Inspired by a 2015 Skype accident involving a woman who forgot to stop sharing her screen, Russian producer Timur Bakmambetov had a breakthrough moment. That day, his Skype presenter obliviously texted friends in one area of her screen while making an online purchase in a side window, unaware that her audience could still see what she was doing. Timur found himself thinking “I’m inside her brain”, and that’s when he connected the reality that people live entire lives on screens to filmmaking itself. Thus, a new cinematic experience was born: Screenlife.
Fast forward six years from the initial idea, and the latest project from Timur’s Bazelevs Productions puts a further twist on digital social lives in the film R#J, or ‘Romeo and Juliet’.
Marrying Screenlife with Shakespeare is the brainchild of director Carey Williams. He needed a brave, open-minded editor with a familiarity for the concept to flesh out his vision, and found that in Lam Nguyen, who received the SXSW 2021 Adobe Editing Award for his work on the film. (Williams was also nominated for the NEXT Innovator Award at Sundance for his direction of R#J.)
In Romeo and Juliet’s Screenlife, scenes happen as live-streams and video chats, overlaid by scrolling comments, incoming texts and push notices. The suspense of pending replies from lovers, family, and friends appear in dotted thought bubbles. Both basic decisions and passionate emotions are funneled to the digital display in the hands of either Juliet or Romeo. The relentless instantaneous communications that would have overwhelmed the Elizabethans is now the recognizable language spoken by all teens.
Creative COW was able to catch up with Lam Nguyen, the wizard of R#J, once he settled in from his festival circuit. We were honored to speak with the SXSW winning editor to learn what made R#J work, and his thoughts on this new cinematic style.
Has the pandemic made the film festivals experience tough?
I thought they did a great job putting the festivals together. I wish I had the in-person experience with Sundance and SXSW as my first experience with festivals, but I thought the virtual experience turned out well, because they allowed a lot of my family, friends, and other people that weren’t able to travel, to get a chance to buy a ticket and see the film anywhere.
And at least with this virtual experience, everyone could see all these films. I feel like that might be the future, where they just merge the two (experiences) together to give people the opportunity who can’t travel to still get to see these films.
How did R#J, the Romeo and Juliet project come to you?
Based on the success of ‘Searching’ and ‘Unfriended’, Bazelevs Productions had all these different types of genres and ideas for the format. So, I was doing a bunch of proof of concept trailers for it, and then they presented this ‘Romeo and Juliet’ idea to me.
They said “Hey Lam, we think you’ll be a perfect fit for this project, it’s a remake of Romeo and Juliet for modern day, but it’s told entirely through their phones.” I was really questioning it at first, like wow that’s a huge challenge, not just because of the classic to remake, but also the format.
So they introduced me to director Carey Williams, and we just kind of brainstormed the idea of his vision. We decided that we could really make this cinematic, and make it work. We spent a good four or five weeks on the proof of concept and made it visually work, and presented it to the producers, and then it was green-lit.
Did you have to re-create all of the social media screens from scratch?
Initially we did a pre-viz with all the story boards and all the templates. I would screen record a snapshot from my phone, and I would put in the edit, and then I worked with the graphics team. They had to redraw everything from scratch to high-res. Everything was pretty much re-created.
Obviously Romeo and Juliet has never been taken to this level, but how did it feel to take on the Romeo and Juliet story when there are already a few film versions of the play?
Everyone knows and loves the story, so you don’t want to disappoint anyone. Obviously there’s pressure when you do a re-make like that, so you want to do it right.
I think when I read the script, it was just so different, with the diverse cast and the ending. But I think what made it more comfortable was that Carey kept the film spoken in Shakespearean language, but spoken as a natural language, not like a theatrical presentation.
The second challenge was blending the Shakespearean language into a modern vernacular with the Screenlife language, too.
I also think the purpose of modern re-telling was for the younger audience. The modern vernacular would be a translation for the Shakespearean, and it helps you understand the story, and it guides you to the emotion of the characters better.
Were you stuck making this movie during the pandemic?
We lucked out. We wrapped up production about two weeks before the lockdown happened, then essentially everyone worked remotely. Carey and I lived close to each other, fortunately, so we would connect here and there, then we edited certain sessions at a distance. But, a lot of it was remote, and it worked out.
Ironically, the film is about meeting others and falling in love online and that seems to be what happened (during the pandemic); everyone connected online.
So once the pandemic hit, it was just a matter of editing?
Yeah. We already had a pre-viz of the whole movie laid out with Screenlife, including all the comps and temps and storyboards. You would think it would be as easy as replacing and inserting all the film-clips and video footage, but editing is an evolving process. We changed a lot from the pre-viz to a final draft, to say the least.
How long did you spend editing Romeo and Juliet?
The production wrapped February or March, and I would say the picture locked in September. So, a good 6-7 months. And then the next phase was working with the graphic team and up-rezzing the whole film to redraw, and then animate.
So what is Screenlife?
Once I understood not to treat it like a template, Screenlife is another version of great cinematography, like a storytelling language.
