Hillbilly Elegy

Ron Howard’s latest film, Hillbilly Elegy for Netflix, is based on the 2017 best-selling autobiography of J. D. Vance, a Yale Law student (played by Gabriel Basso) who has to leave the big city on the eve of landing a coveted interview for his dream job at a top law firm in order to help his sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett) deal with his mother Bev (Amy Adams) who has been hospitalized in his hometown of Middletown, Ohio, after a drug overdose.

The narrative jumps through time as he recalls the lessons about family loyalty and responsibility that he learned from his grandmother, Mamaw (Glenn Close), who helped raise him as his mother struggled with addiction. Howard tapped editor James Wilcox, ACE, to cut the film. He had worked with Wilcox before on National Geographic’s biopic series Genius, which follows the lives of some of history’s greatest minds. Wilcox’s work on the pilot episode, Genius: Einstein (2017), earned him an ACE Eddie Award, and the editor was keen to work with Howard again when they reconnected in 2019.

“He sent me a script. We talked over what I thought about it. He called me on a follow-up interview and I reminded him that I was from Pittsburgh. He was looking for someone who was authentically familiar with some of the challenges that J. D. Vance faced in his life and could really relate to the material,” Wilcox explains. “Before I knew it, he was asking if I would be okay with relocating to New York to work on the project, and that was a no brainer. It was great script.” Wilcox relocated to New York in June 2019, taking a red-eye flight hours after being inducted into ACE. Less than a week later, he started receiving dailies. Production initially shot for 44 days though mid-August. A few days later he was turning over his first cut.

“Ron works really fast. I’m pretty fast myself. And all along the way I was sending him cuts as he was shooting in Atlanta and on location in Ohio and Connecticut. And he was giving me feedback. So we were progressing through the notes as we were putting the editor’s cut together. Then he came in, and he worked really fast, because he wanted to see just how the movie was shaping up. And we had our first screening Sept. 10.”

The editor reports that there was a wealth of coverage and he had superb performances from the entire cast. His original cut was over two and a half hours. “We all knew we had a movie there, but it was time to roll up our sleeves and find it.”

Through the rest of 2019 there were numerous friends-and family screenings as they worked to refine the edit based on feedback. Then, pickup shots were filmed in early March, coming in just under the wire before Netflix decided to shut down all physical production due to the pandemic. “No one really knew exactly how this was all going to unfold,” says Wilcox. “From March 17 all the way through to June 14,

I worked from my apartment in New York. Then I came back to Los Angeles and we finished the movie here. We locked the picture during the pandemic. And boy was that tough because, first of all, the energy that comes out of the cutting room when I’m sitting with Ron or sitting with one of our producers and
writers was just amazing. We could really solve things quickly in the room, or kick around ideas and then they’d leave and I’d go and execute the things that we talked about.”

But under the pandemic protocols, the entire crew ended up widely scattered using Evercast to work collaboratively and Zoom for video conferencing meetings. “We had to mix remotely. We had to do all our ADR remotely. We color timed the movie remotely,” Wilcox says. Carefully sanitized and packaged mobile mic systems were shipped out to cast members for ADR sessions. “That’s where it really got interesting because everyone was everywhere. I think Amy was in Los Angeles. Glenn was somewhere out in Montana. Haley lives in England. Bo Hopkins was in Los Angeles. So, that’s how we were recording all of our sessions. Then, I’d get the recordings back and just start rifling through the multitude of recordings and cutting in all of our ADR and temp, voiceover, whatever we needed.”

Stylistically, Wilcox reports that they were going for a documentary sensibility. “I think it’s a movie that, stylistically, has documentary-like DNA. Ron wanted a very authentic feel, almost a voyeuristic look at this family,” says Wilcox. “Our DP Maryse Alberti comes from a documentary background and I ultimately have news in my background as well. So there was a lot of handheld. We added grain when we finished the movie.

There’s a lot of jump cuts when they need to be there. There’s a lot of point-of-view cutting, just to have it become more experiential than observational and that’s the approach I took.” That sensibility also extended to composer Hans Zimmer’s restrained music track. “He was very protective to not overscore the picture or not get in the way of the dialogue because Glenn Close and Amy Adams are phenomenal.”

