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Cutting Honey Boy: Mónica Salazar on Editing The Sundance Hit

COW Blogs : Kylee Peña's Blog : Cutting Honey Boy: Mónica Salazar on Editing The Sundance Hit

One of the most anticipated films at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival (according to Indiewire and MTV, among others), Honey Boy is a semi-autobiographical story penned by actor Shia LaBeouf that spans a decade in the life of a child actor. It’s also the first feature film cut by editor Mónica Salazar, a Mexican immigrant whose story starts with a VCR in Monterrey and a dream to one day land at Pixar.

Editor Mónica Salazar in Park City

After starting her bachelors degree in communication in Mexico, Mónica followed her aspiration toward animation to a school she found online. It seemed like a good step toward Pixar, but she’d really never heard of it before: the University of Southern California. She transferred to USC and entered as an international student.

“My first day there I thought they made a mistake.”

Surrounded by US-based friends and peers with vast backgrounds in filmmaking and resumes already full of awards, Mónica worked hard to prove herself and build her confidence. From her early days editing tape-to-tape as a kid, she knew post production was her future. She quickly branded herself as an editor and worked for both the Avid Tech Lab and sound department at USC.

Mónica working on a project at USC.

Landing an internship out of school, Mónica was thrown into the “boot camp” of entry-level post production and continued to work toward the Pixar internship she coveted. Each application and denial got her a little bit closer, and she even landed an interview on the third try. But her friend got the position – and she was rejected again.

“I was very happy for her. But everything that I had been working for didn’t pan out, it was just very awkward and sad. I think I was a little bit depressed about it.”

On the heels of her final Pixar rejection, the company Mónica had been interning for decided to hire her as an assistant editor for Doug Crise, an editor she had long admired.

And after that, he kept hiring her. She became a Post PA on Gold. Then an assistant editor on Zoe and The Beach Bum. A mentorship was born, and it was mutually beneficial.

“As we were finishing The Beach Bum, he said that there was this movie called Honey Boy that he wanted to put me up for. That’s how I ended up cutting my first feature – because the editor that I started with three years ago trusted me with this opportunity.”

Editing student films at USC.

Mónica’s humble nature discounts her incredible hard work: as she’s in the United States on a talent-based visa, she has never stopped editing even while she’s been assisting (she has 19 editing credits on IMDB since 2012). Her story is one of generous and necessary mentorship, of luck and opportunity converging, but also one of brilliant strategy and ambition. Mónica figured out what she wanted from her career and has been asking for it at every opportunity.

And she’s continued to lift up those around her during her professional ascension. She commonly recommends young professionals for roles and offers her guidance and mentorship. She’s VP of Blue Collar Post Collective in Los Angeles, a non-profit that supports emerging talent in post production. And during this interview, she kept reminding me that she was a co-editor on Honey Boy (sharing editorial credit with Dominic LaPerriere) and that the film was an intense collaboration with Dominic and director Alma Har’el.

Mónica cutting Honey Boy with her trusty hot sauce.

Honey Boy debuts this week in Park City, Utah. I talked to Mónica about her experience on the film, how she dealt with the editorial challenges, and how mentorship and strategy built her editorial career.

Ed. note: Some of the rave coverage of Honey Boy following its premiere, in Variety ("premieres to a standing ovation"), Deadline ("the power to move audiences"), ("a cinematic act of courage"), and The Film Experience ("extremely compelling and affecting").

Creative COW: What was your working relationship like with director Alma Har’el through the assembly and director’s cut?

Mónica Salazar: Throughout the assembly, Alma was deep in the trenches of production. I did send her a couple of scenes while she was on set, we talked, and I visited set one day. We talked a little bit on the phone about the scenes and her intention with them. But once we started the director’s cut, that’s when we both were in it deep. Every single day, we went through every single scene. Alma comes from a background of editing herself, so it’s very understandable that she wanted to see every single take. And she just wanted to go back and re-visit every scene.

Director Alma Har’el (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

It was very early on that we both knew that the movie was not going to be told linearly. We both were exploring the right moment to cut to the future and the past, or the present and the past. And we were constantly working towards that and what was the right timing, what was the best frame for this film. And it was on the very last day of the director’s cut that we watched our playback, looked at each other and said we need a different structure. Very last day of director’s cut! It was hilarious because we just turned to each other and it was like, yeah, we gotta start with the other character, we gotta start with the present or the future and then go back in time. We said ‘we’re crazy. We’re about to deliver this!’ But we needed to change it.

