In this episode, I’m talking with Skip MacDonald, ACE. Skip is up for a Primetime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Single-camera Picture Editing for a Limited Series or Movie this year for his editing of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie.
Skip has also edited Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, A Series of Unfortunate Events, American Gothic, Fargo, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, among many others. He also edited the feature film Low Fidelity.
This interview will be available as a podcast on September 1st, 2020.
HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about your long relationship with this series and with show creator, Vince Gilligan.
MACDONALD: I feel very fortunate to have this relationship. It’s really been a great run for me with Vince on all these projects and it’s been a lot of fun.
I came on in Season 1 of Breaking Bad. From there it’s just grown and it’s been really wonderful. Vince is truly one of the best people I’ve ever worked with and in my mind is a great filmmaker. The way he tells the stories. The way he directs. The images that he captures. It’s just stunning to me. And he keeps coming up with new ideas.
It’s been such a great ride to see the progression from Breaking Bad through Better Call Saul and now through El Camino, too.
HULLFISH: For the longest time I’ve thought of him as mostly a showrunner and writer and not so much as a director, but I was really struck — watching El Camino — by his work as a director. The interesting angles and coverage are really striking. The shots are so so interesting. Tell me a little bit about what dailies were like because it looked like you chose the most unusual shots but maybe the stuff on the cutting room floor was just as interesting.
MACDONALD: He gets really interesting coverage — as you pointed out — and he lays it all out. He really has a plan in mind of what he wants to do and what he wants to get and the great thing with Vince is he’s very big on collaboration, so I know, on the set he’s talking with the DP all the time and they’re always coming up with new or interesting angles and different shots that they can come up with.
For me, it’s fantastic. I get so many different angles and choices and there are so many options of how to put scenes together that it’s really great.
With El Camino as a movie, it was like they had more time to shoot each scene, so we even got more coverage and a bigger variety of shots. So it was really great for me to be able to have so many different choices and ways to put things together.
HULLFISH: When you’re looking at dailies that look so different to me — it’s not your standard coverage, at least the way I think of it — does that make your life easier or more difficult.
MACDONALD: I think it makes it any more difficult and I wouldn’t say that it makes it easier it’s just you have a lot of choices. Maybe it’s a little more difficult because now it’s trying to find out where to use those different angles and how many times and how often should you use them and go to them versus just standard coverage and the one thing that’s really great about the way Vince does thing is most of the time you’ll notice that we can hang in shots much longer than in normal coverage.
HULLFISH: I think of some of those shots where there’s a lot going on in the foreground and something in the background — like a two-fer type shot — it’s not a side-by-side kind of two-shot. You can stay with something like that because the shot is so interesting and the performances are so interesting.
Yeah. As long as the shots are doing something and you’ve got lots to look at and they remain interesting and it’s playing and it’s telling our story, let’s stay there. Let’s keep that going.
HULLFISH: But then do you feel bad for all the really good other shots that you could to? Like, “This shot should really get a chance…”
MACDONALD: We always try to get everything in at one point. We do lose some pieces but when you’re looking at the interesting shots and you want to continue to tell the story, you have to lose some of those really great shots occasionally.
I think everything is in such a great flow and such a great look and feel that we just continue to tell our story and the most important thing for me is to be able to keep the audience engaged and not have to do a lot of cutting. Or if you’re not using the shot, hopefully, the audience won’t realize that there was something else that could have been there. Keeping our pacing going and the audience engaged really is my big focus, along with all the performances and everything.
HULLFISH: There were a couple of places where — I don’t know what to call them other than shock edits — one of them is in the shower. Do you remember that one? There’s also another one out of that opening conversation at the river’s edge.
MACDONALD: Those were relatively designed in that respect. It was just just a matter of what shocking cut was going to work the best and the exact placement of it and we adjusted those a bit here and there and we tried different things, but those were definitely designed and written into the script as kind of a shock cut. BAM! You’re just going back into a memory here and it wakes the audience up or shocks them briefly and then they understand what’s going on there.
HULLFISH: Another Breaking Bad thing is the use of extreme wide shots mid-scene as a stylistic choice.
MACDONALD: You’re right. We’ve used that in Breaking Bad a lot. And in El Camino, we used it, too. It’s a way to continue our story but give the audience a little breather from some of these really intense scenes. We want to keep the audience on the edge of their seat with these big tense scenes and these really heavy scenes, but every once in a while you need to take a step back.
