Kerstein developed a shorthand working with songwriter and producer Lin-Manuel Miranda on In The Heights that would be invaluable for when he joined the first time director on Tick, Tick… Boom!
Kerstein served as co-editor with Andrew Weisblum, and joined after the tone of the film was already established. To achieve Miranda’s vision for the film, Kerstein began to re-envision the cut for the film’s conclusion and its opening.
On In The Heights, Miranda and Kerstein bonded through the process while Kerstein took notes from director Jon M. Chu. This was the pair’s reunion film, following the massive success they shared on Crazy Rich Asians.
Kerstein spoke to Awards Focus about his duties on both musicals, his experience with musical theater, and the scenes that meant the most to him.
Awards Focus: What was it like working with Tony winning and Oscar nominated songwriter/director Lin-Manuel Miranda ? Can you share a bit about the shorthand you two have developed?
Myron Kerstein: I was living with Lin while I was working with him and it was like being in this wonderful factory of making art. He was writing music for Encanto while I was upstairs cutting Tick, Tick… Boom!
It was very surreal being thrust into this world of having inspiration all around me. He’s very giving of letting me explore what I want to do with the edit. He allowed me to collaborate and be an artist, then he’s reacting to my edits.
He doesn’t tell me “This is what you should do with this sequence.” Instead, he asks, “What would you do and how would you explore it?” And I’m like “What would Ido!?” This is Lin asking me what I would do with it, it was daunting because he raised the bar so high and you’re trying to meet that bar.
You know, I moved “Paciencia y Fe” to be Abuela’s Death Bed scene, and that was not scripted (In the original play, they happen at different times). I found that while I was editing the movie and Lin would say “I need you to find that in my film!” You get only one of those in your whole career!
In Tick, Tick… Boom!, it’s exploring the frames and the voiceovers in the opening and closing of the film, none of that was scripted, it was all found in editorial.
Those types of things come from being relaxed, being allowed to play, and not stressing about making mistakes, whether you’re working with somebody who’s won a Tony and a Pulitzer or not.
AF: What was the biggest challenge with the footage?
Kerstein: You have so many choices, so making the right choice is the biggest challenge. For In The Heights, we had three cameras shooting each day and the musical numbers were filmed out of order. The amount of footage and trying to tell the best story was the biggest challenge.
With Tick, Tick… Boom!, it was a much more contained shoot because of Covid. It’s hard to cut down a musical because everyone loves every musical number, and we were trying to make In the Heights shorter. We cut down forty-five minutes and it test screened lower than the longer version.
In Tick, Tick… Boom!, we cut out a number and it stayed out. It’s like adapting a novel, I want to pay homage to those chapters, but don’t want them to force me down a certain road by keeping them in the film.
AF: What sequence brought you the most joy to edit?
Kerstein: “Blackout” (from In The Heights) was the most complicated thing I’d ever cut. From “The Club” to “Blackout” to the end of “Paciencia y Fe” is the proudest sequence I could ever cut in my career because there are so many parts and so much energy in “The Club.”
I feel like it’s Westside Story on steroids. You can feel the heat and sweat in the club, then going from that to “Blackout,” then all the conflict and joy that was a night of promise, then go to “Paciencia y Fe”/ The Death of Abuela was the hardest thing I’d ever done, but the most satisfying. It’s all right on the pinnacle of falling apart and I kind of love that messiness a bit.
For Tick,Tick… Boom!, “30-90” was difficult because you’re introducing an artist as Jonathan Larson who’s doing this stripped-down version of a rock monologue and then by the end of the number, you’re all in.
We’re cross-cutting between time, locations, and scenes. There’s so much footage coming at you, and to get to the other side of that and say, “I want to watch the rest of this movie,” is something I’m proud of. There was no frame at the beginning of the movie, no voice over, no title, no use of video footage, so a lot of that was created in the edit and with reshoots. Exploring if it should be a flashback or a voice over- there was so much experimentation, and in the end, it felt pretty [darn] organic.
AF: When you receive multiple takes of a performance what draws you to your choice?
Kerstein: When I first watch the dailies, I let them wash over me like I’m the first viewer. If I start to cry or get goosebumps, I want to remember that. I may not start cutting a scene until hours, days, or months later, but I always remember those moments and those moments are what find their way back into the film.
