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Back to the ‘70s to edit Hulu’s Mrs. America

By Randi Altman

The ‘70s in America was a lot of things, but boring wasn’t one of them. There was the on-going war in Vietnam; there were widespread protests against that war; there was a developing major political scandal; and the feminist movement was in full swing. It’s also when Hulu’s Mrs. America, an FX Original Series, takes place.

Robert Komatsu

The nine-part limited series, created by Dahvi Waller, follows Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) and her quest to get the Equal Rights Amendment squashed. Yes, you read that correctly. Schlafly didn’t want equal rights for women — so much so that she started the national Stop ERA campaign, which told women that their “privileges,” like spousal support, would be taken away and that their daughters would be drafted.

Conversely, the series also tells the story of the women who were fighting to get the amendment ratified, including Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan and one-time presidential hopeful Shirley Chisholm. The show deftly weaves the stories of these very strong-willed and diverse women and the political and personal battles they were fighting.

Mrs. America was cut by three editors working out of 16:9 Post in Sherman Oaks — Robert Komatsu, Emily Greene and Todd Downing. We recently spoke with Komatsu, who cut the pilot and two other episodes, about his workflow. We also spoke with Downing and Greene, who edited three episodes each as well.

How early did you get involved with the show?
Robert Komatsu: Officially, I started about 10 days before shooting. There was going to be a lot of archival footage in the show, and the producers and I thought it would be good to get a head start on it. In fact, I edited my first versions of the archival sequences for the pilot and the seventh episode during this time.

For the seventh episode, I cut together this entire sequence of the 1977 New York blackout, which depicted the looting, the riots, the arrests. Unfortunately, that storyline was cut from the script before shooting started. You win some, you lose some. I was also editing the makeup tests for all of our actors during pre-production.

Emily Greene: I started a few days before the show started shooting. As Episodes 1 (“Phyllis”) and 2 (“Gloria”) were block shot, and Rob was cutting the first episode, we were both asked to come on a little earlier to familiarize ourselves with the archive material. It was wonderful to have the time to get situated — more often than not, I start a project the day my episode starts shooting, and I hit the ground running as I cut dailies and scramble to keep up to camera. Luckily, because we came on a little earlier and material was simultaneously arriving for both episodes, I had more time to really curate the material.

You were one of three editors, but you cut the pilot. Can you talk about setting tone in terms of editing throughout the series? And how did you work with the producers, directors and show creator?
Komatsu: Even though this was a limited series for television, we treated it as if we were working on a feature. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck had mostly directed features. Stacey Sher and Coco Francini mostly produced features. I had come from features. No one explicitly said, “We’re going to work on this as if we were working on a feature,” but yes, we were indeed working on it as if we were working on a feature.

Emily Greene

The first two episodes were shot as one block. I was editing the first episode and Emily Greene was editing the second. We were scheduled for 25 days, although there would be sections of our episodes that were scheduled to be shot later. Every few days, we would send our cut scenes to Anna and Ryan for feedback. They would give notes and we’d do revisions. At the same time, we’d be editing fresh scenes from dailies, and then we’d send those along with our revised scenes. By the time Anna and Ryan came to the cutting room for their directors’ cut, we weren’t screening an editor’s cut. It was more like we were screening a directors’ cut work in progress.

Normally, on a one-hour drama, the director has four days in the cutting room for their cut. Anna and Ryan had 10 days. Technically, five days were allotted for Episode 1 and five days for Episode 2. But in reality, Anna and Ryan bounced back and forth between my room and Emily’s room every day for 10 days. Then we screened the directors’ cut for Dahvi Waller, the show’s creator, Stacey and Coco. We’d discuss the episodes and then for the most part, we’d work with Anna and Ryan again in the room.

The division of producing was that if it was an episode that Anna and Ryan directed, they were our point people until we were all satisfied, and then we’d share it with Dahvi, Stacey and Coco for their input. And if it was an episode that was not directed by Anna and Ryan, then our point person was Dahvi. And we’d work with her until we were satisfied and then we’d share it with the rest of the group.

At least for the pilot, we continued refining for months, just like on a feature. We even had friends and family screenings booked in a screening room so we could continue to get feedback. I started mid-June and I locked the first episode toward the end of January.

