symphony in my head, I would guess. And I'm like the conductor. And so I'm always paying attention to that when I put together a montage. And then when I go back through, I look at the actors. You know, Andre was just giving such little half-smiles as he was tasting stuff.
So I wanted to place some of those in the moments. Because he wasn't just cooking, but he actually felt like he was cooking and thinking about what he was doing and who he was preparing it for. And it just so happened that when we laid down the score that we wanted to use with the montage, it just naturally fit so well together. And I was like, that was such a happy accident. I didn't even know that was going to happen … I read somewhere in Bon Appétit that that was one of the top food scenes [of the year] … When I read that, I was like, OK, now I've arrived. I remember sending it to my sisters and being like, “Bon Appétit mentioned something I cut!”
You made it!
I'm like, Oscar nomination, whatever. Bon Appétit, though …