The TV show Yellowstone, on the Paramount Network, is directed by Taylor Sheridan. Sheridan also wrote and directed the chilling crime drama, Wind River. His editor on that project was Gary Roach, ACE. Roach was nominated for an ACE EDDIE and for an Oscar for his editing of American Sniper. His other films include Jersey Boys, Prisoners, Trouble with the Curve, Gran Torino and Letters from Iwo Jima. Before that, he was an assistant editor to Oscar-winning editor – and long-time Clint Eastwood collaborator – Joel Cox, whom I’ve interviewed.
Co-editing with Roach on Yellowstone is Evan Ahlgren. Ahlgren assisted Roach on Wind River and also received an Additional Editor credit on that film. Additional editing credits include 59 Seconds, The Institute, and Along Came the Devil.
I spoke to both of them about their work on Yellowstone.
HULLFISH: You guys worked together a couple of times as editor and assistant correct?
ROACH: We have. Yeah. I met Evan on Patriot, an Amazon show. Then we worked on Wind River together, and now we’re editing together on Yellowstone.
HULLFISH: How has that relationship progressed from the early assistant days to now working more as full peers?
ROACH: For me, it’s been absolutely amazing. When we started working together not only did we get along and see eye to eye on everything, we had very similar styles. He was truly the best assistant that I had ever had before. So it was such an amazing honor to work with him. And then we just progressed and our relationship progressed. He cut a couple of scenes on Wind River and he was definitely ready to edit. Working together now as a team in many cases we’ve been able to cut — let’s say a scene was 10 pages long — I can say, “I’ll cut the first half. You take it from here to the end.” When we’re done, we put it together and you can’t tell who cut the first half of the scene or the second half.
AHLGREN: When I got the opportunity to work with Gary the first time as his assistant it was such a huge honor. I was really excited. I always admired his style of editing and his movies. We have a similar style and that helps a lot especially if I’m ever doubting something I’ve done I can always go in his room and he always gives me honest feedback and vice versa. It’s really neat to have a relationship like that at work especially creatively to bounce off one another.
HULLFISH: Are you collaborating more like feature film co-editors or like TV co-editors where you each take alternating episodes? Or are you considering it like one big feature film where you’re just taking separate scenes?
AHLGREN: It’s like one big feature film. That’s how we worked with the first season. They cross-boarded the whole entire season. So you were never finishing one full episode at a time. You were always getting partials of Episode 2 then 4 then 1. You’re only getting pieces, so we just worked out who was going to cut which scenes and just treated it like one big ten-hour movie.
HULLFISH: There’s really a hybrid now between features and the way TV used to be done.
ROACH: Absolutely. Absolutely.
AHLGREN: Definitely. It gives the project a little something extra in the storytelling for television and it does seem like that’s the direction with a lot of TV shows.
HULLFISH: Do you guys do any audience-type screenings or friends-and-family screenings to get a sense of where you are? What’s keeping you objective?
ROACH: You know that’s a valid point. We did not do a whole lot of that. On season one we did have a friends-and-family screening of episode one. I wouldn’t call it a test screening. Taylor did invite some people that he wanted honest opinions from and he got them.
HULLFISH: Though you didn’t do formal screenings, even sitting with someone new — even an assistant — while watching an episode changes the way it feels, doesn’t it?
ROACH: Absolutely. Yes, it does take on a different feel and I actually like doing that. And I love getting my assistants’ opinions. It’s very cool for me to be able to get feedback from people — not just the director — but my assistant or Evan for sure. Even other colleagues. I’m always open to ideas and suggestions and I think that’s the best way to work. I’m happy to get suggestions and listen to what people have to say.
HULLFISH: But even without anyone giving you feedback, it changes the way you see the scene just to be sitting with somebody else.
AHLGREN: Hundred percent. There’s always a different vibe in the room when someone else enters. You kind of get their initial responses which are usually the most honest responses to what you’re showing them and I love that too. You could bring 10 different people in and they could have different emotional responses.
HULLFISH: When you sit down to new dailies that are coming in, how do you approach an empty timeline?
ROACH: I’m still more in the film world where I go back to when watching dailies was actually fun. I know that doesn’t happen in television as much, but I still like to watch every shot in its entirety if I have time. And I try to do that as often as possible and then it’s just a matter of starting to assemble and tell the story.
HULLFISH: Specifically, how do watch dailies? How active are you during that process?
ROACH: There are a lot of times when I’m watching dailies and watching a shot where I put in markers for specific moments or an action. I’ll just put in a locator for that as I go through each shot.
If there are multiple cameras, I like to look at it in Frame view to show me approximately what that camera is doing so I can look at the bin and see what shot I might want to do next without even opening it.
HULLFISH: Evan, have you adopted a similar style?
AHLGREN: I pretty much do it pretty close to how Gary likes it organized. So I’ve adapted to the bin style which wasn’t drastically different at all. If it’s multi-group we’ll put the group on top and the A/B cam right below it so you can see both sides of the frame.
