The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is on Amazon Prime Video and is in its second season. Last season, editor Kate Sanford, ACE, won the ACE Eddie for Best Edited Comedy Series for Non-Commercial Television for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Episode: “Simone.” Sanford has won previous ACE Eddies for Treme and The Wire. Tim Streeto, ACE is the other editor on the series and was nominated for an ACE Eddie for his work on the series as well, for the episode, “We’re Going to the Catskills!” Streeto also has a past ACE Eddie nomination for “Boardwalk Empire.”
Sanford and Streeto have both worked together on the TV series Boardwalk Empire, Vinyl and are currently working on the series Fosse/Verdon.
Streeto’s other credits include editing the feature films The Squid and the Whale, and The Only Living Boy in New York. Sanford’s feature editorial work includes Outside Providence and O. Sanford also worked on TV shows, The Deuce, The Wire and Sex and the City.
This interview with Sanford and Streeto is about their work on Season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
HULLFISH: There is some pretty elaborate choreography of both the camera and the blocking of the actors. Can you talk to me about using those shots or those scenes?
STREETO: One of the first things we found working on the show was that Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino — our showrunners who direct most of the episodes — design these very beautifully blocked scenes that are sometimes shot as oners. Amy used to be a dancer, I think it probably comes from that background. She really sees the camera and the actors working together as a dance.
Our primary DP is David Mullen and he’s amazing at building these things. And we have great Steadicam operators on the show, Larry McConkey and his brother Jim. What’s interesting editorially is that we’ll get 15, 16, sometimes more takes of the oners and we’ll see the progression from the first take as they iron out the kinks and tweak the blocking. Usually, there’s one hero take but my first instinct when I see a oner is to look for a place to cut, to see if I can get the best parts of several takes. On our show, there aren’t a lot of quick camera movements that you can hide a cut in or a morph or something, but there’s some manipulation that can be done sometimes. But our crew and cast are so great at executing these shots that there’s always at least one really great take.
SANFORD: One of the hardest things about editing the show is what to do with a Steadicam shot or a series of Steadicam shots to speed them up? One of the first sequences I put together in season one was when Susie comes to find Midge at home and they take a Steadicam tour around her apartment. Then they go upstairs and take another Steadicam tour around the parents’ apartment. There are a couple of cutaways but mostly I’m cutting in and out of these giant, beautifully choreographed masters. I put it together and nervously brought it to Amy on set and she just had just one note which was: “faster.”
So that was my introduction to her as a director, and I wondered how am I going to make basically two Steadicam shots go faster. First I’m going to take out every frame of air that I can when I have a chance to cut. But how do you almost invisibly pull things together- whether it’s doing fluid morphs or speed changes or, like Tim said, blending things together, which doesn’t work very often. We use every trick we can find to make things go quickly and then if — God forbid there’s a pause in the action — maybe there’s a line that we can add to fill in that off-camera pause.
STREETO: It’s less that the camera needs to move quickly and more because the dialogue needs to be flowing freely.
SANFORD: Just keep it snappy.
STREETO: You’ll sometimes hear some sound design or some extra lines of ADR that we’ve added to fill the — I wouldn’t call it “dead space” — but just the air in those scenes.
SANFORD: Like Ethan going, “Hey lady! Hey lady!” in that sequence. Just filling in a little breath where there isn’t any dialogue.
HULLFISH: Just to basically keep the rhythm of the dialogue up?
SANFORD: Yes, to keep the rhythm of the dialogue going.
STREETO: The pace was really the first thing we had to get right on the show. The scripts are long. They’re like 80 pages and it’s a one hour show. So people are talking very quickly. That was something that took some getting used to. But the writing is very strong. There aren’t jokes stepping on top of each other. They really know how to write so that a little laugh, followed by a bigger laugh, doesn’t get jammed up in the faster pace. You feel that as you’re watching the actors perform in dailies. Then when we cut it, it gets faster. Then once Dan and Amy get into it, we tighten it up even more. “It’s gotta be faster.”
SANFORD: It’s hard to do it on the first pass even if you’re trying your best to cut as fast as you can. There’s still little bits of air. I think percentage-wise my editing time breaks down to 30 percent assembly, 70 percent tweaking and re-cutting.
SANFORD: I’ll just keep honing and the micro-tweaking of frames is really important on this show. I think that’s really where we perfect our rhythm. We both really try to tighten our episodes by ourselves, and then when we get in the room with Amy and Dan they say, “OK, pull that together. Pull THAT together.” We take out every frame we can. I usually work with waveforms turned on in my timeline so that I can see really how tight I can get and I’ll use at least two tracks so I can overlap just the slightest bit. But once we get it that tight THEN we look at it and say, “now, maybe we’re going too fast. Let’s put a breath here. Let’s just stop for a tiny bit of emphasis there,” and those pauses can be very meaningful.
