Art of the Cut: The Editors of Marvel’s “Wandavision” Take a Different Route
After bringing in an estimated $22.5B worldwide, the 24 movies that made up Marvel Phases 1-3 represent the most successful franchise of all time.
And with the pandemic severely impacting the release of the first big-screen titles of Phase 4 (Black Widow and Shang-Chi), it was left to three TV series (Wandavision, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, and Loki) to carry the full weight of audience expectation in the interim.
So today we’re talking with the editors of WandaVision: Nona Khodai, ACE, Zene Baker, ACE and Michael A Webber. Tim Roche also edited the series but couldn’t join us for the interview.
Nona has cut numerous TV series including The Boys, Amazing Story, Colony, The Strain and Constantine, among others. Zene was editor on Men in Black: International, Thor: Ragnorak, This is the End and The Interview, among others.
And Michael has cut Neighbors 2, and has numerous additional editor credits including Men in Black: International, The Night Before, Neighbors, and This is the End. His TV credits include the series Greek and Friends from College.
Check out the Art of the Cut podcast to listen to this interview, and stay up to date on all the latest episodes. Warning: minor plot spoilers below.
HULLFISH: Thank you for being here everybody. I appreciate you taking time out of your day. This is just such an interesting series. It was interesting to see the evolution in the fans in the first couple of episodes thinking, “What am I watching?” and then people getting it.
How were the episodes delivered to you? Did you have an overall view when you started editing or were you working on one episode?
KHODAI: Tim [Roche] did episodes 1, 4 and 7. I did episodes 3, 5, and 8, and Zene [Baker] did episodes…
WEBBER: If we’re going to go with the scene order, then 2, 6, and 9.
BAKER: We worked on an internal episode numbering system the whole show. There were nine episodes released. There were ten that were originally written and they combined two into one, and that happened so close to shooting that it was too late to change the numbering of everything for the sake of tracking and dailies and so forth. So, we’ve all operated under a different numbering system. We have to really think about, “Wait, which one? Okay, the one that aired.”
HULLFISH: Just for fan interest, what two episodes got combined or what got dropped to make it a different numbering system?
KHODAI: 5 and 6 got combined to 5. I think it was ’80s and ’90s. So, they made that an ’80s & ’90s blend.
HULLFISH: For you when you’re editing, do you need to know the flow of what is about to come? For example, do you think, “This is going to be revealed in the end and so it’s interesting for me to hold on this reaction longer because it might not make sense now but it’ll make sense later”?
KHODAI: Sometimes we don’t know because I think it pays off in other properties too. Sometimes we’re not privy to those things, but the heads of the studio know and say, “Hey, maybe you should do this.” Or, “Why don’t you stay on that shot?” I think there’s a lot of that happening that we’re not always aware of too.
BAKER: Not in the beginning. They’ll tell us late in the process, “You may want to consider this,” like Nona said. I’ll say that for the series unto itself—more than any other show—I think we were very much in tune with each other’s episodes so that we could have that context that you’re talking about. This simple reaction shot here could tie into something coming or something that’s already happened. We were very keen on sharing ideas on each other’s episodes because I’m just continually impressed with other editors.
KHODAI: I know we had some motivation problems in certain episodes, and so we would solve them in earlier episodes. Say, there was a motivation issue in episode 8 with why someone was doing a certain thing, we’d fix it in episode 5 or 4 to have that motivation. We would actually come as a team and say, “Where can we insert that to help tell the story in the other episodes and make that streamlined a little bit better.” So, we would do that a lot because there were moments here and there where we thought, “We don’t understand why that character is doing that. Maybe we should do something in this episode and we can fit it in this episode to make that make sense in the other episodes.” We did a lot of that kind of stuff, which was really fun. I think that’s the best part of working as a team.
HULLFISH: Were you guys working as a team in a specific location or did COVID screw all that up?
KHODAI: Yes, we were in Atlanta for about 4 months. We got back at the end of February. I remember me, Zene, and my assistant flew back together and we had lunch at a table in the airport, and I think back now because it was right before the pandemic hit and I think, “We could’ve gotten sick eating in the airport together.” Then, we flew back and literally three weeks after we got back, we completely shut down.