Tell us about working with the showrunner and editing team on this project?
Todd Downing: I had so much fun working with (showrunner) Dahvi Waller; she’s very intelligent and doesn’t dumb things down. We’d geek out together on weird old films like Town Bloody Hall and Chantal Akerman’s work (which she references in the show twice). She has a really good sense of humor so I think she appreciated my comedy-editing background (Russian Doll, SMILF, Difficult People) and what I could bring to the series.

How did the editors work together?
Komatsu: In terms of how the three of us worked as an editorial team, it was very collaborative. At first, it was just Emily and me, along with our assistants, Matt Crawford and Phil Hamilton. In the beginning, Anna and Ryan would send me and Emily emails from their joint email account. Kind of as a lark, I suggested to Emily that we confer and send them one email back, signing it Emily and Rob. This started the great team of “Robily,” as she put it. We were constantly deferring to the other. Emily and I teamed up to put together a complete temp score package that we sent to Anna and Ryan for their feedback. And we would screen cut scenes for each other.

Todd Downing

Todd Downing came on board when Episode 3 started shooting, and we incorporated him into this group as well. He watched our editors’ cuts alongside us before we sent them off to Anna and Ryan. This continued throughout the season. There was a screening room right down the hall from us that was rarely used. So we could spontaneously book it and ask each other to watch our cuts. Not only could we give handy feedback to each other, watching the other’s episodes would help inform us how we should cut our next episodes.

Downing: It was great to work with two talented editors that I could trust to bounce ideas off of. I think we each brought our own style to our episodes and were also very collaborative. We actually had lunch together every day of the edit and talked about our cuts, what music we were using, etc., so it really felt like a team.

What drew you to this project?
Downing: I loved the concept of how they wanted to tell the story of the ERA with a chapter-like structure focusing on different characters and really playing with the audience’s expectations on who they are rooting for. You really don’t see female anti-heroes much on American television so it felt very original. I’m also a big fan of the 1970s: the film, the design, the fashion, the politics. Spending time in that world was big draw as well.

Greene: I had my eye on the project for months before I interviewed for it. Every week, through my agency, we receive information on upcoming projects. The day that the grid for the upcoming project of Mrs. America came out, I hounded my agent to get me an interview. Through a series of coincidences however, my dear editor friend Chi-Yoon Chung was ultimately the one who helped me get the interview with producing directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, and then with showrunner Dahvi Waller.

So many aspects of the show were a draw: the stellar cast and crew, the sadly still relevant subject matter, and the fact that it was being told from an unexpected point of view. I loved the notion of telling a story about feminists and their plight to get the ERA passed, but from ultra-conservative Phyllis Schlafly’s point of view. I couldn’t wait to see the product that would come of it, and luckily, I got to be a part of all of that!

MRS. AMERICA — Pictured: Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan. CR: Sabrina Lantos/FX

In the pilot, you created a split screen. How did that come about, and how was that used later within the series?
Komatsu: The split-screen sequence in the pilot was not scripted but it became a style for the season as a whole. When we were about to start shooting the section where Phyllis was going to recruit other housewives to help her stop the ERA, Anna and Ryan called me to say they were planning on shooting it as a split-screen sequence. I asked them, “What kind of split screen?” They didn’t know. So I created three different concepts and sent them to Anna and Ryan. This started a conversation, and we eventually ended up creating one that evoked the The Thomas Crown Affair, starring Steve McQueen. Our split screens had panels of different sizes, arranged asymmetrically in the frame.

Everyone loved the split-screen sequence and that’s why it started to be used in other episodes. In fact, by the time we got to Episode 7, the script called out for a split-screen sequence. I edited that episode, which was also directed by Anna and Ryan. I didn’t want to copy what I did from the pilot, so I evolved it from where I left off.

At the end of the first split screen, we have a shot of nine panels showing nine different housewives. Those panels individually cut to nine panels of Phyllis’ newsletter, the envelopes, and the typing. And those nine panels then cut to nine identical panels of Phyllis. The center panel expanded, pushing the other eight off the frame until it was full frame. That’s where the sequence ended. So, for the seventh episode, in terms of style, that’s where I started. This split-screen sequence was all about panels pushing other panels either halfway or fully off the screen. Or panels that flew off the screen to reveal other panels underneath it.

