Amy Tan and her mother Daisy Tan ATUM Film Still Courtesy Jim McHugh

The Heart of the Matter: Editing The Documentary “Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir”

Editors are artists and storytellers, crafting together footage like puzzles to create compelling stories. Experienced documentary editor Jeff Boyette has, this time, pieced together the tale of a master storyteller herself, author Amy Tan.

Jeff Boyette’s editing on the documentary Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir, co-produced with PBS American Masters and currently streaming on Netflix, included cutting away fascinating but peripheral details to focus on the heart of the matter, which was Amy Tan’s relationship with her mother Daisy. Jeff edited this entire film in a pandemic, and he and his team effectively took the reins to complete the film when producer and director James Redford passed away from complications of bile duct cancer.

Fondly referred to as Jamie, James Redford dedicated his career toward highlighting both pressing modern issues, and the meaningful side of humanity. Jamie was compelled to illuminate the facets of Amy Tan’s life after meeting her through a different project, Playing For Keeps. With an interest in Amy’s tenacity to overcome trauma, and her intense character that contributed to her success as a writer, Jamie’s work uncovered the profound emotional connections that endeared her to readers with this memoir.

Jamie and Jeff also included the amazing illustrations of Xaviera López in Amy Tan’s documentary. From the film’s opening they flow across the screen, filling gaps in understanding between interview excerpts and family photos. Jamie’s decision to bring in Xaviera’s art serves to represent the stress relief and creative spirit that Amy Tan developed in childhood through drawing.

As a child, when Amy’s mother would act in wild unexplainable ways, Amy would draw to express herself. As she matured, this self expression developed into writing, and she authored The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, and many other books. Drawing resurfaced later in life for Amy when her fame turned writing into another stressor. Amy again found drawing to be a way to fill those gaps in her understanding of the world, and in the same vein, so do Xaviera’s illustrations for Unintended Memoir.

Jeff Boyette joined Creative COW to reveal the creative process he accomplished with James Redford and their team to create this deep dive into Amy’s life.

A still from Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir by James Redford, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by KPJR Films.

When I watched Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir, I’ve got to admit, I cried through about 70% of your film. That was incredible. It was really well done. 

Jeff Boyette: Thank you.

I know that previous to this documentary on Amy Tan’s remarkable life, director Jamie Redford and yourself had been working on a project called Playing for Keeps. How was that project the launching point for Unintended Memoir?

Jeff: When Jamie decided to make Playing for Keeps, a film about the value of play and downtime, he was looking for people who had some sort of play outlet, some part of their life where they were just outside what you knew of them, outside of their day-job, where they just went out and did something purely for the joy of it. Amy is in a rock band, which was just sort of a silly thing. Some people knew about her so they said “hey, you should try meeting Amy Tan”. They connected and he interviewed her. Jamie had a deep background from other films in talking about trauma, childhood trauma, and resilience. As she’s getting into her story, and of course you know from her story it’s full of trauma, they just had this immediate rapport. She went so deep in that interview, it’s one of the source interviews for the film that you see in Unintended Memoir, even though at the time the idea was that she was going to be in this film about play. Jamie went home and talked with the producer Karen Pritzker and they just decided, this has to be its own film. Then they spoke with American Masters, and they were excited to support it. It took a little while, but eventually Amy agreed to do it, too.

When did Jamie and you realize that you had effective filmmaking chemistry?

Jeff: Well, we had known each other for ten years. When we first met I was sort of an assistant and an additional editor on some of his stuff. Then I went off and cut some other films, partly through people he introduced me to actually. But we were sort of always in contact, and I would do trailers or pilot pitches for short videos to help some of his other films. Eventually it made sense for me to work on his film Happening, about the clean energy landscape in the U.S. I was the third editor. They needed someone to help wrap it up, so I was on that for a couple months, and it went really well. Jamie was already gearing up for the Play movie, so right after that he actually asked me to do both. So we just did them back to back. 

Amy’s relationship with Jamie seems to have been pretty unique. She closely trusted him to take her memoir in the right direction. What was Amy’s involvement in the film? 

