The rhythm of storytelling

Editor Nick Houy on ‘Mid90s,’ IFS nostalgia and the ethic of the movie

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David O. Rogers

As the Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock said, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” And who does the cutting? Editors. Sifting through hours upon hours of footage, editors construct coherency from a multitude of takes and shape hundreds of artists and technicians’ hard work into something that has a beginning, a middle and an end. All the while, they try to emotionally connect with an audience and keep the run time down.

It’s not an easy proposition, but for editor Nick Houy, it’s the best one to have.

“I like being close to that product,” Houy says. “Being on set, you feel so distant from that; it’s almost a helpless feeling. You’re trying to do everything to make it work. Whereas, in the cutting room, you’re just making it work.”

And Houy makes it work in Mid90s, the first film from writer/director Jonah Hill. Set in the Palms neighborhood of Los Angeles, Mid90s is a coming-of-age drama centering on Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a 13 year old who flees an abusive home and finds friends among a group of skaters.

Brisk, energetic and brutally honest, Mid90s features several performances from first-time actors, each one a standout; a testament to an editor’s acuity as they are more often responsible for shaping an actor’s performance than creating dazzling cuts across time and space.

“Jonah was great about saying, ‘I don’t want it to be cheesy at all,’” Houy recounts. “There are so many skateboarding movies that are just cheesy. They don’t really understand skating and [Hill] just wanted to make sure it felt natural.”

And, as Houy explains, knowing what the movie is not helps determine “what the ethic of the movie is. And that helps inform your decisions while you’re cutting.”

None of this came overnight to Houy. Growing up in Boulder in a movie-friendly home, Houy began tinkering with moviemaking as a teenager. While going to New Vista High School, Houy made Super 8 shorts and attended the University of Colorado Boulder’s Continuing Education film courses. From there, enrolling at CU was a natural fit.

Houy still recalls the university and faculty with fondness. From Ernesto Acevedo-Muñoz, “legendary,” as Houy says, and Kathleen Man, Houy’s strongest mentor, to Phil Solomon, Suranjan Ganguly, Patti Bruck, Russ Wiltse and on. His adoration for CU runs deep, especially for the head of the International Film Series and former boss, Pablo Kjølseth.

“I love that place,” Houy says, recounting his time loading 35mm prints into canisters, trucking them across campus and “locking them in the office at midnight or 1 a.m., and just loving it. I remember being like: this is exactly where I want to be right now.

“It’s cheesy, but it makes me think of the opening of The Social Network: when he’s [Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg] running through the campus at night with that music playing,” Houy says. “When I remember it, it feels like that to me. I’m super nostalgic about it.”

Coincidentally, Hill was also a student at CU while Houy attended, though the two never crossed paths.

Houy graduated with a BFA in Film Production in 2004, moved to New York and tried breaking into the business. At that point, Houy was angling for work as a writer/director, but the people he worked for saw something different.

“Almost all of them kept being, ‘It seems like you’re more into the rhythm of it — the storytelling part that comes from editing,’” Houy recalls.

And rather than fight the suggestion, Houy rolled with it. Shifting his aim to the editorial process and knocking on every post-production house in town.

Internships led to apprenticeships, which led to assistantships, which put Houy in place for his big break: The Night Of, the 2016 HBO 8-part miniseries. It netted him an Emmy win.

Next came Lady Bird from writer/director Greta Gerwig, an opportunity Houy leaped at.

“It was one of those movies that’s once in a lifetime,” Houy says. “As with Jonah, it’s rare to find someone who’s so good at what they do. … I felt really lucky to be able to hop on.”

Currently, Houy is back in the editing suite, working with Gerwig again on her sophomore project.

As the old saying goes, luck is where preparation meets opportunity, and Houy is prepared for whatever opportunities arise. Sometimes you just have to follow the rhythms of the story.

On the Bill: Mid90s, Free sneak preview. 7:00 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 21, International Film Series, Muenzinger Auditorium, University of Colorado Boulder, 1905 Colorado Ave., Boulder, internationalfilmseries.com