“The Handmaid’s Tale” is a critical success and one of the many gems of TV’s new “golden era.” It has won two Golden Globe Awards, a BAFTA, numerous Emmys and won an ACE Eddie for Best Edited Series for non-commercial TV. (won by Wendy Hallam Martin and Julian Clarke.) Wendy also just won the Best Edited One Hour Scripted CCE Award (Canadian Cinema Editors) for The Handmaid’s Tale episode – “Late.”
Art of the Cut interviewed two of the series’ main editors, Wendy Hallam Martin, ACE/CCE and Chris Donaldson, CCE. Donaldson has edited numerous features including Remember and Take This Waltz, and TV series including Kids in the Hall, Vikings and Penny Dreadful. Hallam Martin has also edited feature films, including Iron Maiden: Flight 666 and Say Uncle, as well as TV series: Saving Hope, Dark Matter and The Tudors.
HULLFISH: Let’s just start with what your editing schedule is like for an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale.
DONALDSON: We generally shoot eight days.
HALLAM MARTIN: The series is mostly block shot doing two episodes at once. We try to keep up to camera with the dailies. In theory, we’re meant to get two days (after our last day of dailies) to assemble and then the director comes in, does his or her four days and then the producers do their cut. That takes a week or so then off it goes to MGM/Hulu and they take a couple days to give us a first round of notes. We do those notes, put in our act breaks and then they give us a second round of notes and it’s usually locked up right off that. It’s been a pretty streamlined process this season.
DONALDSON: All told roughly 20 days of editing.
HULLFISH: So are you doing notes for one show when you’re working on another episode?
DONALDSON: Yeah for sure. We block shoot, and are generally assembling, and working with a director or producer on their cuts throughout the schedule. You’re not doing the dailies every day in a block but you’re doing them half the time, and if everything is going perfectly according to plan it sort of works out that you get your director out and catch up on your dailies. But as things start to bottleneck a little bit it can become quite difficult because you’re always managing dailies, plus producers, plus network. So you can have three or even up to four episodes going at once.
HALLAM MARTIN: Or maybe you’re still waiting on a scene.
HULLFISH: Is it tricky editing a TV series where there are commercials for some Hulu customers, but there aren’t commercials for other Hulu customers.
HALLAM MARTIN: We have to deliver one master for MGM with closed blacks. We cut it initially like a full show and then the act breaks go in for Hulu in the final pass.
HULLFISH: One of the things that I thought was really interesting about the show and about the editing of the show is there’s so much subtext. People are never meaning what they’re saying. How do you deal with that?
HALLAM MARTIN: Reed Morano was our director for the first three episodes. She created an incredibly detailed look book with pictures and music as a bible for the show. Bruce Miller (Show-runner, writer) Colin Watkinson (our DP) and the rest of the creative team had very long discussions about how the show should be executed and Reed’s initial vision of how the show should look and feel came to life. So when watching dailies you could tell immediately how the episodes should go together. It’s a point-of-view show. It’s Offred’s (Elisabeth Moss)point of view. We initially got notes from the studio and network saying “the pilot’s so slow. Why is it so slow? Can you pace it up a bit. We knew that a fast pace would not allow the viewer to get in her head. The situation for Offred is dark and dangerous. The dialogue is not going to be snappy. She’s watching everything she says. She’s trying to analyze what is going on. So the pace was really her inner feelings visually stated basically. The subtext is what we are trying to explore.
DONALDSON: One way to put it is that the actual dialogue is on either side of the line of dialogue, so that’s why we have a different pace. You’re really sculpting the silences, which in television is a bit unusual. Handmaids is about the spaces between the dialogue, and when you have actors like Elisabeth Moss and Yvonne Strahovski and Joseph Fiennes…
HALLAM MARTIN: Ann Dowd….
DONALDSON: Yes. They play the silences. They play the beats. And so if anything, a lot of what we’re doing when it comes to pace is managing that. It really is about letting the actors find the moments and then we sculpt that pace. We say that these scenes are not democracies. You are experiencing the world through their point of view and most frequently the emotional point of view of specific characters. You don’t cut to somebody walking in the door. Generally somebody hears the door open and then you see what they see. And that is our approach in cutting the show. It’s somebody’s experience of somebody walking in the door, not someone walking in the door.