Jeff: Before he really shot the bulk of the footage, we did a pilot edit for her that was a ten minute teaser just to say “hey if you don’t like this, we won’t do it, we’ll just say goodbye and forget about it”.

She loved it, and we went on from there. But she really didn’t see much more until the end, and I know that was a big deal for Jamie to get her approval, and he did finally get to see her response to our rough cut before he passed. It wasn’t the first rough cut but it was kind of nearing the fine cut stage, and she saw it and loved it.

So she really didn’t have any feedback in the sense of things that needed to be changed. If she gave input it was really helpful, it was just about basically being accurate and which photos we were using and that kind of thing. 

When it comes to the motion graphics of Unintended Memoir, how did you work with your team?

Jeff: We had a really great motion designer, a really great animator. The animation sequences were all work of the animator, but the title sequence we kind of worked on together to introduce the animation themes. She did the title lock-up and a couple other elements within it, but it was mostly our motion designer Sean Dana on the title sequence. I sketched it out in Premiere on my end with choosing the photos and timing and handed it over to Sean, and then he did all the actual treatment textures and 2.5D perspective things, and all the actual good stuff.

The illustrations were by a woman named Xaviera López, who works out of a different country, correct?

Jeff: Yes, she’s in Chile

What did she use to animate, and how did you pull it into your workflow?

Jeff: She was using a combo of Illustrator, Photoshop, and After Effects where I think the final renders happened. She was hand drawing each frame, and it was a very tedious process, but, I think it’s a very traditional style that she has in terms of one frame at a time, real animation, and of course using After Effects to retime and position. Then she would hand over the video files.

I believe Jamie actually found her over Instagram. He was always trying to find new cool artists, and I think he was just really inspired by the stuff he saw, and reached out, and she was into it. And it worked out great.

I like how the animation grew more abstract and more deep, with phones coming through the wall, and flying plants and rib-cages. Did Xaviera choose the black, white and red colors, or was that a note from Amy’s unique style?

Jeff: That’s very specific to Xaviera’s style. She has a very distinct look in her animation. If you look over her work, a lot of it is a two-toned black and white look.

We gave ideas and we gave feedback, but all of those things, the rib cages the abstract stuff, it was all from her. We knew we wanted to go to a different, very non-literal place.

I’m not that kind of artist. I could give her ideas but all my ideas were pretty much “uh, well you could put the food on the table, then the food would move…” So we were just like, “well, here’s a passage, have fun!”

I appreciated that your arrangement of the scenes in the documentary are very Amy Tan-like. Like her, you start with what seems like the beginning, but then you work back in time to understand the beginning. Then you work back a little farther to understand why those influences happened. Did you work to pick up Amy Tan’s style? Or did it organically work out that way?

Jeff: We’ve never heard anyone make that comparison, I really love to hear that.

I did read all but one of her books by the end of the process, so it seeped in for sure.

We did base it largely on her process in writing her memoir Where the Past Begins, which was written pretty soon before we started to film. That was the first book I read before we started the project, and it was sort of our template. The process that she takes in writing that book is like really literally what we tried to recreate, like going through and looking through the photos and all that, and discovering through her own process what her mom’s experience was, and how that turned her into the person she is. So, we knew we wanted to re-create that process. That’s why the story of her mother, even though it happened obviously before Amy’s story, happens a third of the way through. We were trying to uncover it in the same way she was. So as you go through you learn more and more about mom’s past, and in our story-line as Amy is uncovering.

If everything had unfolded chronologically, the importance and the gravity of those discoveries wouldn’t have been quite the same. 

Jeff: Yes. And Amy is very conscious of this whole process. She talks about always trying to find the root of how things came to pass. When she’s writing, she’s piecing these things together, about how one thing leads to the next, and that was what we wanted the film to do as well. 

I’ve heard you say there was about 1000 times more footage than you needed in the film.

Jeff: Yeah, I mean that’s the task of documentary editing. It’s part of the fun of it too.

