On the heels of AFI FEST 2023, we are spotlighting editor and AFI Alum Jonathan Alberts (AFI Class of 2001) whose new film ALL OF US STRANGERS, starring Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, Claire Foy and Jamie Bell, premiered as part of this year’s official selection and is set to be released in theaters on December 22. Directed by Alberts’ longtime creative collaborator Andrew Haigh, the film follows two neighbors who strike up a relationship as one of them is navigating the grief from his parents’ tragic death when he was a child, as well as a sense of rediscovery and possibility as he finds them in his childhood home 30 years onward.
Alberts’ editing credits include acclaimed films LIKE CRAZY, 45 YEARS, LEAN ON PETE and UNCLE FRANK, as well as the TV series LOOKING, THE OA and BLACK BIRD. We spoke to him about his close-knit collaborations with Haigh as well as a myriad of AFI Alumni, why the script for ALL OF US STRANGERS resonated so strongly with him and more.
AFI: How did you come to apply to the AFI Conservatory, and what about the Editing program made you want to attend?
Jonathan: At the time, I was living in New York and working in documentary, but I was always really interested in doing scripted. New York was much more of a documentary place versus scripted, so I figured I’d go to Los Angeles. I didn’t really have any connections to the scripted community, so I knew I needed to build that, and I thought AFI would be a great fit. I really liked how AFI was structured in terms of the disciplines and the fairly small classes. I think I was actually a little late for the deadline or it was coming up quite fast, but I applied and got in.
AFI: Of your 14 released features, over a third of them have been collaborations with AFI Directing Alumni. Can you speak to the strength of those ties and how you established them?
Jonathan: In coming to AFI to find a community, I found a community of people. My first two features were directly related to going to AFI. On MALACHANCE, the producer, the DP, the production designer, myself – we were all AFI graduates. My second feature was pretty much all AFI graduates as well. It was nice coming out of AFI and working with filmmakers that I felt creatively in sync with. Later on, a producer I’d worked with called and told me about LIKE CRAZY with Drake [Doremus]. I met with him about that film, and we basically bonded over AFI. We were talking about the cycle project and the structure of it and the professors. You don’t necessarily assume that it’s going to bond you just because you went to the same school, but it’s a little bit like growing up in the same town as somebody. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be friends, but what it does mean is that you have this kind of connection and rapport based on a shared experience.
AFI: What was it like reading the script for ALL OF US STRANGERS for the first time, and what about the narrative really resonated with you?
Jonathan: Andrew’s a beautiful writer and I think the script really came alive on the page. When I first read it, I said to him, “Oh, you wrote a movie about me. Thank you so much.” [laughs] It really felt like that, and I related to it on a very personal level. Both Andrew and I grew up in the ‘80s, were gay, and had the experience of being in the world at a very terrifying time to come into your sexuality during the AIDS crisis. It felt like a culmination of a lot of the conversations that we’d had in the cutting room about how nobody ever talks about that experience. Both in the wider world, but also gay and queer people tend to diminish that experience. What really affected me was this idea that all those childhood traumas accumulate, and you carry those things into adulthood. I love that Andrew was able to write a script that wasn’t one that was embittered; it was really loving actually and very kind and it wasn’t about blame.
The film is this fascinating drama which also contains elements of the supernatural, but then it also works as a meditation on grief and loss. I liked that it had this very niche and personal relevance to me, but it also had this wider net that it cast in terms of people’s experience with their own parents, no matter what their orientation is. It’s wonderful how people are able to take the movie and map it onto their own life. Whether you’re gay or straight or a parent or a child, it has this interesting way of reflecting your experience.
AFI: When you have such extraordinary performers and there’s no shortage of amazing takes, how do you make those tough calls of what footage to select as an editor?
Jonathan: On a film like this, you’re certainly not constructing a performance in a way that’s trying to fix a performance, which on some films you are. Every scene then becomes a calibration of, “Ok, we have five great takes of Claire, but how do you calibrate that over the course of the scene, over the course of an act, and over the course of the film?” I think that’s the trick about editing. Part of what I’m doing is asking myself what is the arc of the scene? Where do we want to start with this character emotionally, and where do we want to end? That’s partially based on the script, and it’s partially based on the performances of the other actors within the scene, but it is something you’re constantly retooling. When you’re spoiled with this level of performance, it’s difficult because you want to take pieces from everywhere, but again it has to feel seamless. I don’t mean seamless technically, but rather it has to feel emotionally seamless, and that’s constantly something that you’re going back and forth on.
AFI: Can you talk about what makes for a great director/editor dynamic and why your working partnership with Andrew Haigh has been so creatively fulfilling over the years?
Jonathan: What’s great about working with Andrew is that he’s really rigorous about every stage – the writing, on set during production and post-production. As an editor, you want to care about what you’re doing. You can take jobs where you don’t care that much, or people treat the process as though you aren’t a creative collaborator. Andrew has such a strong vision of what he wants, but not to the exclusion of collaboration and creative control. He’s absolutely interested in all the ideas. Even if it’s something that is not within his style, he wants to see everything. He has this very strong sense of what he wants without it feeling suffocating for anybody that’s working with him. We’re telling stories that are a pretty big canvas and have a lot of nuance, and you want to care about it. You want to give as much as you can as an editor, so the ideal situation for me is when you have a director who is open to all the possibilities.
AFI: What lessons or takeaways do you have for any new AFI grads who want to work on complex and nuanced projects like the ones you’ve managed to make so far in your career?
Jonathan: I think it’s really about finding your people. If you find the thing that you love and the thing that you want to do, whether that’s editing or cinematography or producing, whatever it might be, it’s finding the creativity within that and then finding the people that you share a sensibility about the world. Those are the people that are going to be your bread and butter. I started my career by working with the people that I really respected at AFI as writers and as directors. That was the best thing I could have done as well as fostering those relationships and carrying them forward into my life post-AFI.