HULLFISH: When you’re editing a scene that is so deeply embedded in someone’s point of view do you have to get in that head? Almost acting along with them?
DONALDSON: We have an incredible DP — Colin Watkinson — who tells a story with the camera as well. He’s an amazing, very emotionally intuitive camera operator, with a very close relationship to Lizzie as a performer, so the emotional intent is very evident in the dailies. We feel we extend that emotional connection moment to moment, scene to scene to help create an organic whole.
HULLFISH: Something that I regularly talk about with TV editors is that idea that in TV, the director is not the boss in the same way that the director on a film is — they’re more hired guns and you have to be real stewards for the show and help them conform to the style of a show that they may not know very well.
DONALDSON: Bruce has an expression on the show which I think is a fairly common expression in the TV world, that it has to feel “on show.” When somebody is new to the show, because the cutting can be so specific and not necessarily what people are used to doing, they are learning what it is to be “on show.” We are the first level. The footage comes to us and we build it like we know. And then they guide us and we guide them in making it feel like Handmaid’s, because that’s what we’re going for. The show has a very specific feel. It’s as much about feel as anything else. Reed Morano, the director of the first three episodes, was all about feel. Obsessive about feel. And sound had a lot to do with that. In the notes you sent us, you asked about temp sound. These are the most elaborate temp soundtracks that I’ve ever created.
HALLAM MARTIN: Yeah we have 24 tracks of audio going. In the first season, our assistant Ana Yavari created intricate soundscapes. You mentioned in your notes about going into flashbacks — how they build into the transition — it’s all coming out of their head and then boom, we’re in a flashback. Those are all built and thought about very carefully. Sound effects are chosen to express the inner emotions of the character, not placed literally.
DONALDSON: Ana Yavari is actually editing an episode of the second season.
HALLAM MARTIN: YAY! (applauds)
DONALDSON: The flashbacks aren’t narrative. We see the flashbacks as not parallel storytelling. In effect, they are more like emotions that come over the characters. So, therefore, you get into them through something that is affecting, textural, it’s a sound, it’s something that’s lingering, it’s creating an emotional bridge to the material. They are very much the lived experience of characters and so when we’re cutting the flashbacks that’s what we’re going for. You’re going to find your way through this thing that on some level is expository, but is really emotionally expository.
HULLFISH: There is very little story to the flashback. You’re not really learning story, you’re being exposed to character and their inner emotion.
HALLAM MARTIN: Correct.
DONALDSON: Over the course of the first season we do build the world that way. In the second episode of the first season, the flashbacks are all based around the birth of her daughter. And then in the third episode, it’s all about how Gilead became Gilead: watching the character of June being at work and all of a sudden she’s not allowed to be at work anymore.
HALLAM MARTIN: Her credit cards are cancelled. Episode three is a big turn because then you realize how they got to where they are today.
HULLFISH: I just had to cut a scene like this myself and these types of scenes are very difficult to cut, so I will ask a question as someone who really wants to learn himself: what happens is — if you’re cutting a scene and you know you’ve got to get certain information across to an audience, you think, “How can I do this most efficient way?” But when all you are trying to convey is that an emotional beat happens, it could go on for 12 minutes or literally 12 frames.
HALLAM MARTIN: Yes. This is absolutely the hardest show I think I’ve ever done. It’s something we hear from the directors as well. How do you get in that mode? How do you feel your way through it to make it feel organic and real? It’s a very delicate balance.
DONALDSON: And the rules change. In regular editing, you have a master and you have a close-up and the medium shots and you’re going to dance your way through, eventually hitting the meat of the scene in close. But we’re frequently in close-ups for the whole scene, or we’re wide when we should be close. You never know what the emotional path through the footage is, but that’s what is essential to seek out and follow, regardless of the corners you paint yourself into. Not relying on the sensible thing to do, means I feel thrust up against my creative limitations every moment of the day. But that’s thrilling.
HULLFISH: I was talking to Kate Sanford, who cuts “The Deuce” on HBO, and she said that on that show there is a rule about not pre-lapping — J cutting. You guys definitely pre-lap a lot of the flashbacks with sound design, but what about dialogue or in other places?
HALLAM MARTIN: We do have an unspoken rule that we don’t pre-lap or post-lap dialogue between scenes. When we tried this at a director’s suggestion, it felt untrue to our aesthetic.
