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Ramy Youssef talks about creating and showrunning Hulu’s Ramy

By Iain Blair

Egyptian-American comedian and writer Ramy Youssef created, produced and stars in the Hulu show Ramy. Part comedy, part drama, the show immediately endeared itself to audiences and critics for its thoughtful, non-stereotypical take on the American Muslim community, as well as its humorous take on the millennial experience.

Ramy follows its titular character, Ramy Hassan (played by Youssef), a first-generation Muslim-American who is on a spiritual journey in his politically divided New Jersey neighborhood. The show brought a new perspective to the screen as it explores the challenges of what it’s like being caught between a Muslim community that thinks life is a moral test and a millennial generation that thinks life shouldn’t be taken quite so seriously.

The series, produced by A24 won an SXSW Audience Award and a 2020 Golden Globe for Youssef. Ramy Season 2 premiered on May 29.

I recently spoke with showrunner Youssef, whose credits include roles on See Dad Run and Mr. Robot as well as his HBO one-hour comedy special Ramy Youssef: Feelings, about making the show and his love of editing and post.

This show definitely broke new TV ground. How hard a sell was this show when you started?
I had the idea for the show for years, probably since 2012, and I found back then that people weren’t so receptive to a show built centrally around an Arab Muslim cast. People would suggest adding a neighbor, or having it just be a “B” story in a larger story. That was the initial temperature in Hollywood for a while, but then we got more specific and focused with the story and zoomed in on the characters. By the time I got the pitch going, places were open and receptive. We took it to seven networks and got three offers, which is a pretty good ratio.

You play a “semi-autobiographical” version of yourself as a millennial Muslim living at home in New Jersey. How much of Ramy is in TV Ramy?
(Laughs) A fair amount, but I was very lucky growing up to have the resources around me to help me with the questions I had and to find answers. I was very lucky to find a creative outlet to help me express myself. But the Ramy I play is different from me since he hasn’t found his outlet yet. And he has a family that doesn’t talk about things as much as my real family does. So he’s a bit more stuck and doesn’t have the answers yet. He’s still going in circles.

Season 2 has expanded the characters and widened the scope. What can you tell us about it, considering a second season wasn’t a sure thing?
It wasn’t, you’re right. For me, Season 1 was very much about the character asking, “Who am I?” and seeing Ramy trying to figure that out in a more abstract way. Season 2 is him trying to deal with who he actually is and a lot of the problems he has. We see that with everyone in the family. We get far deeper into the things that are bothering them and into the secrets of the characters, so we understand more about what they’re dealing with privately in a more open way.

Do you like being a showrunner?
I do, but it wasn’t even a case of liking or disliking it — it had to happen with this show because it’s so close to me. I don’t think anyone else would feel comfortable having to make certain choices for the show. It’s a really interesting question because I began shooting things in high school, before I was ever on camera.

We had a really great TV program back then — we put on the morning news for the school, and I learned so much about production. I even got certified as an Apple Final Cut editor while I was still at high school, and all that continued through college. So now, 10 years later, I can walk onto a set and all the small things I learned back then are really useful. It’s just scaled up from what I used to do with no budget at all. I do enjoy the job, though it’s very stressful.

Where do you post?
We do all the editing at Senior Post in Brooklyn. We do audio post at Sound Lounge, and video playback services are done by Visual Alchemy. I’m least involved in the DI, as I have a color deficiency, so I leave the grading to the colorist, Light Iron’s Steve Bodner (using Blackmagic Resolve), and DP Claudio Rietti. I love post, and it’s the realest part of the whole process for me. Writing is imaginative, but in post it’s like, “OK, this is reality.” And the first time I watch a cut of any episode, my barometer is, “Am I fully depressed? Or am I just mildly depressed?” If it’s the latter, I feel it’ll be a good episode.

Post is very emotional for me because I have to watch my face all the time, and I sit in on every edit. Right now, because of COVID-19, I’m doing remote editing and typing up 15 pages of notes per cut, with timecode and everything. The great thing with post is that you’re sitting there and you can make it all happen, and I love writing and then re-writing in post.