STREETO: The other thing about the show is that it’s not just a comedy. It’s not “30 Rock.” We have moments like when Midge sees her father in the audience at the Concord and that’s a very heavy moment. His discovery of her secret career aspiration is a big moment with a lot of weight, so you have to play those dramatic beats too. So it’s a delicate balance to find.
HULLFISH: I was also struck by the fact that the two of you must have to be concerned with maintaining the pacing of the dialogue between the scenes where they’re oners and the scenes that are more edited normally, like the scene in Paris where Midge is eating dinner with her parents and all of the shots are cut between medium shots. They have to feel rhythmically like the oners.
SANFORD: Right. Exactly. That was a tough scene. At the same time that all this is happening and we’re pulling up the pace and sometimes we’re pulling it up faster than it was performed, we have to maintain perfect continuity with the behavior of the actors. And I would say that these actors are challenged to do more with props and dialogue simultaneously than on anything I’ve ever seen. They are given more business to do by moving things around with their hands, eating, drinking, smoking, whatever they’re doing, as well as complicated blocking — moving from one place in the room to another — while saying their lines at record speed. The expectation is that all the continuity will be perfect and our showrunners notice more than I would expect. They have an eagle eye, so we can’t get away with much. Sometimes we’ll need to pull out our digital toolkits again to make sure everything matches perfectly.
HULLFISH: It’s an interesting point about the props and stuff because that’s where I definitely notice myself having trouble with continuity is — for example — somebody petting a dog. As an actor or as a human being, you kind of just want to pet the dog whenever you want, but if you don’t pet the dog the same way in the wide shot and the close-up, there’s no cutting them if you have to maintain continuity.
STREETO: As Kate said, anything where people are drinking and smoking is always challenging. Our cast is really amazing at maintaining continuity though. Especially the women, because it’s a period show and they’re in high heels all the time and they have purses, they have hats, they have gloves, coats. They have this beautiful wardrobe that they have to fluidly take off and put on, move around, put their purse down the same way.
It’s stuff that women don’t necessarily have as much of today, so they’re really performing all of that technical stuff on top of keeping the pace of their dialogue and performance going. I’ve worked on other things where the actors are more “Method” and loose in the way that they handle those mechanics. Of course, you want actors working on performance and not worrying about continuity, but it can really change the way you cut the scene, based on when they’re taking a drag off their cigarette or whatever.
HULLFISH: One of the things that I was just stunned by and I can’t imagine how you cut around it was there was a great scene in a French nightclub with a couple of transvestites and a woman that was impromptu translating Midge’s act for her as she was speaking and you had to overlap the English and French dialogue.
SANFORD: That was really hard. When I first looked at the script there were literally two columns on the page of solid dialogue: one English and one French, which are meant to be performed simultaneously. I immediately wondered how it was going to work. How would they record it? How would I edit it? Amy and Dan are so ambitious, they insisted that it worked in the 2-shots as well as their isolated singles. It was obviously a lot of editing work to find takes that could cut together, but I give so much credit to Rachel Brosnahan and the actress who played the translator, Leslie Fray — she just did an incredible job.
So I was able to pick takes and cut them together carefully where they were speaking at the same time. And we did not re-record any of that dialogue. There might have been a place where I wanted to cut where that cut point didn’t match exactly in terms of continuity (hand gestures, head positions) or on the very word where I was cutting (the English and French weren’t overlapping in exactly the same way from one shot to another) but I managed to finesse it and smooth it over or paste a word in here or there. I had some high school French, so I had a basic understanding of the lines.
We didn’t have wild track but we had one setup each where they were in singles speaking without the other character’s audio. So there were opportunities where I could replace a few words and I did some dialogue surgery. And then when it was all over I insisted that we get a native French speaker to come in here and certify that it all made sense, because I could imagine that in cutting from one angle to another I would lose a syllable of French that was important and if you are a native French speaker the illusion would be broken. So somebody came in and we did a teensy bit of tweaking, but it just gave me the confidence to say, “we can put this out there and even people who speak French will be delighted.”
HULLFISH: Kate, you and I had a conversation on one of your previous projects that there were some rules against pre-lapping but on this show, I definitely heard pre-laps. Are there any specific rules about cutting on this show? It also seemed like there were not a lot of reaction shots and basically, you’re almost always on the person speaking?
SANFORD: A lot of times we’re on the person speaking. The showrunners like to see people start to say their lines, it gives the scene more energy, but I don’t think there’s a rule against cutting away. It’s just that we’re cutting so fast that sometimes it just works better to have someone say their line and then cut to the reverse. We definitely do have reaction shots. There’s no rule against that. And the show needs to have a musical flow, so anything that accomplishes that is fair game.