DONALDSON: It wasn’t a preset idea. It’s just, all of a sudden, you realize, “Well we’ve never done that.” Then, once you realize that an aesthetic has been slightly codified, when there are opportunities to break it, it just doesn’t feel right. I was working with a director in the second season and she mentioned it and I said, we never really do dialogue pre-laps from one scene to the next.
HULLFISH: Going back a bit, you mentioned that a lot of the great sound work is started by your assistants. Do you feel like you need to direct them in any way or do you just unleash them?
HALLAM MARTIN: Ana is a creative soul and she just went to town. Julian Clark who started the pilot (but had to leave due to a prior commitment) directed her quite specifically and the two of them along with Reed set the tone.
DONALDSON: Obviously we suggest and say this is the feel. We use a lot of slow motion and sometimes I’ll just say, “dreamy details” and she’s on her way.
HULLFISH: I was also struck by how much world-building the sound does and gives you a sense of making the scenes come alive.
HALLAM MARTIN: Lots of birds. Lots of creaky footsteps. Lots of wind. Reed was a big proponent of wind. We wanted to make Gilead as beautiful as it could be just because the subject matter is so dark. We wanted a juxtaposition of dark storytelling but really beautiful images and soundscapes.HULLFISH: Was there a conscious effort to keep alive the idea that we are in present day or in the future? Because otherwise, you fall into it feeling like a Scarlet Letter period drama.
DONALDSON: Certainly with the flashbacks, as the season progresses, you get the sense that this is our world. Since the costumes, as you say, are so iconic and reminiscent of a previous era, you do have to constantly remind the audience this is not in the past, this is an alternate future: Gilead is a police state. So we’re always adding military helicopters or sirens. or walkie-talkies. You constantly have to put them in the framework of a contemporary society.
HULLFISH: How do you deal with all of the voice over from Offred? Do you guys scratch that or do they record that prior to you having to edit it?
HALLAM MARTIN: Sometimes Lizzie will do a scratch track for us if she has time on set. If not, then we’ll get an assistant to read it. It’s all scripted ahead of time so we just lay it in for cutting purposes.
DONALDSON: We create a rough timing with a scratch track because you need that when you’re building it.
HALLAM MARTIN: When we eventually receive her temp performance of the voice over and drop it in, you see all of the voice over on her face perfectly synchronized. It’s all in her head. It’s pretty amazing.
DONALDSON: So amazing. That’s why — in a lot of cases — the pruning of the voice over is a really essential part of the process because Lizzie is so incredible at expressing it that frequently it’s kind of like putting a hat on a hat. It’s so clear what she’s thinking that you can pull the voice over out….
HALLAM MARTIN: And still understand what’s going on.
HULLFISH: The pacing is beautiful, but it is fairly slow and deliberate. Is it hard to fight for that
DONALDSON: In the first season I think they’d say we came to a consensus. There’s a moment in episode six where Offred walks to the commander’s door and walks into this close up. She realizes she has to go back to the commander to get something from him. So she has to take it from this sort of disgust through to a seductive place and so that whole transformation happens very minutely and — by contemporary standards — very slowly in a close up of Lizzie at the door, and then she slowly turns around to the other side. And it’s extraordinary to watch but if you’re accustomed to regular television pacing it seems quite long. But Bruce was adamant that we stick with it. The emotional story happens on her face and you need to be with her every moment as she goes from disgust through to an idea and finally resolves. It’s an extraordinary performance and we just had to allow the time for it.
HULLFISH: I’m fascinated with the idea that you made that she is memorizing the voiceover that she’s not going to say so that when she’s acting she’s acting what the voice over is
HALLAM MARTIN: Correct. Exactly. To a tee. It’s astounding how she does it. There can be a half a page of voice over and she does it all. She does all the changes. You see it all on her face. It’s crazy.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk about music — temp music and score.
HALLAM MARTIN: Reed brought a lot of music to the table. In our temp score we used a lot of Sicario, Prisoners, Zero Dark Thirty. A lot of Johan Johansson basically. There are some very surprising needledrops, not necessarily in episode one, but in two and three for sure. We used a lot of soundtrack temp and then once Adam Taylor (our composer) was on board we could call him up — Reed and I would be in the cutting room and we’d call him to ask for a scratch track. We’d send him the scene and literally half an hour later he’d have a scratch track ready for us to drop into the cut. He’s amazing. Now that we have a season behind us, and we mostly use Adam’s season one score as temp, but season two takes a different turn and we’re needing different flavors of music. So we can’t temp entirely with Adam’s cues.