The Blair Witch Project had their thing with the hand-held camcorder, and Paranormal Activity with the security camera, but this is a whole other language. And I think it’s even more in depth, because we use it everyday with our everyday lives. We can tell the story more, because we can see how the characters interact on their devices, and what they think and how they feel. It’s definitely more involved with walking through the perspective of the characters, so I think once I understood that more, it became more fun to tell the story with Romeo and Juliet, and how they feel, and see that evolve.
Timur (Bekmambetov)’s idea on Screenlife was very bold. It seems to be working out really well because of the success with Unfriended and Searching, and hopefully R#J. It’s a whole visual language, a whole new filmmaking technique. That makes it more intriguing for a lot of new filmmakers to work on a project like this.
What new set of skills did you have to develop to adapt to the Screenlife format?
It’s like I was building a digital set of the movie before the movie was filmed. The iMessages scene, the Instagram live scene, etc., is the foundation of the set of the film, and then I added layers to it on top of that.
I definitely had to spruce up on my graphics and animation skills. I used a lot of After Effects to link into Premiere Pro in the edit. The graphics team would build all these comps in Illustrator, and then re-animate all the final stuff in the end. For the temp picture lock version, I would take their comps and animate that in, so, that was one skill to evolve.
To keep the audience engaged with the Screenlife language instead of just reading the text messages, I started to apply movements, fundamental filmmaking techniques to it like dollies and pull-focus, and push-ins. Once we added those movements into the formats, it made the language feel more alive. That was a learning curve for all of us to make the Screenlife language cinematic, instead of just a comp to read.
You prefer to edit with After Effects and Premiere Pro and the rest of the Adobe Suite?
Adobe, yes. Because so much animation is graphics to Illustrator files, and Illustrator to After Effects. After Effects has a much better control of all the movements and keyframes that you can do with the animation. That’s why I use Premiere Pro because it’s just so seamless. You can make a change on an Illustrator file and it just updates in the Premiere sequence. It has just made everything more efficient.
At this point it almost becomes kind of art. Would you consider yourself an artist?
I would say so, especially after the experience of doing a film like this, and I think even more woking with Carey. Carey also made it seem more like an artsy film.
With every text message scene, I tried to make it different from the previous text message scene, either in how it moves or how it reveals messages. That’s how we keep (the audience) engaged. Otherwise, I would think the film would really get mundane, just the same layout in every other scene. Definitely I would say it’s artsy, because I have to do more maneuvering and playing around with the story-telling techniques and film-making techniques to it.
Where did you study filmmaking?
I feel like it’s been so long! I went to the University of Denver for the film program there. They threw me into an advanced screenwriting class right off the bat, and then I had to be on my toes. I naturally and instinctively somehow just pick technology pretty well, so, editing sort of organically grew with me. Then I had an internship with a Denver-based production company at the time, and they were doing a feature musical for kids, Sleepy Hollow. Then I was just assistant editing, assembling stuff for the behind-the-scenes editor at the time. The director for the feature asked me to put two clips on for the actual scene, and he liked what I did. It just kind of snow-balled from there, from the opportunity to referrals and recommendations, and so on. That’s how I got into editing.
What were your go-to editing tools back then?
At the University, I used the first versions of Final Cut Pro. I was working on Final Cut Pro for a while till they scrapped Final Cut Pro 7. Then I worked on Avid for a little bit, and then the last 5 or 6 years I worked on Adobe Premiere. So, Premiere’s been my go to ever since then.
You’ve recently been editing, but do you have other hats in the film-making world?
Yes, on the Christmas movie (Heaven Sent) as the assistant producer, I was working in the producing department a lot and learning about producing and how that realm works. I worked with a very well known writer in the business and I learned a lot with him, as screenwriter. I’ve directed a few shorts just to practice that and hopefully get an opportunity to do something bigger with that role.
But yes, I’m growing and I’m always looking out. Because all of the departments are storytellers to me, I’m always watching and learning.
So you have plans to direct in the future?
There’s a few scripts and pitches, with the writer I’m working with, that we hope to connect with a production company or studio in the future, and hopefully I’ll get a chance to direct one of them some day. But it’s in the future, nothing’s in mind right now. I think I’ve been overwhelmed by Sundance and SXSW, and I’m still in disbelief with the award, which I just feel honored and grateful for. I’m getting these opportunities to edit bigger projects, so, I’m still in the editing mode right now.
Do you have any advice or encouragement for up-and-coming aspiring young editors that are just starting out?
I would say to be open minded. Always learn storytelling with writing and directing, and just observe. These are the talents I usually apply to editing because you learn different techniques of how to tell stories.
Also, work on sound design a lot. Those little things make a huge difference when you present a draft for directors and producers to sell the idea on the scene.
And it’s this: always believing you can make something out of nothing.
I was presented with that concept a lot on all my projects. They would give me this idea in a note, and I’m like “oh my God that just looks impossible”. But, nothing is impossible.
For example, with R#J, we did a lot of revisions. We recreated a lot of new scenes, and because of the Screenlife language I had the opportunity to fill any holes in stories that we didn’t get to film. It helped fill in the void of not being able to do a pick-up shoot. We could use the Screenlife comps and re-create a whole new scene and work things together.
So, nothing is impossible. Always give a good note and an impossible note a chance, because often you can make something out of nothing. And then, as a new editor, if you’re able to challenge yourself to make something out of nothing, and make that into an emotional story beat, then you’ve accomplished something.