Racial Bias, Chess, and Movie Editing: an Interview with Jamie Kirkpatrick on Critical Thinking

Based on a true story, the recently released film Critical Thinking follows an impoverished high school chess team on their journey to the National Chess Championship. Directed by and starring John Leguizamo, it’s an authentic and timely exploration of both chess and racial inequality in America.

Today, we’ll be sitting down with the film’s editor, Jamie Kirkpatrick, to discuss these and similar topics through the lens of Critical Thinking.

Jamie Kirkpatrick, photo by Ron Eidshaug

“When I’m editing, I always try envisioning the final movie and how it will play to an audience — one of an editor’s most important tools is their objectivity.”

Jamie is a critically acclaimed film editor with over two decades in the industry. Some of his past work includes Lost in Translation, We Summon the Darkness, My Friend Dahmer, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, and The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete.

Could you describe what you do?

As an editor, my initial job is to assemble all of the footage that is shot on any given project so that it mirrors the script. At that point, I will typically work with the director — often for months — to shape the film into its final form.

The editing stage is often referred to as the “final rewrite” because often the film goes through dramatic changes, sometimes with entire characters or story lines being removed in order to more concisely tell the story.

Cinema is both a response to and a driver of culture and change. With all that’s been culminating this summer with race and social equality, with movements like Black Lives Matter, I’m curious how you see Critical Thinking fitting into this ongoing dialogue.

Artists have always responded to the times in which they live and filmmakers are no exception. Our Executive Producer Carla Berkowitz recognized that this true story was worth telling over twenty years ago but the powers-that-be weren’t interested. Even when John came onboard several years ago, he found the Hollywood gatekeepers unresponsive to a film about a group of black and brown, inner-city kids. (Thankfully, a single investor with real vision came to the rescue!)

The irony is that while the story takes place in 1998, the film is more timely than ever in how it deals with issues like inequality, racial bias and cultural erasure. While the BLM movement points to what should be a basic and obvious truth; that Black lives also matter, Critical Thinking tries to point out that Black (and Latinx) lives are exceptional and inspiring, but those stories are too often being overlooked or outright erased.

Behind the Scenes of Critical Thinking. Photos by Jeff Daly (@jeffdalyphoto on IG)

What are some recent changes or responses you’ve seen in the film industry to inequality?

Obviously, the #OscarSoWhite campaign created a lot of momentum the last few years, if for no other reason than because it was so very obvious to anyone (and everyone) watching that there was an undeniable lack of diversity in American films. I think this only helped amplify the voices in our industry who have always pushed against this inequity in their work; people like Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay, George Tillman, Ryan Coogler, Dee Rees and, of course, John Leguizamo, to name just a few.

As someone who has worked in film for over twenty years, I have seen a shift occurring within the industry. I see it reflected in the kinds of green-lit scripts I’m sent as well as the directors who are getting these green lights. I’ve also seen a concerted effort by my own union, the Motion Picture Editors Guild, to increase diversity among our membership, so I’m encouraged and hopeful that this trend will continue.

The editorial process brings together the various departments and aspects of film (sound, color balance, scene duration, the acting, etc.). Could you talk about that process of editing and interfacing between different media?

When I’m editing, I always try envisioning the final movie and how it will play to an audience — one of an editor’s most important tools is their objectivity. Since I’m typically there from the beginning of shooting to the final delivery and collaborating with the director that entire time, I gain an innate understanding of what the film is supposed to be.

I tend to be very involved in things like sound, music, and visual effects on the films I edit. For example, I’m very musical, so often, I’ll work closely with the composer in the early stages, sometimes simply because the director doesn’t have the musical vocabulary to explain what they want. On Critical Thinking, I knew how important the musical score was going to be for this kind of film and I was able to bring our composer Chris Hajian in really early in the process so he could see what we were doing and have time to experiment and find the proper sound for our movie.

John Leguizamo, second from left; BTS of Critical Thinking. Photo by Jeff Daly (@jeffdalyphoto on IG)

What was it like working with John Leguizamo?

Working with John [on Critical Thinking] has been one of the most joyful and rewarding experiences of my career. You have to remember, this is a guy who’s been in almost a hundred movies and has worked for some of the great directors of all time. On top of that, he’s incredibly well-read and has a really deep knowledge of cinema.

So there’s no learning curve as a director with him. He has a clear vision and knows how to communicate it to everyone on the film. I think his greatest strength as a director is his generosity of spirit. He values the contributions of his collaborators and is constantly letting them know it. I think that his decades of work as an actor has led him to the conclusion that people do their best work when they feel heard and valued, and I felt that from him every day and I’ll always be grateful for it.

A deeper dive: Jamie answers some questions about the editing process. (Note, this video was created independently of this article courtesy of Impact24 PR.)

“Jamie brought not just a wide knowledge of cinema and film language but also a deeply human element to his work on Critical Thinking. He’s not afraid to make bold suggestions or to push me in a new direction. I always wanted the chess tournaments in the film to feel like sports matches and what he was able to create with those scenes is incredible! As a director, I want my collaborators to bring their A-game and Jamie did that every day.” — John Leguizamo

How did you get started working in film?

I’ve always loved movies and filmmaking but as a kid from Northwest Indiana, I had no connections to the entertainment industry. I went to film school at Boston University and after my junior year, through a six-degrees-of-separation connection, landed a summer internship in the editing rooms on a Hollywood film. The crew was incredibly generous and taught me real, hands-on knowledge of what they did. Then one day Steven Spielberg, who was an executive producer on that film, came in to try to help fix a problematic scene and I was invited to sit in on that session. Once I saw what Spielberg and the editors were able to achieve, just by recutting the scene, I was hooked.

Then, a few years later, one of the assistants from that film who I had stayed friendly with, called to say he was editing the new South Park movie (South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut) and wanted to know if I wanted to be the Second Assistant Editor. I eventually moved up to be the First Assistant Editor and that was the beginning of my career in editing.

BTS. Photo by Jeff Daly (@jeffdalyphoto on IG)

In what ways do you seek to innovate and blend a more classical tradition of cinematic storytelling with new techniques and technologies?

I have to say, this is my favorite question I’ve ever been asked in an interview!

Like many editors, I’m a film nerd. I’m constantly trying to figure out how things I watch were achieved. While it can occasionally ruin the magic, the more I understand how the sausage is made by others, the better I can make my own sausage (so to speak). There are so many software advances in my field that it can be easy to start to rely on them. For my own work, I try to take advantage of those advances but if, and only if, they serve the story.

For example, there are a couple of times in Critical Thinking where I was able to create one shot that was actually made up of two different takes. That’s something that was all but impossible ten years ago, but now I’m able to do it within my own editing software. I only did it because it made the scene better and I knew the audience would never know.

To learn more, check out Critical Thinking (available through these platforms) or explore some of the links below:

“I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.”—Marcel Duchamp

Writer, runner, music enthusiast. Exploring connections between creativity + art, lifestyle, and entrepreneurship through a series of interviews.

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