Emmy’s ‘Prime Cuts’ Panel
by Edward Landler
photos by Danny Moloshok/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Images
On Sunday afternoon, September 27, one week after the 67th Primetime Emmys were awarded, the Television Academy's Emmy Prime Cuts program was presented at the Skirball Cultural Center’s Magnin Auditorium in Los Angeles. A panel of seven nominees, each representing one of the seven Picture Editing award categories, discussed the creative dynamics behind the work that brought them to Emmy attention.
Presented for its ninth consecutive year, Prime Cuts was officially hosted by Stuart Bass, ACE, and Scott Boyd, ACE, two of the Academy’s Editing Governors, along with the Academy’s Picture Editors Peer Group Executive Committee. Welcoming the audience, Bass and Boyd noted that of the 29 peer groups that make up the Academy, the editors group represents 800 members. With thanks to Barbara Chase and Melissa Brown for organizing the event for the Academy, Bass and Boyd introduced clips of each of the seven shows for which each of the panelists was nominated.
The panelists were:
Tom Wilson, “Person to Person,” Mad Men (Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Drama Series);
Catherine Haight, ACE, “Pilot,” Transparent (Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Comedy Series);
Darryl Bates, ACE, “And the Move-In Meltdown,” 2 Broke Girls (with Ben Bosse, Outstanding Multi-Camera Picture Editing for a Comedy Series);
Luyan Vu, Episode One, American Crime (Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Limited Series or Movie);
Richard LaBrie, “Scariest Movie Ever,” Key and Peele (with Christian Hoffman, ACE, and Phil Davis, Outstanding Picture Editing for Variety Programming);
Kate Amend, ACE, The Case Against 8 (Outstanding Picture Editing for Non-Fiction Programming);
Alexander Rubinow, “A Brotherhood Tested,” Deadliest Catch (with Josh Earl, ACE, and Alex Durham, ACE, Outstanding Picture Editing for Reality Programming).
Tom Wilson, left, Catherine Haight, Darryl Bates, Shawn Ryan, Luyen Vu, Richard LaBrie, Kate Amend and Alexander Rubinow.
Moderating the discussion was veteran showrunner Shawn Ryan, co-writer and executive producer for the TV movie Mad Dogs (2015), co-creator and executive producer of Last Resort (2012-13) and creator and executive producer of The Shield (2002-08).
Ryan opened the session stating that his favorite people to work with are other writers, assistant editors and editors: “Working with them reminds me how story making is really done in the editing room.” From that point on, the discussion kept at a brisk pace throughout as the panelists started by explaining their choice of clips.
With more than 30,000 hours of footage shot for the season’s 18 episodes of Deadliest Catch, Rubinow chose a climactic segment of the nominated episode because it represents how a lot of the show is done, cut down from many hours of footage from many different camera angles.
After gathering all the footage shot in rough seas from the different angles, he said, “We listen to all the audio chatter. After all the notes, the producers tell me the key things that have to be covered in these six minutes.”
The action comes to the point of moving an injured fisherman to a helicopter, which is low on fuel and may be forced to turn back before picking him up,” which, the editor concluded, “is a good place to go to a commercial.”
Kate Amend, left, and Alexander Rubinow.
For the The Case Against 8, a documentary about the Supreme Court’s decision against California’s ban on same-sex marriage, Amend had screened a sequence of two gay couples, one in Los Angeles and the other in San Francisco, getting their marriage licenses before the ruling came through.
Even though the ruling had not yet been made, Amend said, “I decided, the hell with it, and cut the scenes. What follows hearing about the decision are the weddings, emotional and beautiful.” Asked what made documentaries so powerful, she said, “Real people who you get to know…strong, compelling, complex characters to care for.”
Key and Peele editor LaBrie, one of three editors on the show, chose a sketch he cut. He said, “The challenge was how to create transitions to tip the audience off to making fun of the guys’ reactions to a horror film. What’s important is their wide ability to make fun of everything…more satire than parody.”
