Lara Johnston discusses the challenges of editing flashbacks and musical scenes in Mouthpiece.
For Lara Johnston, a seasoned editor and assistant editor, Mouthpiece was the film to bring her back to the profession, which lead to winning editing prizes from the Directors Guild of Canada and the Canadian Cinema Editors Awards. “I had stepped away from my editing career,” Johnston explained to me, “which can have pretty demanding hours, to teach editing at a film school, in order to have more time to focus on raising my kids. But I ran into her [writer-director Patricia Rozema] at a screening a mutual friend had invited us to at TIFF. I knew she was looking for people so I sort of emailed her, cold called her, and said, ‘Hey what about me!’” The rest is history.
Mouthpiece is a complex tapestry of surreal, subjective storytelling and emotional flashbacks. The first major challenge was making sure the audience quickly understood the conceit of the film: two actresses (Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava, who also co-wrote the film) play the same character, thirtysomething writer Cassandra, who is grieving the recent death of her mother (Maev Beaty). Johnston recalled to me the many test screenings Rozema held which helped to, among other things, gauge when and if the audience caught on to the fact that Nostbakken and Sadava are both playing Cassandra.
As Cassandra wanders Toronto in the 24 hours before her mother’s funeral, trying to write a eulogy that accurately portrays the complicated woman who raised her, Johnston weaves in flashbacks to Cassandra’s childhood. That was the next big editing challenge of the film: find a place for each of these flashbacks in the film that makes both narrative and emotional sense. What’s more, the film also features two musical numbers — if you didn’t already think Johnston had her work cut out for her for balancing tone — both of which were performed live on set by Nostbakken and Sadava. Somehow, Johnston manages to balance each of these elements with expert skill and grace.
On the advent of our free online screening of Mouthpiece, which runs until tomorrow night, I spoke with Johnston over Zoom about her work on the film. She revealed the secrets behind the film’s movie magic — from structuring musical numbers to balancing dual performances — and gushed about Rozema, Nostbakken, and Sadava as collaborators.
Seventh Row (7R): Did you get to see the play Mouthpiece before you edited the film?
Lara Johnston: I saw the play halfway through editing when they remounted it. There’s a lot of the play that’s still in the movie, in terms of lines, but the movie is also just radically different. If you see the play, it’s such a play. I don’t know how Patricia saw it and thought she could make it into a movie. It really blows my mind that she thought that. But she did it. She took the best parts of the play and preserved them. She added the mother character who wasn’t really in the play and fleshed out her story.
It was really weird to see the play, because when you’re editing, you’re so immersed in the movie and the lines and characters, so it’s a real disconnect to see [the original version of the story]. Amy and Norah were just incredible. They just embodied the character. Because they had done the play so much together, they were just so comfortable together physically. That’s obviously a huge part of what the movie is about. I can’t imagine them doing the movie without having done the play just because of the level of physicality.
7R: At what point did you start editing? Were you working on the footage as they shot?
Lara Johnston: Yeah. They started filming in January, and it was something like a 21-day shoot. It was such a guerilla-style shoot. It’s impossible to get a permit to shoot in the Eaton Centre [a large shopping mall in Toronto] so they just went in with a camera. Amy and Norah are game for anything. And Patricia is just nuts in the best possible way. I think it was just the three of them and cinematographer Catherine Lutes that went into the Eaton Centre for a day and shot things around Christmas.
7R: They told us they just put the camera under a coat to hide it and shot through that.
Lara Johnston: Yeah! (laughs) It was just the best. Patricia’s worked on the biggest things, but this was just, go out and shoot a movie with your friends. I put together the stuff they shot over Christmas [first].
[In the main shoot,] they would shoot, and the next day, you get it, and you put it together. Patricia was always very concerned because they didn’t have much money, so if they were missing anything [, there would be no opportunity for reshoots]. I would send her stuff every night that I edited, and she would give me notes. She’d come in on her day off and look over stuff. She’d always say, “If we need anything, we need to get it now.”
When she was filming the flashbacks, we looked at the shot that would go into the flashback and the shot that would go out of the flashback. Sometimes, it would literally be a shot of her in the present [which transitions] to a similar frame in the past. It’s so well conceived in terms of how she worked. That allowed us to weave in and out of the flashbacks more easily.
7R: How long were you editing for?
Lara Johnston: I started in January, and I think I finished at the end of April. Originally, it was supposed to be one month less, but because there was so much moving the flashbacks around, we took some extra time which was really valuable.
There were pretty radical things in the plot that we changed. In our last audience screening, about a month before we finished editing, people just really loved it, but Patricia was talking to someone at the end, and this woman mentioned something. In the original script, the mom is on antidepressants and she decides not to take her pills because of what Cassandra has said at the Christmas party. She throws her pills away, and that’s kind of what causes her to die. We decided to get rid of that and leave the mom’s death more ambiguous. That was based off of one person saying something. It was just like, Yeah, you’re right. It felt like a plot device. And Patricia didn’t want it to seem like an anti-antidepressant movie or something.
