What does it take to edit an eight-hour movie?
While Neil Meiklejohn was working in the editorial department for The Battered Bastards of Baseball, he stumbled across about 300 hours of footage related to the followers of Rajneesh and their attempts to build a utopian city in a remote part of Oregon. Along with directors Chapman Way and Maclain Way, Meiklejohn knew that this may not be your average black-and-white true-crime story. They wanted it to be a long, complex, multifaceted story...and told in six parts.
Meiklejohn took to creating a sizzle reel, and next thing you know, he was editing rough cuts of each episode to send to the Duplass Brothers and the Netflix team, where the series has since become hugely popular. Wild Wild Country has inspired a full-blown SNL sketch and a flurry of online (and presumably offline) discussions about the Constitution, freedom of religion, and the difference between right and wrong in the small town of Antelope, OR, USA.
Meiklejohn sat down with No Film School to talk about the mindset needed to edit a story of this scope, shifting perspectives with the audience, and why now is a great time to be an editor.
NFS: One powerful element of the storytelling in Wild Wild Country is the shift of perspectives. As you’re watching it, you're not exactly sure whose side you should be on. Once you decide, it changes. How did that strategy present itself or evolve in the edit room?
Meiklejohn: We wanted to express what the interview subjects were telling us. In order to do that, we found that it was like lending weight to both sides of whatever argument [there was]. Sometimes there were three sides to an argument. In a weird way, according to the subject, I would consider them themes. Like the poisoning thing, we had multiple perspectives [for that], and we wanted to tell them from each one of the different perspectives so that you could really understand it, i.e. "this is what it looks like from outside the community" or "this is what it looks like from inside the community." And each scene within it is almost in its own style.
We found right away that this crazy mixing of interviews didn't make sense. Because the ranchers were against outsiders (or the outsiders were against the ranchers) or whatever your perspective actually is on it. We wanted to avoid this, who was right and who was wrong in the situation and just let them speak.
There aren't nthat many moments where the two sides are super intermixed. It just didn't feel right. It's like, they wouldn't be chatting together. So why cut the interviews together? In a weird way, it was again like a Game of Thrones thing. You stay with this group for a bit, see what they're plotting, and see what their perspective is on this situation. Then you fly over to [Kings Landing] or whatever. It's playing a big chess game.
NFS: With a story that has so much footage and is so complex and so long in scope, what the heck does your timeline look like? How do you start?
Meiklejohn: The first thing I went through to help paint the story were the interviews. I broke all the interviews down by topic, so they each had their own sequence. Each interview had their own bin of sound bytes on a particular topic. I did that for each interview, whether it was good or not. If it was on topic, it went in there, because with documentaries you never know what's actually going to be useful.
I did the exact same thing with the archives. It was kind of like, "All right, these are the themes or the bullet points that we're talking about and this is what the interviews talk about." I broke those all out, so that they would have their own sequence right next to the interview about that topic. I went through all that. We found a lot of stuff in the archives that they didn't even know to ask about [during the interview] so we had more crazy topics just from what the archives brought up.
I kind of started each day like, "Okay, we're going to build this." It's “moving to antelope” and it's the rush, this perspective. I would just work on that. I would build subsequences of just selects, like "These are the best of this that I like." A lot of times, it was trying to speak about the theme within the community, or other perspectives and other themes. I think especially, the directors were trying to figure out what the tone of the scene would be so that I could build it and create new sequences to that. I really had to compartmentalize things. It's almost like cutting a feature film or something, as you just do the dailies as you get them.
"I broke all the interviews down by topic, so they each had their own sequence. Each interview had their own bin of sound bytes on a particular topic."
NFS: Were there challenges with having this plethora of different archives in different formats?
Meiklejohn: That's why we worked with Adobe Premiere Pro. We had like 300 hours of archival media, and we had DVDs, we had old digi beta SP tapes, we had film transfers, we had things pulled off the internet from who knows where. [Rajneesh] has followers around the world and so there are videos from absolutely everywhere. The majority of our stuff was from the historical society, but basically at the time it was like the late '70's, early '80's, going into late '80's, and everything was starting to shift from film to video. That was interesting because you could really tell the story through and it helped. It gave you a lot of perspective.
The big thing was that we didn't have to transcode. You're getting all these great archives and the first thing you want to do is start organizing and editing. The great thing about Premiere is that it handles all the formats. I mean, we also had stills, we had a crazy amount of different types. Our interviews were filmed on the RED Dragon, which was 6K. So with all these formats, we could quickly work without having to deal with transcoding and other problems that come with mixing formats.
"It works a completely different muscle than what most films do, which is show you: this is what the filmmakers want to tell you..."
NFS: So what would you say was one of the biggest challenges on the edit for Wild Wild Country?
Meiklejohn: I think our biggest challenge was creative; it was just trying to maintain a balance between the different sides. But in a weird way, it ended up flowing naturally.
It was a very freeing thing in terms of edits to just say, "Okay, this is what this person thinks. This is what this other person thinks." We'd then jam it all together and take it home. In a weird way, it was kind of freeing. It works a completely different muscle than what most films do, which is to show you, i.e. "This is what the filmmakers want to tell you and we're gonna jam this down your throat." That is most filmmakers' natural instinct, you know?
NFS: And what audiences are used to...
Meiklejohn: And what audiences are used to seeing. I think that's what makes our film the most interesting. There's more of a conversation than "This is what I took away from it." It was freeing trying to break that.
NFS: What is your editing style like, at least for this series? Do you prefer to be locked away by yourself or have it be a collaborative effort?
Meiklejohn: For this show, the Duplass brothers were very involved. They'd be scanning images or they'd sit in the room. I like having people in the room. They'd be like, "Oh, this is kind of what I was thinking for this bit," or, "This is why I asked that question [in the interview],” which I thought was really helpful. I had done my own research, but they also brought their own thoughts and ideas to the table (as they are directors, obviously, as well) and even just putting footage together, it was super informative.
I guess for me as a person in general, it depends. I work by myself a lot or I work with people. I'm not like some cranky guy. I like people. I like people but I like being by myself. It's more determined by project.
"It’s a cool time to be editing or to be making films in general, whether they be documentary or narrative."
NFS: Is there a different mindset that you need to have and bring to the table as an editor in a long form?
Meiklejohn: I really do take a compartmentalizing, one day at a time, one step at a time approach. I think it's human instinct to be overwhelmed by the stuff, to just think, "Oh, this is long." A big part of it is really just saying, “Okay, these are all the bits we want told. What's the first bit?” We just take it one step at a time.
NFS: do you have any advice for other editors or filmmaker-cum-editors who might be watching Wild Wild Country and are intrigued by what you've accomplished?
Meiklejohn: My biggest advice would be to get into it and get your hands dirty. For a documentary, to create something out of nothing or read an article that you like or whatever, you usually start with, “Do I make a film about this?”Just say, "I'm going to go do it."
I also think that the great thing about Netflix is we have this almost new medium. When people call [Wild, Wild Country] a series, it’s sort of a little off-putting to me. I think of this thing as an eight-to-ten-hour film that you have to break down because no one can sit there for 10 hours! There's no longer, “This is the standard way, everything has to be like this for every show.” Now you're doing new things and making an eight-hour movie that works.
I received a wonderful opportunity to take advantage of this as a result of people being more interested in documentaries now. It’s a cool time to be editing or to be making films in general, whether they be documentary or narrative. It's been awesome how the public has responded. There are crazy memes and celebrity posts about it and all this stuff. It sparked something. I think because there are two sides to every story, two sides to every coin. To me, the most interesting documentaries are dynamic. They might not hand you the right answer.