Before, Steve, you and I were talking about The Wire and how difficult it was on a David Simon project to allow for some of the basic grammatical editorial techniques we take for granted- like pre-lapping or using score. We don’t really have specific rules here, but I guess we’ve evolved into a style where we try not to use traditional score as much as using songs as score.
STREETO: I don’t think there’s ever an instance in the script where there’s major pre-lapping or voiceover into the incoming scene or anything. That’s not their style. Their style reminds me of older comedy, like Neil Simon or the Dick Van Dyke Show. It’s really about cutting how it’s funniest. If there’s a funny reaction to a line, you may go with the reaction over the person delivering the funny thing because that’s just where the laugh is. I wouldn’t say there are rules per se, but there’s a lot on the page to guide you.
HULLFISH: Talk to me a little bit about that music. You mentioned not using a lot of score but using a lot of music from the period. Are a lot of those specific cues in the script? Are you two choosing those tracks?
STREETO: They do put a lot of specific tracks in the scripts. They have a really impressive musical vocabulary — Amy and Dan — and they have a box full of iPods where they have their entire record collection digitized and they’ll come in with a little speaker and try a bunch of different stuff, but it’s always a really specific thing that they’re looking for. Their taste is very eclectic, show tunes, jazz, classical. And then for the end credits, we always use a modern (meaning post-1980) song.
SANFORD: It’s like the songs they grew up with in high school.
STREETO: Yeah, like that. It’s a really specific thing that comes almost entirely from them. We do have a library that we’ve been building of stuff that sometimes we’ll throw something on a jukebox or whatever. We really don’t have score. We have a few things every year that get recorded with a full orchestra. Bill Elliot will come in and do a full orchestrated arrangement to sort of get give some breadth to some moments, like “You’re in Paris” or “Shall We Dance?” but we don’t have an original score composer.
HULLFISH: You mentioned kind of an old fashioned comedy feel to the show. I was noticing — having watched a couple of older comedies recently — that a lot of it’s played in wide shots. It’s not a lot of tight stuff, which is really hard to pull off. That’s where the actors are doing their thing and you’re allowing them that space. Talk to me a little bit about coverage. What’s the typical coverage that you’re getting?
SANFORD: We often have traditional coverage. Medium overs and singles. I think for the most part they’re a little looser than traditional television. I think they like to include the environment in the shot because the gorgeous production design helps tell the story. Where possible they like to shoot a two-shot and, as long as the pace will hold, to see two actors performing together.
Like that sequence we were talking about in the French translation: I originally cut it so that it kind of got tighter and tighter as things got more intense. And their idea was to have coverage bouncing back and forth in the middle and then end with them both speaking in a two-shot to see the most spectacular way of showing their interaction if it would work- if they were speaking quickly enough and it was funny, to have them both in the same shot. I try to find opportunities for our main principal actors to be performing together in a medium shot.
STREETO: There’s definitely something visually funny about the contrast between Midge and Susie. They look so different together and their posture is different and there’s a physicality there that is definitely part of the humor. Particularly in Season 2, when we go to the Catskills, Susie is totally a fish out of water. There’s so much wonderful performance stuff that you get in wider shots with these actors.
SANFORD: Amy and Dan also just love set dressing. They love costumes. They just love the full visual look of it and I think that’s really an important part of the show. That informs our editorial decisions. For instance, if it’s a set like the hair salon in the Catskills, it’s so fabulous looking that we don’t necessarily want to break it up into smaller shots. They wanted to see some of those crazy hair dryers and crazy smocks that the ladies wear when they’re getting their hair done. That’s just funny to look at.
HULLFISH: David Mullen the cinematographer. is someone I know and there are just some gorgeous shots. It must be so hard to balance — that first episode Midge walks down a beautifully lit street after her final phone call, and I’d just want to stay with that… but you need to balance “We’ve got these gorgeous visuals” with “We need to tell a story.”
STREETO: We have so many gorgeous shots and weirdly they don’t seem indulgent, ever. He’s just a real artist and we love David because he comes up here to the cutting room a lot to hang out. He’s such a film fan. His references are great, really classic and beautiful but they never feel pretentious. He’s just right in the zone. They love him and his work is amazing.
SANFORD: Yeah. Amy and Dan love him. They all want to make beautiful, beautiful images.
STREETO: I often just stop to marvel at the images.
HULLFISH: I’m fascinated with your point about his references to cinema history and I think a lot of people have referenced what a great value that is. Can you two talk just a little bit about how having some sense of what’s gone before allows you to be a good communicator, a good collaborator? Just being a cinephile what does that do for you?