In every movie, there’s five scenes you spend 80% of your time on, and the rest of it doesn’t change that much. There were certain scenes like the escalator ride, the ending, and the twinning stuff in the bathroom [that we spent a lot of time tweaking].
7R: It’s a film that involves a lot of complicated flashbacks. Were the structure of those flashbacks set in stone in the script or found in the edit?
Lara Johnston: The flashbacks were really written into the script. I think maybe what changed was the placement of some of them moved. Sometimes, we added a few snippets of flashbacks [to a scene]. A lot of that was in the script, but it was just about finding the right place for it where it would really connect with people.
We showed this film to a lot of audiences. For a small film, we screened it quite a few times, three or four times, always for people we felt would be the audience.
The first big thing that came out of that was to do with the flashbacks to the mom’s story. There’s the mom, she’s cooking, she gets a phone call from the dad, you feel this emotional distance between them, she’s stuck home with the kids and giving up on her writing career… that all came very late in the film, and I think the idea in the script was it kind of came out of Cassandra as part of her being emotionally overwhelmed.
When we first showed the film to people, they really liked the mom, but because it was two thirds into the movie before they met her, they couldn’t connect with her. So we brought that up to very close to the beginning of the film. That solved the problem of getting the mom into the story sooner.
We have this enormous flashback that transitions into a musical number very early on in the film. We spent so much time working on that area, trying to parse out where the flashback should be weaved in.
7R: How did you work out how to create the transition from the more naturalistic portions of the film to the surreal musical numbers?
Lara Johnston: There were originally three musical numbers in the film. There’s one very early on on the escalator when she [Cassandra] goes to buy nylons. That whole area is chock full. She has what we call ‘the escalator ride to hell,’ because it just goes on and on and on.
Originally, she was going up the escalator, and she saw a picture of her mom, and that reminded her of getting lost in the mall. Someone suggested that, instead of seeing a picture, we put the scene of the first musical number onto the billboard. That was that transition.
The second one is the one in the grocery store. It worked really nice going into it; it was just very well written. With that one, I tried a little flash cut: there was a shot I didn’t really know how to use so I did a quick edit to it to get into that.
The third [musical number] we just didn’t need. We ended up cutting it.
We were always on the fence about the musical numbers. Patricia joked that she doesn’t like musicals and that she was driving to set like, “Why am I doing this?” They were always on the chopping block because you don’t really need them in the story.
But there’s this idea of performance and femininity. We talked about that with audiences, and there was something just great about them. So we ended up cutting them down. They were both much longer. We cut them down so they weren’t full-on musical numbers but just the idea of them.
7R: People have very strong opinions on musicals. I love them, but some people really dislike them. What were the test screening reactions like to those scenes?
Lara Johnston: I think, overall, it was positive. To me, the idea was, when you’re growing up as a woman, there’s a part of you that’s always performing. That’s always what the musical numbers were about. She’s [Cassandra is] in her head rehearsing what she’s going to say at her mom’s funeral.
I think the idea of it really appealed to people. It was part of the nutty surreal-ness of the film where if you buy it, you just love it, whether you like musicals or not. They [Nostbakken and Sadava] performed everything live on set which is kind of unusual.
7R: Could you tell me more about the test screenings? Were they in cinemas or smaller screening rooms?
Lara Johnston: No, they were just in small theatres. I think the first one was like four people who we thought were smart; the next was ten people we thought were smart. We had three or four [screenings in total].
First of all, the whole conceit of the film is that you have to understand that they’re the same person. That’s easy to explain on the page, but are people going to get that? We did a lot of work on that. Different people would understand at different points in the film.
A lot of editors talk about how screenings are helpful to them because you see the movie with new eyes. Even if you’re just watching the film with one person, it’s kind of like a reset button. Rather than watching the film, you can watch the audience and get a sense of when they’re feeling bored. Patricia and I would be in a screening and she’d be like, [imitates cutting with scissors] “We’re going to cut that!” Because it’s dragging. You just feel the energy. You can really tell when people start to twitch or fidget or get bored.
[The audience at the test screenings] were always what we considered our target demographic: women, generally younger women. But it really resonated with all kinds of people. We had this screening where the guy beside me was working for the facility. He was operating. And he was like (imitates sniffling). I was like, “He has a cold. I cannot get sick right now. I have so much work to do.” I was irritated. And then, the lights came up, and I looked beside me, and he was actually crying. I was like, “This is a 30-year-old guy. That’s incredible! OK, well, the ending works!”
7R: How did you approach crafting the final scene of the film, which is this gorgeous and heartbreaking blend of music, voiceover, and flashback?
Lara Johnston: The voiceover at the end was something we added at the very end [of the edit]. Originally, the film ended with one of Norah and Amy saying something like, “There’s nothing like a hot bath.” That was the last line in the film, and I think we all felt that it wasn’t enough. Patricia has all these smart writer friends [to whom she showed the film]. I can’t remember who it was who expressed this, [but one of them said,] I feel like the anger she [Cassandra] feels about her mom isn’t expressed at the funeral. It was like at 8am or 9am that we talked to this woman, then Patricia started scribbling in her notebook, and we started recording these lines. We just kind of added this montage and a voiceover talking about how she was angry at what happened to her mom, how her mom could have been so much and she wasn’t allowed to be that.
