For film editors, the mark of greatness means that their work goes unnoticed-- that their cuts remain virtually invisible so as to let the story unfold seamlessly before our eyes. While editing is arguably one of the most challenging and story defining aspects of a film production, it is actually quite rare for an editor to earn praise and attention for their work, it means that whoever is judging sees leagues beyond the structured sequence of events within the film’s story. To judge an editor’s work one must examine the way each shot choice has helped to create palpable emotion, how each scene has provided us with necessary insight into the characters, and how the pace the editor has set for the developing story heightens and supports the viewer’s experience.
Last year several judges from international festivals shone a light on the captivating work of film editor Shayar Bhansali for his finesse as the editor behind the dramatic film “Against Night,” with Bhansali’s work garnering the Festival Prize for Best Editing at the Kolkata International Film Festival in India and the June Award for Best Editing from the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival Awards in the US.
We recently had the chance to catch up with Bhansali for an interview about his work on the film, as well as some of his other projects and what exactly it is about editing that fuels his fire.
Over the last five years Bhansali has created quite a reputation for himself as a master editor of narrative films through his work on award-winning director Shuming He’s comedy “La Bella,” the riveting drama “Persuasion” from director Mattson Tomlin and Cusi Cram’s heart-warming film “Wild & Precious.”
While his work spans the gamut in terms of genre, Bhansali admits that personally, he leans more towards projects that are full of gritty drama. With dedication to both his craft and the collaborative art of filmmaking, Bhansali takes great care in choosing the projects he edits. Laying the foundation for the dazzling career he has today as a lead editor in Hollywood, he spent several years perfecting his craft as an assistant editor on films like Nupur Asthana’s Bollywood romance “Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge,” Yoko Okumura’s multi-award winning comedy “Kimi Kabuki,” and Bennett Lassetter’s family drama “Stealth,” which earned an impressive list of awards including the Festival Prize from the SoHo International Film Festival, the IFS Award from the Independent Filmmakers Showcase IFS Film Festival and many more.
While he has undoubtedly made impressive strides in the industry and earned impressive accolades for his work, Bhansali credits a great portion of the editor he is today to past mentors such as LA-based editors Michael R. Miller (“Miller’s Crossing,” “Ghost World,” “Raising Arizona”) and Tracey Wadmore-Smith (“Sweet Home Alabama,” “Life and Lyrics,” “About Last Night”), Mumbai-based editor Khushboo Raj (“Mahi Way,” “Viva Sunita!”) and Indian journalist and the editor-in-chief of The Big Indian Picture, Pragya Tiwari.
To find out more about multi-award winning film editor Shayar Bhansali make sure to check out our interview below!
Hi Shayar thanks for joining us! Can you start off by telling us where you are from and a little bit about yourself?
SB: Hey! Thank you for inviting me. I’m an editor based in Los Angeles and I moved out here from India in 2012. I was born in Kolkata, India, but spent a large part of my childhood at a boarding school in Kodaikanal, South India. I moved to Mumbai after high school where I completed my BA in Psychology at Jai Hind College, but found myself veering towards film and television during that time. I initially worked with my brother editing documentary content and moved into mainstream Bollywood as an assistant editor with Yash Raj Films. After a couple years working with narrative content, I moved out to Los Angeles to complete my MFA at the American Film Institute.
When did you first realize you wanted to work in film?
SB: I don’t think there was a specific moment but more of a gradual realization through the influence of my brother Kavi, who works in media and the creative arts. At the time, Kavi and his friends were working on documentaries and I got involved in any way I could. This introduced me to the world of filmmaking and taught me about the role of an editor. After working with documentary content for a few years, I decided to move into narrative fiction and accepted a job as an assistant editor for Khushboo Raj on “Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge,” a feature film produced by Yash Raj Films, Mumbai.
What inspired you to pursue a career as a film editor?