STREETO: Often I’ll be doing something on the show that will remind me of something that I love. We had a few scenes at Bell Labs that really cracked me up. It was just this giant place full of men in gray suits. Abe has to have several conversations in a “secure room,” where people keep getting buzzed in, interrupting the conversation, and there was great comedy in that. It reminded me of Get Smart. When I saw the dailies, I could feel by the way they shot it and the way it was written that it was that type of comedy. So, yes, it’s exciting to sort of tune in to that, and it’s important to be literate in that way to understand that.
HULLFISH: What I’m interested in is how that understanding of cinema history or great classics for specific directors — how that can help you communicate or collaborate with a director. For example if they say, “I want this to feel like Neil Simon.” You’ve got to understand what that means.
STREETO: I don’t think they’ve ever said it like that, but that is a very interesting question. Those kinds of discussions can happen early on when I meet with directors and producers when I’m interviewing for a job. If you can zero in on some details of the script that remind you of something classic, they usually respond to that well. It shows you have the same reference points, some film literacy, and that’s a good thing to have.
SANFORD: I think early on we definitely had those discussions about “His Girl Friday,” screwball comedy, Preston Sturges. The scripts are always deeply character-based, but they are also extremely verbal. They just love wordplay. Tim and I had the benefit of watching the pilot, which Brian Kates cut. I studied it and was able to talk about it with Dan and Amy when I met them, and I kind of understood at the beginning where they were coming from and what kind of pace they liked. That was more of a starting point for me- to talk about the show that they actually made, not necessarily to talk about movies of the past.
HULLFISH: For a muse or whatever, did you go back and start watching any of those types of comedies that were referenced?
STREETO: No. I’m always torn about watching stuff in preparation for a job I’m doing because I want my work to have a freshness to it, but I also want to be well-versed. Usually I have a pretty strong memory for movies I’ve seen. So I prefer to go off my impressions, my memories. Hopefully then my work can feel “inspired by” instead of “imitating.”
HULLFISH: Something like Umbrellas of Cherbourg was a big inspiration for Damien Chazelle in doing La La Land.
STREETO: I watched that after they did our Paris stuff and I could feel that that’s what they were inspired by. But that was kind of after the fact.
SANFORD: For me I feel like there are two ways to go. Sometimes I spend my time trying to go back and find references and sometimes I think it’s just about sitting in a room and absorbing the rhythm of the person you’re with. And I like to refine just by learning their rules and the style guide that they’re bringing to the piece by making subtle corrections to what you’re doing. For this job anyway, that was enough information because we’re going so quickly and the learning curve was very fast.
STREETO: The show felt very new and we just wanted to bring a fresh vision to that.
HULLFISH: What is your approach to a new scene – a blank timeline and fresh dailies?
STREETO: With standard coverage, my approach is to cut multiple versions of the scene, if possible. I usually start with a version that’s all close-ups, then build out from there, all mediums, figure out how to use the master. Some of my early versions are more like exercises to get familiar with the footage and performances than actual assemblies. It’s methodical, and helps especially when there are a lot of set-ups and I can’t decide how to start. I’ll just start with version one, then version two, then it’s a little easier to see the scene take shape. For something like our standup scenes, I build Rachel’s performance first. Piece by piece. Usually when Midge does standup something goes wrong right before she goes on stage, so it’s awkward. So I have to get her performance right, then figure out the audience reactions.
SANFORD: My approach is much more instinctual. I will sometimes use selects for longer scenes, but I’m too impatient, so I just start building it out. I try to tell myself the story of the scene piece by piece. I know some people will do a close-up version of the entire scene and then a medium or wide shot version of a scene first, then were them together but I’m too impatient. When I’m done with a scene, I will go back in and start making revisions right away- I might decide to do a section in close-up after I watch it through once, so I’ll copy my sequence and revise, experiment, and refine to get to my favorite first version of the scene.
HULLFISH: Dan and Amy have directed many of the episodes, but how do you interact with new directors who come in. In a very real way, you two are more familiar with the show than they are. How do you shepherd them? Or don’t you?
STREETO: TV guest directors don’t get much time in the cutting room, so I’m very careful to allow them to make their version of the episode. They all know that ultimately it’s the show runner’s show, so they may ask you, “Will they like this? Is this OK to do this?” And that gives us a chance to explain our understanding of the style of the show and how it will probably eventually play out. But it’s important for them to work on the episode as they see it, because ultimately it gets recut by the show runners.
SANFORD: A guest director will also tend to shoot more coverage. They need to protect themselves so that if they try something that the show runners don’t love, we can use the coverage to get what they want and especially to pace things up. It does make it a little harder to “find the show” with guest directors, but of course we always manage to bring it into the Maisel world. When Amy and Dan direct, they come in and work with us like any director would, do several passes, then they usually invite the other to come watch and they work in the room and do a pass together. They really complement and support each other.
HULLFISH: Thank you both for a really interesting interview.
SANFORD: Thanks Steve!
STREETO: Thanks Steve!
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.