By Randi Altman
The Netflix drama Ozark, now streaming Season 3, has always been a fan favorite, but since the COVID-19 shutdown, it’s been credited with making quarantining just a bit more tolerable for a lot of people. The series stars Jason Bateman — who also directs and executive produces — and Laura Linney as Marty and Wendy Byrde, middle-aged parents who also happen to run a money-laundering business in the Ozarks. You know, your typical family story. Along with the Byrdes, there are a host of complex characters, including Wendy’s bipolar brother Ben, their business manager Ruth, and the calmly frightening drug cartel lawyer Helen.
Veteran television editor Cindy Mollo, ASC, (House of Cards, Mad Men, Homicide: Life on the Street) joined the Netflix drama from the start and has edited 13 episodes over the show’s three seasons. One of the first things she asked about after reading the script for Episode 1 was tone. She says that while a discussion of tone is always important when starting a show, it was particularly important on Ozark. “Knowing that Jason Bateman was going to star in the series, I needed somebody to tell me whether they wanted it to be funny or whether it was meant to be a drama. There were lines of dialogue that, depending on the cadence, could be delivered as jokes, and if you cut it with a comedy tempo you would have a classic Jason Bateman comedy. But I had seen Jason in Bad Words, a film he directed, and The Gift, neither of which is a comedy, and knew he might be going in a different direction.”
Mollo spoke to executive producer Chris Mundy, who was having similar conversations with Bateman. They were all leaning toward a dark drama with some humor sprinkled in. “From the beginning we talked about how we had to steer the show in a certain direction, and while there could be things that were funny, we wouldn’t edit to make it funny. We had to just let things play out and allow them to be funny organically — because even criminals do funny things from time to time.”
We recently chatted with Mollo, who shared editing responsibilities with Viks Patel and Heather Goodwin Floyd (Mollo’s former assistant on the first two seasons of the show), to talk about editing Ozark, her workflow and more.
What is your typical process like on Ozark?
You get the script for your episode, and sometime before the first day of shooting you have a tone meeting with showrunner Chris Mundy as well as the director of the episode. Chris goes through every scene. This is so important — I’ve been on shows that don’t do tone meetings, and the intent of the scene can be missed. But thanks to the tone meetings, I always know what Chris and the director are intending.
I also take detailed notes, because it might be four weeks until I get the scene that was discussed, and if I have forgotten the intention, then I might go off in the wrong direction. As dailies come in, I look at my notes so I know what I’m looking for. I watch the dailies and pay attention to the best performances and the best way to bring the audience into a scene and the best way to end the scene.
Most of our directors have a definite plan, particularly Jason. His coverage is very lean and purposeful, so when I open a bin, I see that he has pretty much planned how he wants to get into a scene. You have that in mind as you are watching more and more setups. “Well, I’ll start with that shot, and this performance here is fabulous. How will I build a scene around this performance with these shots?” On Ozark, all of the performances are very good, so you have a wealth of riches.
I’m assuming some surprises come up when editing a show?
Yes, they do. An example is Season 2’s finale episode. I had three takes on Marty’s reaction in a scene between him and Wendy. In the third take, Jason cried, took come long pauses and was choking back tears. It threw me at first because it didn’t match; Jason hadn’t done that when the camera was over his shoulder and on Wendy. That was something that had evolved over the course of the performance of the scene, and it was beautiful. We wanted to use it.
I had been assembling the scene in my head as I watched dailies, but after that take, I had to go back and re-watch Wendy’s coverage. I wanted to see where she took some long pauses so it could seem like she was listening to him cry, or some long moments when she was waiting for him to compose himself. That was a very simple scene, but it took a little longer to put together because something wonderful happened in the footage that was unexpected.
Wendy’s brother Ben is manic. I remember feeling very anxious when he was on screen. I imagine that a lot of that is the acting, but you must have also helped to amp that up?
I have to give actor Tom Pelphrey and the directors so much credit. We first see Ben’s teaching in a school, and he seems to be a very nice, well-intentioned man, but then he goes ballistic. Then we meet Ben at the casino, and we are already looking at this guy for what craziness he might bring. There were a couple of scenes in my episode, directed by Alik Sakharov, where we talked about not minding that Ben is unpredictable because of his mental illness. We also knew he had to be a slow burn through earlier scenes and then peak.
Tom did all the work; he never went too big. Even at the gala at the casino. He never went as big as he went in front of Helen and her daughter when he confronted them at her house in the eighth episode. He attenuated that perfectly. It is frightening when you are looking at the shot of Helen protecting and holding her daughter. There was a version of the end of that scene when she actually said, “Oh, you are dead,” but we realized we didn’t need it. The look on her face tells you everything. As she’s watching him go, we are on a tight shot of her and the music is tense, and you just know that that was the nail in his coffin.
When you are editing scenes like that one at Helen’s, do you have a specific process?
In the tone meeting with Chris Mundy and the director, we focused on Ben’s arc over Episodes 7 and 8, which I was cutting. We talked a lot about how to modulate his behavior and not have him get too manic too soon. I also thought a lot about shot sizes and wanted to make sure that in Ben’s most crazed moments we were in his tighter coverage.
I built the scene from the middle back to the beginning, and then from the middle to the end because I wanted to control that peak eruption. I think in some cases we switched to a more medium shot just to keep Helen and her daughter in the frame instead of using an isolated closeup of Ben. But because his performances were so consistent, that was kind of an easy swap.
We had some takes where he was so animated and crazy that he was spitting, and I loved that because you are out of control when you are spitting. I thought that showed how far gone he was, but you wouldn’t want him spitting for the whole scene. You just want to use that selectively. It was a fun scene, and it was a hand-held camera, so it’s all really kinetic.