Then when it comes to selects I’m a little bit different. I’ll watch the complete clip from beginning to end. But if I see something while I’m watching, I assemble while I’m viewing dailies sometimes. If I find a moment that I don’t want to lose, I’ll mark it and then I’ll put it in a timeline and start building. It’s always a good starting ground for me to cut a scene that way. I’m just kind of going off the cuff and going with my gut and throwing it together as I’m finding little moments or gems, even if it’s a repeated line — if there are two that are funny I’ll put them back to back and just build the scene that way. When I’m done I’ll go back through, watch and start molding it together. It just helps me get started. It gives me a little push to get building while I’m viewing dailies as well.
I’ll take notes sometimes while I’m watching.
HULLFISH: Do you guys use the multi groups to cut with? Or do you find yourself cutting with those individual cameras a lot?
ROACH: No. It’s so much easier to cut with the group clip, just for the simple fact that when we get in the room with the director, if he says, “Well, what was the other camera doing at that exact moment?” It’s literally one click of a button — if it’s 2 cameras or 10 cameras — you can change to any other camera angle.
HULLFISH: Is there a difference in approach or feel when working with a director that also wrote the script?
AHLGREN: I say one hundred percent.
ROACH: 100 percent!
AHLGREN: We’re just as passionate about the script as he is. Sometimes he will give you the freedom to change things, but you don’t want to change them too much because you don’t know what’s going to step on someone’s toes.
I remember removing a line of dialogue and he said, “Why’d you pull that out?” He’s always open to suggestions and ideas, which is great. Now I know that if I do that I just have to have a valid reason why I was doing that. He could either buy it or not. He’s willing to listen. He’s one of the only writer/directors that I’ve worked with this much, so I feel like we’re at a spot where I can feel comfortable doing that — using that freedom to take out something and explain why. But I’m usually more cautious about it because I think the first pass you want to have everything there. So unless there’s a valid reason to take it out, I don’t touch it.
HULLFISH: This seems more feature-like than TV-like because you’ve got a producer/showrunner who’s also directing instead of the typical hired-gun TV director.
ROACH: Season one was definitely that way. Season one was ninety-five percent like a film would be. This season has been different, but Season one was definitely more like a feature film. As Evan said, it was like a 10-hour movie.
HULLFISH: I watched the DAYBREAK episode. There were a bunch of really nice special shots. Do those shots help you when you’re editing to figure that the director definitely wants this used just based on the camera movement or the specific blocking?
ROACH: Yeah. Those are the kind of things for me that I was talking about. I’m very particular with my locators. I don’t put thousands of them. I will put them on shots like that that you know the camera movement is so cool and done so well and was definitely intended to be something the director would want in the episode or in the show. So yes I would say absolutely.
AHLGREN: We knew Taylor’s style. So if we saw a beautiful shot of elk crossing a river or a camera move we knew was cool, we had to find a spot for it. I’d say 90 percent of the time those stuck.
HULLFISH: This series seems to really follow that old screenwriting saw: Get into the scene as late as possible and get out as soon as possible. Was that the writing or did you guys do a lot of that in post?
ROACH: No, I think that was just more the way the script was. There were many times where we tried things creatively and even talked to each other about trying something different and approaching Taylor with an idea of something like that. And most of the time when we did that he was very positive and he went for most of those ideas, but in a lot of cases, it was how he had written it and shot it.
AHLGREN: That’s one great thing about him: when he writes, he gets the audience involved with the story. You can cut out a bunch of fat and just get down to the nitty-gritty of what the scene is and move on instead of meandering and I think that keeps his stories moving.
HULLFISH: I loved the start of the second act in the first episode. There’s a nice drone shot with really nice sound design and then a pre-lap into some Native American chanting into the next scene. Can you talk to me about using audio – either as transitions or how much audio you’re cutting in as you’re cutting picture?
ROACH: I will put in stuff whenever I want to. But the truth of the matter is, I have an amazing assistant so I’ll picture cut a scene then hand it to my assistant and have him take it and find amazing sounds and I’ll be blown away with what he comes up with.
AHLGREN: That scene in particular – we temped it that way. We used production sound and Johnny Martinez, the assistant, threw in some sound design. We fill our timeline out with sound effects to the best of our abilities. With music and sound, we always put our best foot forward with the director. It’s a nice template for what it’s going to be. Both of our assistants are amazing with sound and nail it – to the point where we get temp love sometimes. We rely heavily on sound.
HULLFISH: A lot of people hold off on temp music as long as they can. Others like to cut with it early. When in the process are you guys putting in music?
AHLGREN: For me, it depends on the scene. I won’t always immediately put it in. Just depends on the scene. With action scenes, I like to cut them first without any music and then start building with score or temp music or whatever it calls for. I always like to get it working without music first if possible. A lot of times we will cut it and then throw in a track score, usually immediately.