How were the episodes broken up between you, Emily and Todd?
Komatsu: The episodes were split up in a rotation. Normally, on a season with nine episodes, I’d edit one, four and seven. Emily would edit two, five and eight, and Todd would edit three, six and nine. However, due to scheduling, Episode 8 was shot after Episode 9. So, Emily edited nine and Todd edited eight.

This is clearly a period piece. How did that affect the pacing of the story, if at all?
Komatsu: I’m not sure it did. We are 2020 editors with a 2020 editing sensibility. I’d say that we created a period piece through a contemporary lens.

Greene: No. I read an interesting article where the brilliant costume designer Bina Daigeler was interviewed, and was asked about the costumes for the show. She said something along the lines about how clothes were made specifically for the characters, even when there was the possibility to purchase vintage items. The idea was to have the show feel as though we’re living that in very moment, even though it happened 50 years ago. I think somehow, that also applies to the pace. We didn’t want it to “feel” like something from the ’70s with a different pace that might not reach a contemporary audience, so we kept it at a 2020 pace while also integrating methods that recall the past such as split screens and groovy fonts.

Also, was I imagining it, or were there cuts in the first episode that focused on phones, clocks and other items?
Komatsu: You weren’t imaging them. There were times we set up the world with static shots, especially since it’s a period piece. Before we realize we are in Phyllis’ house for the first time, we cut to a radio and a statue of an eagle, a bust of Barry Goldwater and then an insert of Phyllis’ newsletter, which is taken by a hand, and we realize we are in Phyllis’ home office.

We get into the beauty parlor by showing shots of a wig, nail polish, a phone and mail. And we introduce Barry Goldwater’s office by showing a ringing business phone and then an ash tray.

Todd, what discussions did you have about the “Alice tripping” sequence in Episode 8 (“Houston”)?
Downing: I think the big discussions we had were how “trippy” was it going to be. Dahvi, (director) Janicza Bravo and I were all in agreement; we didn’t want it to be this overtly psychedelic acid horror show, but rather do it in more subtle ways, with the pacing, the sound, maybe using takes that were a little “off” or takes that were too long even. Sarah Paulson, who plays Alice McCray, is in every scene, and we wanted the audience to get in her head and have the audience take this journey with her, not be distracted by flashy editing or VFX.

Can you talk about the use of archival footage in the show?
Komatsu: The archival footage wasn’t scripted, but it was planned for in pre-production. We would know the general topic of the archival footage, and it was dependent on a central theme of an episode. In Episode One, “Phyllis,” it was a no-brainer where the footage would go. The topic was Shirley Chisholm after she announced that she was running for president.

So naturally, we would put the footage right after the scene where Shirley Chisholm announced she was running for president. But what would we use? We got hours and hours of footage, but I immediately gravitated toward a reporter asking people on the street whether or not they would vote for a woman running for president. It was fascinating to see the different opinions and the people had succinct sound bites — or at least I could make them succinct. I could also juxtapose what they said to show differing opinions or to have one person finish another person’s sentence.

When I did Episode 4, “Betty,” it wasn’t as easy. We knew we wanted the topic to be abortion, and we knew we wanted it toward the beginning of the episode, in the teaser, but we didn’t know exactly where. And it was hard to find compelling footage that we wanted to use. At one point, Dahvi asked me if we could find a reporter asking people on the street what they thought about abortion, like we did in “Phyllis.” After all, it worked in Episode 1. Unfortunately, our researcher just couldn’t find footage that existed of that nature.

When I did Episode 7, “Bella,” it also wasn’t easy. We knew we wanted archival footage of the state conferences that would lead up to the National Women’s Convention. I found some great footage of Tom Brokaw explaining how the state conferences worked, and how you would elect delegates to send to the national convention. I thought that was effective, especially since I figured there might be a lot of viewers not familiar with the National Women’s Convention and its process. So I cut that together.

Anna pointed out that it seemed a little repetitive, since we had a scripted scene where Alice explains that the state conferences were like the local Pillsbury Bake-Off Contests, where the winners could compete in the national contest to see who had the best recipes. So instead, I used footage from the individual state conferences, and it showed how although some of the conferences were peaceful, some were contentious, with the women almost coming to blows. Then it became a process of where to put this scene. There were some potential areas, but when trying them, we would find that putting the archival after a particular scene might ruin the momentum we had been building. So it was definitely an editorial process.