Like when they were out in the Painted Desert, it was just such a spectacular place that we really wanted to show it and keep that alive as much as the conversation. To make the choice to go wide mid-scene is always tough because you don’t want to jump away from any of the really important information, but still be able to continue the story and understand what’s going on to see that wide vista and see that these two characters here are just absolutely in the middle of nowhere.
So, as you said, that is a theme that comes all the way from the Breaking Bad series and we continued to use that throughout El Camino also.
HULLFISH: You mentioned how much of a collaborator Vince is. What kind of conversations do you have before you start an edit, or does he prefer to not prep you?
MACDONALD: He prefers not to prep so much. He does have storyboards that he sends along but if I come up with something that he wasn’t thinking about it’s another avenue for him to look at and say, “Oh, I really like this.” Or, “No, this doesn’t work. Let’s try this.”
It’s nice for me, too. I’m not locked into anything in particular so I get to do what I feel works really good for the scene and sometimes I’ve done something that Vince hadn’t envisioned. Sometimes that works for us, sometimes it doesn’t.
Once he finishes directing and he comes into the cutting room, that’s when all of our real big discussions start up. Occasionally, I’ll talk to him about something in the scene before then, but for the most part, it’s only once we get into the edit bay and start working. That’s where the big conversations about what we can do and what we can’t do — all that collaboration happens there versus preproduction or when he’s shooting.
So it’s kind of fresh eyes for him if he doesn’t know exactly where everything might be falling because I’d done something different than what he’s envisioned.
HULLFISH: I’ve talked to multiple editors who’ve said that directors prefer not to prep their editors too much about what they want to see in the cut because the idea is: Don’t show me what I want to see. Show me something new, and if I don’t like it, I’ve already got an idea and I can always go to MY idea, but show me your idea first.
MACDONALD: Yes exactly. And I think most directors feel that way. Occasionally, you’ll get a director who wants to give you lots of direction as they’re shooting, but most directors just say, “Take the footage and get it together for me.” They hope to see something that they weren’t expecting. And if they don’t like what you’ve done they’ll always have a plan in mind of something that they would like that would work.
HULLFISH: Does that idea extend to your choice of using or not using their circled takes?
MACDONALD: Yeah. I generally watch everything because even in the takes that aren’t circled there could be something really great in there that if you don’t look at them you’re never going to know about it, so I try to watch everything whether it’s circled or not.
In watching them, I understand why certain takes are circled or why something isn’t, but every once in a while you’ll grab a little gem out of something that it isn’t circled and it works really well.
HULLFISH: Regular listeners to Art of the Cut probably recognize my constant harping on the fact that very often a director would circle a take on location and then come into the editing room and look at all the takes and wonder why they circled that take. (MacDonald laughs)
Or they may remember why they chose it, but they might not make the same choice away from the set.
MACDONALD: Yeah, because they’ve had some time away from it and they get a different perspective sitting and watching it in an edit bay that they’re thinking, I “know I circled it, but I like that other take that you chose because it does this or that.” That’s the beauty of being able to come back to the edit bay. They get to see things after a period of time goes by, so they have a fresh perspective on it.
HULLFISH: With such interesting coverage as you mentioned — the shot selection that you get, what is your methodology of approaching a scene? Are you a selects reel guy or do you lay out a bin with all the different setups in rows? How do you start working?
MACDONALD: Usually my bin is set up with all of the takes from that scene.
It depends on how big the scene is. Most of the time I just do them in chronological order, the masters and then the A and the B, and the C — the set up as they go. Then, before I start watching dailies I will read the scene again in the script to refresh myself with it and figure out in my mind: “What’s the scene about? Who’s the main focus of the scene?” And then I go in and start watching all the dailies.
I’ll watch everything that’s there and as I’m doing that I’m kind of formulating in my head what I feel is going to be the best way to piece it together and then once I watch the footage then I start piecing it together and of course, it doesn’t always work the way I envision it in my head, so I’m going back and forth and trying things and then once I finally get the scene together I’ll watch it, do any adjustments I want and then I’ll put it to the side and move to the next one.
Then the next day or two I’ll follow back up and watch those scenes that I cut a couple of days ago again to have a fresh eye on it and a perspective that I haven’t been super focused on and then make any adjustments to it at that point again, then keep moving forward.
HULLFISH: I love that idea of stepping away from something, because your eye for a scene that you’ve cut definitely changes a few days later.