BAKER: Yeah, we were getting set up on the Disney lot. Two weeks into that they said, “These numbers keep going up. You guys should probably go home.”
HULLFISH: Wow, and then all the rest of the series was edited at home?
KHODAI: Yep, right here.
HULLFISH: Right there. You roll out of bed and land in your edit chair.
WEBBER: I wouldn’t trade it though because it knocked off an hour and a half commute. There is a downfall for working remote, but one of the things it allowed for was more efficient work. Also, for the first time, at least for me and I’m sure for everyone else, it created a work-life balance. You can sit there and step away and have lunch with your family or dinner with your family. Conversely, at 9 o’clock at night, they can call you and say, “Hey, since you’re there…”
BAKER: Well, occasionally. I would personally try to set some boundaries pretty early on. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, which is fine, but as long as the unavoidable doesn’t become the regular.
WEBBER: The unavoidable sometimes would even happen when working on the studio lot where you’d be driving home, then you’d be at your door and they’d say, “We need you to come back.”
KHODAI: I think the problem is you can never turn it off being from home. I’m always worried and I think, “Oh, I could just go and do some work,” and I don’t like that. I like separating the two and having a break, and I don’t really have that luxury anymore since it’s right here in our houses now. I do go on the lot now just to get away from my house because I’m really tired of it. Tired of these four walls.
WEBBER: One of the things that we did find out working remotely though was that actually inter-departmentally, especially with a show that was so heavy with visual effects, that there was now a cohesive conversation between the departments because when we’d have meetings it would be a Zoom meeting and there’d be 30 people in the meeting, and people that normally would not be in these meetings were actually being privy to the knowledge. Our lead visual effects editor, Tom [Barrett], pointed out that this is the first time on a show—and he had done Endgame and Infinity War—that he was aware of what every shot was going on at any given time, which fundamentally was important to this one since we were on such an accelerated schedule, even though it took us a long time to get it done.
KHODAI: I actually didn’t know that. That’s interesting. I guess VFX editors aren’t always in those meetings, are they?
KHODAI: That makes sense.
HULLFISH: I want to talk a little bit about some of the craft stuff. Each episode starts in a TV world and it seems like it’s edited like those TV worlds, and then eventually you transition out of that. Can you guys talk to me about deciding on editing like it’s the ’70s or the ’90s or whatever it is, and then making that transition and saying, “Now I’m editing like a Marvel movie.”
WEBBER: We had an instance of that on episode 2 where it was cut more feature-like and it was when they came back after the talent show. Matt [Shakman] came in and basically said that this was not indicative of that time period, and we had to sit there and re-imagine the scene, not greatly, but simplify it down and get rid of some of the flashiness of what would have been a cool cut in a movie to make it a more flat, two dimensional 1960s Bewitched cut.
BAKER: I know Nona, myself, Tim, and Michael were all watching old shows on Amazon every other night. We would say, “All right, let’s watch some Bewitched, some Dick Van Dyke, Malcolm in the Middle, and Family Ties.” By doing that you’re absorbing those rhythms and hopefully translating them.
There was a lot of thought that went into that. I mean, they were written that way, of course, but then there’s the execution of it. So, we have to emulate, if you will, the style because we were all very much into keeping it into that groove of the different time periods.
KHODAI: The problem is sometimes the jokes don’t fall and sometimes you have to speed a moment up because it’s not landing for an audience of our time. Especially in the ’70s episode, I remember I cut it a little longer to give it more space than I normally do, and then Matt came in and said, “No, no, no. Let’s speed it up.” Then, I sped it up too fast, and then I had to find a happy medium. You do that kind of thing.
Then, adding a laugh track is a totally different thing too. You need time for the laugh track. You have to hold for it. Episodes 2 and 3 weren’t shot in front of an audience, and episode 1 was. So, you had to build the laugh tracks in.