What scenes are you most proud of?
Komatsu: I am definitely proud of the split-screen sequence in Episode 1, especially since it was the first one in the series. I’m also proud of the scene in the pilot where Phyllis has a meeting with Barry Goldwater. After initially bringing up her views on defense, she is asked to take notes and gets sent to get a pen and pad of paper. It’s here that she decides to pivot and start focusing on the ERA, and when she returns to the office, she lets the men have it. It’s such a showcase for Cate Blanchett, and we got to play with a lot of sound design as well, as she hears the ERA chant through the window, giving her the impetus of focusing on the ERA.

Greene: One of my most favorite scenes is from Episode 5 “Phyllis & Fred & Brenda & Marc ” It’s the debate between the couples. The scene just came together like butter, and didn’t change very much from the editor’s cut, so I suppose I can say I’m proud of that. It was directed beautifully by director Laure de Clermont-Tonnere, but I definitely had lots of choices of how to assemble it. Both actors (Cate Blanchett and Ari Graynor) really brought it, and it was a lot of fun figuring out who to feature when in order to make the shift of power and the total humiliation most effective.

What do you use to edit?
Komatsu: We edited on Avid Media Composers networked to a Nexis.

Do you have any special tricks, like speed ramps, VFX, sound effects, transitions, etc.?
Komatsu: One thing I do often, probably too often, since it leads to VFX costs, is split the screen. I’m not talking about the ‘70s-style split screens. I’m talking about splitting apart the frame into sections to manipulate the sections individually.

For example, if there’s a two-shot, and Phyllis said something that Alice was supposed to react to, I could split the frame so Alice reacted quicker or slower to Phyllis. Or I could fix continuity. Or I could even use a performance of Phyllis from Take 1 and a performance of Alice from Take 2 and comp them together to look like one seamless shot. I do this a lot on every project, just to make things as perfect as possible.

Greene: I am a huge advocate of sound as transition. I’ve got a soft spot for a door close to get us from one scene to another, or anything that either dynamically brings us to the next scene or does it subtly but effectively.

This show, in particular, was important as we transitioned between the two worlds, and wanting to distinguish yet unite the two was key. I also snuck in quite a few fluid morphs if I needed the actor to say something a little sooner. I did a few speed ramps as well, but those were also shot both ways (24fps, 36fps, 48fps). The trick was finding the right frame to ramp to so it felt seamless and effective.

Any tips for younger editors who are starting out?
Komatsu: It’s easy for me to say, but try to work for an editor who is willing to mentor you. I try to do this for my assistant, Matt Crawford. I’ll give him scenes to cut and I’ll give him notes until I feel it’s ready to show the directors and producers. I tell them that Matt cut these scenes.I also ask them if, when it comes time to make changes on these scenes, they would be willing to work with Matt. It’s very different for me to sit on the couch and give notes to Matt and for Matt to be in the big chair while Anna, Ryan, Dahvi, Stacey and Coco are sitting on the couch. An aspiring editor definitely needs that experience..

Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years. 

Invisible VFX on Hulu’s Big Time Adolescence

By Randi Altman

Hulu’s original film Big Time Adolescence is a coming-of-age story that follows 16-year-old Mo, who is befriended by his sister’s older and sketchy ex-boyfriend Zeke. This aimless college dropout happily introduces the innocent-but-curious Mo to drink and drugs and a poorly thought-out tattoo.

Big Time Adolescence stars Pete Davidson (Zeke), Griffin Gluck (Mo) and Machine Gun Kelly (Nick) and features Jon Cryer as Mo’s dad. This irony will not be lost on those who know Cryer from his own role as disenfranchised teen Duckie in Pretty in Pink.

Shaina Holmes

While this film doesn’t scream visual effects movie, they are there — 29 shots — and they are invisible, created by Syracuse, New York-based post house Flying Turtle. We recently reached out to Flying Turtle’s Shaina Holmes to find out about her work on the film and her process.

Holmes served as VFX supervisor, VFX producer and lead VFX artist on Big Time Adolescence, creating things like flying baseballs, adding smoke to a hotboxed car, removals, replacements and more. In addition to owning Flying Turtle Post, she is a teacher at Syracuse University, where she mentors students who often end up working at her post house.

She has over 200 film and television credits, including The Notebook, Tropic Thunder, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Men in Black 3, Swiss Army Man and True Detective.