MACDONALD: Yeah. And sometimes if you were struggling trying to get something to work, two days later you look at it and say, “I did that but now I have another idea. I can try this.” so it gives you a clear view and you get a chance to adjust and fix things before you show it to anybody.
HULLFISH: When you’re watching dailies do you watch them in order, first to last? Or reverse order?
MACDONALD: I usually watch them first to last because that way I can get a gauge on the progression of what’s changing and where they want to end up. With Vince I can see a progression of what he’s going for — why he’s doing more takes, and usually by the later take they’re pretty close to where they want and at least that gives me a gauge of what I’m working toward, so if a piece from an earlier take works better for the direction that I feel everything is going I can go back to that versus if I start at the end, then it kind of feels like the takes are deteriorating a little bit from the ultimate place where Vince wanted to go.
Deteriorating isn’t the correct term, but it is kind of like their performance is changed, so you’re backtracking and ending up at the earlier takes and I think — for me — I like to see the build and where Vince is heading with the character, so that helps me in that respect.
HULLFISH: Seeing where the evolution is going, how could that play into you understanding what he wants? Talk to me about what that evolution means.
MACDONALD: The evolution of it is that you see the slight turns that they may be adjusting with the actors from take to take or even sometimes the angle — they slightly change the camera angle or they’re moving the camera and the timing changes a bit. So you see the progression and you start to see, “On this one, the camera does this, but this one the camera did this. I see where they’re trying to end up with the move on this one”
Or with performance, you can see slight variations in how the character is changing their performance, so it’s kind of a feel that I understand more of what direction that ultimately they want the emotion of the character to be in that scene.
HULLFISH: To jump backward, we talked about going out to an extreme wide shot. Do you remember the genesis of that style or is that just something that the film speaks to you and he shoots these big wide shots or the directors on the show shoot them in so let’s use them somehow?
MACDONALD: They started that early on in Breaking Bad and over the years, you just get a feel of where you might be able to place it. It’s more of a feel — for me at least — when I’m cutting the scene and saying, “OK, I’ve got this big wide shot. I can place it anywhere” but as you’re cutting you think, “OK this is a moment here where I think we can take a step back and take the big breath and just see the beauty of where we are.”
So it’s not so much of, “OK. This is where it should go in the scene.” To me, it’s more of a feel of when we should step back and take a breath before we get back in and keep pounding away on these heavy scenes and these intense dialogue moments.
HULLFISH: Most of those are outdoors but you sometimes use that super-wide shot even on indoor locations. There’s one in the diner, right? With Walter?
HULLFISH: There’s a wide shot across the counter do you remember when or why you chose to go wide at that point in that conversation?
MACDONALD: I think it was a choice for a couple of reasons. One, it was kind of where the dialogue was flowing, but it’s also trying to find in those wide shots a little bit more activity. I think there was a waiter that was walking by and there was a character that was moving around the front of the screen just so you have something very interesting to look at to get the lay of where we are and what we’re seeing along with continuing our story with the dialogue.
So, in a scene like that, it’s so varied because of what is also happening in the scene with everybody else in the area versus just our characters. We want to keep everybody alive, but we need to find the moment that is not going to take us out of our conversation too much, but I also have a lot of activity that gives the audience something to see and enjoy.
HULLFISH: So that would be the decider on a populated wide shot like the diner, but with a scene like the Painted Desert shot, it’s just a beautiful shot that you could probably go to just about any time you want, right?
HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about temp music. Did you just use previous Breaking Bad music, or did you pull in tempo music from other features? What’s that conversation like?
MACDONALD: Most of the time until we get closer to the end we don’t use a lot of music. This was an exception to the series because this is more of a movie feel and we needed to get some music in there to help people get the feel of the big scope of it.
With this, we brought in our music editor and we used a lot of Dave Porter’s music from Breaking Bad that we had him cut and lay in and get to work with the pictures and we’d listen to it and look at it and talk about it a lot. It was a bigger process than we normally do, but it was really helpful in bringing the tone of what everybody was looking for just as the temp stuff.
It was more the Breaking Bad style music. I think they brought in a couple other things but I believe all the temp stuff was from Dave Porter and it just gave us a nice flow. Once we locked the picture and were talking to Dave about what the pieces should be, at least we had more of a direction that we were leaning towards. So Dave had an idea of what Vince was thinking about the music and would work on that. Of course, it was similar but so different from what we had temped — the final.
