The Lenny Interview: Joi McMillon

The Moonlight editor on #Oscarssowhite, how she discovered film editing, and how she got her start editing reality TV.

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If there's a singular truth in the entertainment business, it's that most people are faking it. Joi McMillon, however, is not. When I was a panicked newbie production assistant on HBO's Togetherness who had to Google what a boom operator did, Joi was an experienced assistant editor on our team who showed me what it felt like to not be scared you would lose your job if you went to the bathroom. She was cool and confident and took pride in her work in a way I wasn't accustomed to. Whether it was the coffee she preferred to drink or defending a scene she felt should not be cut out, Joi had no problem asking for what she wanted.

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And it's working out for her. When the 2017 Oscar nominees were announced last month, Joi's Best Film Editing nomination (with Nat Sanders for Moonlight) made her the first black woman in the history of the Oscars to be nominated for editing. Moonlight follows the story of a boy in Miami from adolescence to adulthood in a stunningly delicate and intimate evaluation of what it means to be — among about a million other things — poor, black, and gay.

While I'm here to praise Joi for her incredible work, as her friend I'd be remiss not to mention that there is no one who shines as brightly as she does. I call her laugh "the domino" because it is truly so infectious that if she is laughing, the whole room is laughing.

Joi has taught me more over one charcuterie plate about what it means to be a powerful woman in this business than most people might learn in a lifetime. When I first met her, she didn't have to tell me that her voice mattered, she commanded it. When she reads this, she will say, "Nora, you're so silly," and let out that big Joi laugh. I'm laughing right now just thinking about it.

Nora Silver: Tell me how you became interested in editing.

Joi McMillon: Originally, I wanted to be a journalist. I had big dreams of graduating from college, moving to New York, and being hired for an amazing magazine. But I was a part of this group called Junior Achievement in high school, and we had a career day, and I wanted to go to the Orlando Sentinel, and then my backup was film, because my brother had just moved to LA to become an actor. So I thought, Oh, film sounds cool. Well, I submitted my request late, so I got my second choice.

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Our career-day trip was to go to Universal Studios, and a part of the tour was going to see this editor who was editing Animal Planet, and I was like, "Wait, what is this?" And he was like, "Here, I'll show you. Basically what I can do is, the owner is throwing a ball and then when I cut to the dog, the dog can catch the ball," and he showed us that scenario. And then he was like, "The dog could miss the ball," and he showed us that scenario. Then he's like, "Or the owner throws a ball and the dog catches a Frisbee." I was like, "Wait, that's crazy!" He completely manipulated the story by his cuts, and I went home and looked up film schools because I was like, "I want to be an editor, that seems awesome."

NS: Before I worked in postproduction, I didn't get what an editor was or the influence the editor had on the final product. How would you explain your role in the film?

JM: The true definition of an editor is a storyteller. What we initially do is help the director shape their story into a very tangible substance that makes the viewers enjoy the experience. They have hours upon hours of footage. Sometimes, they have this amazing script and they go to shoot it and production's never how people imagine it, so then we have this disgruntled director who's like, "This is the worst thing I've ever done, make it better." Or you get a director who's like, "Oh my God, we have magic in the lens and you won't have to do much." A lot of times, it's the ones who are unhappy with it who actually have an amazing film on their hands and the ones who thought the shooting was awesome, it ends up like, "You've got amazing shots, but you don't have a story."

Thankfully, Barry [Jenkins, director of Moonlight] is the best of both worlds. He definitely had a story, so as an editor, you're taking what they've shot and you're creating this story that's told in hopefully the best way possible. Sometimes you have to restructure; sometimes you have to build an actor's performance. A lot of times as an editor, people are like, "You can't reveal that." That's why they say "invisible art, invisible artist," because you shouldn't see what we do, you should just walk away and be like, "That film was amazing."

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NS: You got started in reality TV and then worked in Tyler Perry world for a bit. Your career trajectory is crazy.

JM: I feel like if anyone looked at my IMDb page, they'd be like, "Wait, what? Going from For Colored Girls to Sausage Party to Moonlight, how do you do that?" But I started out in reality; I worked on Beauty and the Geek and Biggest Loser, and reality is actually so much fun because you have a huge crew, you have eight to twelve editors. I met some amazing editors, super-talented people, and even though some people may frown upon reality television, what we do as editors is really, really hard. A lot of times, we're creating scenarios that maybe didn't originally exist. You have all this footage, and they're like, "What's interesting here?" A lot of times working as an assistant editor, the editors come to you and they'll ask, "Can you take on this scene?" or "Can you find me this one look that will totally sell this story line?"

