Wyatt Smith Connects With Director Kasi Lemmons On "Harriet"
Wyatt Smith, ACE
Editor discusses their collaboration, the honor of telling freedom fighter Tubman’s story

Editor Wyatt Smith, ACE was finishing up director Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns when he got the chance to connect with filmmaker Kasi Lemmons. “I was coming off a big Disney film looking for a smaller character-driven drama,” recalled Smith who acknowledged that on the surface he wouldn’t seem like a leading candidate for such a gig--much less Lemmons' film about the life of Harriet Tubman, a black female hero whose work via the Underground Railroad brought countless slaves to freedom.

Smith after all is perhaps best known for his work on big movie musicals and with ambitious visual effects. His filmography for director Marshall alone also includes Nine (as a co-editor), Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, and Into The Woods (for which Smith earned an ACE Eddie Award nomination). Among Smith’s other credits are 300: Rise of an Empire, and such Marvel entries as Doctor Strange (starring Benedict Cumberbatch) and Thor: The Dark World (as a co-editor).

Fortunately Smith hit it off with Lemmons on a Skype call, laying the foundation for a collaboration that allowed him to exercise some different editing muscles than those he’d exerted on Marvel and musical fare. Smith said he remains indebted to Lemmons for giving him the opportunity to work on Harriet (Focus Features), which features a tour de force performance by Cynthia Erivo as abolitionist Tubman. “I knew I was a big risk for Kasi on a film like this,” assessed Smith. But in a business that “likes to put you in a box,” he related, Lemmons believed in him and saw his commitment to the project. “I’m a white middle-aged male helping to tell the story of one of the most, if not the most important African-American woman in U.S. history.

Smith affirmed that it was an honor to be able to contribute to telling that story--particularly one so relevant today. Harriet, related Smith, deals with separating families, which is a contemporary topic in America, along with the stark reality that hate crimes are on the rise and racism still very much alive. 

Smith described Lemmons as the ideal collaborator. “She’s so well informed,” he said. “She’s a professor, a writer, a director, an actor.” Key in Smith getting in tune with Lemmons’ vision was his getting to come to the Richmond, Virginia area for a couple of days during shooting. Up to that point he had been doing some initial cutting in New York but felt disconnected. “Watching how she worked with actors and crews, where she put her focus in a frame, how she knew when she had something special, helped me. As soon as I dialed into those intentions for a day or two, I felt her focus. I recut everything that day. It all really clicked in for me. It’s where the trust between us started to form. I was able to see the film the way she was conceiving it.”

Smith noted that he and Lemmons wanted to capture the mystical, inspiring nature of Tubman, making a film that could be seen and valued by viewers of all ages, particularly youngsters who could “learn about something important and be inspired.” Harriet presented some “brutal things” but in a way that won’t make youngsters run away and hide, said the editor. This is a film for both an adult audience and the younger generation--a wide range that this story merits for the good of our society.

Smith also contributed to achieving the delicate balance of what he identified as two prime creative responsibilities--”to tell the story truthfully yet make something cinematic.”

Roots in music
In the early 1990s, Smith discovered editing while working at Sony Music Studios in New York City. He gained momentum by cutting the critically acclaimed music series Sessions At West 54th, documentaries for Black Sabbath, Brian Wilson and A&E Biography, music videos for Pearl Jam, John Mayer and Keith Urban, and such TV specials as Michael Jackson: 30th Anniversary Celebration and Elvis By The Presleys. Expanding beyond music, Smith edited the comedy series Chappelle’s Show.

Then in 2006 came what proved to be a pivotal career project for Smith. He cut the NBC special Tony Bennett: An American Classic (directed by Marshall, for which Smith was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Picture Editing for a Special; the show went on to win seven Emmys). He formed a collaborative bond with Marshall who gave him his break into feature editing, first with Nine and then several subsequent films. Starring Daniel Day Lewis, Nine earned Smith a Broadcast Film Critics Choice nomination for Best Editing. 

Fast forward to today and at press time the editor’s work for Marshall continues as Smith was in London beginning work on the director’s live-action version of Disney’s The Little Mermaid.

This is the eighth of a 16-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards will be announced on Monday, January 13, 2020. The 92nd Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 9, 2020, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, Calif.,and will be televised live on the ABC Television Network.  The Oscars also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.

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