SB: Working with documentaries early on taught me a lot about storytelling through editing, and in a way a lot about writing as well since so much of what editors do in that medium is akin to writing. Moving into narrative fiction, I learned that the process is a little different but the essence of what editors do is the same – telling a story. A big part of this transition into narrative work had to do with the fact that I watched a lot more of that growing up – the films of the Coen brothers’ definitely shaped my understanding of cinema, and I had the pleasure of working with the editor Michael R. Miller recently who did “Raising Arizona” and “Miller’s Crossing”.
I find editing to be humbling and empowering at the same time – you’re constantly making decisions about the way in which a story unfolds, but you do this within the context of the director’s vision. This balance of finding my own expression and balancing it with the larger creative arc is what drew me into the world of filmmaking, and editing became a way of life before I knew it.
What was the first job you landed as an editor?
SB: My first job as an editor was for “The Big Indian Picture,” an online magazine on cinema that features interviews with filmmakers like Farah Khan and Vishal Bhardwaj. A lot of the video content was inspired from The Hollywood Reporter - the people behind it felt that Indian cinema lacked a serious, non-frivolous approach to the medium and wanted to fill that lacuna. I worked with the producers to edit interview segments, and these interviews turned out to be so genre-defining that they became the first ever web-produced content to air on national television (NDTV Prime). I learned a lot working with the Editor-in-Chief, Pragya Tiwari, a journalist —writer and producer who served as a kind of mentor for me moving forward. This job helped me understand how to craft a story with the material we had and being my first real job, it did a good job of teaching me how to work in a production environment.
How has your approach to your work progressed since that first job?
SB: I’ve learned to trust my instincts more; specifically with regard to the way I’m cutting a scene and choosing performances. A lot of how I work today was influenced by my time at AFI, the hands on experience and guidance from experienced editors made me question my approach and refine it with every project I’ve worked on since. I’ve also become a lot more focused with the kind of work I take on, choosing to specifically work with people who share a similar sensibility but at the same time make challenging pieces.
What was it like working on the multi-award winning film “Against Night”?
SB: Set in the 1960s, “Against Night” is the story of a cosmonaut haunted by the loss of his wife and daughter, and the extraordinary power that memory holds in shaping our lives. Working on this project was a unique experience for me, primarily because I got to make a film with some of my closest friends but also because of the challenges it posed and how well it’s done in the festival circuit.
I work regularly with the director Stefan Kubicki and producer Saba Zerehi, and as an editor I find that we’ve come to develop a language for our work where we support each other and work well towards a singular idea or vision. Stefan’s script for the film was very strong, and my goal with editing it was always to do everything in my power to bring that script to life. The story contains flashbacks and explores fatherhood through the lens of time and memory – it was critical for me that the emotional rhythm of the film guides the audience through this narrative.
How did it feel winning the LAIFF June Award from the Los Angeles Film Festival and the Jury Prize at the Kolkata International Film Festival for your work on the film? Were you surprised?
SB: Yes, I’m always pleasantly surprised when audiences react positively towards my work. Editing is one of the harder elements of filmmaking to single out and this is part of why I like it – you’re an integral part of the storytelling but hope that nothing you do draws too much attention to itself. With the awards we received for “Against Night,” I think I was lucky to work with such a talented team – the cinematographer Nico Navia and production designer Aleksandra Zgorska did a fantastic job and the individual awards we received are really just a representation of how well the team worked together.
Can you describe some of the other films you’ve edited over the years and some of the challenges you’ve faced?
SB: One of the first films I edited in Los Angeles was “Wild And Precious,” written and directed by Cusi Cram. Cusi had a lot of experience writing for television and theatre, and this was crucial in helping with the casting of the project – we were lucky to have Phyllis Somerville (“The Big C,” “The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button”) and Sam Schuder (“NCIS,” “True Blood”) as our two leads. The film is a dark ensemble comedy about a dysfunctional family gathering for a funeral – and the key challenge for me was to find a natural balance between the many characters while ensuring that Schuder’s character was the focus and anchor through which we saw it all.