[Says Light Iron’s Bodner: “For Ramy Season 2, the DP and I sat down before principal photography, played with his test footage and started discussing the look. Claudio wanted to go with more of a natural look and feel for Season 2 as Ramy seems to be finding himself this season. We did that with reduced contrast and natural color saturation compared to Season 1. In Season 1, Ramy was still trying to find himself, so Season 1 DP Adrian Correia and I went with a more stylized look with some pushed colors and contamination in the low lights. We finished all the color for Season 2 remotely during the pandemic. I was working from home and sending files to Claudio for notes and color sign-off. We hit a groove, and it actually worked out very well in the end. Claudio shot some really beautiful footage for me to work with.”]

You have several editors, I assume because of the time factor. How does that work?
On Season 1, we had three editors; Season Two we have two — supervising editor Joanna Naugle and Matthew Booras from Senior Post. Joanna is our main editor with whom I’ve worked closely since the start. The big advantage of that is that she really gets it all — not just the tone of the show, but the type of takes we like and the timing in a scene; it’s been great to grow and learn together. It’s a really cool partnership, and I love collaborating with creative editors, as they come in with fresh eyes and pitch ideas. I don’t want to look at it just in terms of what’s in my head.

[Says Senior Post’s Josh Senior, who is the post producer on the show: “I made the decision to switch from three to two editors as a result of the cross-blocked shooting schedule. During much of production we weren’t able to see full episodes, with many scenes slated to shoot in other blocks. With two editors we were able to have the most work done over the longest period of time with the least amount of unusable downtime.”]

What are the big editing challenges?
Often, it’s all about losing moments. For me, what ends up on screen has to be essential. That doesn’t mean they’re all “perfect moments,” but you need them for the plot. They stay. Then you have moments that are so perfectly funny, and they stay. So then it’s cutting things that work pretty well, anything that’s “in the middle.” And those are often hard decisions, but I really focus on making each episode as lean as possible. (The show is shot on ARRI’s Alexa Mini and edited on Adobe Premiere.)

[Says Senior Post supervising editor Naugle: “Before the pandemic, Ramy and I would spend hours together really digging into scenes and mining all the takes for the best comedic and dramatic moments. The best part is that since Ramy is in so many of the scenes himself, he remembers what he was doing on set and can say specifically, ‘Look for the take when I played it more sincere,’ or ‘I remember trying a take where I was more combative.’ 

“During Covid, we had to adjust to a remote workflow but we stayed in touch constantly, sending super-low-resolution exports of scenes as soon as they were ready so I could get Ramy’s feedback immediately and adjust almost in real time. Ramy and I sent a lot of voice notes back and forth and I’d export stringouts of line readings that our AEs put together to be sure we were using the best possible options. But we couldn’t have stayed organized without the full post team. 

“Matthew and I ended up sharing a few episodes in order to meet deadlines and to simplify this process; we had mirrored hard drives so we could each reconnect the media easily without sending back and forth a ton of individual files.”]

Ramy is a fairly quiet show compared with a lot of comedies. How involved are you with the sound?
Very. I listen to every mix, and you’re right, it is fairly quiet. I try not to overuse music or sound. I have a great sound team, led by re-recording mixer and supervising sound editor Steve “Major” Giammaria, and we really focus on small details, like the mosque scenes in Season 1. I kept thinking, “What’s missing?” And it hit me — there’s always that ticking clock sound in the far distance. I’m not a sound mixer, but I’ve spent a lot of time in mosques. I was able to give Steve that thought, and then he built up something so subtle but so important. You might not even notice it, but it’s there.

[“Ramy’s vision for the show is so clear — not only from a story perspective, but sonically as well. Restraint was crucial because we didn’t want to overwhelm some of the more intimate (and sometimes awkward) moments with sound,” explains Giammaria. “Those pockets of restraint then allowed us to really shine in other sections where the sound design could be featured. Finishing during a pandemic certainly presented some technical challenges, but luckily the team was quick to adapt and rose to the occasion to deliver a great season.”]

Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali is appearing in the show. Was he hard to get?
(Laughs) I’m a huge fan, but I didn’t even try to get him. He called me and said, “I watch your show; let me know if I can help.” That was pretty cool. He plays Sheikh Malik, a mentor to Ramy.

Are you already planning Season 3?
I have a lot of ideas, and I’d love to do five, six seasons. But who knows what’ll happen with the whole pandemic?  Right now, it’s a race to finish Season 2.