HULLFISH: That’s interesting. Episode 1 was shot with a live audience?
KHODAI: Yeah, so I think Tim had a little bit more help with the timing of space and knowing how much space, but with 2 and 3, we didn’t. Brady Bunch wasn’t actually shot in front of a live audience either. They added the laugh track to it later on. So, I would watch a lot of Brady Bunch and do a lot of research. They used a lot of close-ups actually, surprisingly, a ton of close-ups. They would go in for cuts for each character. So, you’ll see that episode 1 is much wider and 2 is much wider, you can stay in the wides, but in 3 we go more in close-ups because it emulates the time of how they would cut it.
HULLFISH: When I interviewed Kirk Baxter about Mank I asked him about that and said, “Clearly it’s shot like the period, but it didn’t feel like it was edited like the period.” He said, “That’s because it would have been interminable. It would have been terrible if we had cut that movie like an audience was used to seeing movies cut back then. It would have been so slow and we wouldn’t have been able to have the impact.”
KHODAI: Right, and we did both, I think. We did the best of both worlds. I think we were trying to really capture the period as best we could, but also make it for a modern audience to like and enjoy. I think we were pretty successful at it for the most part, especially as you get to the later episodes, obviously, it becomes more modern and faster, especially the Malcolm episode which Zene cut.
HULLFISH: I just rewatched that episode this morning. I felt like it was speedy compared to watching the first episode, for example. What were some of the things that you were looking at when you were watching an episode of the Dick Van Dyke Show or Malcolm in the Middle or The Brady Bunch? What were you looking at to give you the clues of how to edit?
WEBBER: Well, for Malcolm though, it was actually even a different thing because not only was it a pictorially driven episode, it was also sonically driven. There were a lot of little tricks that they used for that, which you have to take into account too. Sometimes we sit there and play with music to jam that stuff up to make it feel faster. Intra-frame modifications like throwing in whip pans that weren’t shot just to give it that craziness that was going on, as opposed to the earlier episodes, which I think were more thought out.
BAKER: Yeah, I wouldn’t say the earlier were more thought out. I mean, everything was thought out, but the earlier ones were…
KHODAI: The direction really guided us. Matt Shakman did an amazing job. They really planned it out. The first three were definitely 4:3. I’ll speak for Tim, but the first episode when they’re at the dinner table, the intentional push-ins of the Twilight Zone-y were intentional, and they made it more cinematic because you’re getting a little bit out of that 4:3 feel to it. We’re going more cinematic. That was a completely intentional moment. Same with episode 2 and we had that in episode 3 at the very end with the intercut.
Then, we went more cinematic with the music too. We struggled with music in that intercut in 3. The intercut was in a different place from the way it was written to the way we cut it. It changed over time and we had to make it really intense and it was a hard moment to make because we didn’t exactly know where to intercut it from the inside to the outside. It was a work in progress as we were continuing, and so was the music.
We ended up having Chris Beck write a music cue that was both a part of the time but also transformed into more of a cinematic thing. That was actually Kevin Feige’s idea, and it was a really, really interesting weave between the two. I think he killed it on that one. It took a long time to get it to that place, but it’s one of my favorite pieces now looking back on that experience.
BAKER: I agree. That’s that Brady Bunch intercut?
BAKER: It’s so good.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk a little about intercutting between the various storylines from the inside to the outside and how often those things were scripted, and when they weren’t scripted, why did they change?
KHODAI: For that, it just didn’t feel tense enough. I think the audience was ahead of what was going on at a certain point, and then we thought “No, we can’t do that. We have to have them be surprised by what’s going on.” So, where we would go from one place to the next was based on what the audience knew at that point, or didn’t know. Figuring that out was weird because there were only so many places where you could cut out where it didn’t feel so jarring. So, I had a lot of different versions of that until we really found the right version. Then, music obviously really helped in that.
