I’ll admit that when I checked out Stephanie Filo’s IMDB page and her website, I was a little intimidated. I am always in awe of the women and non-binary people in film whom I interview. One reason is because they are so great at what they do and they are a part of a medium I love. It always seems unbelievable to me how what these people do contributes to the magic I see onscreen. The other reason is what they are up against in an industry that has been traditionally dominated by white men. When a Black female editor is spanning all genres and working with so many great projects, I am in admiration.
That Emmy-winning editor is Stephanie Filo. Not only does her work speak for itself, she is breaking boundaries through her work. Last year, Stephanie won an Emmy with her fellow editors on “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” making history as the first editing team comprised entirely of women of color to receive the accolade. This year, she is nominated again with her editing team for the same program. Stephanie and her team will make history if they win as the first all-Black team to win Emmys for Outstanding Picture Editing For Variety Programming. Their visibility and accolade will inspire underrepresented voices everywhere to see possibility of what they can do in the film industry, and the power behind that.
Along with talking to Stephanie about her work, we discussed her role as a board member for the organization of Girls Empowerment Sierra Leone (GESL). She is passionate about being a part of the change for girls in Sierra Leone from her native home. What this organization is doing is making a difference. You can follow this organization on Instagram at @gessierraleone.
How did you get into editing?
Originally, I was a professional dancer. Growing up, that was my life. I spent all my days just dancing. I knew I wanted to be involved in film and TV in some way. I didn’t know in what capacity, but it was always in the back of my mind. In high school, I saw the movie “Se7en”. I don’t know if you remember the opening title sequence for the film, but just something about it clicked in my brain. They are telling a story here, but there are no words. You’re looking at people’s credits, but there is so much visually happening that it tells almost the whole premise on its own.
There was something about that I thought was so interesting. I tried to replicate it with my home movie camera. I thought ‘Why don’t I just film this and play with my VHS tapes, and see if I could do something here?’ I didn’t really put the two together, “oh wait, that’s what editing is.” So I danced, and did all of that, then I moved out to LA not really knowing anybody but just knocking on every door that I could find.
I had a job during the day as a receptionist and a runner at Smashbox Studios, which is a photography studio. They rented out production space in the back. I got to know a couple different productions that were back there, one of them being a French documentary that was in post in the back. They came to me and said, “we really need a night assistant editor, not sure if you’d be interested in that.” I responded quickly, “yeah, absolutely, whatever I can do to help.” At that time, I was at a base level in my editing skills. In college I had studied Final Cut Pro, so I knew how to do these things. But going in and doing that job just re-instilled that passion for telling stories in that way. Until I was sitting in front of it, I didn’t fully connect that this was the work I was falling in love with. From there, I just kept at it, and I worked my way up.
What brought you to “A Black Lady Sketch Show”?
I loved the first season of that show, and I was just so obsessed with it. An editor that I had worked with in the past named Daysha Broadway had worked on the first season. When that aired, I was just texting her all the time, like, “ oh my gosh, this character is great, do we get to see them again?” I was just a big fan of the show.
Because we had worked together in the past, she knew my work. She knew that there was a slot for an editor on season 2 and recommended me to Robin Thede, the creator of the show. So I got this email about interviewing with Robin Thede, and Lauren Ashley Smith who was the co-executive producer at the time, and I was like, “um, yes please. Whatever I can do, I’d love to work on this.” I interviewed with them and we all hit it off. Shortly after that, I got the call that I got the job. I was actually boarding a plane when it happened. I was going overseas so I would have missed the call completely. The timing was just serendipitous.
Can you talk about the process of editing behind “A Black Lady Sketch Show”?
It’s a little different than other shows in that there’s not an order of episodes when we start the season. We know what the sketches are going to be, and just what they are, but we don’t know what episodes they are going to land in. They’ll shoot a sketch and the next day we have access to the footage. Whichever editor is available takes the next sketch. You have a couple days to cut it together and make your editor’s cut version. Robin Thede always says, “I don’t care what it is, just make it the funniest thing that you can make it”, and then we work from there. It’s fun that you have the freedom in your editor’s cut to bring in all of these different ideas and improv.