Let’s find our more…

How early did you get involved on Big Time Adolescence?
This this was our fifth project in a year with production company American High. With all projects overlapping in various stages of production, we were in constant contact with the client to help answer any questions that arose in early stages of pre-production and production.

Once the edit was picture-locked, we bid all the VFX shots in October/November 2018, VFX turnovers were received in November, and we had a few short weeks to complete all VFX in time for the premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2019.

What direction were you given from your client?
Because this was our fifth feature with American High and each project has similar basic needs, we already had plans in place for how to shoot certain elements.

For example, most of the American High projects deal with high school, so cell phones and computer screens are a large part of how the characters communicate. Production has been really proactive about hiring an on-set graphics artist to design and create phone and computer screen graphics that can be used either during the shoot or provided to my team to add in VFX.

Having these graphics prebuilt has saved a lot of design time in post. While we still need to occasionally change times and dates, remove the carrier, change photos, replace text and other editorial changes, we end up only needing to do a handful of shots instead of all the screen replacements. We really encourage communication during the entire process to come up with alternatives and solutions that can be shot practically, and that usually makes our jobs more efficient later on.

Were you on set?
I was not physically needed on set for this film, however after filming completed, we realized in post that we were missing some footage during the batting cages scene. The post supervisor and I, along with my VFX coordinator, rented a camera and braved the freezing Syracuse, New York, winter to go to the same batting cages and shoot the missing elements. These plates became essential, as production had turned off the pitching machine during the filming.

Before and After: Digital baseballs

To recreate the baseball in CG, we needed more information for modeling, texture and animation within this space to create more realistic interaction with the characters and environment in VFX. After shoveling snow and ice, we were able to set the camera up at the batting cage and create the reference footage we needed to match our CG baseball animation. Luckily, since the film shot so close to where we all live and work, this was not a problem… besides our frozen fingers!

What other effects did you provide?
We aren’t reinventing the wheel here in the work we do. We work on features wherein invisible VFX are the supporting roles that help create a seamless experience for the audience without distractions from technical imperfections and without revising graphics to enable the story to unfold properly. I work with the production team to advise on ways to shoot to save on costs in post production and use creative problem solving to cut down costs in VFX to satisfy their budget and achieve their intended vision

That being said, we were able to do some fun sequences including CG baseballs, hotboxing a car, screen replacements, graphic animation and alterations, fluid morphs and artifact cleanup, intricate wipe transitions, split screens and removals (tattoos, equipment, out-of-season nature elements).

Can you talk about some of those more challenging scenes/effects?
Besides the CG baseball, the most difficult shots are the fluid morphs. These usually consist of split screens where one side of the split has a speed change effect to editorially cut out dialogue or revise action/reactions.

They seem simple, but to seamlessly morph two completely different actions together over a few frames and create all the in-betweens takes a lot of skill. These are often more advanced than our entry-level artists can handle, so they usually end up on my plate.

What was the review and approval process like?
All the work starts with me receiving plates from the clients and ends with me delivering final versions to the clients. As I am the compositing supervisor, we go through many internal reviews and versions before I approve shots to send to the client for feedback, which is a role I’ve done for the bulk of my career.

For most of the American High projects, the clients are spread out between Syracuse, LA and NYC. No reviews were done in person, although if needed, I could go to Syracuse Studios at any time to review dailies if there was any footage I thought could help with some fix-it-in-post VFX requests.

All shots were sent online for review and final delivery. We worked closely with the executive producer, post supervisor, editor and assistant editor for feedback, notes, design and revisions. Most review sessions were collaborative as far as feedback and what’s possible.

What tools did you use on the film?
Blackmagic’s Fusion is the main compositing software. Artists were trained on Fusion by me when they were in college, so it is an easy and affordable transition for them to use for professional-quality work. Since everyone has their own personal computer setup at home, it’s been fairly easy for artists to send comp files back to me and I render on my end after relinking. That has been a much quicker process for internal feedback and deliveries as we’re working on UHD and 4K resolutions.

For Big Time Adolescence specifically, we also needed to use Adobe After Effects for some of the fluid morph shots, plus some final clean-up in Fusion. For the CG baseball shots, we used Autodesk Maya and Substance Painter, rendered with Arnold and comped in Fusion.