What’s next? I heard you recently signed an overall deal with A24?
Yes, it’s really exciting, and we’re working on creating and developing projects with Apple and Netflix. The first show for Apple focuses on the disabled community and will star [Ramy series regular] Steve Way. I’m also doing a show with Netflix that I co-created, but I’m not in it.  I’m also developing some standup specials for comics I’m really inspired by, so there’s a lot going on.

Congrats on your Golden Globe. How important are awards for a show like this?
Thank you! It was crazy and so unexpected. I felt we got a great commercial for the show. That was the best part of it. I thought people who’ve never heard of it will watch now, and they have. So, yes, awards are important in getting the word out, especially when you’re a new show that’s maybe under the radar a bit. The timing was great for us.

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.

Uncut Gems directors Josh and Benny Safdie

By Iain Blair

Filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie have been on the verge of the big time since they started making their own distinctive brand of cinema: one full of anxiety, brashness, untamed egos and sweaty palms. They’ve finally done it with A24’s Uncut Gems.

Following their cinema verité Heaven Knows What — with its look at the New York City heroin subculture — and the crime thriller Good Time, the Safdies return to the mean streets of New York City with their latest, Uncut Gems. The film is a twisty, tense tale that explores the tragic sway of fortune, family and fate.

The Safdies on set.

It stars Adam Sandler in a career-defining performance as Howard Ratner, a profane, charismatic New York City jeweler who’s always on the lookout for the next big score. When he makes a series of high-stakes bets that could lead to the windfall of a lifetime, Howard must perform a high-wire act by balancing business, family and encroaching adversaries on all sides.

Uncut Gems combines relentless pacing with gritty visuals, courtesy of DP Darius Khondji, and a score from Brooklyn-based experimental composer Daniel Lopatin.

In the tradition of ‘70s urban thrillers by Sidney Lumet, William Friedkin and Martin Scorsese (who produced, along with Scott Rudin), the film creates an authentic tapestry of indelible faces, places, sounds and moods.

Behind the camera, the Safdies also assembled a stellar team of go-to collaborators that included co-editor Ronald Bronstein and production designer Sam Lisenco.

I recently sat down with the Safdies, whose credits include Daddy Longlegs, Lenny Cooke and The Pleasure of Being Robbed, to talk about making the film (which is generating awards buzz) and their workflow.

What sort of film did you set out to make?
Josh Safdie: The exact one you see on the screen. It changed a lot along the way, but the cosmic vibe of it and the mélange of characters who don’t seem to fit together but do on this journey where we are all on on this colorful rock that might as well be a colorful uncut gem – it was all there in the original idea. It’s pulpy, cosmic, funny, tense, and it’s what we wanted to do.

Benny Safdie: We have veteran actors, first-time actors and non-professionals in the cast, working alongside people we love so much. It’s great to see it all come together like it did.

How tough was it getting Adam Sandler, as I heard he initially passed on it?
Josh: He did. We sent it to him back in 2012, and I’m not sure it even got past “the moat,” as we call it. But once he saw our work, he immediately responded; he called us right after seeing Good Time. The irony is, one of his favorites was Daddy Longlegs, which we’d tried to approach him with. Once we actually made contact and started talking, it was instantly a strong kinship.

Benny: Now it’s like a deep friendship. He really got our need to dig deep on who this character is, and he put in the time and the care.

Any surprises working with him?
Josh: What’s funny is, we had a bunch of jokes written for him, and he then ad-libbed so many little things. He made us all smile every day.

What did he bring to the role of Howard, who could easily be quite unlikeable?
Josh: Exactly, and Adam brought that likeability in a way only he can. We had the benefit of following up his 50-city standup tour, where he did three hours of material every night, and we had a script loaded with dialogue. His mind was so sharp, so by the time he did this — and we were giving him new pages over lunch sometimes — he could just ingest them and regurgitate them and go out on a limb and try out a new joke, and then come back to the dialogue. He was so well oiled in the character that it was second nature to him.

Benny: And you root for him. You want him to succeed. Adam pushed us on stuff, like the family and the kids. He knew it was important to show those relationships, that audiences would want to see and feel that. And he wanted to create a very complicated person. Yes, Howard’s doing some bad things, but you want him to get there.