If you’re on a big movie with big movie stars, it would be like, book the person, pay them, get the lines, put it in… it would take like a week. With Norah and Amy, they would just literally go into their closet and record songs and lines. This [recording the voiceover for the final scene] all happened over the course of two hours. Suddenly, after working on the movie for three months, at which point I’m pretty dead to the emotion in it, I put those lines in, and I was sitting there going (imitates sniffling). It just added a real wallop to the ending.
7R: How close is your collaboration with Patricia in the editing room? How often is she there with you in the room?
Lara Johnston: All the time! Some directors will come give you notes and then leave. A lot of directors do not have patience for editing because it’s a lot of sitting there watching people adding and taking away frames. For some directors, that’s not exciting. But with Patricia, we enjoyed each other’s company, and we were on the same page.
Patricia is funny and smart and willing to try anything. Sometimes, when you’re working with someone who’s written a script, they can become very attached to certain ideas, and there’s things they don’t want to lose. She would have cut anything out to make the movie better.
7R: How often and to what extent were Norah and Amy brought into the editing room?
Lara Johnston: That was another interesting thing because [they came into the editing room] way more than actors normally would. But Patricia’s just open to anybody. She brought them in very early to watch the movie. In editing, there’s this rule where you don’t show actors anything because they become fixated on themselves and how they look.
There’s lots of stories I can’t tell about things you have to do to manipulate actors. But [with Amy and Norah,] even scenes where they’re butt naked, they were just so smart and clear about what worked and what didn’t work. Even though it was their play, and the movie was so different from the play, they were really creatively generous.
The music [composed by Amy] was so great. Normally, you would put temp music in which is music from other movies. Patricia didn’t want to put that in and get used to it. Almost right away, we started getting music from Amy. Amy would write it, and then she and Norah would literally go into a closet in Amy’s bedroom and record it. Patricia would call her up and say, “We need a song like this.” Then Amy would send us like 10 things. I couldn’t think of a more fun collaboration with people. They have no ego. They’re pretty fearless.
7R: How closely did you work with the sound designers on the film?
Lara Johnston: They mostly came on after. That’s one of those sad things about low-budget films. I couldn’t really be on for the sound mix. They came on and had some cool ideas, like ways to reinforce with sound, that all this takes place in someone’s head.
I would go to the sound mix because it’s fun. It’s always nice when you work on something to watch another part of the creative process that you’re not directly involved with. But it affects how the film is perceived. Sound seems to get short shrift these days because there’s never enough time or money, but they did a great job.
7R: How did you solve the problem of establishing the concept of the film?
Lara Johnston: That was always a big debate. At one point, there was a title card that said Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava as Cassandra. That was a clue to the audience. I really did not like it. We asked if people liked that. A lot of people liked to know that up front because it helped them settle into the movie and enjoy it, not having to figure out what was going on. I was more of the mind that it’s fun to figure it out. I think when I finished my part of the work, that title card was in, and then I was very happy when I went to the sound mix and Patricia had decided not to put it in.
The bathroom scene was a big part of it, the scene where they’re putting on makeup and stuff. That’s a scene where I have to watch through my fingers. We spent a lot of time on it. I think they reshot it because Patricia didn’t like the lighting, and we ended up using pieces of the reshoot and pieces of the original. I just see all the work in it when I see the scene. I initially advocated for taking that scene out, but then she [Patricia] really felt you needed it to figure out the twinning thing.
One thing that really resonated with people was all the doppelganger stuff. People loved that. One of the things they did, after we were editing for a few months, was go out into the mall with a camera guerilla-style and shoot some more instances of that twinning. Weaving that [into the edit] helps remind people.
7R: What challenges did having two actors playing the same character pose to you in the edit? How did you think about who to prioritise at any given moment?
Lara Johnston: I think they were so smart on set about their particular rules, like if there was a phone in the scene, there was always only one phone, and one person would grab it from the other. They had a particular set of rules for the universe.
One of the things Patricia said, that I really liked, was about duality and [how that’s usually perceived as a] good side and bad side, but that really was of no interest to Patricia. Sometimes, Norah is the one stirring things up, and sometimes, it’s Amy.
But ultimately, I think it really came out in their performances that Amy was angrier and Norah was more forgiving. That just kind of evolved. There was a moment when Cassandra was telling her mom off at the Christmas party. That’s heavily Amy, but we did go back and put more Norah in to make her angrier.
7R: So when there was a dialogue scene with another character, you’d just make sure you were cutting back to the Cassandra who’s not part of the conversation?
Lara Johnston: Yeah, and you always do that when you’re editing. It’s called keeping someone alive. If there’s four people at a dinner party, even if there’s someone not talking, you cut to them. Mouthpiece was a little different because, sometimes, they would run the scene with one person, and then run the scene with another, like the sex scene. We spent a lot of time figuring out the balance of who was who. There was no hard or fast rule. The sex scene is one of those. The fight at the Christmas party is another.