Editor Robert Komatsu Balances History and Storytelling in the FX Series “Mrs. America”
March 2020, the month when much of the American media and entertainment industry scrambled to go remote, also happened to be Women’s History Month.
Fortunately, we found ourselves with the opportunity to cover a unique project highlighting an important period of women’s history that was also wrapping up post-production during quarantine. Except that it didn’t come our way until late April.
Conceived by Dhavi Waller (Mad Men) and set in the 1970s, Mrs. America follows the efforts of Phyllis Schlafly, who became (in)famous for mounting a successful attack on the women’s liberation movement and derailing the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Starring Cate Blanchett as Schlafly, you can binge on a healthy portion of women’s history topped with juicy performances from a cast that includes Elizabeth Banks, Tracey Ullman, Uzo Aduba, Rose Byrne, and Sarah Paulson.
Given that it covers events from a generation ago that (unfortunately) continue to remain relevant today, we’ll now take the time to delve into the complex production and post-production of the nine-part FX series, whose final episode streams on May 27 on Hulu.
Editor Robert Komatsu, whose credits include The X-Files, American Horror Story, and numerous features, had worked previously on AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, on which Waller was a writer for two seasons. The two didn’t actually meet during the production of that series—Waller left after two seasons to develop Mrs. America.
But later, after Robert and his assistant, Matt Crawford, had just wrapped A Dog’s Journey and were hoping for a much-needed break, Robert got his first look at the script, and given its pedigree and the cast, he knew that no matter how hard they’d been working, they needed to be part of this special project.
A Nine-part Series Equals Four Features
When you break it down, creating nine hours of finished programming is roughly equivalent to four features. With three editors, three assistants, a researcher in charge of archival footage (with a dedicated assistant editor), a music editor, an additional assistant, a post supervisor, a post producer, and a post coordinator, the project was certainly staffed as such.
Principal photography (shot on Sony Venice cameras at 4096 x 3024 at 23.98fps) in Toronto commenced in June 2019, and wrapped in early November. The post-production crew, based in LA, was assembling throughout production, requiring a remote workflow from the beginning with dailies distributed via Aspera.
The editorial tasks were split among the three editors, with Robert editing the first episode and editor Emily Greene editing episode two, which were both directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Captain Marvel) and shot together, making the process feel even more like a feature.
“Usually on a one-hour drama, the director has four days in the cutting room, but Anna and Ryan had ten days,” Robert says.
“We actually didn’t lock the first episodes until four months later, really. Part of the reason is that as we got through the series, we’d start to see how one episode would influence another—like maybe we’d revealed too much, too early in an episode, so we’d go back and adjust to make the series work better as a whole. We even booked screening rooms and had friends-and-family screenings, just like on a feature.”
Unite and Conquer
In addition to the pilot, Robert also cut episodes four and seven. Emily edited episodes two, five, and nine. And the third editor, Todd Downing, edited episodes three, six, and eight. But given that the first two episodes were shot together as a block that would establish the feel of the series, it was important for Robert and Emily to work closely as a team.
“One thing I thought that was really special about this show was that Emily and I were true partners,” Robert says.
He goes on to say that Anna and Ryan used a joint email to communicate. “They’d always sign it Anna and Ryan or Ryan and Anna. I remember I had already been on for a few weeks, and Emily’s first day was the first day of shooting, and we got an email from Anna and Ryan to discuss temp music that we should use,” Robert says.
“Instead of writing back, I texted Emily like, ‘Hey, are you almost here? And she said, ‘Yeah, I’m about 15 minutes away,’ so, ‘Oh, good. Let’s confer and write one email back to them.’ It wasn’t a lark, but more like ‘You’re a directing team, but we’re an editing team.’ We sent one email back. It was Rob and Emily or Emily and Rob. And it stuck.”
Cutting on Avid at DNx36, the two shared bins for different feelings or emotions—contemplation or tension or drama or comedy—across those first two episodes.
“We would put these ideas that we had into the bin, and then curate them together and send them back as one cohesive thing. I constantly showed Emily scenes that I cut. She constantly showed me scenes that she cut. So even though we didn’t actually edit the same episodes, we really felt like we were a unit.”
During the offline process, all three editors and their assistants were located in adjacent rooms, which made it easy for them to just pop in to look at scenes or brainstorm questions.
The advantages for a joint effort like a series made it easier for them to see how each other’s episodes were unfolding, which informed some of the creative decisions they made on their individual episodes to strengthen a storyline or emphasize a theme that would come up later in the series.
The Visual Language
One of the more challenging aspects of this series was establishing the visual language. First, it’s a period piece featuring actors playing real people. Second, the filmmakers wanted to not just incorporate, but to intercut archival footage.
They also wanted to create a style that was unique to Phyllis in order to underscore her rigid conservative views versus those of the feminists opposing her.
“Whenever we’re focused on Phyllis, they composed the shots so she’s centered in the frame and the camera moves are smooth and steady,” Robert explains. “The feminists, on the other hand, are shot handheld, with a chaotic energy. It was something Anna and Ryan developed for the first two episodes, and then became a staple for the rest of the series.”
When the main character is both protagonist and antagonist, hitting the right notes was important. Fortunately, “Cate Blanchett doesn’t give a bad performance,” Robert says.
“We were able to really curate to find the right nuances for each moment. We’re seeing someone who’s very smart and charismatic, and we didn’t want to glamorize her, but we didn’t want to totally villainize her, either. It was important to Dahvi—even though she herself is a feminist—that because we were dealing with real people and events, we made sure that we presented them as accurately and fairly as possible.”