Turning to Vu, Ryan noted, “American Crime writer/director John Ridley encouraged you to use the language of cinema.” The editor chose the first part of the episode’s story of a methamphetamine addict because it was about getting the drugs. “After the initial cut, I decided to go further and realized the experience should be jumbled in time,” he said. “What I love about working on this show is John’s asking us to contribute artistically.”
On editing the multi-camera comedy 2 Broke Girls, Bates said, “The tension is to put the audience two or three rows back in a theatre and make them feel like they’re watching it live.” Shooting with a live audience on the show’s restaurant set helps make it seem live for a home viewer, but the advances in technology have changed the sitcom.
He pointed out, “Now they’ll shoot a lot more before and after the audience comes; our challenge is to turn a show around in four to five hours.”
Tom Wilson, left, Catherine Haight and Darryl Bates.
The biggest challenge for Haight in the sequence screened from the pilot episode of Transparent was cross cutting: “It was scripted but it was complicated because I was tied to a song, trapped by music.” Also, in some of the production, she said they would shoot different takes of the same scene and “blocking was more of a suggestion than reality.”
Choosing a clip from the final episode of Mad Men was difficult for editor Wilson because, “It’s a lot of short scenes that build up to the climax.” He explained what was screened of the spiritual retreat where Don Draper is relaxed, “finding himself and discovering they don’t want him back at work.” The editing sets up an identity between him and a man in a group session confessing how uninteresting he is. The editor said, “He needs someone to see him for who he is and Don embraces him.”
The moderator asked when the editor knew of the archival scene that the show ended on. Wilson replied, “At the tone meeting for the show, we learned about it. On the script, it said, ‘final scene redacted.’”
Anticipating what he said was an inevitable question from the audience, Ryan asked the panelists how they all broke into to the business.
Rubinow attended the high school that director John Hughes had gone to and he created a website about the places at the school associated with Hughes. For DVDs of two of the writer/director’s movies, he was contacted by someone at Paramount about using this website material with Hughes’ comments as a bonus feature. The editor said, “I wrote to this guy periodically for a few years. In 2002, he had a lead for me in LA and that lead would become my first paid job.”
Documentary editor Amend said, “I had a lot of luck; I would volunteer to work with a director who allowed me to cut scenes on my own time.” Eventually, she worked on a doc that went to Sundance and, “It was smooth sailing after that.”
LaBrie wrote, directed, edited a short film and, he said, “It just sucked. I learned that editing was a big part of it. I fixed it and it got a directing award, but it was really the editing. Luck is luck and perseverance is the other side of it.” Later he worked in a situation that led to meeting Quincy Jones, which led to his editing 312 episodes of MADtv (1995-2009).
Making good friends in film school and keeping in touch worked for Vu. Years after school, he said, “A friend sent me a note to say she could get me an interview for Arrested Development. I met Stu Bass there and Scott Boyd on Heroes. Then I moved to Fringe and that’s where I got my bump to editor.”
Shawn Ryan, left, Luyen Vu, Richared LaBrie and Kate Amend.
Bates said, “I got made because a guy didn’t pay attention to the film I was showing for my audition; I didn’t get the job. Out of work and miserable, I sent a nasty letter to the guy.” A few years later, he got a call for a job. “This producer told me I was recommended by the guy who got the nasty letter,” Bates explained. “You try to plan your career, and sometimes you just can’t.”
After working for ten years as an assistant editor, Haight said, “I was hired as editor for the pilot of Lena Dunham’s Girls.” She had worked with editor Alan Baumgarten, who told her they were looking for an assistant ready to make the jump. When Judd Apatow got involved and the show got bigger, she wasn’t hired for the series. Later, she said, “I met Jill Solway through a friend. I did short things for her weekends and nights, and that led to Transparent.”