You are female-owned and you are in Syracuse, New York. Not something you hear about every day.
Yes, we are definitely set up in a great up-and-coming area here in Ithaca and Syracuse. I went to film school at Ithaca College. From there, I worked in LA and NYC for 20 years as a VFX artist and producer. In 2016, I was offered the opportunity to teach VFX back at Ithaca College, so I came back to the Central New York area to see if teaching was the next chapter for me.

Timing worked out perfectly when some of my former co-workers were helping create American High, using the Central New York tax incentives and they were prepping to shoot feature films in Syracuse. They brought me on as the local VFX support since we had already been working together off and on since 2010 in NYC. When I found myself both teaching and working on feature films, that gave me the idea to create a company to combine forces.

Teaching at Syracuse University and focusing on VFX and post for live-action film and TV, I am based at The Newhouse School, which is very closely connected with American High and Syracuse Studios. I was already integrated into their productions, so this was just a really good fit all around to bring our students into the growing Central New York film industry, aiming to create a sustainable local talent pool.

Our team is made up of artists who started with me in post mentorship groups I created at both Ithaca College (Park Post) and Syracuse University (SU Post). I teach them in class, they join these post group collaborative learning spaces for peer-to-peer mentorship, and then a select few continue to grow at Flying Turtle Post.

What haven’t I asked that’s important?
When most people hear visual effects, they think of huge blockbusters, but that was never my thing. I love working on invisible VFX and the fact that it blows people’s minds — how so much attention is paid to every single shot, let alone frame, to achieve complete immersion for the audience, so they’re not picking out the boom mic or dead pixels. So much work goes on to create this perfect illusion. It’s odd to say, but there is such satisfaction when no one noticed the work you did. That’s the sign of doing your job right!

Every show relies on invisible VFX these days, even the smallest indie film with a tiny budget. These are the projects I really like to be involved in as that’s where creativity and innovation are at their best. It’s my hope that up-and-coming filmmakers who have amazing stories to tell will identify with my company’s mentorship-focused approach and feel they also are able to grow their vision with us. We support female and underrepresented filmmakers in their pursuit to make change in our industry.

Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years. 

Quantum F1000

Director/EP Lenny Abrahamson on Hulu’s Normal People

By Iain Blair

Irish director Lenny Abrahamson first burst onto the international scene in 2015 with the harrowing drama Room, which picked up four Oscar nominations, including for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director. Abrahamson’s latest project is Hulu’s Normal People, based on Sally Rooney’s best-selling novel of the same name.

 (Photo by: Enda Bowe)

Lenny Abrahamson

The series focuses on the passionate, tender and complicated relationship of Marianne and Connell — from the end of their school days in a small town in the west of Ireland to their undergraduate years at Trinity College. At school, he’s a popular sports hero, while she’s upper class, lonely, proud and intimidating. But when Connell comes to pick up his mother from her cleaning job at Marianne’s house, a strange connection grows between the two teenagers… one they are determined to conceal. A year later, they’re both studying in Dublin and Marianne has found her feet in a new social world but Connell hangs on the sidelines, shy and uncertain as the tables are turned.

The series stars Daisy Edgar-Jones (War of the Worlds, Cold Feet) as Marianne and Paul Mescal, in his first television role, as Connell. Adapted by Sally Rooney alongside writers Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe, Normal People is a 12-episode 30-minute drama series produced by Element Pictures for Hulu and BBC Three. Rooney and Abrahamson also serve as executive producers and Endeavour Content is the international distributor.

I spoke with Abrahamson — whose credits also include The Little Stranger, Frank, Garage, What Richard Did and Adam & Paul — about making the show, his workflows and his love of editing.

You’ve taken on quite a few book projects in the past. What was the appeal of this one?
It’s always an instinctual thing — something chimes with me. Yeah, I’ve done a number of literary adaptations, and I wasn’t really looking to do another. In fact, I was setting out not do another one, but in this case the novel just struck me so much, with such resonance, and it’s very hard not to do it when that happens. And it’s an Irish project and I hadn’t shot in Ireland for some seven years, and it was great to go back and do something that felt so fresh, so all of that was very attractive to me.