It wasn’t that the movie needed to be fixed, it was that we wanted characters to be [in the film] until the end. We were gifted with so many good performances. The movie was working, but we realized we could make it even better. We could go one step further. The entire time you’re in the past [in the timeline of the film], it was just so beautiful and so serene. To tell the story the way it was originally intended, linearly, we would be missing that and those characters for half the film. We were given something so good that we realized we cannot just stop halfway through and not look back.

Mónica, assistant Shannon, and Dominic on Honey Boy

After director’s cut, that’s when Dominic came along. If we wanted to make our Sundance submission deadline, there was no way this could have happened without the three of us working as a great team. We turned into a really good collaborative team because we were literally creating a new cut of this film every three days. It was so much work, but it was so gratifying every time that we took a step, and took a step back, and re-visited the continuity wall. We would just like take a step back and say ‘okay this is not working, okay this is working.’

Each time, something new worked until there was one cut when all three of us watching the movie said ‘this is going to be great.’ And that’s how my relationship developed and then went on. We were just constantly bouncing ideas off each other.

So the process for finding the right structure was very much just moving pieces around and seeing how it played together, and then shuffling them up more?

Yes. But it was great. We did so many unexpected things – things that were not meant to be told. At least in the original conception, they were not meant to be cross-cut. They ended up cross-cutting very beautifully. I had had this happen in short films but since this was my first feature as an editor, it was a completely new challenge.

It sounds kind of daunting for a first feature to be really working the material quite that much. Did you find it was daunting, or were you really just in your element right away?

There’s always a daunting element to it but at the same time, it was exciting. And sometimes it was like ‘Oh my God, what am I doing’. But I think the more we started to realize things were working, it just felt better and better and better. There was one time, before Dominic came along, Alma and I were joking, ‘oh we’re escaping, we’re escaping the country’. We’re like ‘we’re leaving and that’s it’. But it was fun, it was very fun. There was something very nice and very validating when we got to Sundance. We were like ‘OK, we didn’t f--- this up.’

Honey Boy (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

The overall editorial challenge was finding the right structure from all the great pieces that you had, but was there a particular scene that was especially challenging to cut?

Yes. There were a couple. I don’t want to give too much away about the ending. But given that we were now in a new structure, we needed to work some things around. And it was a fun puzzle to put together. Because suddenly it had to include things that were not intended to be included there.

What did you learn about being an editor on your first feature that was surprising to you, that you didn’t already know about being an editor on other things?

I learned so many things. This is going to sound cliché, but trusting the process is a big one. And just patience. You have to fail in order to succeed. You have to try twenty other versions before you find the right one, and that was a great thing.

I also learned that I really enjoy the collaboration, having a co-editor. It’s something I had done in school before and I really loved it. But it was just great to go into the mix room and go to another fellow editor and be like ‘what do you think about this?’ And then both of us were bouncing ideas off each other and trying new things, and it was beautiful.

There was a moment where I was reading over a break while I was still cutting. I was reading Walter Murch’s book In a Blink of an Eye. And one of the things that he said is a movie is its own when the editor disappears.

This sounds very pretentious right now – but there was a moment when reading that book, when I was in the middle of it, he talked about having co-editors. I was really excited to collaborate with another editor. And there were moments when we turned to each other and we were like ‘did you do that, or did I do that?’ And it was like ‘I don’t know, but it works!’ We worked off each other very well and all three of us made the movie better by working together. It was fun.

Humble beginnings behind the camera, eventually leading to Sundance.

A lot of the well-known editors today were assisting in a time when assisting was a much, much different job – or maybe they never assisted at all. Now we’re firmly in the generation of editors that have been assistants for quite a while, like you were. How do you think having that background changes who you are as an editor, and how you got to this point?

The biggest challenge that we have now is that the assistant is not in the room with the editor. A lot of big editors now were assistants in movies where they were in the room. The assistant was prepping the film and taking scenes while the editor was there with the director. And that doesn’t really happen for us anymore.

I think that what was different for me was that my editor was very welcoming, and he let me be in the room and he let me talk movies and story with him. And that definitely made me a better editor because I learned from him and he allowed me to be in his room. Sometimes the assistant literally has no time to be in the room because of all the tasks they have to complete. And I think that is unfortunate.

I think that it’s more challenging now for assistants to get that hands on experience. And I think it’s important to find an editor that is willing to take you under their wing.

Mentorship between you and editor Doug Crise has been a huge part of your journey. What’s your dynamic in this kind of relationship? How can mentorship be effective?

And ever since [our first project together] Doug kept hiring me. First a post PA, and then as his first assistant on union features. And I just kept working with him. I developed this relationship in which he trusts my input and we work very well together.