HULLFISH: You alluded to the fact that you don’t put in music early. I’m assuming Vince is similar in that feeling, “Don’t show me something with music too early” or how did that work?
MACDONALD: He’s a strong believer of let’s get the picture right and then we can worry about music.
HULLFISH: On non-Breaking Bad projects do you feel the same way about that?
MACDONALD: I do, but most people like to have music in there so I do put temp music in other projects that I work on but I try to be very sparing with it because I think that with most projects, I try to make the visuals tell our story and the music just will enhance it, so I am very selective and very sparse with the music as a temp when I go in and put it in because I feel that a lot of shows overuse music in places.
HULLFISH: Is it difficult working with a writer-director in post? I guess it would depend on how precious they are about their writing.
MACDONALD: Every writer-director is different. Some of them are very precious with the dialogue. Vince isn’t so precious with the dialogue. He does stick to what he needs and what he wants but if something isn’t working he always tries to figure out a way to eliminate it but still have everything else around tied together.
If there is dialogue that is very important to the story we certainly make all of that work, but if something isn’t working but it’s not as important to tell our story he doesn’t have a problem trying to eliminate it.
HULLFISH: Just the format style of a film compared to TV — hitting act breaks at specific times, that kind of thing — did that feel different to you? Was that something that you needed to consider?
MACDONALD: Yeah. We definitely had to consider it because you’re used to having an act break where things are designed to go out and end at a certain place. So on this, we needed to make sure — at least for me — trying to make sure that the transitions from one scene to another were always working and were really strong and that the pacing was important too because I don’t want anything to feel like it was lagging or not telling our story.
That’s the big difference: that at least at a commercial break people can get their thoughts together and think about what they’ve seen and anticipate what’s coming next, but this is just a continual run.
You really have to make sure you can keep them involved and interested so they don’t step away.
HULLFISH: What was the collaboration like in the editing room once Vince got to you and started looking at your original editor’s cut?
MACDONALD: I thought it went very well. He seemed very pleased with everything that we had done. He did have thoughts on scenes and what we could do to make them better.
At first, we really didn’t worry about the time. We always want to get the show playing and in the best shape that we can and then we’ll start to worry about how much time we need to trim. It was always a very positive thing and he’s always very appreciative and then once we get him the cutting and working scene by scene then we talk about why we would do this or where we could do that and just more details about the performances or the angles or the cut points and stuff that take place once we sit down and start working on it.
HULLFISH: When you cut your editors cut together, you haven’t had any real dialogue with the director. Is it your methodology to cut the assembly exactly the way it is in the script or do you sometimes deviate?
MACDONALD: It depends. I will try to keep it as close to the script because that’s what a lot of people are expecting to see and sometimes if you deviate too much, it throws them, so then they’re kind of taken out of the story where you’ve deviated and it’s hard for them to get back into it because they’re wondering why I did what I did or what it should have been.
So I try to stay as relatively as close to the script so they know what they’re going to see. I generally try to make tell them if I’ve changed something enough from the script that it could throw them. I try to preface that at the beginning so it’s not coming as a big surprise because you certainly don’t want to take a director out of the show the first time they see it because it takes a while to get back into it.
HULLFISH: That was a lesson I learned early on the hard way. (both laugh)
Either on El Camino or in some previous show of Breaking Bad or maybe something else that you’ve edited — if you do have a crazy idea, do you edit that together and set it off to the side and then say, “OK, so that’s the way the script was, Can I show you this?”
MACDONALD: Yes. I do that often when I have an idea of something, I will make it work and set it to the side just so if something isn’t working I can say, “Take a look at this. See what you think. This is out there, but…” because then it gives them some more ideas to think about rather than shocking them to start with and throwing them for a loop.
HULLFISH: I think about this — probably driven by my ego, which is not a good thing for an editor — but do you sometimes think, with a scene that just plays perfectly as a oner — even though there’s tons of coverage — so you present it as a oner because it’s really good, but you feel bad that you didn’t really DO anything (both laugh) so you also cut a version with the rest of the coverage? What would be your approach?
MACDONALD: If I do play something in a oner like that, I always cut another version with the coverage and put that to the side just because if it doesn’t work in the director’s eyes, then I don’t have to spend hours going through everything and cutting it. So I can say, “Here we have this If you don’t like the oner.”. When I do a oner, I always have that edited version just so it’s quick and easy to show them versus having to say, Well, you have to come back in a couple of hours to look at it.