Then, transitioning it from the 4:3 to the anamorphic was also a process because we had different kinds of stylistic versions of it. We had a static at one point, and then we ended up just saying, “No, we should just do the frame shift, and that was a much better way. It’s cool because you see it shift slowly and you think, “Okay. What’s going on?” Then, we go outside and you’re thinking, “What the hell just happened?” Then, you go into 4 and you’re thinking, “What?” So, I think all the steps we were doing were so that we could help the audience, guide them a little bit piece by piece, and revealing small moments to keep it interesting.
BAKER: Yep. Always leave them with a question.
KHODAI: Yeah, exactly.
HULLFISH: That’s one of those ideas that everybody knows: you’ve got to be ahead of the audience or else you’re dying. I love that idea. The other thing that I noticed with one of the episodes that felt so right for the style was the breaking the fourth wall episode. There are those little push-ins, and I was trying to think how much of those little bumps into those fourth wall moments were real and how much maybe were done in editorial?
WEBBER: For the Modern Family episode? I think a lot of that was in-camera.
KHODAI: That was all in-camera.
BAKER: Yeah. Jess [Hall], our director of photography, is just fantastic. A lot of research went in on his part for era-accurate lenses and those little touches that you’re talking about. He was just really phenomenally good.
HULLFISH: I love that. I want to step outside of the series for a discussion for a moment if you don’t mind. Do you all have agents? Who should have an agent? What’s the value of an agent besides just getting you work?
BAKER: Yeah, all of us do have agents. I’ve had a number of agents over my career. My career has been quite a bit different than traditional careers in that I didn’t come up through the assistant editor route. I went to school with David Green and did his first three indie movies. That happened about a year after film school graduation. So, right out of the gate I’m doing indie movies that got festival buzz. That’s not to say I wasn’t trying to get work as an assistant because I was, but the problem is when you cut an indie film that gets festival traction, nobody wants to hire you as an assistant because they think you’re after their job.
“When you cut an indie film that gets festival traction, nobody wants to hire you as an assistant because they think you’re after their job.”
It was a real Catch 22. So, I took advantage of every opportunity, and because of those films getting some festival heat, I garnered some agent interest early on when All the Real Girls hit Sundance. I had some interest so I capitalized on it. They were a small agency at the time. That’s the best you can hope for early on. They get you in rooms and as you move up, you discover that you have to move with your career as far as your agent goes.
HULLFISH: Meaning that you need to switch agents?
BAKER: You need to fire your agents and switch agents, yes, absolutely. If you discover that they are not working for you and they’re working against you, then yeah, you need to find someone that’s going to be on your side. Eventually, I went through a number of agencies and some old agents are still very good friends of mine and I love them. So, I don’t want to sound like I’m bitter against any old agents, but I did eventually land at UTA [United Talent Agency] and Mike Rubi.
Agents become invaluable because they can get you into rooms that you yourself cannot get into, especially on a studio project level. It’s just another one of those industry Catch 22’s. Sometimes you luck out and you work with a director that will take you with them for their entire ride, like case in point would be Barry [Jenkins] and Joi [McMillon]. I think they’re doing great work and they’ve got a fabulous relationship, and I’ll pretty much watch anything they do just because it’s interesting.
HULLFISH: I just talked to her yesterday and although she has that built-in Thelma [Schoonmaker] and Martin [Scorsese] kind of relationship, she also has an agent that she loves.
BAKER: Yeah, it still helps. I mean, she’s got an advantage. I would imagine when Barry isn’t doing a project, because these projects take so long to set up, you have to keep working as an editor. You don’t make the same pay scale as a director might and so forth. So, you have to keep working.
HULLFISH: And you’re working a smaller amount of time. They’re working five years on a project and you’re working one.
BAKER: Right. A producer and director are on it the longest, then the editor [laughs].
BAKER: Then, downhill with everybody on production. They’re like as Michael likes to say… What is that? The circus?
WEBBER: Oh, Carney lifestyle.
BAKER: Carney life. Yeah [laughs].
HULLFISH: All right. What about some other voices here?