DONALDSON: Now it’s really just when you need new colors, that’s when we have to search. But the great thing is, once you present a new emotional idea to Adam, he’s so amazing at turning it into our world. As to the needle drop, these songs are essential to connecting Gilead to our world. These are songs that these characters would know and connect to, our audience too, and they bridge the gap between the dystopian future and our present day.
HULLFISH: Getting in and out of flashbacks always seemed to be a little different.
DONALDSON: Each time it’s a different emotional trajectory into the flashback, so that is what you’re honoring. It’s not really creating an aesthetic. The only consistent aesthetic choice is that you’re trying to find a way in emotionally or sensory.
HALLAM MARTIN: Someone asked me, “Why don’t you guys use dissolves more?” Dissolves can be beautiful and can work really well, and we do use them on the show, though very sparingly. We also use jump cuts very sparingly. They have to be emotionally warranted. They’re not just jump cuts for jump cut’s sake. Everything is very deliberate. Flashbacks can be non-linear but they have to be emotionally grounded. The technique can’t surpass the intent of what we’re trying to say within the flashback.
HULLFISH: Are you cutting the flashbacks any different than the rest of the show?
DONALDSON: Reed, in her original director’s notes for the project, described Gilead as feeling like Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange) and the flashbacks as Malick (The Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line). The shorthand of that is the symmetrical compositions of Gilead, the locked off frames — the sense of being trapped in a frame. Whereas the flashbacks are meant to be more associative and emotional. That’s how she described it in her notes.
HALLAM MARTIN: And we just ran with it.
HULLFISH: For me, one of the important parts of the flashbacks is that they keep the audience from becoming numb to the fact that this is just the way life is for these characters in this story. The flashbacks force you to remember that the characters are basically just like you.
HALLAM MARTIN: Aunt Lydia says, “This will become normal.” And as a viewer that’s what happens unless you’ve got these flashbacks to remind you what life used to be.
HULLFISH: I’ve had scenes or projects that I really don’t want to be cutting because the subject matter is awful or what’s happening to the characters is awful and for you guys the whole thing is awful. How do you deal with something like the rape scene? I had to watch that for two minutes you had to live with that for a month.
HALLAM MARTIN: Working on this series has been creatively extremely rewarding but it is hard not to take things home with you. The show feels incredibly relevant on both a political level and as a woman, on the #metoo level. It’s hard not to be affected. There are scenes that left both Chris and I physically shaking after screening them and we had to leave the room to decompress.
DONALDSON: For me, when I’m assembling a scene like that, I have to spread it out. I’ve had scenes where I had to cut it in stages, where I said to myself, ‘I can’t cut this anymore’ and walk away. One scene specifically, I did the beginning of the scene one day, and then 4 or 5 days later did the last part of scene. It can be very brutal. It’s a long time to be in that headspace. We started this season at the end of September and we’re finishing in early May. I love cutting it, and I’m not complaining, but it’s a long time to be in Gilead.
HALLAM MARTIN: A lot of red wine at night.
HULLFISH: What is your approach to a blank timeline?
HALLAM MARTIN: I screen my dailies and begin to assemble from my gut. If something affects me I’ll grab that little piece and throw it in the timeline. Performances for me dictate everything. I don’t care about sizes or anything else that’s happening. Performance dictates and then I sit back and try and watch it as a viewer and try to feel where I want to be when. When working with this caliber of Cast, we have the luxury of being able to choose more than one size/angle because they are just that good in every take.
Chris and I work together very well. We’ll feed off each other. I’ll show him a scene and say “what do you think of this?” And vice versa. We really work well as a team.
DONALDSON: I start to watch dailies and sort of experience them. I don’t reread the scene beforehand. I’ve read the script obviously, but I never re-read a scene before viewing dailies. I need to see how they got it across, and then, generally, I’ll actually build it entirely before I go back to the script. Once I’m done, I’ll look at the script and go, “Oh I missed that” or whatever. If I get lost when if I’m assembling I’ll look at it, but that doesn’t happen that often with our actors.
HALLAM MARTIN: I don’t look at any continuity paperwork before I assemble as to not have my reaction to the dailies be influenced. Once I have it together, I will go back and review.