The last shot in In The Heights is a little girl looking straight into the camera. I love my friends on production, but sometimes they come at you saying “There was this take, the best take ever, I think that should be the end of the film!”
And then I say, “No, the way we need to end this film is on this little girl looking straight into the camera because it gave me goosebumps and made me want to cry.”
So, the only thing guiding me is my gut reaction to the footage, and you develop that intuition over time. You start by listening to yourself when watching, like if you’re bored, or want to laugh, and you write down when those things happen and put them in a notebook. Then you start to piece them all together, but they are all based on that initial reaction.
AF: Did your perception of the film when you read the script change when you saw the dailies?
Kerstein: I didn’t realize how emotional it was going to be. I didn’t think cutting a film about a community would be so inspirational or making a film about Jonathan Larson would connect to me so deeply as an artist trying to find their voice.
I didn’t think I’d be crying at the end of both of those movies. When I see a film and I’m ugly crying at the end… I love that, i’s so cathartic.
AF: How did you edit together all the cameos in Tick, Tick… Boom!?
Kerstein: You try not to get overwhelmed and let everybody have their moment. You embrace it like a surrealist fantasy. With Chiquis Rivera it was easy, she flings her arm in the air and you know you’re gonna use that. But I had to cut down a lot of Bernadette Peters, because I’d found her moment already.
AF: What was your musical theater knowledge going into Tick, Tick… Boom! and In the Heights?
Kerstein: I saw RENT, which mirroredwhat it was like to live in New York in those days. I lived in New York City in the mid to late 90s. It’s something that really influences Lin, too. There’s no Lin Manuel-Miranda without Jonathan Larson, so there’s no In the Heights without RENT. I also worked on Hedwig and the Angry Inch, so I knew a bit of rock monologue.
AF: You mentioned cutting a musical number in Tick, Tick… Boom!, how did that come about?
Kerstein: Tick, Tick… Boom! is a rock performance, so I tried to make that feel as real and grounded as possible. There was a lot of music throughout In The Heights, and I wanted to make sure there wasn’t too much music in Tick, Tick…Boom!
That’s why I cut “Green Green Dress,” knowing in my gut that a song should go. You can always kill your babies and put them back in, but if you don’t go there and see how the film plays out, then you might not make a better film.
AF: One thing that was important to Andrew Garfield and Lin Manuel-Miranda was making Jonathan Larson proud. Do you think you achieved that with Tick, Tick…Boom!?
Kerstein: I hope so. If anything, maybe we just got his process right, like what it’s really like to be an artist. I hope we communicated to people who aren’t artists that it’s hard to make art.
I hope we’ve inspired others through Jonathan’s music and even have people discover RENT and Sondheim.
AF: What are your outside passions and how do they come into play when you’re editing?
Kerstein: Listening to music is a big passion of mine. I just got a new turn table and the ritual of turning it over and finding the tracks is so special.
It’s no surprise I’d be editing films with big soundtracks and then musicals. I’ll hear a song on the radio and think “I need to put that in a film!” I’m a collector of sounds (laughs).
In Garden State, the songs I put in the film were on Zach Braff‘s playlist but he didn’t tell me where to put them. “Such Great Heights” I put in, and I put “The Only Living Boy in New York” in when they kiss for the first time, which made me cry in the editing room.
AF: Who was your mentor and what was the best advice you were given that you used when editing these films?
Kerstein: James Lyonswho cut all the Todd Haynesmovies and Velvet Goldmine, which I was the assistant editor. James was a rock star Keith Richards-like presence who carried himself like how a rock star would, with no care in the world.
“I’m an artist, I’m just making things, everything is poetry,” was his mantra. He approached making art by inspiring others and that approach is still in my brain. He had his own rhythm with films, and I feel like I have my own rhythm inside me.
Tatiana Riegelwho cut Cruella and I, Tonyatold me to look at a scene like you’re somebody at a dinner table, looking at different people’s reactions. I think of editing like I’m just shifting points of view, so when I’m cutting, I try to cover that space, do it dramatically, tell the best story, and create tension.
One of my favorite scenes in In The Heights is that dinner scene with the fight between Nina and her father. The simplicity of it is incredible.
Or like in Crazy Rich Asians, the Mahjong scene, again, the simplicity of just shifting points of view. To work with people like ZachBraffor Lin Manuel-Miranda, there’s no roadmap to these pinch-me moments. To be talking to you about this is another pinch-me moment right now.