How One Editor Cut the Meteoric Rise of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez Before It Happened
Knock Down the House might be one of the most topical films at Sundance 2019, but it took nothing short of a miracle for Robin Blotnick to piece it together in time.
How do you edit a film about a public sensation before she’s become one? And how do you edit the story of four different women running for office, without knowing if any of them will win? Robin Blotnick knows the answer, and it involves organization, a ton of scene cards, and imaginative problem-solving when it comes to envisioning the future.
Blotnick has a great collaboration story – he met Knock Down the House director Rachel Lears around 2009 – and the two of them made The Hand That Feeds together and got married. Next, their careers and their families got bigger. “This was the first time we'd ever attempted to make the documentary with a child,” explained Blotnick about their two-year-old in tow with them at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. “Rachel came up with the idea [for the film] and began adapting it…it made a lot more sense for her to be the director and for me to have more of an editing and post-production role, and that allowed me to stay close the home where we were raising our kid when she was in production.”
It turned out to be a cracking good combination. Before the premiere of the film in the U.S. Documentary Competition at Sundance, Blotnick sat down with No Film School to talk about editing one of the most topical films at the festival.
NFS: What's crazy about trying to edit a film like this is that when you start the project, you're following Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and these three other intriguing women running for office, and you have no idea what will end up happening with their campaigns. Did you start editing as you went along or did you have to kind of wait and see how it would play out?
Blotnick: We did start editing right away, but only with the intention of creating work samples that we could use to get funding, and a trailer that we could use to raise money on Kickstarter. We just wanted to show people this was going to be the story, if you give us funding, then we can follow it and bring you the story of whatever happens.
We were hoping that one of our subjects would win but we were also aware it may not happen. Every single one of them is fighting a really long, uphill battle. It started to look less and less likely that any of them were going to win. We began to match our storyline where you had to confront the brutal realities of our electoral system and how hard it is for outsiders to run for office.
Alexandria's amazing win changed everything.
A lot of the scenes that I edited before made it in to the final cut, so it was really helpful to get the ball rolling early on. And then as soon as we knew that Alex had won, we had to begin to imagine the structure. Luckily for us we had been filming with her a whole lot because she's based in New York and so we were able to cover her story in more detail.
After she won, there was still one more race we had to follow in St. Louis with Cori Bush, and while we were waiting to find out how that one went we had two very different possible ways to tell that story in our heads. I remember gaming out both options. Then when that was settled and Cori Bush didn't win, we knew how the story would be and got to work right away full time post-production. That was in August of 2018.
NFS: You mentioned earlier that you like to use scene cards when editing. What that something that helped on the structure of Knock Down the House?
Blotnick: We shot a lot of footage. By the end of the summer of 2018, we had collected roughly 275 hours of footage in four different parts of the country. We had to figure out how to tell the story about four different storylines that intersected.
I logged every single scene that was shot. I define a scene as something that takes place on a particular day in a particular place, and that could be as short as a few pick up shots of a street, or a sunset. So I had a big Google spreadsheet of every single scene. And then Rachel is the one who actually filmed the scenes, so she would think about what would be the most important scenes and the best footage that she had gathered. She went through and started writing down ideas for scenes to cut together from that list.
I did not have time to watch everything for this edit so we basically zeroed in on the things that we knew were going to be good. It was kind of nerve-racking because there might be something amazing that we left behind.
NFS: That nagging feeling!
Blotnick: But in the interest of time, not to mention trying to get to the Sundance deadline, we realized that we had to act really fast. So we zeroed in on what we thought was going to be good and then Rachel began conceiving what would be a good scene – not just a scene where something happens on camera, but where she we’d have a montages of several different scenes. Or reconstructions using interview archival footage. She’d imagine all the potential scenes that she wanted to see in the film. Together we had to think about the best way to get the best scenes together into an order than made sense, and really got us what we were trying to address.
That was a process of moving these cards around. The cards would be just a very simple description. It would be like: Alexandria putting on make-up. And we move those around, and you start to see these connections as you reconfigure them. You're like, "Oh, that scene, I can picture this flowing really easily into that."
Or maybe it doesn't flow together, but it creates a collision, a cool collision. And you just start to imagine. Of course, it took a million different forms before it settled on something that became a final cut. And we were still moving scene cards around using a program called Trello on our computer up until the very last edit. I think it really helps to get outside of the timeline of the software program and into a space where things feel more fluid. You can move things around freely, and that way you're not so locked into what you've already done. And you can see that there can always be radical changes.
NFS: The Sundance programmers made a point to mention that this film was very seamlessly edited. When you've got a multi-person, multi-character story happening in multiple places ‘seamless’ is pretty hard to do. So you know, what's your secret?
Blotnick: I'll tell you what my secret is. My secret was working with David Teague who was our consulting editor, who has a lot more experience than I do editing documentaries! He's made dozens of documentaries that got into Sundance, and he's a friend of ours who we hired and brought on in August, or maybe in July, to help us come up with how to do this really complicated task of bringing four storylines together. If he hadn't been involved, I don't think we could have possibly gotten it done in time.
He had this amazing future vision of how things worked out. We consulted with him like five times. We showed him what we had and then he would help us imagine what it could be. We decided we were going to make Alexandria's story the main focus but we really wanted the other three to have important roles as well, and we realized the only way to make it work would be if they were all on an elective journey.
Even when they come from very different backgrounds, and they're in different places, we had to focus on the things that connected them to each other. We looked at the beautiful experiences for someone who's a woman who had never been involved in politics before, who's running for office for the first time, and up against very powerful political machines and politicians. Through that, we found a way to tie it all together.
I think that's the only reason that people don't feel confused when they're suddenly in a new storyline. With David, we came up with ways to introduce the idea that it was a four-person story. The first person you meet besides Alexandria is Paula Jean Swearengin in West Virginia. We made a point of introducing her at a time when she's meeting with Alexandria at a conference, and then instead of going on with Alexandria, we veer off the path and follow Paula back home to West Virginia and learn about her. And from that point on, people get that's what we're doing throughout.
NFS: Based on your journey as a filmmaker and editor alongside starting a family, what advice would you give to other filmmakers or editors about what you've learned?
Blotnick: What I always tell people who are just starting out is the lesson I learned the hardest way: don't try to do it all by yourself. It's just not possible to make films alone. You need to have good partners to work with, creative partners, collaborators. It's a collaborative art form so just keep your eyes open for people you can work with. And it doesn't have to be the same person forever like me and Rachel. You don't have to marry them and have a kid together! Find people you can really be inspired by and share a common vision with, and your films will be so much better. You'll be able to get through the tough times a lot better if you have support.
The other thing I always say, if you're making documentary films, it's very tempting to focus on the things that you're most excited by, but you have to find things that you're excited by that a lot of people are excited about. Because it's going to take a lot time, so you to locate what kinds of subjects are people talking about in your country right now, and make sure that your film connects to those things.
That's the surest way that you're going to get attention. You can believe that people are going to elevate hard work truly because of its artistry or its brilliant writing or editing. Documentary people are most excited about what it's about, so you have to think about that from the very beginning. Put in all that stuff that makes you feel good about yourself, the filmmaker, but start with a really important subject for a lot of people. It took me a really long time to figure that out.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.