“Persuasion,” a film I edited with director Mattson Tomlin and producer Jordan Lietz is a story about a father (Mark) coming to grips with his son’s (Connor) seemingly unnatural talent with controlling people’s behavior. Early in the film, there is a scene where Connor faces off with a bear and this is where the audience learns how truly powerful the boy is –Mattson was convinced that the only way to portray this scene in a realistic sense would be to shoot it with a real bear. Given that the child actor was only 7 years old, we had to come up with a way to use a motion controlled camera rig to shoot separate plates with the bear and child, and combine them in post production with the help of visual effects supervisor Mike Pappa. Along with a multitude of other visual effects shots used in the film, the challenge for me was to help the team plan and execute this during production – and be available on set to quickly provide mock-ups of what the scenes were looking like. This level of involvement is becoming more common for an editor and when done efficiently, I find it can be an irreplaceable tool for the director and production crew.
Most recently, I completed work on “Zoya,” a film directed by Sahirr Sethhi. “Zoya” follows a zoologist searching for a missing tiger in the jungles of central India. It was shot entirely on location in the Kanha Tiger Reserve and features Rajesh Tailang (“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Siddharth”) and Manjot Singh (“Udaan,” “Fukrey,” “Oye Lucky Lucky Oye”) in the lead roles.
Capturing wildlife in their natural habitat is a challenging ordeal for any production, and to do it within the medium of a scripted narrative is so much harder. Fortunately, Sahirr and the cinematographer Eeshit Narain were able to capture many hours of footage with the animals, and the challenge for me was to find a way to weave this material in with the story in a natural way. In addition to this, a central idea that we wanted the audience to understand with this film was the metaphor for how the tiger represents the relationship with the protagonist and his estranged daughter – it was integral to the larger idea behind the film but something we wanted to highlight in a subtle way.
Lastly, a film I’m very excited to share with my friends and family is “Maruva,” a documentary film directed by Monica Lek. The film is about Maruva, a transgender sex worker in Turkey and I was lucky to be able to work on it for the majority of last year. Monica and I connected very early on, sharing a strong sense of belief that we wanted the film to be about Maruva as an individual, and hope that the audience learned a about sexuality and gender within the larger context of Turkey through this character.
Transitioning is heavily persecuted in Turkey and we believed it was important to separate the politics from the humanity of the situation – the project went through various versions last year as we struggled with finding this focus in over 120 hours of material, a challenge that was only compounded by the fact that the majority of our dialogue is in Turkish. Monica and I worked with Melodi Tuna, a translator and young filmmaker from Turkey, and decided that the heart of the story was Maruva, a girl with an infectious sense of humor and an incredible appetite for survival. I was happy to be working with producers Jordan Lietz and Raji Shivshanker again – the project is currently in post-production (sound design and music) and will start playing at festivals later this year.
What tools do you prefer to use to edit?
SB: Each project has its own needs and one has to be able to adapt as an editor. I edit primarily with Avid, but I also use Premiere Pro and Final Cut X. I also work with DaVinci Resolve and some of the Adobe programs in conjunction with it for other needs; specifically things like motion graphics, visual effects, and conforming and color correcting projects.
What is it that you love about working as an editor?
SB: The idea of building a whole from a series of fragmented pieces. I like the process through which we rewrite the story with editing, the power to manipulate and curate the emotions of our audience with every decision we make. I’ve always been drawn to the inner workings of a film, understanding how structure and scene construction influences the way we relate to characters and story – and editing for me gives me the opportunity to do this every day with every project I work on.
What projects are you working on right now?
SB:I recently completed work on two projects, “Zoya” and “Maruva,” and they are at various stages of post-production and exhibition.
What separates you from the rest of the pool of editors in Hollywood? Do you have a certain specialty in the field?