DONALDSON: I check in terms of if there’s a select, but after I screen, and before I assemble. While watching dailies, I make notes, but my notes are literally one word or a line of dialogue that I think is good.
If it is a huge scene with lots of visuals or whatever, I’ll make a pretty substantial selects reel, but then I don’t cut the scene right away. I go away and work on other stuff and then I come back and I’ll look at my selects. In some cases I find I learn how to cut the scene through the selects. I’ll version a fair bit on this show, just because on Handmaids I like to paint myself in corners. And by that I mean, if there’s something that seems to be emotionally intuitive to me as the way to get through the scene, I have to follow it even if it’s a stupid decision. But I also don’t want to waste other people’s time. So I actually waste Wendy’s time a fair bit because I’ll say to Wendy, “Come look at this. Is this insane?” Because it’s all emotionally intuitive and you’re doing subjective, not objective storytelling. There are a million ways through these scenes sometimes, and that fires off whatever OCD tendencies I have, and I have to explore them. I find that helps me too when directors or producers are in the cutting room and they’ll say, “well I’m not too sure about that.” So then I can say, “Well, I have another way, Let me show you.”
I’m the same as Wendy in the way we build these scenes, which is: “performance is everything.” So, therefore, you sometimes make illogical choices for lines. How can you put that line off-camera? That’s insane. But if you’re following through on subjective emotional storytelling, sometimes it’s about the characters not catching the line fully. It’s about not knowing what the look on the person’s face was. Especially with the bonnets, because it’s entirely isolating. And so you’re doing things that are counterintuitive as an editor sometimes. That can be time-consuming.
But we don’t always have tons of time. There’s a scene at the top of the new season, where the Handmaids are led into Fenway Park for a mock execution, that they needed feedback on right away. And Wendy had it for them in a matter of hours. It’s an extraordinary scene. I’m sure it’s changed since she assembled it, but not really in a way that is recognizable to me. Her very first version of it — that you did quickly so that everyone could see — was incredible.
HALLAM MARTIN: I have my struggles, trust me. We both have our own processes, but they work toward a single vision.
HULLFISH: So many people I’ve been talking to lately just love working with other editors.
DONALDSON: I’ve never worked on a feature that had another editor. In those instances, I rely on my assistant as my consiglieri.
HALLAM MARTIN: I love the camaraderie of working on a TV show with editors that really want to make the show the best it can be. Chris is amazing. We’re lucky to work on a show like this and to have a similar mindset. It’s rare,
DONALDSON: We have felt that collaborative spirit from the very beginning. All of the editors on the project, Julian Clark, Aaron Marshall, and now Ana Yavari are invested in making this show the best it can be.
HULLFISH: Finally, a question about the politics and creative partnership that is unique to TV editing: you have to be devoted to the director during the directors cut and then the director goes away and now you’ve got a new boyfriend or a new girlfriend all of a sudden. How do you manage that?
HALLAM MARTIN: I would say 90 percent of the directors that we have are within the wheelhouse that Bruce wants them to be. So us having that shorthand to what the show should be — I think we do help the director get there although a lot of them bring new, wonderful things to it. But we can sort of sway them in the way that we know the show will end up because we’re pretty attuned to that. So usually when the director is finished, Bruce has very little internal cutting that needs to change. It’s mostly big picture things. Once we established what the rules were and what we wanted from the show — this year (season 2) there’s quite a shorthand.
DONALDSON: Everyone is very much connected to the show. It’s a very egoless environment. Nobody is attempting to assert their own power. If anything, Bruce is unbelievably respectful of other people’s craft and artistic intent. If it’s something he doesn’t understand or appreciate or agree with he will really work hard to understand what it was that person was trying to articulate or achieve.
HALLAM MARTIN: (phone rings) I have a call from my director! I’ll have to leave you now. Bye!
HULLFISH: Thank you so much Wendy!
DONALDSON: When Wendy and I had our interviews, Bruce said, “Push it as far as you can and if it’s too much, we’ll pull you back.” But he has always been about us being as creative as possible and pushing the envelope as far as we can push it. And that’s an incredibly inspiring and empowering environment to work in.
HULLFISH: Awesome Chris, it was wonderful talking to you. Say goodbye to Wendy for me.
DONALDSON: I will. Thanks for including us in Art of the Cut.
To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish
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.