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Editing a TV Limited-Series: Cutting Mrs. America with Robert Komatsu, ACE

As streaming platforms rapidly grow and compete for subscribers, we’ve seen the emergence of more interesting and unique stories – being told with incredibly high production value. Now, editors are finding some freedom from the hectic schedule of a TV series in favor of the time and refinement typically reserved for feature films.

Editor Robert Komatsu has experienced this change first-hand on his latest project, Mrs. America, a nine-part limited series produced by FX which aired on Hulu April 15, 2020.

Robert got his start in features, first as a VFX editor on The Matrix: Reloaded and The Matrix: Revolutions films, then first assistant on How The Grinch Stole Christmas and Cinderella Man. He was upped to associate editor on The Da Vinci Code and credited as an additional editor on Frost/Nixon and Angels & Demons. After that, he moved into television working on American Horror Story, Halt and Catch Fire and the X-Files.

We had the opportunity to hear his journey working on the series – from securing the job, to the unique challenges that arose during the production process and finally how the team managed to finish editing remotely while in quarantine.

So, What is Mrs. America?

Let me start by stating what Mrs. America is not. It is not a reality series about the behind the scenes drama for the Miss America Pageant, as many of our neighbors thought in the post facility we shared with other shows. Instead, it’s about the E.R.A. (Equal Rights Amendment) struggles in the United States during the 1970s.

It stars Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Tracey Ullman, Margo Martindale, Uzo Aduba, Elizabeth Banks, Sarah Paulson, John Slattery, and James Marsden, among others. It was created and written by Dahvi Waller and executive produced by Stacey Sher, Coco Francini, Anna Boden, and Ryan Fleck. Anna and Ryan directed the pilot.

How Did You Become an Editor on Mrs. America?

The way this project came to me was very typical. My agent, Jasan Pagni at WME, called to say that the show was interested in me and they requested me to read the first two scripts.

Immediately, I noticed three things:

  1. That cast!
  2. It was going to be mostly directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who had just finished Captain Marvel.
  3. It was being created and written by Dahvi Waller, from Mad Men and Halt and Catch Fire.

I edited on all four seasons of Halt and Catch Fire, but I had never met Dahvi because I had started visiting the writers’ room on season three and she had left after season two to develop Mrs. America.

I read the two scripts that were provided, titled “Phyllis” and “Gloria.” These were two of the best scripts I had ever read! Intelligent characters saying incredibly intelligent things. I finished the scripts and called my agent back. “Set up the meeting!” Then, I contacted my show runners from Halt and Catch Fire to confirm they would act as a reference for me. “The Chrises” as they are known (Chris Cantwell and Chris Rogers), responded that they had already been saying great things about me to Dahvi.

The initial meeting was set with Anna and Ryan, who were prepping in Toronto. The meeting was to be held remotely on Skype (a foreshadowing of things to come). They shared their cinematic vision for the show, I pitched my ideas for temps scores that we could use. Anna and Ryan wanted me to next meet with Dahvi. First hurdle leapt!

My meeting with Dahvi was in person and was epic. We reminisced about Halt and Catch Fire. We discussed story points in the scripts. We discussed music. Apparently, the meeting went so long that the rest of Dahvi’s meetings had to be re-scheduled for the next day. I drove home from the meeting and within the hour, my agent called to say I got the show!

Why Was This Pre-Production Process Special?

On a normal television drama, the first editor starts on day one of shooting. This allows us to get set up before the dailies start coming in the next day. On Mrs. America, Matt Crawford (my assistant) and I started about two weeks early. Anna, Ryan, and I had discussions about using archival footage in the series. None of it was scripted but each episode had a theme the producers wanted to explore.

I was assigned to edit episodes 1 “Phyllis”, 4 “Betty”, and 7 “Bella.” In terms of archival footage, episode 1 was going to focus on the period after Shirley Chisholm announced her run for President. Episode 4 was going to focus on abortion. Episode 7 was going to comment on the State Conferences that led up to the 1977 National Women’s Conference.

My goal was to try to get a good version of each sequence sent to Anna and Ryan before shooting started, since I knew I would soon be buried with dailies.

For the episode 1 “Shirley Chisholm” section, although there was a lot of varying footage, I immediately gravitated towards a reporter that asked people on the street what they thought of a woman running for President. The answers were varied, and not always what you’d expect. It was fun to cut these responses together, to juxtapose their opinions, and to even have one person finish another person’s thoughts.

Episode 4 was tougher. Dahvi loved the “people on the street” footage so much from the first episode, she hoped we could do the same for Episode 4, with people giving sharp, short sound bites about their views on abortion since the decision for Roe v. Wade opens the show. Unfortunately, that footage simply didn’t exist. Ultimately, we used three different experts (doctor, social worker, clergyman) giving their views in relatively short clips.

