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'Will & Harper' editor Monique Zavistovski on keeping up with two comic geniuses in the edit suite

'Will & Harper' delivered over 200 hours of footage over 17 days of travel
4 minute read
'Will & Harper' delivered over 200 hours of footage over 17 days of travel

Distilling many chance encounters, roughly a million jokes, and 200 hours of road trip footage into a coherent movie were the challenges facing Monique Zavistovski when it came to editing Will & Harper, a moving and funny tale of transition and friendship. 

Will & Harper is a documentary film that was one of the hits of Sundance. When Will Ferrell finds out his close friend of 30 years, Harper Steele,  is coming out as a trans woman, the two decide to embark on a cross-country road trip to process this new stage of their relationship in what is described as 'an intimate portrait of friendship, transition, and America'.

It was directed by Josh Greenbaum and edited by Monique Zavistovski, using a combination of Adobe Premiere Pro, Frame.io, and a huge amount of colored index cards pinned to the wall.

RedShark: How did you first get involved with the project? What drew you to it?

Monique Zavistovski: About a year ago, Rafael Marmor (the founder of Delirio Films) called me to see if I’d be interested in editing Will & Harper under Josh Greenbaum’s direction, and in that moment I felt in my bones that for many reasons this was the film I’d been waiting for my entire career. I had collaborated with Delirio on a few projects, including the documentary series They Call Me Magic and a short film Behind the Mac: Skywalker Sound, which Josh directed. So I already felt like a part of the Delirio family. In the meantime, a wave of anti-trans laws and rhetoric had been sweeping the country—which had a profound impact on family members and close friends—and I’d been struggling to find a way to adequately support the trans community. That phone call from Delirio couldn’t have come at a better time.

RS: How did you work with the director? What workflow did you establish to handle the film?

MZ: I remember Josh saying to me on day one, “Let’s start with the anchor points in the footage—the emotional inflection points—and build the cut from there.” With over 200 hours of deeply meaningful, funny, and surprising moments, it was impossible to pre-determine what scenes would work in the cut without first identifying those key moments for Will and Harper. Our midway point was a bar and raceway in Oklahoma, and knowing we were building to that juncture in the story helped shape what came before and after. From there, we focused on assembling and auditioning scenes to gauge their strengths and weaknesses and, through trial and error, decide if each had the emotional resonance to earn its place in the final cut. One of the things that makes Josh such a great director is that he’s always open to experimenting with the footage in the spirit of making fabulous discoveries in the edit, but he also reminds me that oftentimes the best moments require making no edit at all.

RS: What were the main challenges you faced on this project? What editing techniques and processes did you use to meet them?

I was watching dailies on Frame.io in Los Angeles while Will and Harper were still on the road, and the three remarks I kept hearing from the production crew were, “The road trip is amazing,” “You won’t believe what happened today,” and, “I don’t know how you’re going to cut down this film.” That summed up the primary challenge for us in the edit: we had too much of a good thing. Will and Harper had deep, revelatory conversations for seventeen days straight in the car and in lawn chairs on the side of the road. They horsed around and cracked a million hilarious jokes. They had chance encounters, like running into a unicyclist in Iowa City who reminded Harper of her younger self. They took risks and moved me to tears time and time again. We had to be extremely organized in Premiere to manage all that wonderful footage and, importantly, to make sure none of the hidden gems were lost. We sorted it by days, locations, themes, conversations, running jokes, and multiple other categories while simultaneously relying on an encyclopedic, color-coded spreadsheet that detailed all the priceless moments we might otherwise have missed. None of the 200+ hours of footage were taken for granted.

RS: Name two things: your favorite scene in the movie and the most difficult one to cut. Why these two in particular?

MZ: This film is an emotional ride that hits me differently every time I watch, and after having watched it a thousand times, I continue to discover favorite moments. It’s impossible for me to identify a singular favorite scene. But one that comes to mind is the Trona, California scene. It’s the second-to-last day of the road trip and, without giving away too much of the story, we journey to what Harper describes as, “a small hidden house away from the world… miles from anyone.” The house plays a pivotal role in Harper’s transition; it’s a place she’d been sheltering certain feelings that were difficult to let go. It’s a pivotal scene in the movie and one that never fails to overwhelm me with emotion.

While editing the Trona scene was an entirely emotional exercise, the Washington, D.C. scene had my brain tied in knots. We knew that structurally, it was important to get Will and Harper on the road toward ther rather than la Heartland sooneter, and hanging around the East Coast would take up a lot of screen time. But some of the most hilarious moments took place in Washington, D.C., at the Watergate Hotel, the Washington Monument, and the Spy Museum, where Will and Harper crawled around the air ducts looking for spare change. Editing a documentary with two comic geniuses, it’s tempting to build scenes around their shenanigans. That proved to slow down the film, however, and after many months of wrestling with the D.C. footage, we ultimately wove it into a traveling montage that launched them on their journey to the Midwest.

RS: What tools do you use and why? What are the key features of Adobe Premiere Pro for your work?

MZ: Our team, helmed by Post-Production Supervisor, Kevin Patrick Otte, decided to use Adobe Premiere’s Productions feature because we had such a complex workflow. It was the first time I had used Productions and it was a lifesaver to be able to organize the footage into shareable, smaller projects. We also leaned heavily on Frame.io from the production stage through finishing. We used those digital tools in concert with good old-fashioned colored index cards pinned to the walls, which, in my opinion, are equally indispensable.

RS: How did Will & Harper evolve? Now the film, is complete how differently do you see it now as compared to when you first started?

As a documentary editor, each new project always feels terrifying and overwhelming to me at first. Discovering the core story without a script is a humbling process. But I was extremely fortunate on Will & Harper to be supported by a brilliant and tireless director and producers who would remind me this is simply a story of transition and friendship. That was the vision at the start and I believe that’s the story we delivered in the end. 

Tags: Post & VFX