Being an editor is a little like being a mortician. You’re often the last one to see the finished product and, if done well, no one notices your handiwork.
Of course, in TV, millions attend the viewing. And a bad wake can be the death of a show or career. But such are the perils of the TV editor, who must at once represent the director’s vision while maintaining the skepticism and surprise of a viewer. And whether it’s maintaining mayhem, layering the tension, or keeping the punchlines punching, today’s TV editor is a Jack—and Jill—of all trades.
If American Crime has a working motto among the crew it would be, “When the going gets tough, the tough can get weird.”
How else to explain the often off-frame, out-of-sequence style of the ABC anthology crime drama, which hopscotches between narrative points of view, detached dialogue and time-jumping sequences in its efforts to show how a murder differently affects the lives of the multiple characters in the show. Series creator John Ridley—the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave—told Vu that he did not want a straight linear story about race, class and gender politics.
“I was such a fan of 12 Years a Slave that when (Ridley) said he wanted to do something that would push the envelope, the first order of business was getting a meeting with him,” Vu says. “And (Ridley and the producers) were true to their word.”
That meant the crew—from sound to editing to visual effects—would play a part in the drama, which stars Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton.
“They wanted it to be a collaborative environment,” Vu says. “They wanted to be experimental. John wanted us to experience the story just as the characters did.”
That experience often is disorienting. So when a storyline ratcheted up the tension, Vu also aimed to heighten a sense of displacement. “John wanted us to chase the emotion and experience,” Vu says.
In one scene, for instance, when a child is taken from a father’s arms, Vu was encouraged to descend into the disorienting chaos. “I thought, ‘If I were in this situation, it would be so overwhelming,’ ” Vu says. “I wouldn’t know what was happening, what I was seeing, what people were saying.” So he had a high pitch tone climb in volume until it took over the scene, eclipsing all other visual and audio elements.
Similarly, American Crime tries to avoid making characters into lantern-jawed heroes or hissable villains. Characters make sound arguments, and Vu occasionally turned up the volume of a single word of dialogue to get a character’s point of view across.
“When you say there is no real bad guy, the story becomes more relatable,” Vu says. “We’ve had some characters who we worried we were making too unlikeable. So we’d toy with that character’s (personality), to make the audience understand where he or she was coming from. We wanted the audience to judge, not ourselves.”
To see a scene Vu referenced above, click play below:
Like American Crime, The Slap is comfortable in the narrative gray. But the NBC limited series also paid particular attention to the little things, the underlying theme of the show.
Based on the novel by Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas (and a retelling of the Australian TV series), The Slap centers on a multi-family dispute swirling around a single incident at a birthday party: an adult slapping another couple’s child. Each of the series’ eight episodes focused on one character and their view of what happened.
Editor Johnson says that she was immediately drawn to the premise because Hollywood typically isn’t. “In network TV you rarely get these dramas that are different from the formula,” she says. “This one felt like it touched on so many aspects of family.”
Johnson, whose ancestry goes back to Bulgaria, also has a sizable extended family, and was comfortable with the large clan seen in the show—even with a heritage tweak. “I’m from the old country,” she says. “Having a Greek family hit home for me. Even the accents.”
As did the delicate balancing acts The Slap examines, including generational differences. The show, whose large ensemble includes Peter Saarsgard, Brian Cox and Melissa George, examined long-held family secrets coming undone by an ever-burgeoning lawsuit. Issues, from how to discipline a child to public breastfeeding, became boiling contention points on the show.
“When I spoke to friends about what I was working on—the story of a guy who slaps another family’s child—they were initially outraged,” Johnson says. “But when you get into details—the kid was unruly, for instance—you realize it’s all opinion and nobody’s way is the right or wrong way.”
Johnson says the producers would look at a character in review, to ensure they had virtuous traits. “Take someone like Harry (played by Zachary Quinto),” she says. “When we were cutting his episode together, he was kind of unlikeable. (The producers) said there had to be more to the guy than this. ‘We need more focus on the nicer.’ He wants to love his son. He wants to do the best he can. He has a temper, but he has something redeeming.”
The editor says she’s comfortable in the uncertain zone. “I think I liked the project because it kind of stepped on issues that people feel uneasy about,” she says. “And there are all of these small things, decisions you think are inconsequential, and they end up becoming another, bigger issue.”
So Johnson says she tries not to come down clearly on one side of an issue. “There is a lot of talk about the characters being likable,” she says. “Are there certain characters you know that people wouldn’t like? If you don’t like them from the beginning, there’s no show. Everybody has a good side and a bad side.”
To see the central scene behind what unfolds in The Slap, click play below:
Sometimes, a person’s bad side can be downright hilarious—even when it’s filled with lethal snarkiness.
Witness Veep, the HBO comedy centering on Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the nation’s first female president and the bureaucrats who hover around her office like buzzards. Similar to Arrested Development, nearly every line of the sitcom is a joke, one you’d need rhino-thick skin to personally endure.
That brutal banter was like catnip for editor Boys, who says he gets antsy if his actors aren’t slicing and dicing. “Truthfully, I get nervous if we go three lines without a joke,” Boys says. “You have to have a good story. But it has to come with a joke, as well.”
And American politics are a treasure trove, Boys says. The editor joined the writers in delving into real-life political scandals—from data breaches to onstage gaffes—to inform the show.
“One thing that really jumped out was how much time we spent on Wikipedia,” Boys says. “I know more about American politics than I do British politics—and I’m from England. Fortunately, we have very little respect for politicians there, too.”
If anything, Boys says, the challenge is in cutting jokes. The rough version of an episode of Veep typically comes in at 45 minutes, requiring 15 minutes of trimming (minus the inspired deleted-scene credit roll).
But you have to go online for gag reels for Veep, which usually include star Tony Hale, who plays presidential suck-up Gary.
“The moment someone begins (to crack up), you can sense that everyone else smells blood,” Boys says. “They will try to top each other and that makes the performances even better. Sometimes I just let the cameras run for an extra two or three insults.”
But the ultimate return has to be the same: laughter. “People are a lot less likely to tell you their favorite comedy,” he says. “They’re more likely to tell you to catch Game of Thrones. Comedy is personal. It tells you something about personal taste. But when you make that connection, there’s nothing like it.”
To see a scene from Veep, click play below: