Easy Land Q&A with Chris Mutton, Devin Rintoul and Sanja Zivkovic
Easy Land is a raw, engaging, and heartfelt story about a mother and daughter as they struggle to navigate the many obstacles facing newcomers to Canada.
The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019. The CCE heard from Editor Chris Mutton, Assistant Editor Devin Rintoul, and Director Sanja Zivkovic about their creative and technical process during post-production.
Q: How did you first become involved in the film? What drew you to the project?
My involvement began as far back as the early writing process. Sanja sent me a short outline of the film. I stayed involved through the writing process, giving her feedback over multiple drafts of the script. By the time Easy Land went to camera, I already had a great handle on the material. Sanja and I met at the Canadian Film Centre and found we pohad similar taste in films. We worked together on her short Cleo which also premiered at TIFF. It only made sense to continue the collaboration on her first feature.
Having worked on a feature with Chris before I was lucky enough to be invited to join Easy Land for our second round as a dangerous duo. I was definitely drawn to the film by how relevant its theme of immigration and related struggles are to many Canadians and for people across the world. It’s a blessing to have worked on a film with such an important message.
Q: Did you hire Devin or was he already on board the project when you started? What qualities/experience do you look for in an assistant editor?
Devin was on board months before editing began. When I needed an assistant for a previous feature, Luba, I asked my Sheridan film professor for recommendations. He gave me one name – Devin. It is important to build a trustworthy team. If you know you can depend on someone it reduces part of the natural pressures around editing a film. Devin and I have developed a solid workflow as a product of cutting Luba. For Easy Land, we knew that all we had to do was repeat what worked and half the battle was won. For me, it freed up more time in each day to focus on the creative work of editing. A good assistant should have top-notch communication skills. On a small film like Easy Land, keeping all relevant parties up to date is an enormous task and often gets downloaded to the edit suite. You have to make up for the fact that there isn’t a post supervisor helping you out.
Q: It seems like this story was a very personal one for writer/director Sanja Zivkovic. How did you navigate the director/editor relationship knowing that it was such a personal story?
I was also involved in editing the Easy Land pitch video that was submitted to Telefilm and that helped immensely. In order to create a clear understanding of why the story was important for Sanja to tell cinematically, we had to discuss her personal connection to the material. It also helped that we’d become friends while editing her short Cleo. I didn’t feel like I had to worry too much about crossing boundaries and I was comfortable having those conversations. Plus, it’s just part of Sanja’s personality that she’s not shy about the more autobiographical story aspects, which I appreciate.
Q: What is an example of a key change made during the edit process that had a significant impact on the final cut?
The therapist scene is a gem; you are drawn right in by Mirjana’s amazing performance. Her dialogue clearly lays out a cavalier attitude to her character’s mental health issues and reveals her precarious reliance on Easy Land as a source of salvation. But… it was running long. They say it’s hard to kill your darlings and this was the full realization of that notion. We tried many trims, lifting out various sections of dialogue, but each time the edit would force us to lose a crucial moment. Finally, we found an interesting solution. As Jasna is wrapping up her therapist session she thanks her doctor. I tried starting her “thank you” in the middle of the doctor’s dialogue as he’s laying out his concerns. Next, I hunted for a small sigh from the doctor and placed it with this edit. Now, Jasna effectively ‘interrupts’ the doctor, shutting him down and we have a slight reaction in the form of the off-screen sigh that sells the interaction. In fact, this cut really reinforced the purpose of the scene, which is to demonstrate Jasna asserting herself over the institutional care she’s receiving. It’s one of my favorite edits I’ve ever made.
When we started editing the film it was true to what was in the script. After a few months of working with the footage as I had imagined it originally, and after a test screening with an audience who was completely new to the idea of our film, it became clear that we needed to mix things up a little more. I think one of the big turning points for me was when Chris and I tried to cut out a dream sequence (I really loved for the visual aspect of it) to see what it did to the rest of the film. It was just one scene but it completely changed the style and tone. After we said goodbye to that scene, we were able to restructure the rest of the material, and reshoot a few more realistic shots to take the place of the dreamlike segment. I feel that decision made the story a lot rawer, which felt like the right thing to do.
Q: There are many scenes in the film that are in Serbian. Do either of you speak the language, and if not, what were some of the challenges of working in another language? What workflow elements did you put into place to help the editorial process for these scenes?
Sanja is fluent in Serbian but neither Devin nor I are! Serbian is a digraphic language and can use Cyrillic or the Latin alphabet. So to help with Serbian dialogue scenes there was a dual language script in English with matching Serbian in the Latin alphabet. For the most part, it sounds the way it’s spelled. It didn’t take long to get used to editing in Serbian. Because Nina and Mirjana gave such expressive performance, I was often able to follow along without the script by interpreting body language and facial expressions. So much of editing performance is paying attention to these factors so it was almost a purer form of editing in a way.
I have no knowledge of the Serbian language unfortunately so we would attempt to follow the script and Chris would ask Sanja to let us know what the actors spoke on set in case there was any confusion. I would try my best translate that into the temporary subtitles.
Q: Describe your technical setup and your workflow for editorial both during the shoot and then in the later stages of post. What tools and software did you use? Do you have any tips or tricks you want to share?
The film was cut on Avid, which is my preference for features. Collaboration between assistant and editor is so simple – save the bin and email it. Also, the delivery to audio departments after locking the film has always been seamless. I think it helps that ProTools is owned by Avid. I cut on my aging iMac. That’s another thing I like about Avid. Once you render out the dailies to DNxHD (Avid’s proprietary codec) everything runs solidly and fast. I can scrub from one end of the timeline to the other with almost no lag – even on an old machine.