“I fell in love with post-production; it’s easier to deal with actors in post,” said Wilson. He first looked for editing jobs on Craig’s List, then found an industry production assistant job and was able to work into a post-production assistant job. Soon he became an apprentice and then an assistant editor. He continued, “On Mad Men, I got bumped up because they knew I could stick to deadlines. Luck, but hard work will get you the rest of the way.”
Moderator Ryan asked, “How much is innate talent and how much is what you can learn?” Wilson replied, “It’s both. A lot is technical detail but it’s also cutting and stepping back and reacting to your cut. The skill is telling a story and sweeping people into it, but to really be an editor is learning how to tell a story with what you have.”
Amend answered, “It’s an intuition you develop through practice and learning to trust. Sitting alone in a dark room helps you to identify the things people will respond to like you do.” LaBrie suggested a pointed example: “Do people really want to sit through a three-minute dolly shot that the director loves?” Both Vu and Haight stressed the need for practice, with the Transparent editor noting, “You learn to fine-tune your talents.”
Asked about the best lesson an editor can learn as an assistant, Rubinow said, “Learning how to work hard and keeping at it. I had to work my way up twice. After I got my first editing credit, I went back to being an assistant editor for two years before working on the project that led to editing Deadliest Catch.”
Ryan also asked about things outside the editing room that help editors inside the editing room.
Haight makes it a point to never stay late at work. “Being away is as important as being there,” he said. “Friends, personal life…they help you to come back with a fresh view.” Vu responded, “I try not to be overly influenced by what I’m doing.”
LaBrie found a profession on the side as a clinical psychologist. He explained, “While I was in training, I was cutting Workaholics. I couldn’t do it consistently, but they called me back to editing and then I went to Key and Peele.”
Stuart Bass, left, and Scott Boyd introducing the program.
Pointing out the similarities between the professions, he said, “You’re in a dark room with an anxious or depressed person with a narrative. You experience non-verbal communication…it’s the same with Key and Peele.” The showrunner moderator responded, “What I’ve just learned is that my editors have been my psychiatrists.”
Asked about the differences between television and film editing, Wilson said, “I’ve done both recently and they’re merging quite a bit. Everybody’s got a big screen TV at home and they want the wider shots. You have a lot more time to work on things on features, but stylistically they’re heading more in the same direction.”
With Amazon and Netflix producing programming now, Vu noted that more longform shows are being done. Haight added, “When doing things for Amazon, there are no ad breaks.”
The ongoing question of women in the industry was raised from the audience. Haight said, “The makeup of the Editors Guild is 75 percent male. As a woman, I make a distinct point of helping women. Amend noted, “The documentary world is different. I have worked with a lot of women directors and with women in positions of power in docs like Sheila Nevins at HBO. I think there’s been more opportunity for women in docs for 15 to 20 years.”
Responding to an audience question about notes, Vu said, “You don’t necessarily deal with the note but work with what’s behind it.” Haight agreed, “You deal with what they want, not with what they say.” Similarly, LaBrie said, “Many times network notes don’t make any sense. I always run them by the director or the producer, but I always do the notes.”
Rubinow said, “The problem with not directly dealing with a note is you’ll get it again.” Amend added, “And sometimes they’re right.” The moderator concluded, “Never lie to a showrunner.”
The last question from the audience was, “What other shoes do you need to fill as an editor, like color-correcting?”
Bates said, “A good editor has to be versed in everything: director, writer, sound editor, composer. You have to know how to speak everyone’s language.” LaBrie added, “Being a diplomat is part of that, too.”
Reality editor Rubinow said, “In my world, you have to work as the mixer, the color corrector, even the narrator. I have to narrate before the final narrator records it.”
“With that, I’m going to cut to black!” said Ryan, ending an animated session.
Edward Landler is a filmmaker, media educator and film historian. He made I Build the Tower, the definitive feature documentary on the Watts Towers, and is currently writing a cultural history of film. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.