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In reality television, I learned how to be very self-sufficient and I learned how to multitask a ton. After leaving reality, once I got into features, I was doing double-duty from then on, because during the day I would assist on feature films, and at night I would take on an editing side project like a short film or a web series. In reality television, your days were so long, so once I got into features, for the most part, I was like, "I still have time on my hands, I can do other things," and that's when I started cutting stuff on the side.

NS: Last year, there was the #OscarsSoWhite movement. This year, some steps have been made in the right direction — is it weird to be one of the faces of that?

JM: It is so crazy!

NS: What can the film industry be doing moving forward to support minorities?

JM: There's Project Involve, which is so great because they reach out to more-diverse high schools and they get them involved and teach them about filmmaking. If kids knew more about filmmaking — and I'm not talking about the real nice high schools — but going into more of the diverse, low-income, inner-city schools and teaching them, "Hey, this is another way, this is another career that maybe you aren't aware of." For me, I found out through Junior Achievement, but that is a very small group of kids. It was a very small chance that I would have been in Junior Achievement, seen this editor, and been like, "Oh, I want to be a film editor." If I hadn't been exposed to that, I wouldn't even know what film editing was. It was brought to my attention, then I saw Go, which was edited by Stephen Mirrione, and I knew what an editor did and I was in tune to it and I wanted to know more about it.

Chris Rock put it so well when he hosted the Oscars last year, he was like, "All we need is an opportunity." I think that's the issue. If black people are only cast in a certain type of film and there's only a certain percentage of these films being made that feature us, but in some of these other films there's plenty of room to add diversity to these casts, but people just don't think that.

NS: Right. The TV and film industry needs to acknowledge its contribution to this idea that being American is being white, and that is why Moonlight is so important. Why do you think this film had the ability to defy the odds on so many levels?

JM: I think it comes down to the perspective in which Barry chose to present this film. It's funny because people are like, "This movie has nothing to do with me, but yet I felt so connected to it." This movie shows this character at these three stages of life, and we've all been in elementary school and trying to fit in. We all may have picked on someone or been picked on in middle school. These experiences we're presenting, we've all been in love and been rejected or yearned to rekindle that one true love that you haven't seen in ten to fifteen years.

They're like, "This movie, I'm still thinking about it," and it's because these moments we experience in life, they unite us. Yes, the cast is all black, and yes, it's all set in Liberty City, Miami, but Moonlight is an American film. It was definitely presented in a way where, like, I'm telling you this story, but I'm not trying to alienate you. I'm trying to include you.

NS: OK, what's next? You just edited Lemon, which premiered at Sundance to rave reviews. Tell me about that. I know it was a special project for you, and you worked with [director] Janicza Bravo, who's amazing.

JM: She's the best. It's very hard to generalize Lemon because it's a very complex comedy, but, oh my gosh, it's the best film. The thing I think is so interesting about working with Janicza and then working with Barry is that although the stories that they're telling may seem very different, they are very like-minded in their storytelling. There's a precision and there's a very nuanced and refreshing perspective that they're bringing to cinema, and I think the world will be excited about both of them.

NS: What are you most proud of?

JM: I would say I'm most proud of my decision to move to LA, because it wasn't easy. There was a lot going on in my life, and the day I was supposed to start driving to California, literally everything was going wrong. My mom had passed away the year before, and I was still catching up on all the things she did for me. I thought I was an adult and making all these decisions for myself, but no, my mom had been doing a lot of it. So my car is packed, and I'm supposed to be heading to LA, and I just felt like everything was working against me. I remembered that my car registration had expired, and here I am about to cross all these states to get to California, and I knew the registration had come in the mail, so I thought, If it's not in my glove box, I'm done. I'm turning around and I'm going back to Florida. I opened that glove box and there it was, and it was one of those moments where I really felt like my mom was looking down on me, and I felt like, You're destined to go to LA, you have something that you're meant to do. I saw it in there and I was like, Well, let's go.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Nora Silver is still Googling what a boom operator does.

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