My tip would be to take the time to create scene cards (see example) and stick them up on a cork board as you finish each scene. It’s a quick visual reference and it will start ideas flowing for restructuring opportunities.
Chris thankfully has a very organized workflow that allowed us to move smoothly throughout production. I had the task as the assistant to organize, sync, and log the footage using Avid Media Composer. My main tip to any new assistant is to back up everything on multiple drives as soon as possible, you may think you’re safe but you never know. Also bring candy and snacks to share with the editor, it goes a long way.
Q: What was your experience prior to working on this film? Was there anything new that you learned while working on this project, either from Chris or generally from the project workflow or content?
I worked on a feature with Chris before but not the same environment, for example this was my first feature working next to Chris in a studio throughout the entire production. It was exciting to see the rest of the team coming in and out and meeting new faces from the industry every day. Sanja would visit frequently allowing me to study the director/editor relationship and the progress they would make by coming up with game plans and bouncing idea’s off each other.
Q: Did the team do test screenings of the film? As an editor, how do you prepare for and navigate test screenings, and how do you handle the notes that come out of them?
We did one proper test screening in a mix theatre at Urban Audio. Preparation consists mostly of sound work. Larger viewing spaces amplify all the imperfections of a temp mix, so you really have to clean up dialogue and find the right levels of ambiance. An audience, even industry vets, will not look past (or hear past) bad audio. And if they can’t understand the dialogue it’ll create waves of confusion for the test audience. In terms of digesting the notes that came out of the test screening, that was a large discussion between Sanja, Julie, the producer and Matt and Kristy, our EPs. The key is to look for the common notes and prioritize those. Just because a note is given doesn’t mean you have to take it. If it’s easy to try, we tried it. Sanja is a confident filmmaker. She likes to hear lots of opinions, but at the end of the day she knows the film she wants to make and her vision will be preserved.
Our test screening was very beneficial for the film. It came at a good time when we felt like we needed the feedback, after two months of editing, and before our reshoot day. I also sent the film to a few trusted friends and colleagues in Serbia who were onboard since the writing process. It was good to get opinions from people of different backgrounds, especially people that understood where Jasna and Nina had come from, and to see if what I had intended was showing in the film.
Q: Easy Land is a very quiet film. What kind of sound work did you do during the offline edit (if any)? Did you use temp music? What was your relationship with the composer and sound team?
It is a quiet film! So much of the aural aspect of the film relies on ambient sound. The Victoria Park neighbourhood where the film is set has a very unique sound. The wind passes through those buildings and courtyards in a specific way. Also, the subway travels outside and is always present in the background. I wanted to make sure we had lots of that ambience collected, so Sanja and I went out with a pair of rented Sennheiser 416 shotgun mics and spent the afternoon recording sounds at the various shooting locations – all before the shoot started. We could have asked the sound recordist to do this, but I know from experience that once production starts the long days and tight scheduling usually mean there’s no time. Doing it separately from the shoot schedule meant we could focus only on capturing the sounds of the neighbourhood.
The composer Casey MQ and I had worked together on my previous film Cleo, which Chris edited, so the three of us already had a solid working relationship. It was important for me that the score be in line with the atmosphere, but not to impose on the preformances, which I felt were strong enough on their own and didn’t need to be hightened by music. Casey really got this, and Chris also understood what I wanted so the three of us played a lot with the arrangement, the in and out points , while in the edit. Casey would give us options, we would get back to him and so on. It was a really nice and fluid proccess! As for the Serbian rock music, I imagined it to be a juxtaposition to the score in a way, an escape from the character’s every day reality. While we were shooting, Chris was assembling the film and needed to use some Serbian music in order to make it work so he went online and researched Serbian rock bands from the 80’s. In the end, we actually ended up using one of the songs that Chris hand chosen as a temp – in fact, we loved it so much we fought pretty hard to get copyright on it.
Q: The film premiered at TIFF in 2019. What was your experience of the festival?
I love TIFF and it was an honour to have our film premiere there. The highlight was the after-party which was hosted by our distributor at Mongrel House. I brought my parents and my partner and they had an amazing time watching live karaoke, hanging out in the whiskey room and chatting with the cast and crew.
I couldn’t make it to the screening at TIFF unfortunately but was able to make another screening later on, which I was fortunate to see with Chris and my family.
It was a really great experience to have the film World Premiere at TIFF. It felt like the perfect scenario – not only to premiere at one of the world’s biggest film festivals, but also in the city where the film was shot, so that all of the cast and crew could attend. I’m so glad that we all got to be there to watch it together for the first time on the big screen (and celebrate at Mongrel House after of course!)
Q: What did you enjoy most about working on this film? What did you find most challenging?
Working on films has always been a dream and I do really owe a ton to Chris for trusting and allowing me the time and space to learn the ropes as an assistant. Even if I were to begin editing my own films, I’ll probably be calling him often for tips and tricks for a long time to come. I also had a blast assembling some of the scenes, including the fight scene.
One of the best aspects of cutting Easy Land was working with Maja Bankovic’s footage. Her camerawork is so fluid but still maintains such purpose. Every move feels like it enhances the story. In fact, we could be spare with edits in many scenes because the camera was articulating so much. In terms of challenges, the lead up to the film’s climax took us a while to get right. There was a dream sequence that we recut and recut. In the end, it came out. Sometimes simplicity is best. We had the benefit of one day of reshoots. Sanja shot one reaction with Nina, cheating the apartment location with a crewmember’s house, and that was all we needed to properly set up the climax.