Archival footage also played a large part in the series, but not in the way you might assume.
Rather than showing real footage of the actual historical figures, Robert used the archival footage as a sort of contextual punctuation. For example, in the episode where Shirley Chisholm announces her presidential run, the researcher found footage of a reporter asking people on the street what they thought of a woman running for president.
“It was super interesting to hear what they had to say. We got these nice, short sound bites and you could do fun things like cutting one person starting a sentence and another finishing it,” Robert says. It’s a technique that contributes to the authenticity of the story, helping to steep the viewer in the zeitgeist of the time.
Another visual conceit was the use of split screens. Popularized in the sixties, they were used not just as a storytelling device but also as a design element. Robert’s background in VFX editing on movies like The Matrix sequels helped him devise interesting options.
“There’s a sequence where Phyllis is mailing out her newsletter to all the housewives in her network, and Anna and Ryan had the idea to use split screens. I gave them three different concepts and we decided to do something like what they used in the original version of The Thomas Crown Affair,” Robert says.
“It was challenging because most of what went into the split screens wasn’t shot during principal photography, but later, when they did pick-up shots. So I had to rough in the split screen sequences. Also, the footage was shot for a 2:1 aspect ratio, and because the panels were different sizes and shapes, everything had to be scaled or positioned or cropped by hand.”
The split screens became a visual device that was used throughout the series, but Robert didn’t want to simply repeat what he had previously done. Building on earlier episodes, he started using the screens dynamically, essentially animating them to push panels off the screen or reveal images underneath.
“It was fun and challenging, and hadn’t been done in other shows recently, so it was really successful,” Robert says.
Working Under Quarantine
The first episode of Mrs. America premiered on April 15, approximately a month after California went into quarantine. How did that affect the final post-production push?
“We were actually almost locked,” Robert says. “It was mostly things like VFX and some stuff for the audio mix, and because we were so close to being done our assistants were able to consolidate a lot of the media for our episodes. I had four episodes I had to deal with at home, so I had the media for all of them. If there was a change to the VFX or the mix, I could just deal with it on my setup at home and then send the sequence in a bin to the assistant, who would plug it into the master sequence.”
Once the offline masters were completed, Technicolor pulled the OCF and sent it to Company Three for final grading. Deliverables were Prores 4444 UHD 3840 x 2160.
In other words, the challenge of working remotely at that point wasn’t significant.
As we’ve seen on so many projects during the quarantine, the technical challenges have proven to be easily solvable. In fact, because so much of the process actually was done remotely from the beginning, with the production in Toronto and editorial in LA, they were already used to communicating either through some kind of synchronous communication app or asynchronously.
Shaping the Show
When you have a chance to interview an editor about a project, you can’t just let them go before asking them about their process and getting a few tidbits of insight and advice.
Robert went to UCLA’s film school and discovered that his love of storytelling (he also studied English and screenwriting) compelled him to edit as much as he possibly could—even creating independent study projects for himself just so he could cut them.
“I don’t ever want to undervalue what other departments do in filmmaking, but what I love most about editing is the opportunity to take all the ingredients that the other artists and craftspeople create, and to help bring it all together as a whole,” he says. “Not only do I get to see how the final product is being shaped, I actually get to shape it.”
He’s one of those editors who likes to watch every frame of what’s been shot, even the bits before the director calls “action” and after they call “cut.” It’s one of the reasons he doesn’t like using Script Sync for his first assembly.
“I’ll use it later in the process to do line comparisons if I’ve got the directors or producers in the room. But if you’re just jumping from line to line, you might miss the little gesture or look that an actor makes even if it’s during a reset or something.”
As Robert cuts, he makes “in” and “out” marks. “When I’m done cutting the scene, I go back to all my takes and make sure to watch everything from my last mark until the end. I treat them as bookmarks. That way, I know where I am in the scene and can ensure that I’ve seen every frame because I have my marks all the way to the very end.
Robert was lucky enough to apprentice with, and be mentored by, great editors like Michael Kahn, who’s worked on most of Steven Spielberg’s movies, and with whom Robert first worked on Twister.
“If you’re an assistant, it’s important to try to cut anything you can and, obviously, if you can work with editors who will give you those opportunities, you should try to.”
It’s what he does with his assistant, Matt, who has worked on five projects with Robert, so far. “I try, whenever I can, to have him cut a few scenes. Then, I oversee those scenes until they’re ready to go to the directors and producers. And then I try to get them to do the changes with Matt directly rather than with me telling him what to do. In fact, he’s getting an additional editor credit on one of the episodes.”
Although he didn’t set out to become a VFX editor, his background with it helped Robert become a more versatile editor.
Not only did it come in handy for the animated split screens he used in Mrs. America, he’s also a fan of the invisible split screen (also used by Jinmo Yang for Parasite). Having used that technique in A Dog’s Journey for Amblin Entertainment and Universal, Robert discusses how much of a game-changer he finds it to be.
“We had the dog doing the right action and the actors doing their action from two different takes that we combined. It’s a lot of work, but it allows you so much freedom to build the best possible take.”
It’s that same attention to detail that makes Mrs. America such an immersive viewing experience. By integrating the new footage with the stock footage, and using the animated split screens that were ubiquitous during the period, Robert achieved his goal of truly helping to shape the final product.
Which seems like a fitting approach when dealing with the women who truly helped shape history.