By Ellen Wixted
Amazon Studios’ original series Transparent has made history for its representation of the trans community, but it may be having an even bigger impact on the way the entertainment world does business. With 11 Emmy nominations — including for Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for A Comedy Series — and five wins, Transparent validates the company’s original programming strategy as it goes head-to-head with the likes of HBO and Netflix. With Season 2 of Transparent set to “air” December 4, the show’s enthusiastic fan base (myself included) may be scheduling a weekend of pre-holiday binge watching.
Using an approach that’s been described as very “un-Hollywood,” Amazon Studios is setting out to change both the relationship between the studio and the creators — the studio is touting an openness to developing great stories from visionary directors and outsiders alike — and with audiences, by using innovative approaches to invite audience feedback. When Jill Soloway sold the Transparent pilot to Amazon in 2013, the studio had yet to make waves. With Transparent, Amazon Studios is now squarely on Hollywood’s map.
I spoke with veteran editor Catherine Haight, a long-time collaborator of Transparent’s creator Soloway, about her path as an editor and the experience of working on the show.
After majoring in art with a concentration in film at Occidental College, Haight began her career as a production assistant, then spent time logging footage and learning how a cutting room works before becoming an assistant editor. Haight began working with Soloway when she edited her short film Una Hora Por Favora, and then edited Soloway’s independent film Afternoon Delight (which premiered at Sundance in 2013). The two continued collaborating on Seasons 1 and 2 of Transparent. “Jill and I communicate well, and because we have a long history of working together, I know what she’s looking for,” Haight notes.
While Haight believes that the role of editor is mysterious to many, it’s a job she loves. “Editors are the first ones to see the puzzle come together and are huge contributors to the storytelling process — the first cut is always the editor’s cut. While some of the feedback we get can be granular, it’s usually more along the lines of ‘make this less over-the-top’ or ‘I’m not tracking this character’s emotional state.’ As editors, we manipulate perception to make the audience feel emotions.”
Cutting an Amazon Series
When I asked Haight about how working on an Amazon production differed from other projects, she noted that while the day-to-day was similar — the series was shot and cut at Paramount as a union project — the way Amazon engaged with Soloway was markedly different. “Amazon let us do our own thing. They definitely had thoughts and opinions and gave notes throughout the process, but overall they meddled less than I’ve seen with studios on other projects.”
With only five shooting days per episode, Soloway and the crew focused their attention on “bubble” scenes that were critical to moving the story forward. With more time to invest, the actors were encouraged to improvise more — if something in the script wasn’t working, it would be changed on the fly. Smaller scenes had more basic camera coverage, tended to stay closer to the original script and were shot with fewer takes. Because the show is shot documentary-style, no two takes are the same and blocking and dialogue frequently change from take to take, which can be a challenge in the edit room.
“We approached the project as a five-hour movie, not as 10 separate episodes” says Haight. “Because all of the episodes release at once, the writers structure the story so the audience wants to start the next episode right away.” Time limits per episode were less rigid than conventional shows — finished cuts could be anywhere between 22 and 30 minutes per episode — and the absence of ad breaks meant fewer constraints as well.
This approach offered new freedom for Haight as an editor. “We were able to move scenes from episode to episode to make the story track emotionally. For example, we were having difficulty getting Rita’s role in the family to be clear in Season 1. Josh goes to see her in the pilot episode, and in a later episode he confronts her to find out whether his parents knew about their sexual relationship. We were able to move scenes from three different episodes into one sequence — there were wardrobe changes all over the place, but it made sense emotionally, so it worked.”
Transparent tackles gender and sex in an explicit and direct way, but I asked Haight about her experience of gender in post production generally. “Jill’s work is all about creating the female gaze, so having a woman cutting makes sense. But I’ve had a range of experiences. Some men I’ve edited for have thought that women bring something different and unique to the table… it’s great working with men who are feminists. But almost 80 percent of the Editor’s Guild is male, so I make a point of mentoring younger women. It’s vital that we help each other.”