How many takes do they tend to do on Ozark?
On that Helen scene, in particular, we had eight different setups. Probably four takes of their close-up setups, two each of the mediums, and various wide shots of Helen and her daughter at the table in their yard. I don’t think I used the extreme wide in the final cut — it was low and pretty distant from the action. Sometimes I play with everything, even though I already have an idea in my head of how I want to cut a scene, but this time I didn’t.
How did you get dailies? You were in LA, and they were in Atlanta?
We shot in the Atlanta area. At wrap, they would take the camera cards to Company 3 Atlanta, process the dailies and send them to Company 3 in LA. Then we got the footage piped over to us the morning after it had been shot. Our assistants then took the dailies, sorted through them and grouped the cameras together — if something was shot with two or three cameras, they get hooked up together. I then got a bin for each scene that has been shot.
This season we were in the same building as the writers in LA, and it felt really luxurious. I could just walk into Chris’ office to ask him a question, or he would poke his head in and ask, “Can I see how this scene was shot for Episode 5 because we are going to reference it in Episode 8.” It allows you to be really fluid and interactive because we are all in the same physical space.
The first two seasons were shot on the Panasonic VariCam, but that changed this year. How did that affect how you work?
We switched to the 6K Sony Venice for Season 3. Thanks to that higher resolution, you can go in and blow up a part of the frame, which means you can take a two-shot of the characters and make it a single, assuming that the original image is sharply focused. You have a lot of latitude, so when we needed to, we were blowing shots up and making close-ups where there weren’t any.
Which episodes did you cut this season, and how did you work with the other editors? Did you ever ask them to look at your footage?
I edited Episodes 1, 2, 5, 7 and 8. I work closely with my assistant Mary Chin, and I’m always trying to mentor her — to help her get a little more experience with editing and learning how to change a scene, how to talk about a scene, etc. So I usually have her looking at scenes with me, or since Chris is so close, I’ll bring him in. When I did interact with the other editors, it would be talk about how we were handling new characters in the show.
You use an Avid Media Composer?
Yes, Version 8.9.4. We use Avid Nexis for storage, and in terms of storage per episode we use 750-800GB for dailies. With score, sound effects, etc., it’s about 1-1.5TB, and for the season, we average between 13-14TB.
Do you have a special bin set up with selects?
Yes. I work in frame view, which uses thumbnails of each take. Mary will lay out the different setups in order. If there’s a setup that is meant for the open of the scene, she will put that one first, even if it was shot last. And if there were four takes, they all get laid out next to each other … one, two, three, four.
For takes shot with multiple cameras, I will have one frame that is an icon that represents the group of these two cameras, and below it a thumbnail for the A camera and the B camera. This allows me to see what angles each camera was shooting in the thumbnail, then I have an icon I can drag into my timeline that is the two cameras married together. I can switch between the two. I try to use the selected takes as a guide, but you have to feel free to pull from anywhere because there might be a take that wasn’t selected but has one great moment and you have to use it.
Can you talk about the differences between editing episodics versus films? Less time on the TV shows?
On Ozark, we cross-board — meaning we shoot two episodes at once, so it is in the area of 22 days. This is similar to the amount of time you might shoot on a small, low-budget feature, but you are doing two stories in that time, and it’s with the same characters, so they are not totally isolated stories … but, again, you are doing two episodes in the time that someone might be doing a very small feature!
The other difference between editing a feature and an episodic is that features are still very much director-driven while episodic is driven by the writer-producer or showrunner. So while you do have to work with the director and make his or her cut exactly how he/she wants it to be, ultimately the next step will be to show the cut to the showrunner and making sure that all those things talked about in the tone meeting have been realized.
What episode did you submit for Emmy consideration?
I submitted the first episode of Season 3, called “War Time.” The season was meant to begin and end with the violence of the Mexican cartels and the harsh world that the Byrdes are now a part of. The first scene of the first episode took place in Mexico as men in three SUVs drive into a cul-de-sac and enter a house where people are counting drug money. They slaughter them and burn the house. The carnage is the message from one cartel to the other.
Next we cut to black and then to an incongruously happy and cheesy commercial for the Missouri Belle casino, with Wendy and Marty on the top deck toasting the camera. The commercial is actually on Wendy’s laptop as a producer is presenting it to her for notes. She dismisses the producer, and while Charlotte tells her the mundane things on her schedule for the day, Wendy sees a news piece about the torching of the homes in Mexico. Cut to Marty arriving at the new casino.
The sequence in the cul-de-sac and the destruction of a house were too expensive to shoot — approximately $1 million for a two-to three-minute sequence — so we delayed finishing the episode until we could come up with a more affordable concept. While we waited, I started the episode (and the season) with the cheesy commercial. It worked as a total gear shift from the uncertainty of the Season 2 finale, but it didn’t set the stakes as high as starting with an act of vengeful violence. So we waited.
Eventually our production team found a Latin market in Georgia that needed very little set dressing to look like a shopping center in Mexico. The idea was that a courier was making his regular money drop, but he had been corrupted and turned on the guys who were counting money in the back room, slaughtering everyone and blowing up the location with a couple of bombs. Then the cheesy commercial. It was less expensive but still very effective.
What’s next for you? Season 4 has been announced as the show’s final season.
I’m currently working on a feature-length documentary about the singer Pink, which will be completed before I return to Ozark. Since the final season will be extended (14 episodes), and we don’t have a start date yet, we only know that we will go well into 2021. So I can’t predict what will come next!
Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years.