When a circus tent appeared outside the window of visibly disabled filmmaker Reid Davenport, he began to contemplate the history of the “freak show” and its relationship to his own aesthetic. This survey formed the backbone of I didn’t see you there, for which Davenport captured footage from his wheelchair and sought to make a film about his way of seeing the world. Below, editor Todd Chandler explains his desire to work on a film so aesthetically different from his own and why he enjoys watching other films with his collaborators.
Director: How and why did you become the editor of your film? What factors and attributes led you to be hired for this position?
Chandler: Honestly, director Reid Davenport and producer Keith Wilson could answer that question more accurately than me. We met briefly when I was an advisor for the Points North Fellowship in 2020 (I was a fellow in 2017 for my film Armored), and I think a funder who supported both of our projects suggested they talk to me when looking for publishers. I hope they hired me because they wanted a creative collaborator with an interest in formal experimentation, an editor who listened, was sensitive, and had strong sensibilities. But maybe they just liked my past work and no one at the top of their list was available! Anyway, I feel very lucky to have gotten the job. Working as a team over the past year has been one of the most generous and generative collaborative experiences I have ever had.
Director: Regarding the progress of your film from its first cut to your final cut, what were your objectives as an editor? What elements of the film did you want to improve, or preserve, or disentangle or totally reshape?
Chandler: Reid had a strong conceptual framework for the film that was deeply tied to the notions of seeing and being seen. The goal was always to achieve this in the most compelling, dynamic and authentic way – and by authentic I mean true to Reid’s vision and true to the spirit of the images he captured – while allowing the plan to take twists, turns and departures.
Director: How did you achieve these goals? What kinds of editing techniques or processes or commentary projections allowed this work to happen?
Chandler: I spent the first few weeks watching and reading. Reid sent me a handful of books, some on disability theory, some on freak show history. I also asked Reid to give me a list of movies to watch – several that he was inspired by but weren’t necessarily current affairs and several that I think would have something in common with his movie but ultimately took an approach that he wanted to steer free from. I like to start an editor/director collaboration (whether I am the editor or the director) by watching and discussing films in which neither of us has been involved. There is no ego and we can just talk about form, rhythm and meaning.
After getting a feel for Reid’s ideas for the film and some possible stylistic influences, I watched all of the footage and took notes. We talked a lot and took some time to build trust, which I think allowed Reid and Keith to give me a lot of creative freedom early on to just play. I climbed very instinctively, trying to listen to the images and not think too much. Reid’s cinematography and eye for textures and patterns are outstanding. Some days I would put on music, mute the audio coming out of Premiere, and just watch, thinking less about content and story and more about associations. For example, Reid shot a lot of the footage from his wheelchair – wonderful tracking shots from very interesting angles. And then sometimes there were static shots, carefully composed. I wanted to maximize the contrast between movement and stasis to propel the film forward and create tension and space for reflection. Not everything I found was right, and looking at those early sequences and gestures gave us a basis for a shared language about where we wanted to go from there.
After about six months, we started showing cuts to people. Hannah Buck was a consulting writer and helped us think more clearly about structure. The Brett Story notes also helped a lot. We did a number of one-on-one feedback sessions and a small in-person preview screening at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. These notes helped us in times when we felt a little stuck or became too attached to certain things that perhaps did not serve the film.
We also worked remotely for the first 7 months, after which Reid decided (unrelated to this film) to move to Brooklyn (where I also live), so we were able to work in person. It was exciting to finally meet face to face! At that time, we had a rough cut, and working in the same room allowed us to move forward very quickly. In one day of working together, we got what felt like several days of creative work.
Director: As an editor, how did you get into the business and what influences influenced your work?
Chandler: I split my time between editing and directing and I love doing both. I’ve been editing for many years, but Reid’s film is the first feature film (other than my own films) that I’ve ever said yes to. Investing a year of your life in someone else’s project is all well and good! I’ve always stuck to short films and consulting, which has given me the flexibility to continue working on my own directing projects. While I was in development on my film Armored, for example, I cut three shorts for Field of Vision and one for Topic. It was a good balance. And then when my own movie got enough support, I started working on it full time for a few years.
When Reid and Keith approached me for editing I didn’t see you there, I had finished Armored and wasn’t ready to start working on my next film. As soon as I saw the work sample, I immediately knew I wanted to work with them. My style and approach as an editor is influenced by my background as a musician, and even in that first bit there was a kind of musicality in the footage that really stuck with me.
Director: What mounting system did you use and why?
Chandler: We used Premiere because Reid originally set up the project in Premiere. I’m somewhat platform independent as I have an equal dislike of all non-linear editing apps. I wish I could just edit in my brain and not have to look at someone else’s poor software design choices. I want to have the least amount of friction or interference between seeing it in my head and doing it on the computer.
A great thing about Premiere is that you can install extensions. I deal with some of its shortcomings this way, and use a customizable controller/console with a selection of knobs and buttons that I assign lots of complex layered commands to. This makes things easy and super quick, especially during the selection and assembly stages. I like the more tactile experience of turning a knob or moving a fader. Working this way is closer to how my brain works. Plus, I feel like I’m piloting a spaceship instead of doing the more administrative work of mashing hotkeys, hovering, and clicking through a bunch of tiny icons and menus.
Director: What was the hardest scene to cut and why? And how did you do?
Chandler: The first ten minutes of the film were the most trying. There’s a lot of heavy lifting to do in terms of setup, and we didn’t want it to be burdensome for the public. We introduce the visual language of the film, as well as its premise, and we thought that if we could get it right, we would have the trust of the public, which would give us a lot of freedom to experiment from there. At first, this resulted in a super dense opening with too much explanation. Eventually, we realized that the simplest approach was best: set up a seemingly simple and ideal premise, then complicate it. So we presented the film as a purely visual meditation by a director who was previously in front of the camera rather than behind it, a film about seeing rather than being seen. And then complications and tensions arise, of course, because how we see is inextricably linked to how we are seen.
Director: Finally, now that the process is complete, what new meanings has the film taken on for you? What did you discover in the footage that you might not have seen initially, and how did your final understanding of the film differ from the understanding you started with?
Chandler: When Reid and Keith interviewed me for the job of editor, they very frankly asked me why I was even interested in working with this sequence with such a radically different aesthetic to mine. My response was that this was precisely why I was interested. How boring it would have been to cut a film made by someone with the same sensibility as me! I had just finished Armored and I wanted a break from my own lens. And work on I didn’t see you there really expanded my way of thinking about beauty, form, duration and rhythm. It changed my way of seeing and seeing. Even now, every time I watch the finished film, I notice something new – a detail in a shot that I had somehow overlooked despite having watched the same shot hundreds of times or a pattern that moves differently when I look at it from a slight angle.