ROACH: Yeah, I’m the same way. I feel like if the scene works without music without sound effects — it needs to work without all of that. Then music and all the sound effects just add to it and make it that much better. So I like to put in music after a scene is cut.
HULLFISH: I really loved the scene when we first meet the tribal leader and he puts on the headdress while the senator is there with him. There are some great reaction shots in there of her take on him being prepared.
AHLGREN: Yeah, she’s kind of taking it in, like “what’s happening here?” And he’s just doing it nonchalantly.
HULLFISH: There are some really nice panoramic shots after the oldest son has been killed – just because you need a moment to reflect on that. The audience needs time to absorb it.
AHLGREN: It was giving him a moment in his death and Kacey, the main character, a moment in his brother’s death. There was something about those shots that seemed almost heavenly like he was passing and it was a nice transition for him to leave the world in a way. We actually played with how long that should be — went back and forth. It’s almost just to let it settle and let it pass and give him a moment in dying and his brother in grieving.
HULLFISH: I was really attracted to the way that you approached that funeral. There were a lot of shots where we weren’t even looking at faces. We were looking at hands and grass and you delayed the face close-ups until after the funeral. The big close up is in the horse barn.
ROACH: Taylor really shot to be completely creative and it wasn’t about an individual person other than Kevin Costner. It was more about the feeling of sadness. He shot a ton of great stuff which allowed us to put it together that way.
AHLGREN: You’re not focused on one particular person. That’s kind of how it is at a funeral. It’s kind of like a blur, especially with a father losing a son. You could even hear the pastor’s voice muffle out into nothing.
HULLFISH: The dialogue and the script were really inconsequential compared to the imagery you guys put into the scene.
ROACH: Yeah, that’s absolutely 100-percent accurate.
END SPOILER ALERT
HULLFISH: You guys both worked on Wind River, which I loved. I can almost see similarities between that movie and this TV show.
HULLFISH: But that movie was a little dark… emotionally draining. How was it to work on that movie for months and months?
ROACH: I’ve done way too many dark films! I’m waiting for something lighter! You go Prisoners and Wind River. It wasn’t as bad because the acting was so solid and there was a lot of emotion in that movie as well, besides the action. The relationships just really helped me get through all that, and enjoy that aspect of it, besides all of the brutality.
HULLFISH: Prisoners is another great example — a difficult movie to watch. Just to be in that place for a long time while you’re editing it.
ROACH: It does get hard at times. It really does. No joke, I really feel like there are times when I need something lighter, something uplifting. But then I bring myself back and realize this is just a movie and I’m just storytelling and none of this stuff actually happened, so I’m able to work my way through it.
HULLFISH: And then you do Jersey Boys.
ROACH: Exactly. Exactly! (laughs)
AHLGREN: And the thing is with all the darkness and heaviness and emotion. I feel like the gratifying part is: that’s when you know you’re doing it right. The feeling is right because that’s what the script’s calling for. So you’re on the right track when that starts happening.
HULLFISH: Evan, you assisted for Gary and Gary, you assisted for Joel Cox — whom I’ve interviewed. You went from being Joel Cox’s Assistant Editor to being Clint’s editor. How did that transition happen?
ROACH: For me, making that transition from assistant to editing was very unique in the fact that I was an assistant with Joel, which was so awesome — to have a mentor like Joel Cox. After a number of years, I started editing scenes on my own in my room and waiting till Joel would edit them and then I would compare what he did to what I did and see how I could make my style of editing better or what I could do to improve what I was doing.
I did that for a number of years until finally one day Clint actually walked in my room and saw me editing and he asked to see what I was doing, and I showed him and he said,
“I think it’s time you start editing.” That talk happened for another couple of years because I was so busy. We were still doing film dailies at that point. I was doing film dailies. I was doing all of the Avid assistant work. I was the only one. But finally, he did Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima at the same time. He shot Flags of Our Fathers and Joel was cutting that. And Clint came and said, “I’m going to start shooting Letters and I want you to edit Letters while Joel’s editing Flags.” And when Joel finishes he can help you, but this is the time for you to start editing. So Letters From Iwo Jima was my first editor credit.
To be honest with you, I have to say that I was absolutely terrified to think that the first film that I was going to edit was in Japanese. (everyone laughs) Clint said, “you can do this without an interpreter” which we did, and it’s amazing how well you can put something together even though you don’t speak the language.
HULLFISH: Evan, since you’ve recently moved from being an assistant and now you have an assistant working for you, what do you look for in an assistant and what do you think it was about you that allowed you to move up?
AHLGREN: Besides technical capabilities as an assistant I feel like you can tell when someone’s excited about what they’re doing. That usually creates a positive atmosphere. I love what I do and Gary loves what he does and I feel like positivity and passion go a long way. That’s what it is for me. Along the way if mistakes are made — that’s fine we’ll get through it — talk about it and then move on. I just feel that passion might be the biggest thing besides technical abilities.
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.