Of course, there are lots of times that the oner is the correct choice and we just stay with that. But it’s to my benefit to have it cut.
HULLFISH: Absolutely. Another stylistic thing that I saw — though I didn’t really analyze it too much — is that it’s very straight cuts. I don’t remember any pre-laps or post-laps between scenes. Is that a style of yours or the directors or just the way it worked.
MACDONALD: I think it’s just the way it worked. Each scene is different from each other, so depending on how fast we want the dialogue to come to the audience or how important it is to see people — so each scene, to me, is on its own when it comes to pre-laps or post-laps or just straight cuts and it’s just the feel of the scene once you get into it and start cutting it because then it slowly evolves into what it will be.
There is no set way that I do it. It’s just more of a feel as I’m cutting it Sometimes I’ll say, OK, if I pre-lap this here, it’ll help me get across to this person a little quicker and understand why we’re doing that.
Each scene is individual and a little different from the other ones in the way I approach the pre-lapping or post-lapping.
HULLFISH: Did you actually use pre-laps and post-laps in El Camino — or Breaking Bad — and I just didn’t notice it?
MACDONALD: Oh yeah! There’s definitely some in places. I don’t recall how much we had in there, but yes, there is some to an extent in everything that I cut.
HULLFISH: I know Breaking Bad is done, but what if I were to come on to Breaking Bad as a new editor? How would you explain certain style things? How would you help me understand using — for example — the wide shots in mid-scene?
MACDONALD: Generally it’s: Don’t overuse them. Use it once in a scene. We’ve done our business. We’ve seen it. Move on. If you try to use it multiple times, 90 percent of the time it ends up getting cut back to just one piece. Just use it once. If it works, play it as long as you can so people can get the view of that.
With pre-lapping and post-lapping, don’t get too carried away with it because we still need to see our characters and keep moving forward.
HULLFISH: Is there any key to getting into a scene? Is it very obvious to you with the coverage you get that, “He’s definitely going to want me to use this tilt-up from padlock to the face.”
MACDONALD: I would say for about 50 percent of the scenes — when you watch the footage — you say, “Yes. Absolutely. This is the way we’re going to get in. This is the way it’s intended to get in.” For the other 50 percent, you have multiple ways to get in. For me, that’s the fun of it because I get to make a choice of what I feel is going to be the best way to get into it and continue through.
So I would say about 50 percent of the time you have a clear cut vision of how to start a scene.
HULLFISH: I feel like Breaking Bad likes to play with time a little bit — flashbacks and….
HULLFISH: Can you talk about that concept and how much of it is scripted and how much of it changes in post?
MACDONALD: I will say it’s all scripted and the big part of it that would change in post would be the ins and outs of it and maybe the positioning of where those fall because the scripts are so well laid out and written with all of that in mind, so it doesn’t change too drastically. Little bits here and there but most of the flashbacks and flash-forwards and all that stuff is all laid out in the script and we use that as our guide, but we may have to slip and slide where they fall occasionally just because of the performances or the way the cuts will affect going from one scene to another.
HULLFISH: I love the opening shot in the movie. I’m assuming there was other coverage from the front and sides? It’s basically a shot looking over the shoulder or behind Jessie’s head for a long time. Talk to me about that choice — and I love the choice — but why would you play so much of the beginning of the movie on the back of Jessie’s head?
MACDONALD: That was a choice because Let’s see where we’re going to head? As soon as you reveal him, I think most of the audience knows exactly who it is. And once he starts to talk you are SO certain who it is.
Because of the way that Breaking Bad ended the audience is allowed to wonder: Where are we? Is this immediately following? So we didn’t want to reveal Jesse’s condition right away. Is he still beat up? So it was just a slow burn and a slow reveal of who it is — where we are — and then we’ll reveal Mike as he comes in and still get a chance to look at all that beautiful scenery.
There was coverage of him stepping into the camera but it was a choice that Vince felt very strongly about — starting behind him and staying there as long as we did.
HULLFISH: There are so many good actors in this. It must be difficult with such a wealth of options when you’re going through the dailies and trying to decide when to be on the speaker and when to be on a reaction.
MACDONALD: Yeah. That’s really a tough choice because all of the actors in this were just so good and they really knew their characters and where the character should be, so it was a wealth of great takes.
