Wyatt Smith talks about the challenges and rewards of editing Harriet

Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in HARRIET, a Focus Features release. Credit: Glen Wilson
Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in HARRIET, a Focus Features release. Credit: Glen Wilson /

Hidden Remote spoke with accomplished film editor Wyatt Smith about his challenging, yet fulfilling work on upcoming film Harriet.

Given how iconic and vital Harriet Tubman is to American history, you would think we’d have had several notable films created about her life. Sadly, that hasn’t been the case. But her story is finally getting the big-screen adaptation it deserves with the upcoming movie starring Tony Award-winning actress, Cynthia Erivo, in the title role.

Aside from Erivo, the film also stars Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, and Janelle Monáe. Film director and actress Kasi Lemmons directs.

Hidden Remote had the chance to speak with the editor of Harriet, Wyatt Smith, about why the time is ripe for a Harriet Tubman movie and the influence he hopes it has on the audience. Smith has previously worked on films such as Mary Poppins Returns, Into the Woods, and Doctor Strange.

Hidden Remote: I was looking at your resume, and it seems like this is one of the first non-sci-fi/fantasy films you’ve done in a while. Is it easier to edit a movie like this?

Wyatt Smith: Not at all. In fact, in many ways, I find it much harder. You have a lot fewer resources like I didn’t have a lot of assistance. I did the film with one assistant, Christa Haley, who was brilliant and worked with me on Mary Poppins Returns.

But to cover the amount of material the film covers, it’s a very aggressive shoot. It was running day into dusk and sometimes into dawn and the night, so trying to achieve so much material on set every day in Virginia, in the woods at night, for some things you’re just not getting a lot of content.

Whereas on the big films every single little action you manage to cover whether or not you use it. There’s generally a lot of waste in big movies. In a film like Harriet, you’re creatively finding ways to make things work in a minimal context.

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HR: It seems crazy that there haven’t been more major motion pictures about Harriet Tubman. Why do you think now was the right time for this movie?

WS: Well, it’s now it should have been then. It’s long overdue. We’re finally starting to recognize all these brilliant black filmmakers we have in America. Kasi Lemmons, she’s directed many films.

It’s great she finally had the opportunity to make a film like this because there are more opportunities for African-American filmmakers. We had a period in the United States, where we made a lot of progress. We had our first African-American President.

Then we made a massive shift after that, and you look at the amount of hate and racism, you look at Charlottesville, and the incidents going on in America, we need more black heroes, we need more black female heroes. Harriet has always been there. She has always been looking out for our country. She was a significant influence on American history. It just seemed like her moment, and I’m really happy about that.

HR: I think Cynthia Erivo is an excellent casting choice. I enjoyed her in Bad Times at the El Royale last year.

WS: Yes, and in Widows. Cynthia, I mean, she’s a dynamo. She’s such an incredible performer. She and Kasi worked very hard on the character. There is an astonishing physicality to Cynthia. She’s practically an athlete and has one of the greatest voices you’ve ever heard, certainly in modern times, which I think everyone is just getting to know. I believe she won a Tony on Broadway.

It’s interesting, the more you learn about Harriet Tubman, she was about five feet tall like Cynthia. She was incredibly strong, one of the strongest workers on the plantation. Yet she also had this beautiful voice, which she did use when she was part of the Underground Railroad. A lot of slaves spoke and communicated through songs on the field. So, in many ways, on top of being an incredible actress, Cynthia is perfect for the role.

Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in HAR RIET, a Good Focus Features release. Credit: Glen Wilson/Focus Features /

HR: I noticed you’ve done quite a few musical specials and films. Did any of that influence your work on this film?

WS: There is music in the film, aside from score. There are some vocal moments or some spirituals that we used to create montages. So, it certainly pays that forward. A lot of the editors that have come out of music videos and concerts, we all feel the same thing. There is an inherent rhythm that we feel.

When I’m cutting a scene, long before adding a score, whether it has music in it or not, there is a rhythm to everything. There is an unheard pulse that every scene carries that I could tap my foot to while I’m working. I don’t know if that naturally comes out of working with music, or if its a real thing, or if I’m completely making it up, but I do feel it and love working with music.

HR: Were you guys influenced by any other films or directors?

WS: We certainly had great awareness of films about slavery that came before us. It was an interesting thing because one of the hardest things about editing Harriet was finding the right tone. We don’t want to say there is “slavery fatigue,” because there shouldn’t be. We haven’t learned our lessons. There is so much more history to tell and carry into our current times.

But when you look at a film like 12 Years a Slave, which is an absolutely brilliant film by Steve McQueen, so much of the physicality and brutality that we’ve seen many times on scene is incredibly powerfully portrayed, yet at the same time, it does limit somewhat how many people can see this film and also what is the general feeling you take away.

For Kasi, this needed to be an inspirational movie and also a film you could take a 12-year-old girl, or kids of a certain age, so they can learn about this person and see why she’s important and be inspired. That’s hard to do in a slave narrative because so many horrible things are happening. We by no means present slavery lightly or shy away from the harshness of the times, but we didn’t want to lean into the constant lynchings and whippings and that side of the reality. We deal more with emotional pain.

So much of what defined Harriet early on and forced her to run for freedom and then come back for her family was that her family was being torn apart. It’s very much the decimation of a family which is also relevant to our current times, what we’ve seen going on at the border where families are just being torn apart. It’s a different way to view a slave narrative, and one that we hope gets you up out of your chair and charged up and want to do better.

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HR: I do think it is, unfortunately, fitting for our current time. I know Harriet initially premiered at TIFF. What was the reception?

WS: It was a fantastic night. We had an excellent audience. It’s always interesting to watch with a crowd and see what storylines they react to, where they find humor, humor is very hard to fit into a slave narrative, but again it all feeds in towards the end of the movie so you can feel inspired. Certainly, between tears and applause, it felt like it played great.

HR: I know you were saying you hope that the film ultimately inspires audiences, but what do you hope is the main message they take away?

WS: That hate has no place in the world. Ultimately, an interesting aspect of the film is that in the same way you watch that hatred tear apart Harriet’s family, you also watch it destroy the Broduss family. You realize that nobody wins. Both sides suffer. There’s certainly a message that that’s not a path. It’s not a solution to anything.

While also looking at Harriet Tubman, one of the things that’s amazing about her is that she was presented with some incredibly impossible challenges, and she’s one of those people who took every opportunity to see there was a right path, a morally correct way to act, a responsible way, a way to help others, she always took that path.

It’s amazing when you reflect on your own life, and you look at someone like hers, and you’re like, “wow, am I at all a good person?” when you see what she did. You hope it rubs off a little bit.

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HR: Thank you so much for chatting with me. Are there any other closing thoughts you wanted to add?

WS:  I hope you get to see the movie, and I hope we did Virginia proud by making it there. I hope people enjoy it!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Harriet will be released in theaters on Nov. 1, 2019.