Once you do that, you have a couple days to work with the director. Because they are filming while you are simultaneously doing the editing, we usually go off of written notes. From there you’ll do the director notes and then you’ll work with Robin on the producer round of notes. Once you get to the very end, and you’ve made everything as funny as you feel it can be, that’s when everyone sits down and decides what order should these episodes be? There are interstitial beats that you know will land in a certain spot, but the rest of it is working around them to figure out like maybe a musical sketch goes here, or maybe a horror sketch goes here. The goal is to balance out each sketch and make sure the rhythm of each episode lands.
It really takes great skill to know what’s funny and where to really cut things. Can you go more in-depth about the comedy you implement through your editing?
I think editing is really the final re-write of the script, that’s especially true as well with improv. A lot of times what they’ll do on set is they will shoot one or two takes that are as it’s scripted and then the rest of the takes they just go off book and have fun with it. It’s really about figuring out more about what the intent of the sketch was, and what the intent of the script itself was, and then try to make sure the improv that you pepper in matches that same kind of tone. The formula on “A Black Lady Sketch Show” is very much like, if you watch any of the sketches, it’s just very quick, right? The pacing is just very, very fast. Robin loves it to be joke upon joke upon joke. Then you go back and rewatch and you find things that you didn’t catch the first time.
Finding improv in that sense is a bit challenging because you have to decide what can I throw in that maybe is like a misdirect, or what can I throw in that will catch somebody off guard? It’s really fun in our editor’s cut stage where you just have all of these little things that you’re working on. Usually I’ll mark, “this makes me laugh every time,” so I make sure to keep that piece in the edit. It’s a fun balance to try to figure that out. As editors, we all balance ideas off of each other, which is fun. It’s like, “will this make this person laugh? Let’s find out.”
Can you talk about the importance of diversity and inclusion behind the camera, and more specific to “A Black Lady Sketch Show”, a team of Black women working behind the camera supporting a team of Black women onscreen?
I’ve been editing since 2006 and I’ve never been on a team with all Black women before. It’s something I didn’t know I needed. Obviously I thought it would be great if that ever happened, but I didn’t think it was a possibility. In post, you’re often the only Black person in the room. Editing is a very white male-driven part of this industry. I usually will find myself on editing teams that are mostly white men and myself. To them, I’m the voice for all women and all Black people. You fall into that kind of tokenism. Whereas working on this show, there’s kind of a short hand because you all have these shared or lived experiences.
Last season, season 2 of “A Black Lady Sketch Show”, our post team was all women and non-binary people. Never in my life have I seen that. There’s something special in the bond you create with each other, because it’s worth preserving. You become protective of this aspect of it. It’s also just so special to be able to showcase the nuance that comes with telling stories like these. If it was a white man telling these stories, it’s not to say they couldn’t do it, but there’s some value in saying, “I read this expression differently than a white man would read something.” Or maybe there’s an improv beat I get because I am a Black woman who’s experienced this. There’s nuance to moments on any project, it doesn’t have to be a Black project.
Unfortunately, in post, I think that there’s just something nuanced in stories that sometimes gets missed because you don’t have a voice there that can see the nuance. Like, “what if we play it like this? It would solve this other kind of issue,” or “this would add so much depth to different kinds of characters.” I’m really glad that our team exists the way that it does and that we’re able to showcase prioritizing inclusion. It is so valuable in telling any story. It doesn’t matter what the story is. It’s just great to have different diverse voices in front of and behind the camera.
When I interviewed Hannah Beachler after she won her Oscar for her work as production designer for “Black Panther,” I asked her how does it feel to be the first Black woman to win an Oscar for production design. Her response was “bittersweet” because, yes, she was the first, but why did it take so long to get there? My question for you is do you think the industry is changing when it comes to diversity and inclusion behind the camera?
I think that it is, it’s a little slower than how I’d like for it to be. Usually I see an executive producer or a studio is like, “we have to have diverse people working on this”, but it’s more like an optics thing, right? They think we can’t be the project that has no Black people on it, or no Asian people on it. It’s more of a knee jerk reaction to how they feel people expect them to be diverse in their hiring. They just want to have the optics versus understanding why those optics are important in the first place. There is a lot of value to having these different perspectives. If you bring these perspectives to the table but then don’t listen to what they have to say, what is the point of doing it other then optics? So I think change is slowly happening, but we need people higher up to understand that. Robin Thede is somebody who understands why it’s important to have these different voices in telling a story, but not every studio head, or not every executive producer quite gets that yet, or they haven’t fully kind of grappled with that fact. I think that change is coming, it’s just slow to happen.