It was making those tough decisions on who to be on and when to be on them. I really like Jesse here right now and he’s so great, but we need to see these other guys because they’re so good too, so it was really a battle sometimes on the balance of the scenes and who to be on for what.
Ultimately in the end we did a really great job of keeping that balance with everybody.
HULLFISH: So often I think of shot selection based on performance or what the camera angle itself is saying, but there’s also the production design and revealing the kind of world that you’re in.
MACDONALD: I try to treat the world that they’re in as a character.
The welding shop and Skinny Pete’s house and all this. These locations and the places we are, they’re all part characters in this and they all play interesting things within the scene. So trying to decide: Where do we reveal this? Where do we get this? That’s also tricky in order to not want to reveal something too soon but also you don’t want the audience to say, “I have no idea where we are.”
It really takes time for me to work in those bigger shots and the “reveal shots” of where we are — the locations and how to make that happen along with all the great acting that we get from our characters not to short-change anybody or not to short-change the locations.
HULLFISH: I’m assuming that on the TV series you guys weren’t able to use screening audiences. Did you do that on the film?
MACDONALD: We did a screening, but basically it was more people that Vince knew. We brought in our sound team and that music team. We never did any big screenings for outside people. It was more for the studio and the Netflix people, just to get their opinions.
We were trying to keep it under wraps. We didn’t want a lot of people to see it or know that it was being made because it was such a secret. Trying to keep it quiet until it was released was the big challenge.
HULLFISH: Sometimes with the series or even this movie, I’d get a little lost or I didn’t understand something for a little while and I didn’t really mind that. I’d think, I “wonder what this means?”
Is there anything wrong with that? Do you need to explain everything?
MACDONALD: No. Generally, if something isn’t explained, it will get explained later down the road. In the series, people would wonder, “What does that mean?” But two — maybe three — episodes down the road there would be some kind of a payoff of what that was.
Also, it’s nice to leave people thinking and wondering, “What did that mean?” or “Where will this go?” Even if you never reveal it, it’s part of the entertainment of the show — the mystery.
HULLFISH: When you were cutting the TV series did you want to know the stuff that was coming up later in the series? or did you figure that Vince is the showrunner would help you to understand, “We need a reaction shot here because three episodes from now this guy is going to betray him.”.
MACDONALD: Yeah. On Breaking Bad, I would talk to (the other series editor,) Kelley (Dixon) and say, “Have you had this or anything like this in your show?” And if she did, then we’d discuss where she was taking it and where I could take it and if I felt I needed more, I would go talk to the writer of the episode. Sometimes we were a little in the dark about where a storyline was going to end up, so occasionally we would have those questions.
HULLFISH: You’ll probably be pleased to hear this: another editor mentioned how gracious you are in trying to advance your assistants.
MACDONALD: Well that’s nice. I like for my assistants — If they’re motivated to cut scenes — I will let them cut a scene. I will then watch the scene and then I’ll tell them how I might have cut it and how I would want it presented, then I let them do the changes.
Then when the director comes in, I will sit down with the director myself and say, “My assistant cut this scene. Do you mind if they make the changes for you because I want them to get the experience and understand how it works?” Most of the time the directors say, “Sure. Let’s do that.” But I’ll always be in the room with them and have my suggestions and make sure they’re doing what they need to do and how to handle certain things.
Same thing when it comes to the producers. As long as everybody is okay with it, that’s what I try to do because I want them to learn. They need to get hands-on experience.
The tough thing for me is that — most of the time — they end up moving up to editor and I have to find a new assistant.
HULLFISH: The notes process is just as valuable if not more valuable than cutting the scene the first time.
MACDONALD: Yes. Because the director is not always in the room, so you don’t have somebody to turn around and say, Hey, What did you mean by this? So you have to learn how to interpret the notes — what they actually mean. Because when you write a note down, you may not get every word they said. You get a generalization of what they’re looking for, so you have to interpret things.
I like for them to do that because they get the chance and the opportunity to really take that in and understand what somebody is looking for. What they say might not always be the ultimate way that it ends up, but you get to work with it and try to create what they’re looking for and understand what those notes mean.
HULLFISH: Are you getting notes by somebody screening something by themselves and sending you literal notes? Or are they in the room with you and either you are taking notes or you have an assistant take notes for you?
MACDONALD: It depends on who it is. On series work, some directors don’t have the time to come into the cutting room so they will watch it and then they will take their notes and forward them on to me.