After cutting a few movies, I now have a process for whittling down the footage, but I also know not to be too exclusive at the start about what I include. Something in that first assembly that seems less relevant at the start may become the key to solving a problem later

Right off the bat, there were probably a dozen extremely dramatic instances in Amy’s memoir that happened to her in her twenties that were pretty significant. She had a very eventful life. We were trying to keep tabs and go “okay, where would it make sense to include this”. We also knew the core story was her and her mom, and that was the primary story to tell. It doesn’t matter if there’s a fascinating anecdote that is really amazing in it’s own right. You have to think, what is the core story that you’re trying to tell? And if you’re not working in service of that core story that you’re not fulfilling your job as the editor.

We got that in feedback screenings too. We’ve had to cut down any area where we drifted away from her mom. The longer we were away from the conversations with her mom, those were the areas where we started to lose people. 

Your effort to spread out that material evenly to keep your central theme, and not make it mechanical, not make it too chronological, was very effective. Like I said, I cried a LOT. You had me on a hook!

Jeff: Oh good! I know this is awful, but every time someone tells me they cried at something I edited…

You feel bad?

Jeff: No, I feel good!

Oh great! (we laugh)

When you shot Amy’s pictures, you decided to have them handheld against the backdrop of her albums. Did you open with the film with her rifling through the boxes of picture albums on purpose to tie the rest of the film’s photo presentation together?

Jeff: That shoot they did, where she was going through the photos, that wasn’t staged. She just brought out the boxes and started going through them. 

Jamie just sat with her and she was just describing to Jamie what she found, and they were just shooting as much as they could. A lot of her VO came from that conversation. A lot of the stories came out in that conversation that didn’t come out in the first interview.

Like, when she’s described the time when her mom threw the furniture upside down, and then her father took her out for ice-cream on her birthday and he tried to take pictures of her, and she says “my head was turned away because I didn’t want him to see that I was crying”. That moment came out in this conversation, not because he deliberately asked about that moment, it just came up! She put the photo down and kept going. Jamie’s like, “Wait, what did you just say? What happened? She turned the furniture upside down?”

That sort of scatter of photos obviously became a theme from the start of how we wanted to show the photos in a way that was very natural.

When I had seven bins of her archiving material here in the office, there were thousands of pictures, so we weren’t just going to just send them somewhere to get scanned. How do we go through that and capture them? I didn’t want to wait till we could do a shoot with the DP, so I just started shooting them here. How could I capture these in a way that’s fitting? And I thought, well, she has all these beautiful vintage album covers. So I just put the album down, put the photo on it, put my camera on a tripod, really simple lighting, and just started taking them. I sorta thought we’d come back and reshoot this with moves and all that. But, by the end we had like 150 stills or something, so, they just worked that way. It fit so we didn’t really need to reshoot. We did shoot a lot of the photos with the DP too, with skews in the angle, or light moves.

Most of your editing was done during the pandemic. Was it hectic to coordinate all of this without anybody talking or meeting in real life?

Jeff: We probably would have done more reviews where we would have gone to Jamie’s house or gone to his studio somewhere and watched a cut and talked. Instead we just watched it on Vimeo and then got on a call. The hard part was the end when we were finishing. That was where the pandemic made it really hard, with the mix and the color and the final QC’s. All that was not ideal. 

The pandemic necessitated all the remote stuff that maybe would have ended up happening anyway because of Jamie’s situation, and I work here in my home office anyway. We didn’t have a central edit suite to work in.

When it came time to mix, we did a few staggered screenings so that we could have as few people as possible in a screening space. We did remote screenings where we each got a file and watched it with headphones. I watched it here and listened. We were giving feedback and listening in all totally different environments, so we each picked up on different things. In some ways that’s good because in the streaming world now, people are going to see the film in different environments.

But, I can’t wait until we can do mix sessions again with that kind of collaboration with the sound person! You just can’t do that when you’re not sitting together hearing the same thing. 

You’ve said that you’ve used the Premiere Pro Productions feature for the first time film, and that you really liked it. What was useful about the Premiere Pro Production feature that made this project easier?

