Starting out as an assistant editor on such acclaimed series as Breaking Bad, The Office and Fargo—not to mention Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul—Curtis Thurber has worked with the very best in the business and climbed through the ranks fairly quickly to become a full-fledged editor, with two consecutive nominations for the aforementioned Noah Hawley series.
Sharing his first nomination with mentor and nine-time nominee Skip Macdonald, Thurber has now edited three episodes of Fargo and two of Legion, Hawley’s spectacular superhero series which was a surprising Emmys snub in its first go-round. Speaking with Deadline, the editor breaks down the evolution in his career to this point and the philosophy behind the cut on Fargo.
Noah Hawley’s Fargo and Legion have seen you climbing the rungs of the editing world. How would you describe the experience and what it’s meant for your career?
It’s been an incredible journey. I assisted [editor] Skip Macdonald, who’s a big presence at the Emmys, for several years, and jumped on the pilot of Fargo with him, which I was very excited about.
I already was in a position where I was beginning to share as much of the editing as Skip would allow. In that first season, I was able to sit down with the producers a bit, and they were all very supportive. I took over responsibilities and basically cut all of the recaps for those shows. That was one of my responsibilities.
In Season 2, I was cutting quite a bit and was able to finally convince all the producers and studio people that I had cut half of this one episode, and we were able to share a credit, which obviously led to the first [Emmy] nomination last year.
Pretty early on, after Fargo Season 2 wrapped, they approached me about editing on Legion—that was the next show that Noah was developing. As it turned out, Legion and Fargo basically ended up being produced as one long season. There was no real gap between the two. Fargo was prepping and writing while Legion was filming, so basically the same post team continued throughout.
It couldn’t have gone better—I think everybody was very happy. I think Noah likes to be loyal to people who’ve been around and who understand his process because one thing that’s often important for Noah, especially as he gets busier and busier, is to have those people who know the style that he’s going for.
He also likes to give more general, as opposed to specific edit notes about the point of view of a scene, or simplifying and taking things out, and reordering them. He’ll give you general notes and he wants someone who he can trust to go in and implement those changes without him necessarily being there all of the time. That’s where we’re at now, and I’m looking forward to going back to Legion Season 2.
You submitted Episode 4, “The Narrow Escape Problem,” for Emmy consideration. What were you trying to showcase there?
I’d cut two episodes and I loved them both, and it’s always hard to decide, but I think, for me, Episode 4 was almost when Season 3 becomes like Fargo again. We’ve had that detour in Episode 3 where Gloria goes off to Los Angeles and it’s its own Barton Fink-esque detour.
When we come back, we’re diving in deep to the core mystery of the season. It leads to having a great framing device right off the bat—a strong way to open the episode—which was the “Peter and the Wolf” montage section.
Overall, I think it was directed very well—Mike Uppendahl did a great job, and it just was one of those episodes, from early on, that wasn’t a problem episode. We didn’t have to go in and fix it; we could just focus on making it better, and telling the story as best we could.
Generally speaking, Fargo is much more visually restrained than Legion. Is there a certain Fargo aesthetic you can articulate, when it comes to the cut?
[Noah] obviously wants to make it as cinematic as possible in the TV format. He never wants to shy away from staying in the gorgeously composed wide shot, even if you don’t see as much.
Simplifying a pattern is always a big thing. Even sometimes when you think, Oh, you’ve got all these great moments in there, it’s like, “Yes, this edit works, but let’s take a step back and think about, can we be more on one character versus the other at certain moments of the scene.”
Although I think there’s more similarities than you might imagine in the way that Fargo and Legion are cut, the overarching philosophy for Legion was that it was a very subjective experience, and in the editing process, the cuts you’re creating are serving up an experience which is ultimately subjective—from David Haller’s mind, a schizophrenic mind.
In many ways, the Fargo style is flipping that around, like, “Let’s be objective. Let’s tell this like it’s a true story,” because that’s the whole conceit. As filmmakers, we’re not commenting as directly on the experience of it. We’re presenting the events and letting the audience decide what to think. That’s the overall philosophy, and you work with the tools of the trade to create tension.
There was a lot of discussion, especially this season, with Noah talking about when surprise is appropriate, versus suspense. There were times he wants to clue in the audience as to what all the different characters are up to because it’s all leading to a big climactic event, but sometimes it’s more effective to take the element of suspense out of it and then when the event happens, it’s a big surprise. That’s something we dealt with more in my second episode, Episode 7, which ended in that big bus crash.
What is the shooting ratio on this show? How much footage ends up on the cutting room floor?
I would say that they don’t shoot nearly as much as many shows out there that I’ve seen. One of the things I think Noah talks to all the directors about is the idea that this is almost a one-camera show. We don’t use A/B cameras as much as most other shows because it allows you to frame your shot where you’re thinking about using the whole space as opposed to having the cameras avoiding each other. You can be a lot more decisive about one frame.
That limits the footage somewhat. As far as the number of takes, that’s always going to depend a little bit on the director, but generally speaking, it’s not an overwhelming amount of takes. A lot of times, you get somewhere in the range of two to four takes per setup, and they get as many setups as they can on their wish list before they start to run out of time.
One of the things I really appreciate about Noah is that he’s not precious about his own writing, and he’s always incredibly quick about coming in and watching a cut. A lot of times, he’ll watch the cut for the first time in the editing room, as opposed to watching it on a file at home.
After that, we sit down and he’ll go through his initial thoughts. It’s incredibly comprehensive in terms of, “Well, yeah, we probably don’t need this at all,” or, “Let’s rearrange the show so it’s completely flipped on its head.” He comes up with these ideas very quickly, but he’s not precious about it at all, considering that he’s the head writer of the show. There’s plenty of times that he’s left things on the cutting room floor that just weren’t working.
Fargo is a series that revels in its long, fluid takes. What’s the level of difficulty there in editing?
I think that’s some of what I enjoy most about this sort of cutting style—you find yourself always having to step back, because it’s easy to get into a line-by-line cut of a scene where you’re like, “Okay, well this is the best take over on this person, and this is the best take over on this person.”
You have to add another layer of thinking to that—we’re not just cutting for performance here. We’re cutting for: What’s the most interesting perspective on this scene and this moment, and where are we getting the most information? Not only for one line, but sometimes for two or three lines, you always have to have your mind tuned into looking for those opportunities to find a dynamic stretch of a take.
Hawley seems driven to let his scenes breathe, no matter the time restrictions of a network show.
That’s definitely an intentional style from Noah. Fortunately, FX does not require their series to hit a certain length, so we would rarely cut anything out just for time. Many times, we would say in the editing room, “Let’s push it ’til it breaks,” which basically means, Let’s try to let the moment play out as long as possible, so we can then see where that moment begins to lose interest.
Fargo is quite precise in its timing and tempo, when it comes to music, jokes, action and dialogue. What is the process of refining this timing?
I try to refine timing and tempo as early in the process as possible, so that I’m happy with the pacing of any cut that I turn over. Still, there will always be scenes which Noah will later ask me to “pace up” or “let it breathe”, which I will usually go and attempt on my own, and then send him a new version of the scene. Noah and Maggie [Phillips, music supervisor] also come up with wild music ideas after the first cuts, which can cause the picture to be refined some more to synchronize better with the music choices.
What was the most challenging scene for you to edit in Fargo Season 3?
The opening “Peter and the Wolf” section of 304 was challenging, since we were attempting to tell many character stories in sync with a pre-existing piece of music. Some of the sections ended up requiring more time, and our composer Jeff Russo helped us out by expanding the instrumentation for these sections.