Sometimes it will be on a Zoom call where they’re watching it along with me and talking about it. I’ll take notes or my assistant will be taking notes depending on what we have going on. And other times they’re in the room. We’ll watch a scene and then just start going from the beginning and doing it. And other times they’ll watch it, we’ll take notes, and they’ll go away. We’ll do the notes and they’ll come back.
Every person works a little differently depending on what kind of time they have. Every case is different.
HULLFISH: And is Vince the kind of guy that likes to have a scene cut as soon as he can have it after it’s shot, or is it a case of, “I’m working. I’m on the set. I want to keep my concentration there. I’ll see your cut when I see it.”.
MACDONALD: Vince doesn’t want to watch anything unless there’s a particular reason he has to. So when he comes into the cutting room and sits down to watch it, that’s the first time he’s seen anything cut together.
HULLFISH: Have you ever had a case where you felt he really needed to see something or that you really needed something that you had not gotten either with him as the director or with a director that come onto the show for a week or so.
MACDONALD: Yeah. There were a couple of times where a director would come in and try something and I could see where he was trying to go, but we need something else for here, so I’d go talk to him and convince him.
Our hands are kind of tied too with a director because you can’t show anybody footage without the director’s approval until his cut is turned over so you have to go in and talk to the director and say, “You should watch the dailies on this scene.”.
HULLFISH: I have never done a scripted series work myself. I didn’t realize that you can’t show Vince something until the director sees it?
MACDONALD: Correct. Once the director has his cut and it’s turned over to the producers, then they can watch it. But as I’m cutting a scene unless the director says, “OK, you can show this to the producers because I have a question about it.” I can’t show them anything until I either get the director’s approval or the director’s cut has been turned over to them.
HULLFISH: That’s really interesting. I think of the editor — especially an editor like you who’d been on the show for so long — you’re kind of the keeper of the style and the keeper of the understanding of how the show works compared to the director — who is often just there for an episode or two — and not to be able to pass along issues that you’re seeing at the earliest possible time… WOW! There’s some politics there.
MACDONALD: Yeah, there is politics there. We’ll tell the producers what we have going on and look at some of the coverage on the dailies so they understand where I’m coming from and what I’m talking about without actually showing them the cut scenes because that’s something we’re not supposed to do until we get the approval from the director.
HULLFISH: So interesting. What are some things for you that either makes an assistant stand out for or makes you want to pour into an assistant?
MACDONALD: That’s a tough one. When I’m looking for an assistant, I’m looking for someone who’s capable of getting the work done that I need them to without me having to remind them.
You come in and you get me dailies. You do this. You do that. This is what they need to do and get it done. But if I’m getting in and I don’t have anything to cut, that’s when I have a problem because it slows me down and in series work, you don’t have a lot of time.
From the time they finish production, we usually get two to three days — some shows we might get a fourth day — before we have to turn our cut over. So I just need to make sure I have an assistant that can get the dailies done and when I’m done cutting scenes that they can start doing the sound work.
Once we get done with dailies we’ll have a day or so that we can just watch the cut and perfect it and finalize it. If they fall down on their job then it makes it much more difficult for me as the editor.
HULLFISH: And are you assuming every single assistant you have wants to be an editor?
MACDONALD: For the most part. When I interview them, I ask those questions and 99 percent of them say, “Yes, that’s my ultimate goal. I want to be cutting. I want to do this and that’s what I’m striving for.”
So that’s what I’m looking for because I want to be able to show them and teach them how I do things and what they should do and how they handle certain circumstances and situations.
HULLFISH: How much are you using them as a sounding board? In your interview process, you’re also probably trying to get a sense of their tastes?
MACDONALD: Yeah. I’ll ask them a lot of questions and see what their thoughts are, what they think about sound, what they think about music, how they handle certain situations with directors or producers. A lot of times the assistants have a lot of work to do with those people as well.
If there’s a “previously on” that needs to be cut, a lot of times they want the assistants to do those, so we try to work with them and make sure that they’re comfortable doing that.
I also use them as a sounding board for me when I cut a scene. When I’m finished with it in my eyes, I’ll bring my assistant in and ask what they think of the sequence and they’ll give me their ideas and thoughts about it and then I can choose to work with some of those notes, so I like them to be involved every step of the way.
HULLFISH: I didn’t quite get that about “previously on…” So you’re saying the recaps of the previous episodes are usually cut by your assistant?
