From dramatic courtroom scenes to devastating moments on death row, Warner Bros.’ Just Mercy is made all the more emotional thanks to delicate editing of performance and tone by Nat Sanders.
Just Mercy — Sanders’ third collaboration with director Destin Daniel Cretton — is based on the memoir of the same name by Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard-educated black attorney who started the Equal Justice Initiative to defend people of color who are wrongly accused prisoners, some of whom are on death row.
In the film, Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan) sets out to help death row inmate Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who was found guilty of a murder he didn’t commit despite overwhelming evidence proving his innocence.
In one key scene, there’s a hearing to see if Walter deserves a new trial, and it’s a devastating blow when the request is denied. “The evidence presented was so overwhelming that Walter was innocent, so in the first trial scene we did a montage that really hammered home that the case was so airtight,” says Sanders. At one point before the judge announces his decision, the defense team and family are going over the evidence they’d presented and celebrating outside the courthouse, but there was some debate about whether the scene could be cut to tighten the movie. “I really held strong on that scene,” says Sanders. “I think it really needed to stay in the film to build up the hope and the reinforcement that they were going to get Walter off.”
There was the added challenge of covering the many characters in the courtroom, including Stevenson, McMillian, Stevenson’s colleague Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), the key witness Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), the DA Tommy Champan and McMillian’s family. “You have to work out the puzzle of keeping things moving. But you need to keep them active all the time,” Sanders says.
Another devastating scene takes place in the prison, when inmate Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) is sent to the electric chair. A row of prisoners in their cells bang their cups against the bars, which can be heard in the chamber. Here, Sanders cross-cuts between the electrocution, the witnesses and the jail cells. “It’s very heavy and it’s the emotional center of the film,” Sanders says of the cross-cutting sequence, which had been written into the script. “In this sequence we did a few things that were more subjective than in the rest of the film, style wise. I was careful to start [the banging of the cups] very slowly. It starts with a trickle and you feel everyone is starting to become aware of this growing protest. You go to Herbert and then back up to Walter and the rest of the inmates. It was a great challenge to heighten the impact.”
With so much story to tell, the first cut came in at three hours and 10 minutes. To take the run time down to two hours and 17 minutes, he had to remove a subplot during which Stevenson works with a minor who has been sentenced to life without parole. Says Sanders, “As we worked on the film, it became obvious that the movie was focused on Walter and Walter’s case, and this was just too much.”
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.