Was it difficult getting former pro basketball player Kevin Garnett to act in the film?
Josh: It’s always tough when someone is very successful in their own field. When you try to convince them to do acting, they know it’s a lot of work and they don’t need the money, and you’re asking them to play a version of themselves — and there’s the huge time commitment. But Kevin really committed, and he came back a bunch to shoot scenes we needed.

You’re well known for your run-and-gun, guerilla-style of shooting. Was that how you shot this film?
Josh: Yeah, a lot of locations, but we built the office sets. And we got permits for everything.

Benny: But we kept the streets open and mixed in the 80 SAG actors in the background.

How does it work on the set in terms of co-directing?
Josh: On a technical level, we’ll work with our DP on placing the camera. It was a bit different this time since Benny wasn’t also acting, like he did in Good Time. We were co-directing and getting that much closer to the action; you see different parts of a performance that way, and we have each other’s backs. We are able to put our heads together and get a really full picture of what’s happening on set. And if one of us talks to somebody, it’s always coming from both of us. We’ve been working together since we were kids, and we have a huge amount of trust in each other.

The way characters talk over each other, and then all the background chatter, reminded me a lot of Robert Altman and his approach.
Benny: Thanks. He was a huge influence on us. It’s using sound as it’s heard in real life. We heard this great story about Altman and the film McCabe and Mrs. Miller. About 15 minutes into the premiere Warren Beatty turned to Altman and asked, “Does the whole movie sound like this?” And Altman replied excitedly, “Yeah!” He was so far ahead of his time, and that’s what we tried to emulate.

What’s so great about Altman is that he saw life as a film, and he tried to get the film to ride up parallel to life in that sense. We ended up writing 45 extra pages of dialogue recording — just for the background. Scott Rudin was like, “You wrote a whole other script for background people?” We’d have a character there just to say one line, but it added all these extra layers.

Josh: On top of the non-stop dialogue, Howard’s a real loudmouth; he hears everything. Our post sound team was very special, and it was very educational for us. We began with Oscar-winning re-recording mixer Tom Fleischman, but then he had to go off to do The Irishman, so Skip Lievsay took over. Then Warren Shaw came on, and we worked with the two of them for a very long time.

Thanks to our producers, we had the time to really get in there and go deeper and deeper. I’d say the soundscape they built in Dolby Atmos really achieved something like life, and it also had areas for music and sound design that are so meticulous and rich that we’d watch the movie without the dialogue.

Where did you do the post?
Benny: All in New York. For sound, we started off at Soundtrack and then went to Warner Bros. Sound. We edited at our company offices with co-editor Ronny Bronstein. Brainstorm Digital did most of the crazy visual effects. We worked closely with them and on the whole idea of, “What does the inside of a gemstone look like?”

How does editing work with Ronny?
Josh: He’s often on the set with us, but we didn’t cut a frame until we sat down after the shoot and watched it all. I think that kept it fresh for us. Our assistant editor developed binders with all the script and script supervisor notes, and we didn’t touch it once during the edit. I think coming from documentaries, and that approach to the material, has informed all our editing. You look at what’s in front of you, and that’s what you use to make your film. Who cares what the script says!

One big challenge was the sheer amount of material, even though we only shot for 35 days — that includes the African unit. We had so many setups and perspectives, in things like the auction and the Seder scenes, but the scene we spent the most time writing and editing was the scene between Howard and Kevin in the back room… and we had the least time to shoot it — just over three hours.

L-R: Benny Safdie, Iain Blair and Josh Safdie.

You have a great score by your go-to composer Daniel Lopatin, who records as Oneohtrix Point Never.
Josh: We did the score at his studio in Brooklyn. It’s really another main character, and he did a great job as usual.

The DI must have been vital?
Josh: Yes, and we did all the color at The Mill with colorist Damien van der Cruyssen, who’s a really great colorist and also ran our dailies. Darius likes to spend a lot of time in the DI experimenting and finding the look, so we ended up doing about a month on it. Usually, we get just four days.

What’s next? A big studio movie?
Josh: Maybe, but we don’t want to abandon what we’ve got going right now. We know what we want. People offer us scripts but I can’t see us doing that.

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.