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.
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.
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 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!
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.