Jeff: For me it was all about the stability of the software.

I know a big reason they developed Premiere Pro Productions was for all these collaboration benefits, for people who are working in shared storage situations, and real-time trading of media, and sequences, and all that. We didn’t use any of the collaboration stuff for this.

What was more important to us was stability. Being able to work and not have crashes. Being able to not have to periodically cull through the project and delete old sequences so the project file didn’t get too big, the kind of thing that I’ve had to do to keep the project manageable in the past.

What Productions enables you to do is to keep whatever you want in the production, and as long as long as you’re not piling too much in a single project file, then every individual project file stays very small, very nimble, opens quick, saves quick, renders quick; everything is quick. So by the end of the production, even though the whole folder for the production was like 400 MB, no individual project file was bigger than 15 MB. So there was never a point at the end where an autosave would pop up and I’d sit there for 30 seconds waiting for the autosave. The autosaves were just (snaps finger) one project at a time. They were very quick. Very few crashes.

All that stuff might seem kind of minor, like “oh can’t you just be patient with the system?” But with everything else that’s going on in the world and during the pandemic, you don’t want the system to be a variable. You don’t want to worry about a crash, or worry about the project getting unstable by the end when you’re right near the finish line and you’re starting to have technical problems and all that.

You have several documentaries under your belt. Why did you choose documentary editing?

Part of it is circumstance that I live in the Bay Area. I don’t live in L.A., so there’s not a lot of narrative or fiction happening. But also just being an editor, that became kind of my craft, the thing I was interested in.

Also, this is where editing is the coolest. As a doc editor, you’re getting to live vicariously through these other people’s lives and stories. You’re getting to see places that you would never travel.

I worked for a long time on a film about a music school in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and I got to pour through this incredible footage filmed over several years in Haiti, and see things that I would never get to see. And not only to see them, but get to know places through the eyes of people who actually live there.

It really expands your perspective on your world, I think, by getting to see the world through different people’s eyes. One film at a time, you get these micro exposures to certain topics, and become an expert through it for this brief period of time. I love it. 

When you went to school at SFSU, did you know that documentaries would be your would focus?

Jeff: Not exactly. It wasn’t like I specialized in editing then. But, it was the thing I felt like throughout the process I kind of liked, and when I left I felt like it was the thing I had some grasp on. I started in photography, so I did have a sense of what photography was like. But I didn’t have a lot of experience shooting during college. Where I felt the strongest and most comfortable was editing.

So my first jobs were at post houses. I think it’s a combo of circumstances and my temperament. I think some people are better out in the field, running around, getting up early, traveling, shooting. I think other people are better sitting in a room looking through hours and hours and hours and hours of footage and doing the patient work of crafting story in that way.

You know, there’s different skill sets and I think I moved, for one reason or another, towards the craft that suited me. 

What you would like to say to yourself back in college? What would you say to younger editors on the same path as you?

Jeff: I don’t always think of myself as like an established editor. I still feel like I’m a beginner learning. I’m still learning on every project.

Like everything, you have to be patient with the process. And I mean that in the sense of an individual film.

I started out probably cockier, and I think over the course of my career I’ve got more and more humble about what I know. I went to college thinking I knew how to edit in Final Cut Pro because I’d had a video class in high school. And I got to college and realized how little I knew. Then I finished college thinking “Oh now I know how to edit” in Final Cut Pro, and then I get a job editing and I realized, “Oh, actually I know very very little about editing still!”

You graduate and learn how little you know. I worked as an assistant getting coffee and all that for years, watching other folks work. I think it’s the same, the farther up you go, and there’s never a point where you’re done learning. I think just being patient with that process and being prepared to just continue to listen and learn. On every project there’s been a point where “oh, I need to step back and listen to the director”. I went into it thinking that “I know what I’m doing, I got this, I’m a pro,”  and then I realized that I didn’t.

I’ve had to actually realize that the advice that I am getting from someone, whether they’re older, younger, more experienced, less, there is something that I can learn from everyone, and I have to be prepared to take that feedback because it’s a very collaborative process.

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