Director‘s Cuts

Director‘s Cuts

The monitor in Karyl Evans’s North Haven office shows the thumbnailed building blocks of her most recent documentary. She’s showing me her editorial process, the part of filmmaking she likens to sculpting. “So I take everything they say and I put all of their best things in this timeline… eight minutes of just them.” She clicks on a thumbnail and, on the upper part of the screen, with the vivid green grass of Hartford’s Dunkin’ Donuts Park in the background, a mother and daughter are talking about Cora Lee Bentley Radcliffe, a woman who broke the color barrier in Connecticut sports by fielding a Black women’s softball team—the Tigerettes—in the 1940s. From the interview footage, Evans had culled off-camera queries, false starts and pauses for recollection to leave what she considered the most telling segments. If you played each one from one end of the timeline to the other, you would have Evans’s first cut.

Bentley Radcliffe was inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall Of Fame last year, and it was Evans’s final cut, shown on the big screen, that opened the ceremony. Evans had also made documentaries for the three other inductees that year, as well as inductees for 14 prior years. The process is still fresh in her mind, looking back at the files in her editing software. “The whole thing has to be seven minutes when it’s all said and done, so I know this is going to be way more than I’m ever going to use,” she says. “But this is telling her life story because, between the two of them”—her subject’s daughter and granddaughter—“they have the arc of and I always use the people that know the story structure first.”

The granddaughter she happened to be interviewing that day is the Tony-award winning musical theater and film actor Anika Noni Rose, which was significant insofar as she responded with natural sincerity and authority in the presence of a camera. “It’s very rare that you get somebody who’s so aware of camera placement and her light and is so articulate,” Evans recalls. “Oh my gosh. But that is what actors do.” Evans had also interviewed a historian and the cousin of a Tigerette that day, and her more typical task, seated next to the camera, is to put her interviewee at ease. “We can stop any time. They can say whatever they want. And then we can stop and they can say it a different way.” Evans is not unlike a director at this stage, prompting for the camera a moment of testimony that is true and engaging. “It’s so intense that, although I’ve prepared every single question for hours, once I start, I actually never look at my questions, because I want them to constantly feel like it’s a conversation.”

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It’s a review of those conversations, weeks later in her production office, that gives Evans’s later cuts their visual topography. Rose makes a point about her grandmother’s life, and it sounds to Evans’s editorial ear like a place for narration—“knowing that something is missing between here and here, and I’m going to need to say it.” On Evans’s monitor, the screen goes dark as the narration sums up Bentley Radcliffe’s childhood. Below that, segments representing narration are like wind gaps in the timeline, with no visual information. But Evans opens a file representing the next cut, and now hills have formed over the gaps, each built from the photographs, newspaper clippings and other documents that Evans compiled from Bentley Radcliffe’s family as well as archives, institutional records and libraries.

On her monitor, Evans clicks a thumbnail, which is literal coverage atop a narrative gap. “So now I can get Tallahassee where she was born. What did that look like?” A scan of a card from an antique stereoscope set appears. On it is the doubled image of the Florida state house. “So I decided to use this one because there’s a bike in front of it.” I look closely and there it is in the foreground, leaning against a shrub. “And I have a photo of her on a bike.” She opens up a second thumbnail, revealing a smiling young girl pedaling on an unpaved road. “So when I show you that one, this is why I use this one.” In the final cut, the narrator says, “Cora Lee Bentley was born in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1922,” and first one photo, then the other appear on cue, lingering side by side to create an almost album-like continuity. One half of the stereo card had been trimmed out, the other cropped, color-corrected and sized to make the two photos visually complementary. “And,” Evans adds, “the state capitol is from 1929, so it’s from the time when she was there.”

Primary sources place the subject in history, and that’s the first obligation of the documentarian. Evans says she spent weeks hunting for a copy of her subject’s diploma from Florida A&M University, eventually piecing together other documents and quotations to determine that Bentley Radcliffe had actually matriculated there twice, finishing her degree not in the 1930s but in the 1960s. But sometimes an image can be paired with other documentary elements to pick up what Evans thinks of as “layers of meaning” that only begin with visual evidence. She recalls an interviewee in her two-part documentary The History of African Americans In Connecticut using a ladder as a metaphor to describe access to better jobs for Black people after the first World War. “And I happened to find a photo of a man who was lighting a lamppost, and he had used a ladder. And then my composer said, ‘Oh, let’s do just the cello playing Jacob’s Ladder there.’ So it builds all this meaning that not everyone will even get, but there’s such a cohesiveness in the art form that you are pleased by it.”

Evans’s current feature-length project is a history of Native Americans in Connecticut, and such is the importance of capturing the right images and the right stories behind them that she has spent the last two years simply talking to people prior to capturing anything. “I’ve talked to elder councils. I’ve had over 150 meetings… so now we’re at the point where I have relationships… You get a sense of who they are and what they know and how comfortable they are on camera, and old and young, from all the different tribes.” She also recruited an advisory committee largely composed of archivists who specialize in Native American documents and is looking for a Native American scholar to write a script. “In fact I just wrote and got a second planning grant from Connecticut Humanities, and that’s another year of just talking to people with nothing on camera yet. But I’m learning a lot.”

Evans’s professional career in film began with research, exploring archives and talking to experts in order to add historical authenticity to the Hollywood films that director/producer Taylor Hackford was developing. “Like in The Long Walk Home”—a historical drama about the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott—“I was asked to find pictures of what Whoopi Goldberg’s house should look like.” She also contributed to her first documentary while in Hollywood. “It was called Legacy of the Hollywood Blacklist. And we were actually interviewing the wives and children of the Hollywood Ten. Narrated by Burt Lancaster. And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. These stories are so much more interesting than the scripts that I was working on.’”

She had left Connecticut to get her master’s degree in filmmaking at San Diego State University, but she returned to Connecticut in 1990 to tell the stories she might not have heard when she was in grade school. And she had come to see her profession as educational at its best. “So I went right to CPTV and just started making films. I’ve been making films about Connecticut history for basically 30 years,” with subjects including the New Haven Green and the Grove Street Cemetery. A professional turning point was African Americans In Connecticut, which premiered on public television in two parts, beginning in 2000, and earned her three regional Emmy Awards. She had interviewed over 100 experts, witnesses and participants to capture 300 years of Black history, and had landed legendary actors and activists Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee to narrate.

Narrators are a signal of a documentary’s scale and authenticity, but they’re also the authoritative center of the film, in a way that belies the limited part they play in its making. “I have to go back and re-edit the entire film after I’ve recorded the narrator,” Evans explains. “I have to step in and adjust every picture. I have to lengthen it, shorten it, put a pause in the narration because they said the line too fast. And I need a little more space so that the image can kind of hold for a beat.” From those adjustments comes the visual seamlessness of a documentary’s storytelling.

In the final cut of the Bentley Radcliffe documentary, the narrator, Connecticut broadcast journalist Adrianne Baughns-Wallace, intones: “While working at Hamilton Standard, Cora Lee Bentley met Claude Vincent Radcliffe; they married in 1948 and had two children…” In that 10 seconds, photographs of the Hamilton Standard factory floor, of Bentley Radcliffe with her husband and of their children appear, each in their turn, exquisitely timed to the syllable.

Karyl Evans Productions
(203) 239-1799 |

Written by David Zukowski. Images courtesy of Karyl Evans. Image 1 features Evans filming an interview in 2019. Image 2 features an edit room view of the Cora Lee Bentley Radcliffe documentary. Image 3 features Evans directing narrator Ossie Davis for part one of The History of African Americans In Connecticut.

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