Editor Nat Sanders is well-versed in dealing with difficult and painful subject matters. He won an Oscar nomination for his work (along with co-editor Joi McMillon) on Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” and then cut the director’s poetic drama “If Beale Street Could Talk.” He’s also edited several projects for writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton, including “The Glass Castle.”

But none of those fully prepared him for the emotional hit he took when he began working on Cretton’s new film, “Just Mercy,” based on the life of advocate and activist Bryan Stevenson and his best-selling memoir which details his crusade to defend, among others, wrongly accused prisoners on death row.
“I just broke down in tears when I read Bryan’s book,” he recalls. “It just destroyed me – and gave me such a bigger understanding of the failures of the justice system and the death penalty. It really resonated with me.”

Sanders began cutting material in L.A. while Cretton shot on location in Atlanta and Alabama. Shaping all the material “took nearly a year, and one of the biggest challenges was the huge responsibility that we felt to a real-life story and characters,” notes Sanders.

To accomplish that, Sanders wanted to avoid the tropes of the genre and Cretton would hold test screenings while fine-tuning the film. “That’s why it took so long to cut.”

The hardest scene to cut and get right was Herb’s execution scene, Sanders reports. “I kept putting it off till the last moment. You’d think it’d be a great scene for an editor, and exciting to work on as it has lots of cross-cutting and you’re using music and sound to create the biggest impact possible.”

With the execution being the centerpiece and the film’s heavy subject matter, Sanders felt it also carried Stevenson’s message about what happens to falsely-accused inmates. “This man did commit murder, but he still deserves grace and mercy and humanity and dignity. And the execution is crucial to getting to the heart of that message,” Sanders says.

Sanders notes that the harrowing sequence “hangs over the rest of the film, as you can very easily extrapolate that this is what’s happened to many men before him, and it’s what’s going to happen to Walter if justice doesn’t come through in time.”