SB: One of the things about film that I’ve always been drawn to is its ability to move you and make you question how you think. As filmmakers, I believe we are constantly working with the medium to guide the way our viewers feel – and to do this successfully one has to have to be sensitive to the way we think. I’m not sure I realized this at the time but my interest in psychology and the way our minds work definitely helped me shape emotions and characters. Whether it’s a fictionalized post apocalyptic world with a robot as it’s protagonist or a based-on-reality story about a soldier fighting in WWII – the thing that makes these movies resonate with me is the humanity within the story and characters.
Can you tell me a little bit about your editing process? Once you get the footage, where do you start?
SB: I spend a lot of time watching dailies before making any decisions about cutting, focusing mainly on performance and understanding how the actors and director are working. Depending on the scale of the project and schedule, I like to be able to get a rough pass of each scene done fairly quickly, initially focusing on scene structure and performance and then fine tuning the editing decisions I’m making with regard to emotional arcs and the larger narrative. Ideally, I like to have all of this done with enough time for me to watch the piece as a whole and give it another pass before showing it to the director – this allows me enough time to work on the sound and music, something I really enjoy doing and believe is crucial for a first cut.
What has been your favorite project so far and why?
SB: I try and work on projects that I’m truly passionate about, whether it’s the script or my relationship with the team – each one has taught me so much that I have trouble singling one out as my favorite. I’ve been lucky to work with some very talented filmmakers, and my favorite project is usually the one I just finished.
What projects do you have coming up?
SB: There are a few projects that I’m very excited about, primarily because I’m passionate about these stories and have worked with the directors before.
“Rene” is a feature film written by Mattson Tomlin, a director I frequently work with. The film is about the intense, inexplicable bond between two men united by a shared tragedy. It stars Xander Berkeley (“24,” “Air Force One”) as the titular hunter, a reclusive mountain man tracked down by the now-grown witness to something he’s tried to forget. This is a project that Mattson and I, along with our producers Jordan Lietz and Raji Shivshanker, have been working on for more than 2 years. We shot the initial schedule, the prologue to the film, in 2014 and plan to complete production in the fall this year.
I’m also currently attached to edit “Shinje,” a feature film written by Stefan Kubicki that’s at the early stages of preproduction. The script is hauntingly beautiful and I can’t wait to get started with it. It’s about an American transport plane that collides with a Japanese fighter over the Himalayas in the early years of WWII. The crew members fight to survive while being stalked by a mythical monster – and each other.
And in 2017, I’m attached to edit “Pluto,” a feature film written and directed by Sahirr Sethhi. Sahirr and I had a great experience working on “Zoya” together, and quickly established a working relationship that we hope will carry over into our future projects. He’s a very talented director and I’m excited to be working on his first feature.
Do you have a passion for working on a specific kind of film or project, if so what kind of project and why?
SB: I am generally drawn towards darker stories; dramas with a gritty underbelly. The most important thing for me with projects is my relationship with the director and the script/story that they are trying to tell – as an editor, I find that I can adapt quite well to different styles and genres as long as I connect with the director’s sensibilities and taste for the kind of film we’re working on. It’s difficult to find people that share your vision and incredibly important to maintain the relationships with the ones that do.
What do you hope to achieve in your career as an editor?
SB: I hope to continue working on projects that move me, regardless of the scale or medium that they exist in. I was talking to one of my producers, Jordan Lietz, about what we want to be doing in the next 5 or 10 years and he had an answer that I very much agree with: “exactly what we’re doing now, with the same people, but more consistently.” I find that my relationships with filmmakers in this industry is a big part of why I enjoy doing what I do – and to be able to work with your friends on projects that you love seems like a dream job to me.
What would you say was your first foot in the door to the industry? What is your advice to other aspiring artists? Add credits to editor names.
SB: My mentors, without a doubt. I’ve had the good fortune to work with some very accomplished editors, starting with Khushboo Raj in Mumbai and then Michael R. Miller and Tracey Wadmore-Smith in Los Angeles. Each one of them believes in training and nurturing young talent and they’ve been instrumental with my growth. The only real advice I would have for anyone starting out down this road is to be patient and take the time to learn from someone with experience in the kind of cinema you hope to be working in