MACDONALD: Yes. It depends on the show. Some shows want the assistants to do it. Other shows the studio has a department that does it, so it varies. I’d like them to cut them because then we can sit down and discuss what we think should be in it. And then when we show it to the producers and get their feedback then we have a better direction of where to go, too.
We get what the producers want versus what the studio feels they want. Sometimes the studios insist that their teams cut it.
HULLFISH: Was there a scene that you remember being a challenge that you want to talk about?
MACDONALD: In El Camino, the scene that was a challenge — but a lot of fun to cut — was when Jesse was searching Todd’s place, and then we went to that big high overhead shot like a rat maze. That was a tough one to cut because there were so many different layers.
HULLFISH: I loved that whole sequence! Was that a composite or did that actually exist? That overhead rat maze shot?
MACDONALD: That existed. The production designer — when they were building the set — had a great idea: “What if we build this set so that we could shoot an overhead of the apartment and have it fill the frame?”
That’s what they did. Then they shot Aaron in there tearing things apart in different rooms, then we ended up layering and layering him in different areas so it looked like he was in different rooms all at the same time.
HULLFISH: The other scene that I loved is the kind of Old Western show-down in the welding shop. There’s such great tension that leads into that! (SPOILER ALERT)
MACDONALD: That was a really fun scene to cut because there was so much going on and so many characters in there that trying to keep the tension going along with keeping everybody “alive” was tricky.
Once they started the stand-off, how terrified these guys were — hiding out and wondering if they’re going to get caught in the crossfire? Is the crossfire going to happen? It was just trying to keep that tension going and I’m hoping that when the shoot out finally happened that it was a surprise to the audience that Jesse had that second gun in his pocket and that they hadn’t figured it out at the beginning of the scene. I’m hoping that the way it was cut and laid out that everybody expected him to draw the pistol out of his waistband rather than have the other gun in his pocket.
HULLFISH: You’ve gotta let the audience know at some point that he has his hand in his other pocket, but you don’t want to call attention to it. You can’t let the audience get ahead of you but you can’t also let it be a complete surprise, like, “Where’d the second gun come from!?”.
MACDONALD: Yes. When he went to his parents’ house, he holds up both guns. Whether you think he has the second one or not is up to you, but once he was inside he always had his hand in that pocket. He never pulled it out. He never put it back in. It was always there. So if you’re really paying attention maybe you caught that and then say, “OK I think I know what’s going to happen.”.
HULLFISH: You mentioned the other hoodlums trying to get out of the crossfire. I loved that they weren’t tough bad guys… they were scared and trying to take cover in a very realistic way. They knew that it was not going to end up well no matter who won the shootout.
MACDONALD: I always thought it was really nice to be able to get to the guy where he looks over his shoulder and we rack focus to the gun in his jacket across the chair, so you are wondering, “When is he going to go for the gun?” Those were always nice moments for me too.
HULLFISH: For those people who aren’t cutting scenes regularly, that shot of the guy looking to see if he can reach and grab his gun is probably not in the script — “Just then, the other guy looks to see if he can get to his gun.”
It’s just by looking at the dailies that you know that that shot is there and you have to decide where in this lead-up to the shoot out that you want to use that shot — if at all. And how much time do I want between LOOKING for the gun and then finally REACHING for the gun?
MACDONALD: That’s the thing is trying to make the timing of all these things hit at the right places. Keep the tension going and just make sure that the audience is aware of everything that’s happening.
The guys hiding — are they doing anything that we should be concerned about? Plus Candy and Jesse not breaking their stare at all and just keep the tension going and then let it unfold the best way possible. I thought we did a great job with that.
HULLFISH: Yeah. It felt like an old Clint Eastwood Western stare-down duel type thing.
MACDONALD: Yeah. We kind of used a little bit of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly to kind of get an idea of how those stare-downs used to work and then kind of formulate a little bit from them.
HULLFISH: Did you actually watch that movie while you were cutting or just before you cut that scene?
MACDONALD: I did. I picked it up and watched that sequence before I fully started to cut it, just to get an idea of how they went about it and kind of mimic that western feel in the big showdown —
HULLFISH: I love it. I definitely got that vibe, despite the fact that it was inside of a welding shop.
Skip, thank you so much for spending so much time with me. I really had a lovely conversation. I think the viewers and listeners will have gotten a lot out of this discussion.
MACDONALD: Thank you. It was wonderful to speak to you and thank you for having me on.
The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed, and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.