I would never alter the meaning of their words, but I made jump cuts, to lift out their stammers and pauses. Then, using Avid Fluid Morph, I hid the jump cuts and the experts appeared to speak without any hitches.

Episode 7 focused on the state conferences that elected delegates to attend the National Women’s Convention in Houston. This was complicated stuff for the non-historian. I found great footage of Tom Brokaw explaining this process.

What Was Production on Episode 1, “Phyllis” and Episode 2, “Gloria” Like?

Emily Greene, assigned to Episode 2, started on day one of shooting. At that time, Anna and Ryan would use a shared email address and they sent us one to start a discussion about temp music. As a lark, I suggested to Emily that we reply with one email as well, signing it as both Rob and Emily or Emily and Rob. It was like, oh yeah, you’re a directing team? Well, we’re an editing team! And thus started the world-famous team of “Robily.” Emily and I worked to curate a complete temp score package, with categories for mood or pace that we sent to Anna and Ryan for feedback.

Emily and I would show scenes to each other for feedback and we would discuss strategies on editing footage that featured the conservatives vs. footage that featured the feminists. We also collaborated on titles that described dates and depicted how many states had ratified the E.R.A. at that point. Emily and I made lists of fonts we thought evoked the 70’s without looking overly silly or trying too hard. We both ended up really liking one she had found. We independently tried it in our scenes and I asked her if she made it big. She said she made it big. But when I saw it, I said, no, I mean BIG! She came into my room to see my title taking up almost the whole screen, and she liked it! And that’s how we came up with the titles for our show, a “Robily” effort.

Title card for MRS. AMERICA — “Betty” –Episode 4, CR: FX

This sort of teamwork continued when our third editor, Todd Downing, came on board a month or so later. We would screen scenes for each other in our rooms. Our post facility also had a screening room just down the hall that we could easily book to screen our episodes. This was the best way to keep our styles consistent, and to check our episodes in the context of the whole series.

Every few days during the shoot of Episode 1, I would send cut scenes to Anna and Ryan for feedback. After receiving notes, I’d send revisions back to them and at the same time, I’d edit fresh scenes from dailies. We continued this process for the entire 25 day shoot. In fact, when Anna and Ryan came into the cutting room to screen my editor’s cut, it was more like a first pass of a directors’ cut.

How Were the Split Screen Sequences Created?

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 recruited other housewives to help her stop the E.R.A., 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. 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 original Thomas Crown Affair, starring Steve McQueen. Our split screens had panels of different sizes, arranged asymmetrically in the frame.

The split screen effect as shown in the polo scene from The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

There were a lot of challenges when working with the split screens. The biggest was that most of the split screen footage wasn’t shot yet and wasn’t scheduled to be shot for a month or so. What I currently had were a few shots of housewives opening and reading Phyllis’ newsletter. These were five-minute clips because if we used one and then split the frame with another shot joining it, we needed the length so all the shots could stay on screen without running out of footage. I also had a few shots of names being typed onto mailing envelopes and a few shots of envelopes piling up. What I didn’t have were shots of Cate Blanchett.

I used the shots I had to build the first version of the split screen, sometimes manipulating already used shots to make them look different, and I made placeholders of Cate from the Goldwater scene. Basically, a lot of this sequence said “PLACEHOLDER” on it. Eventually, more real footage came in, based on the template I created. Of course, every new shot had a different framing from the fake placeholder I was using, which meant that every shot had to be re-keyframed for scaling, cropping, and position. It was a great experience to be able to create a template that would influence how we continued to shoot the scene.

MRS. AMERICA — “Phyllis” –Episode 1 (Airs April 15) CR: FX

Everyone loved the split screen sequence and it became a style for the show as a whole. In fact, by the time we got to Episode 7, the end of the script actually called out for a split screen sequence.

Applying Feature Film Strategies to Post Production

Normally, on a one-hour drama, the director gets four days in the cutting room to turn in their cut. Anna and Ryan had ten days between Emily and myself for our two episodes. The thinking was that they would spend five days with me and then five days with Emily but of course they bounced back and forth between our rooms for a full ten days with each of us. Then, we screened the directors’ cuts for Dahvi, Stacey, and Coco.

Typically, the producers then have four days to turn in their cut and the studios have about five to ten days to lock the episode. We started the producers’ cut sometime in August. We locked it at the end of January, with mixing done at the end of February. Our producers and the studio had arranged that we didn’t need to stick to a standard television schedule since our release wasn’t going to be until next April.

Like when editing a feature, we had more time to refine and revise. We had more time to mix. We didn’t even break up the episode into separate acts until the very end (the scripts never had act breaks). Specifically, during our extended producers’ cut, we would constantly revisit scenes.

I think it’s incredibly useful to put scenes away and come back to them with fresh eyes.