(Photo by Enda Bowe/Hulu)

Rooney co-wrote the script with Alice Birch, but translating any novel to a visual medium is always tricky, especially this book with all its inner psychological detail. As a director, how challenging was it to translate the alternating sections of the book while maintaining forward motion of the narrative?
It was pretty challenging. The writing is so direct and honest, yet deep, which is a rare combination. And Sally’s perspective is so fresh and insightful, and all that was a challenge I tried to take on and capture in the filming. How do you deal with something so interior? When you really care about the characters as I did, how do you do justice to them and their extraordinary relationship? But I relished the challenge.

Obviously, casting the right actors was crucial. What did Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal bring to their roles and the project?
I feel very lucky to have found them. We actually found Paul first, very early on. He’d been making some waves in theater in Ireland, but he’d never been on screen in anything. What I saw in him was a combination of intelligence, which both characters had to have, and brilliant choices in playing Connell. He really captured that mix of masculinity and anxiety which is so hard to do. There is a sensitivity but also an inarticulateness, and he has great screen presence. Daisy came later, and it was harder in that you had to find someone who works well with Paul. She’s brilliant too, as she found a way of playing Marianne’s spikiness in a very un-clichéd and delicate way that allows you to see past it. They ended up working so well together and became good friends, too.

You co-directed with Hettie Macdonald (Doctor Who, Howard’s End), with you directing the first six episodes and Macdonald directing the final six. How did that work in terms of maintaining the same naturalistic tone and feel you set?
We spoke a lot at the beginning when she came on board. The whole idea was for her to bring her own sensibility to it. We’d already cast and shot the first half and we knew a director of her caliber wasn’t going to break that. We had two DPs: Suzie Lavelle and she had had Kate McCullough. During the shooting I had the odd note, like, “It looks great,” but I was more involved with her material during editing, which is natural as the EP. We had a great relationship.

Tell us about post and your approach.
We did it all — the editing, sound and VFX — at Outer Limits, which is on the coast about 30 minutes outside Dublin. It’s run by two guys who used to be at Screen Scene, where I posted my last five or six films. I followed them over there as I like them so much. It’s a lovely place, very quiet. The editor and I were based out there for the whole thing.

Our VFX supervisor was Andy Clarke, and it’s all pretty invisible stuff, like rain and all the fixes. I also did all the grading and picture finishing at Outer Limits with my regular colorist Gary Curran, who’s done nearly all my projects. He knows what I like, but also when to push me into bolder looks. I tend toward very low-contrast, desaturated looks, but over the years he’s nudged me into more saturated, vivid palettes, which I now really like. And we’ll be doing a 4K version.

I love post, as after all the stress of the shoot and all the instant decisions you have to make on the set, it’s like swimming ashore. You reach ground and can stand up and get all the water out of your lungs and just take your time to actually make the film. I love all the creative possibilities you get in post, particularly in editing.

You edited with your go-to editor Nathan Nugent. Was he on set?
No, we sent him dailies. On a film, he might be cutting next door if we’re in a studio, but not on this. He’s very fast and I’d see an assembly of stuff within 24 hours of shooting it. We like to throw everything up in the air again during the edit. Whatever we thought as we shot, it’s all up for grabs.

What were the main editing challenges?
I think choosing to work with short episodes was really good as it takes away some of the pressure to have lots of plot and story, and it allows you to look really closely at the shifts in their relationship. But there’s nowhere to hide, and you have to absolutely deeply care about the two of them. But if you do, then all the losses and gains, the highs and lows, become as big a story as any you could tell. That’s what gives it momentum. But if you don’t get that right, or you miscast it, then the danger is that you do lose that momentum.

So it’s a real balancing act… to feel that you’re spending time with them but also letting the story move forward in a subtle way. It’s the challenge of all editing — maintaining the tension and pace while letting an audience get a deep and close enough look at the characters.

Lenny Abrahamson

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the show.
I’ve had the same team ever since What Richard Did, including my supervising sound designer and editor Steve Fanagan and sound mixer Niall O’Sullivan. They’re so creative. Then I had composer Stephen Rennicks who’s also done all my projects. What was different this time was that we also licensed some tracks, as it just felt right. Our music supervisors Juliet Martin and Maggie Phillips were great with that.

So it was a core team of five, and I did what I always like to do — get all of that involved far earlier than you’d normally do. We don’t just lock picture and hand it over, so this way you have sound constantly interacting with editorial, and they both develop organically at the same time.

What’s next?
Another collaboration with Sally on her first novel, “Conversations With Friends,” with the same team I had on this. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, who knows when we’ll be able to start shooting.

Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.