‘In the Heights’ Editor, Myron Kerstein on Finding Balance when Cutting a Musical | The Rough Cut

by Ankit Verma | Jul 9, 2021

In the Heights is not your traditional Hollywood musical. Song and dance aren’t so much a ‘musical number’ as they are a state of being for the cast, many of whom are trained stage performers. 
In the Heights editor, Myron Kerstein ACE, had the esteemed challenge of taking that natural flair for theatrics and marrying it with a compelling narrative. As extravagant as In the Heights is—and it’s oh-so-extravagant—at its core, it’s an intimate story of a tight-knit community chasing their hopes and dreams during one life-changing Summer.

The Rough Cut host, Matt Feury interviews Kerstein on his experience working on John M. Chu’s musical—based on the stage play by Lin-Manuel Miranda—and achieving a perfect harmony of sight, sound, and soul.

Listen to the full interview 👇

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Key conversations

Working off previous source material

FEURY: Considering this as an adapted work, something I ask editors a lot is, do you allow yourself to be influenced by the source material? 

KERSTEIN: I prefer not to be influenced, to be honest with you. I prefer to just keep it as its own thing because we’re going to be judged on how the film is, not how it compares to the stage play. I mean, there will be fans that compare it but a lot of people have never seen In the Heights on stage. Funny enough, I saw Hamilton while I was working on In the Heights and I was like, oh my god, this is game changing. I need to step it up. I have to raise my bar big time. These guys are the best in the world and I have to bring it

Trust between director and editor

FEURY: When you’re working with John [M Chu] for the first time and you’re getting to know each other, you figure out how each other likes to work and what’s going to work the best for the both of you. How did the process between the two of you evolve from Crazy Rich Asians to In the Heights

KERSTEIN: Trust is a big part of it. John knows that I’m going to look through every frame, every camera angle to find the little kernels to build things on and I think he saw that on Crazy Rich Asians—that I was really thorough about how I picked performance, how I picked the looks, and how I just combed everything to find things.

When we went into In the Heights, we had a really strong foundation about how we’re going to work together. He was going to trust me to give my take on a scene. Sometimes, I know he has a design for a scene, but he will let me do my thing. Let me have my pass without him. Like, even sometimes, he’ll say, “hey, do you want to know what I had in mind here?” And I would say no, not right now. I just want to do my thing. I might have a completely different take on the scene and I just want to see what I come up with. Very similar to just being a kid in art school; finding stuff and making art out of it. I just wanted to approach the footage in the same way.

A pair of headphones lies next to an audiobook of The Ultimate Jim Rohn Library playing on an iPhone

Crazy Rich Asians, Warner Bros. Pictures

Watching footage as a viewer, not an editor

KERSTEIN: I cut dance and music so much differently now. I feel like I’m even more thorough. I’ve really developed this process for myself to really watch the footage. Let it wash over me. Don’t take any notes. Don’t do any markers, don’t do any slacks. Just let it wash over me like a viewer. Then I painstakingly go through the footage and start building selects, and building select reels, and then cutting my way. 

In musicals, everything is music

FEURY: One of the questions I ask editors a lot is when they like to introduce music? Some love to have it right at the beginning. And then some don’t want it in there until they find that scene and then figure out what works. Again, here, you have no way of avoiding the fact that music is part of what you’re doing from the get-go. How do you adhere to that? 

KERSTEIN: Yeah, it’s almost maddening. It’s like, everything in a musical is music. Everything from the sound effect to the Foley to a door slam is all part of the soundtrack. in fact, there was a big debate. Lin [Manuel Miranda] preferred not to have that much Foley or sound design at all. Whereas John and I were very pushy. We really wanted the film to feel grounded, and have the texture of being in a busy city.

I did put temp music in the film, you know, score for some of our dramatic scenes. But I would always wait until I felt like I found the scene that’s been one of my evolutions. As an editor, I’m trying to keep myself from using music as a crutch.

As far as the musical numbers; even though I was in wall-to-wall music, I would look at them as dialogue scenes. We are telling a story. Sometimes, I turn off all the music and just look at the picture and say am I doing this right? Am I telling the correct visual story?

Musical VS music video

FEURY: Music inherently is rhythmic and cutting is rhythmic. And here you are cutting these scenes and I’m wondering if either, consciously you tried to avoid or embrace cutting with the beats of the music?

KERSTEIN: Every time I’d cut on the beat, I’d say, don’t do that. Don’t treat this like a music video. I think it was just keeping it messy; keeping what felt right to the scene and not what felt right as far as the music. I felt like I was going to fall into the trap of cutting a music video if I cut to the beat versus what felt organic at the right moment.

Don’t over-manipulate

FEURY: You have the cuts that you do see but I have to imagine there are a million cuts in there that the audience doesn’t see. They are hidden by fluid morphs or wipes and things like that because you’re cutting on action. So indulge me on any sleight of hand you did in that regard and how often that had to come up?

KERSTEIN: There are a lot of jump cuts. Hidden little jump cuts throughout the film if I had to get somebody in sync. Lots of speed ramps. But, I have to tell you, I don’t like manipulating my footage to death. I really like the messiness of the footage production brings me. Once I start over-manipulating it, it turns into something else.

*Portions of the key conversations have been edited for length and clarity.

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