For Wilcox, one of the more challenging scenes was when Vance finally finds his mother in the hospital in the midst of a heated argument with the nurse and the doctor who wants to discharge her. The moment is intense and emotional as they plead with the hospital staff to keep her for one more night, because,
otherwise, she has nowhere else to go. “There’s a lot of overlapping dialogue in the scene. It’s raw and it’s how people speak in real life when they’re upset and everyone wants to get their point across and they don’t always wait for someone to end a sentence before they begin. But those scenes were tricky to cut because they had to make sense. I had to cut for the logic to the ear first before I cut for what was on camera. You can’t just have a jumbled mass of noise.”

One key area where feedback was essential was the opening of the film. Originally, it opened with a powerful introduction of Bev and Mamaw. Young J. D., (played by Owen Asztalos) wasn’t introduced until a little later. “When we screened it, there was a little bit of confusion as to whose movie this is, because when you introduce Amy and then you see Glenn, you just know it’s their movie. The audience kept suggesting that they wanted to be introduced to J. D. earlier. So we went the opposite way and brought the kid out first. Once we did that, the question was never ‘whose movie is this?’”

A lot of the character development came out in the editing room as well. “Glenn, Amy and Haley did a tremendous job, but at the same time we had to find that delicate balance of introducing these characters, and getting people on board and understanding who they are.”

For example, Bev’s drug problem originally came out early in the film, when J. D. goes to visit her in rehab and she tells him, “It’s going to be different this time.” “After evaluating my initial cut, I realized, I needed to introduce her in a kinder, gentler, more motherly way before we discover what is bugging her on the inside, because she’s a tough pill to swallow in this movie,” says Wilcox.

Wilcox adds that Close’s Mamaw is more redemptive and matriarchal, though it took a week or two to really find her character in the editing suite. “It was almost like fine tuning an instrument, but the performance choices were all there.” The editor relates that with so many influential women on screen, it was essential that they mimic that off screen too. “Our cinematographer [Maryse Alberti], our production designer [Molly Hughes], our online producer [Karen Lunder], our writer Vanessa Taylor – there were so many women that played an integral part in giving us feedback as to how we were proceeding. I think women are well represented on camera and behind the camera with the people who have influenced the story.”

Wilcox worked very closely with Howard throughout the editorial process. “The great thing about working with Ron is he has a plan for everything, but he also has the confidence in me to find the story as best I can,” he says. “That was really liberating because he’ll have a shot plan, but he doesn’t want you to necessarily be wedded to that, if you see something in there that was unplanned.”

Wilcox says that over the course of the film, they developed a bond of friendship and mutual respect. “Because we were [editing] in New York, there were times where we could just go out for a beer after work and really talk a little bit more about a scene or an idea,” he says. “In L.A. you don’t always have that because traffic is such a prevailing force that when people break for the day, we’ve got to get in our cars and go home.”

He revealed that Howard even coordinated with his son back in Los Angeles to plan a surprise birthday party for him. “He’s awesome. In my book, you cannot say anything bad about Ron Howard to me. I mean, he’s just the best,” says Wilcox. “And honestly this was a dream job.”

The editor was supported by assistant editor Ulysses Guidotti and second assistant Nolan Jennings. PA Hillary Carrigan rounded out the team. Wilcox explains that while he had worked with Jennings before and knew that he would bring a deep level of commitment and enthusiasm to the project, Guidotti came highly recommended by a friend.

“They both were outstanding, from keeping pace with me, to anticipating not only my needs, but what Ron would need for the day. Both of them are really strong, but we decided early on, it would be better to have a good division of labor,” explains Wilcox. “So Ulysses did a lot of temp visual work, overall managing of the film and the comps. We have some driving sequences that needed to be comped and needed a proof of concept, because I don’t like showing anything that has greenscreens in it. So he would cull together the backgrounds.

“Nolan did a lot of sound design,” he adds. “I would tell him when I’m looking for, in a given scene, and then we’d go from there. He would often cut in some of the source cues and give me a variety of choices, because we were using source cues to delineate the time periods.”

Overall, Wilcox hopes that people are inspired by this movie. “I think that this movie has a lot of hope in it. It has a lot of love in it. It has a lot of comedy in it. And you know, it raises some tough questions. What does it mean to be loyal to your family? What are those sacrifices?” Wilcox sums up. “I hope people get
the universal themes that they can identify with. It’s not just about life in Appalachia, it’s about life in general and the obstacles we face and how we survive and persevere.”

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