I Post PA’d on a bigger Union feature called Gold with Doug. He was very supportive and he would let me sit in his edit room and watch him cut in the mornings before the director arrived. I would be sitting there and just watch him assemble scenes. I’d be like ‘oh, what about this?’ Or ‘I really like this.’ Or he would ask for my feedback – as a post PA!

One of the big things that I keep telling everyone is if someone asks for your opinion, be ready to have an opinion, and be honest. Don’t always say that you like things just because you’re trying to be good. Have an opinion, and be ready to back it up. And I think that’s what formed into a really good relationship between him and me.

After Gold, I went and got my union hours, and then I came back as a union assistant for him. And the same thing kept happening. He’s like ‘come in, I want you to see this’, and I would like this, or I would not like something, and we would talk about it. We would have a very collaborative nature – and there’s always a respect of well, obviously he’s the editor, and I’m just like making suggestions. Sort of like talking story points, talking emotion. I think that’s what really matured our relationship as creatives.

Mónica gives back to the community through mentorship and leading Blue Collar Post Collective LA, including their monthly meet-ups.

As you edit more, will you make mentorship a priority for your assistants?

I hope so. It also varies from project to project. If the assistant is on with dailies you can invite them to come in, or you can just go get them to watch early assemblies of the cut. Usually the person who helps me is an assistant, and in this case it was Meaghan Wilbur and Shannon Lynch. They were both great because they would be my fresh pair of eyes to watch a cut before I sent it out to the director.

So many times I would also show the scenes to Doug. It’s always about building that relationship. Once the director comes in it’s a little harder because your whole time is spent with the director. But then, I did enjoy being like ‘oh, come and take a look at this’, or ‘look at what we did today’. And we would talk about how things are progressing.

I think it’s also very important that the assistant is vocal about wanting to cut if they want to cut. I think it’s also important that the assistant proves that they have a good sense of storytelling in cutting scenes or in discussions with your editor. The first time that Doug gave me a scene to cut, he said ‘okay I see what you did, but I’m not going to take it.’ And then as our relationship developed and evolved, he later would said ‘Oh, I really like this. Here are some notes.’

And then he saw that I could take notes and he said ‘welcome to the Harmony Korine movie.’ And he put in a scene. And obviously as he was working with the directors some things change, but it was a slow process of ‘here, cut this scene’ and ‘I see what you did. I don’t like it, I prefer what I did’. And it’s all valid.

When you’re sitting and watching a scene alone or with the director, how do you know when it’s worked? How do you know when you’ve got it?

To take a line from [ACE editor, USC professor, and author] Norman Hollyn, when I’m leaning forward. I was ingrained that in school. It’s hard to keep a fresh perspective, but sometimes you just feel it. I remember clearly the day that we watched one particular version of the film and we were emotional. We knew this is definitely going to work.

What is it like to be an immigrant in this country, trying to work in a creative industry where it’s so difficult to find jobs? People that have always lived here have to prove themselves, but for you, you have to prove it even more, right? You have to build a portfolio and do more work.

I have to hustle three times more to some extent. At least that was my feeling at the very, very, very beginning. I’m here on a talent-based visa, so I have to constantly be cutting. If I’m assisting, I still have to be cutting too. There’s all these other projects that I’m committed to that I’m cutting because I need to build my editing portfolio. It does mean extra work. But at the same time, I also see it as an advantage because I’m going to see things differently just by nature. I’m going to see everything through a different perspective. Whether I like it or not, it’s just how I am. I have a different background than a lot of people.

And what is it like now to be going to Sundance?

It’s crazy. I wasn’t even planning on going. Now I get to go while my first feature that I co-edited is opening as part of the US Dramatic competition, and it’s getting all this buzz. It’s kind of surreal. I couldn’t have written like a better story myself.

I’m nervous to put all of our hard work out there. It’s going to be out in the world. And so I’m nervous and excited at the same time.

What advice do you have for people that are trying to move up the ladder through post production and into assisting and editing?

Make sure that you’re taking the jobs that are going to take you to where you want to be. Sometimes we get focused on just doing jobs, and we don’t really think about where those gigs are going to be taking us. And I think it’s very valid to be calculated about your career because it’s yours.

Don’t give up, and understand that everyone has different timing for everything. Social media right now makes everyone feel like everyone else is succeeding and you’re not. But that’s just curated success. Everything happens for a reason. I didn’t get my dream internship, and after that I met the editor that would become like a great mentor and friend that put me up to literally be where I am. Everything happens for a reason.

Posted by: Kylee Peña on Jan 24, 2019 at 11:19:31 pm

Focusing on post-production, from editing and motion graphics to personal experiences and the psychology of being an editor.


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