Things that seemed crystal clear at the time might not seem so in a few weeks, or months. And with a fresh perspective, you often find a different way of tackling a problem or improving an already good scene.

We also concentrated on vetting each performance from our actors. I think that Cate Blanchett is incapable of giving a bad performance, but she did give choices. Since she and the other actresses represented historical figures, it was essential to make sure that every line reading had the truest essence of the real person. Cate Blanchett or Tracey Ullman might have given a version of a line that brought us to tears or had us laughing, but it it wasn’t true to what Phyllis Schlafly or Betty Friedan would have done in the moment, we wouldn’t use it.

We used the same sort of vetting strategy for moments within scenes as well. In Episode 7, Phyllis gets pied in the face. That really happened! We made sure to be careful so that the comedy played, but that we didn’t overdo it so it seemed like farce, or a made up event just for our show.

Another feature-film strategy we employed was to book a screening room at Technicolor for friends and family screenings. This way, we could get honest feedback from people who were not involved with our show. We would even hand out “cards” like studio audience-recruited preview screenings, to get data back on our show, such as which character tracked best, etc…

Because Anna and Ryan had to return to Toronto to prep Episodes 7 and 9, I continued to edit with them remotely, using a system called Haivision, which would stream my Avid output so that Anna and Ryan could view it on a monitor in Toronto. We’d simply speak to each other on speakerphone to discuss.

As we continued refining the episodes, it also came time to rework the archival footage. Anna suggested that Episode 7’s footage explaining the state conference process was repetitive, since Alice explains it to Pamela with an analogy. “It’s kind of like the Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest. Thousands of women in every state competing for a spot at the national competition to see who has the best recipe.”

I ended up replacing Tom Brokaw with footage from the actual state conferences. Some were peaceful. Others were not. I made it a split screen sequence (of course I did!) where for example, footage from a more confrontational conference might bump a peaceful state conference halfway off the screen. Finding a placement for this sequence became a challenge as well. There were several spots we could have placed it, but it was a question of momentum and flow. We ultimately decided to place it right before Alice, Rosemary, and Pamela arrive at the Illinois State Conference, where they are the minority in a mostly feminist crowd. In the end, it seemed like the archival sequence could have been scripted there.

MRS. AMERICA — “Bella” –Episode 7 (Airs May 13) Pictured: Sarah Paulson as “Alice”, Melanie Lynskey as Rosemary Thomson, Kayli Carter as “Pamela”. CR: Sabrina Lantos/FX

As I try to make everything as perfect as possible, one strategy that I always use is to “break apart” the frame into different sections, manipulate some or all of the sections, and then to stick the shot back together again. There are many possible uses of this, such as:

  1. Splitting a two shot in half so Actor A’s reaction comes quicker to the end of Actor B’s line. (advancing Actor A’s side of the frame earlier).
  2. Splitting a shot in two and adjusting so one actor has better continuity to the next cut.
  3. Combining Actor A from take 1 with Actor B in take 2.

It’s all part of the process of making the show as flawless as possible.

COVID

Discussing Mrs. America wouldn’t be complete without the mention of COVID-19. When it became clear that we couldn’t continue working in the cutting room, our post producer provided iMacs and local hard drives. Matt, my assistant editor, and the other assistants consolidated each editor’s media from their episodes. We were lucky that picture-wise, we were almost done.

With a little organization and communication about who had what current sequence, I made changes at home and then sent those changes in a bin to Matt, who then cut them into the master sequence in the master project. There were a few instances of new shots that were created and of course we had to send each other the media as well.

The completed timeline for “Phyllis”, Episode 1 – Mrs. America

Matt and the other assistants worked from home using Team Viewer. Instead of having local projects, they would log into the actual project on our Nexus. This way, multiple assistants could access the project with less back and forth of sending bins. Matt could start a sound turnover and could then pass it on to Maureen Ross, our second assistant, to finish while he jumped onto cutting in new VFX shots that he received. Matt could then send me the VFX shots for me to review at home.

We also ended up finishing the mixes remotely as well. We did this in two ways. Sometimes, Scott Gershin, our sound supervisor, sent us QuickTimes with the latest version of the mix, which we reviewed to give notes back. Other times, we streamed the mix while being on a Skype call, so that we could address notes live.

In the end, it was a very bizarre way to finish a show. Our premiere was of course cancelled. We couldn’t have a real wrap party, but we did have a Zoom celebration the day before our premiere. Happily, our show has found an audience and is hopefully also sparking discussions about some of the issues that are unfortunately still relevant today.

Wrap Up

Robert has had the great honor of being nominated for an Emmy with his work on Mrs. America for “Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing For A Limited Series Or Movie – 2020“. If you haven’t already, you can watch the entire series now on Hulu!

Robert is represented by the agency WME and you can check out his website at www.robertkomatsu.com.

Thank you again for speaking with us, Robert – and best of luck at the Emmys!

 

 

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