Something that I think is encouraging is that women I know in the industry, and myself, are always looking for other women to work with. If I need an assistant editor, I would love if it was a woman of color. If I know someone else is looking, I’d love to recommend other women to those types of positions. So I think in that instance, change is happening within, which is kind of exciting to see. And maybe that’s part of what that change is, it’s like the more of us in there are fighting for each other, and maybe then, the more higher ups may follow suit and understand why it’s special and important to have us all there.
The scope of your work is impressive! Working in documentary, scripted series, and reality shows, how do you juggle being an editor within all of these different genres and mediums?
Early on, I made this realization that people get pigeon holed in any field in this industry, but I think more often in post. People will say, “here’s a reality editor” or “here’s a true crime editor.” In the beginning, there was a string of shows I worked on that were all true crime documentary. I didn’t mind it at all, but I was realizing all of my contacts were only within true crime. So even if I wanted to branch out and say, “hey I’m available”, they’d say something like “here’s a true crime show to work on.” By design, I realized I needed to figure out a way to be able to cover different genres. I think also, as an editor, it’s so valuable to be able to have these different tool kits. Like, here’s a horror convention that can maybe work in a comedy sketch, or here is a comedy music cut that could really make this a dramatic moment in a drama. I saw the value in that. I really just hustled to try to find work within different genres, and it took a while by just telling everyone that I could that I wanted to try different things.
I’ve been following that method for a long time. There are people who do have those kinds of critiques or they feel you don’t know how to cut something because they’ve seen you cut something else. I don’t know why that would be the case. It’s always kind of a hustle. I think lately, it’s been a little easier just because I feel that I’ve filled out most of the different sub genres. I’ve tried to adjust according to that. It’s an ongoing thing. I think it’s valuable to try and change up what you have.
Can you talk about your work with GESL (Girls Empowerment Sierra Leone)?
Girls Empowerment Sierra Leone is an organization I’ve been on the board of since we’ve started in 2012. It’s an organization in Sierra Leone, which is where my family is from, that seeks to raise young women to become leaders and social change agents within the community. I think a lot of times what you see with non-profits is that they come in, they help a little, and then leave. It’s not sustainable. So really, it’s trying to create a sustainable model where the girls have year-round workshops, and year-round mentors within the country where they can lean on for support, but also the programming is based around their needs. Throughout the year, they figure out what are the different issues that are within our community that they want to address, and how to tackle them. They might have a workshop for a mentorship circle where they try to talk through these ideas, and how they, as young women, can try to get involved within their communities.
Each year, they’ve had a different community project, and try to identify one thing. One year, there was one school in Freetown, the capital, that didn’t have enough chairs and desks. If the chairs and the desks were completely full, then girls would be sent home. They couldn’t stand and stay for class. This was an issue that the girls found to be deeply problematic for so many reasons. They spent the whole year fundraising and telling their community about this issue. By the end of the year, they had fundraised and gained 100 desks and chairs for this school.
There’s also national projects that they engage in. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is still a prevalent issue in Sierra Leone. The girls spend the year trying to sensitize the community and talk about this issue throughout the country. They created a series of PSAs that were released on TV and on radio. They go out and do so many different speaking engagements. Some of them went to parliament to talk about it.
Our goal as an organization is to have the girls be engaged as much as they can within their communities, and we are just here to support and provide year-round workshops. We also have an emergency assistance fund in the case of a natural disaster. Like a few years back, there was the Ebola crisis in West Africa. At that time, we were raising funds for support for the girls and their families.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave in your work?
It’s two-fold. I want to have a series of projects that I’m proud of that would stand the test of time and someone could look back at and enjoy. And hopefully this work would resonate with people in the years to come. Also on that non-editing side, I would hope that as a Black female editor, which is not very common unfortunately in post, that the visibility of my Emmy’s win last year, and Emmy’s nomination this year, would reach someone watching at home, or someone who reads about it and doesn’t know that we exist. Because I know that for ten years of editing, I never met a single other Black editor. I thought I was the only one. I would hope that the fact that we are visible in this way would encourage others to see that it’s possible, and that it’s not a career that’s out of reach completely for people who look like us.