David Byrne brought his acclaimed theatrical concert, American Utopia, to HBO Max in October, the perfect antidote for pandemic-weary viewers stuck at home and hungry for uplifting content. The HBO Special Event, which was directed by Oscar and Emmy winner Spike Lee, presents the Talking Heads frontman’s classic songs with an ensemble of 11 musicians, singers and dancers gathered from around the globe, inviting audiences into a joyous dreamscape in search of human connection and social justice.
Shot on a bare stage with a fully mobile band, David Byrne’s American Utopia was brought to the screen by a veritable army of crew members that included cinematographer Ellen Kuras and 11 additional camera operators. The special was edited by Adam Gough, ACE, who got his start as an editorial trainee on Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, and later received a BAFTA nomination for his work cutting Roma.
“During the shoot, I sat at the video monitors with Spike, Ellen Kuras, and [choreographer] Annie-B Parson, and took copious notes, as if I was watching dailies,” Gough details in an interview with Rob Feld for Cinemontage:
“It was shot over three performances, two with full audiences and one with a smaller invited audience, where a Steadicam and crane were used. The bike ride sequence was shot on a different day with 23 different cameras, mainly GoPro with some iPhone and 8mm footage, as well. That gave us about 15 hours of footage that I cut down into a 3-minute title sequence. Once all the footage was ingested into the Avid, Annie-B visited me in the cutting room to talk me though the choreography and point out any stumbles in the show I should avoid. Annie-B was fantastic and always had time for my questions. Ellen was the same and we would talk frequently during post. We were a very collaborative team.
“Mae Sussman, the associate editor, did an incredible job organizing this media as it was all mixed codec, sizes, and frame rates. She kept the film moving when the COVID-19 lockdown hit during post-production, and kept our response time incredibly sort when making updates. We also made changes to the ending of ‘Hell You,’ following the death of George Floyd, to respond to what was happening. Spike has always been a very current filmmaker, making changes up to and past the last second, so working remotely in lockdown wasn’t going to be any different. And rightly so.”ADAM GOUGH, ACE
Gough also discusses his approach for editing musical sequences, his early career, and what it was like to work with Cuarón. Watch the trailer for David Byrne’s American Utopia above, and head over to Cinemontage to read the full interview.