Wednesday, June 20, 2018
  • Thursday, May. 11, 2017
Jay Nelson Reflects On Cutting Tribeca Film "Dabka"
Jay Nelson
Editor continues his collaborative spot/feature relationship with director Bryan Buckley

It all started with “The Chase,” a Grey Poupon spot from Crispin Porter+Bogusky which went on to earn a primetime Emmy nomination in 2013. That lauded spot marked the first time editor Jay Nelson had worked with director Bryan Buckley. “The Chase” debuted during that year’s Oscar telecast and began in the same way as the original Grey Poupon “Pardon Me” commercial of some 16 years earlier--an aristocratic English gent is being chauffeured in the countryside when another car pulls alongside at a stop. The back window rolls down and a second man asks in a snooty accent, “Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?” The first man obliges with a “but of course” and hands him a jar out the window.

However in the updated version, that familiar end scene is just the beginning as the second car speeds off without returning the mustard. A wild car chase ensues, replete with pyrotechnics reminiscent of an action-adventure movie.

The collaboration between Buckley and Nelson has continued over the years, spanning select commercials and a pair of features, the latest being Dabka which premiered at the recently wrapped Tribeca Film Festival. Written and directed by Buckley, Dabka centers on the true story of fledgling Canadian journalist Jay Bahadur (played by Evan Peters) who after an inspiring chance encounter with his idol (Al Pacino) uproots his life and moves to Somalia. Once there, Bahadur finds himself in over his head. Yet his risk-taking adventure ultimately brings the world an unprecedented first-person account of the pirates of Somalia. The cast also includes Barkhad Abdi and Melanie Griffith. Dabka is based on Bahadur’s book “The Pirates of Somalia.”

SHOOT connected with Nelson to get his take on Dabka, as well as reflections on working with Buckley. Nelson’s credits span commercials, features and videos, including five straight years of cutting Super Bowl spots. A founding editor of Cut+Run in Los Angeles, Nelson divides his time among offices in L.A., New York and Austin.

SHOOT: Provide backstory on your working relationship with Bryan Buckley. How did you two come together, leading to various commercials and you editing his two features, the comedy The Bronze, and then Dabka. What was the nature of your collaboration with Buckley on Dabka?

Nelson: Bryan has an absolutely phenomenal team of people, many of whom have been working with him for a long, long time. I was lucky enough to meet them four years ago on Grey Poupon. Rob Reilly (at the time worldwide CCO of Crispin; now McCann Worldgroup's global creative chairman) introduced us. I begged for months to be a part of that job. I wanted it so bad I volunteered to do it for free. You know you love something when you’re willing to do it for free. I’m often amazed that I get paid to do something I enjoy this much, especially when the creative is great and the people are great. It paid off too—Grey Poupon was the break I’d been grinding for my whole career. It was a sublime experience to discover what working with Buckley is like. I didn’t want for a single shot and he was always available. When he commits to a job he’s on that job 100%. I’ve learned more from him in those four years than I ever imagined. Bryan and I have worked together on and off since then.

When he asked if I’d be interested in working on The Bronze, I didn’t hesitate a moment. It was one of the most important experiences of my professional life. We all gained a lot of wisdom making that film. On Dabka we had an opportunity to apply what we learned from The Bronze, though this time we had far fewer cooks in the kitchen. We completed it in half the time it took us to create The Bronze. Not a day of it was work. Ever.

SHOOT: What was (were) the biggest creative challenge(s) that Dabka posed to you as an editor?

Nelson: The actors in the film are the best of the best. Pacino, Peters, Abdi. Editing true to the characters, typically a big one, was not a challenge in this case. Here, the massive challenge was editing in a foreign language and making it play fluidly while being translated. It was something I’d never done before and frankly have never really seen done this way in a film. There isn’t much of it in the film, but the scenes that play that way have a purpose and took the most time to perfect. The other challenge was really managing the flow of the film—when is it hot, when should it cool off. It’s an orchestration, really, and it takes a lot of discipline to stay objective about the pace from scene to scene. When you edit a film you view it so many times you can gloss over important things. I managed my objectivity as best I could.

SHOOT: You also continue to cut commercials, including the recent Verizon campaign for Buckley. How has your commercial work over the years informed your feature editing?

Nelson: The most important skill, believe it or not, is speed. I aim to show a first cut of a film within a week or two of wrapping production. At least that’s the case with the sort of narrative films we just made. I’m probably more impatient than a lot of editors. I don’t want to wait to see it. And I don’t like making people wait. As long as I’ve been cutting commercials, there isn’t much I haven’t done so that breadth of experience helps with a film in virtually any construct. I don’t have to second-guess myself about how to do what I need to do.

SHOOT: And conversely, how has your feature experience informed your work in commercials and branded content?

Nelson: Honestly I think it’s really most informed my comfort and confidence. A film is a marathon run fast. A commercial is a 200 yard dash. To me every one of them is an Olympic event. I love, love, love, making commercials. It’s a new challenge every week and a new set of people to get to know. 

SHOOT: Give us a handle on some of your other notable credits over the years in commercials, branded content and features.

Nelson: Dabka was, believe it or not, my seventh feature. My first notable one was Broken back in 2004 which Focus distributed. I followed that with two documentaries—Holy Wars produced by Brian Beletic (a phenomenal education about fundamentalism) and Wild in the Streets (which I also wrote and exec produced). Lance Acord shot that film. It took six years to edit as an 80-minute feature. I’m really proud of that one. It’s the story of an ancient form of football and a small English town that has celebrated it every Lent for 2000 years. Beyond that, I did a TV show for Comedy Central and Jimmy Kimmel called Wanderlust in 2003 (It debuted the night the US bombed Baghdad, so not many people saw it). One of the first commercials I ever edited was a PSA featuring and launching the career of Rachel Leigh Cook where she smashes up a kitchen as a metaphor for drugs. Some of my favorite work: Microsoft’s “Really” for CP+B/director Stacy Wall, Skittles for DDB with Dante Ariola, Old Navy for Wayne McClammy with Fred Armison and Carrie Bradshaw. Everything I get to do with Bryan is notable but there’s too many to list—I’ll just never forget Grey Poupon, it changed my life.