KHODAI: I have an agent. I’m actually in the same agency as Zene. It’s funny, we’re all at the same agency. I didn’t have an agent for a long time. I started editing a lot of television, started in network, and then went into more cable kinds of stuff like The Strain which was on FX. Then, at a certain point I thought, “I need diversity in my career,” and I thought maybe it would be time. I thought, “Maybe an agency will take me on. I have a few good credits.” I interviewed a couple and I liked UTA. So, I went with them and they’re a little bit bigger agency.
Then, I ended up getting on The Boys because I know the showrunner from another show I worked on, and actually, that was a UTA packaged show. So, it worked out in a weird way, and they haven’t really helped me get a job. I haven’t gotten a job through my agency, but I’m hopeful with these bigger projects that I’ve done, that they can get me in the room for studio general meetings so that I ended up getting on a movie or something like that because I haven’t done a movie. I’ve done an indie movie back when I was at a film school helping friends out, but I’ve never done a movie. So, that would be the next step if this all works out.
So, they can actually help get me in those rooms with those generals of all the feature people. So, hopefully, that happens. Not to say that I can’t do that myself, but they can prop me up and I don’t have to do all that work.
Also, they can get you better rates. They’re there to help you get better rates, and I am terrible at negotiating, especially for myself, because you just never think that you’re good enough. You don’t know what people are making either. There are people that are making way more, and you think, “What? They’re making that much? I can make that much.” The agent is there to help guide you and say, “This is what we can get you here.” They help you shape your career, in a way.
At first, I was really hesitant on the agent thing. I thought, “They haven’t helped me at all. I keep getting my own jobs. They’re not helping me with my rate.” Then, little by little, as your career progresses, they’ve helped me out a little bit more. Granted, my career has gone a little bit better, maybe that’s probably part of it, but I don’t know. Everyone has a different relationship with their agents. I really like my agents.
BAKER: Are you with Mike Rubi?
KHODAI: Yeah, I have Mike at UTA.
WEBBER: For me, I’m with APA [Agency for the Performing Arts], which is a larger mid-range agency. I think they’re report-rated number four or five under the big three. They actually sought me out, which I thought was funny, as opposed to me reaching out to find one. What I liked about them was that it was a medium fish, medium pond kind of scenario. The thing is that they have big A-list editors also. We’ve got Craig Wood over there and other people like that, but with me it’s more of a personalized thing. The big thing is it’s just repeating what everyone’s saying, which is it gives a lot of opportunities to get scripts sent to you to read. They put your name in front of people which I think is definitely handy.
“You don’t have to feel like an a-hole saying, ‘This is how much money I want.’”
To touch on what Nona said, getting past the nitty-gritty of negotiation, you don’t have to feel like an a-hole saying, “This is how much money I want.” They’re the ones that get to be the bad guy for you. Like on the current movie I’m on, what they and what I wanted were two different things, and I let Gill be the bad guy and everything worked out for what I wanted it to be.
KHODAI: There’s no hard feelings, right? That’s your agent talking, not you.
WEBBER: Yeah, I think editors tend to be—and I’m not saying all of them—a neurotic lot that never really know what their self-worth is to the project, or what they bring in. We are just this wonderful service industry that helps support the director, the producers, and the studio. How do you quantify that with a monetary number? Also, as we all know, a studio is going to sit there and try to pay you the least it’s going to have to pay you anyway.
HULLFISH: Alan Bell said something similar to me recently, which was, “If I don’t want to do something, my agent can say that they don’t want me to do it and I don’t look like the bad guy. They’re not offended that I don’t want to work on their project. It’s just the agent making the decision.”
BAKER: Yeah, there is great truth to that. There are some people that still work around that. As you progress, I have noticed you do form relationships with assorted studio people. Something I’ve found over the past four years or so is that my agent will tell them that I’m not available, can’t do the project, blah, blah, blah. Then, my phone rings and it’s the studio person confirming whether or not what my agent just told them is the truth. So, that happens too.
“My phone rings and it’s the studio person confirming whether or not what my agent just told them is the truth.”
KHODAI: Oh yeah. That’s happened to me too.
HULLFISH: Oh, very interesting.
BAKER: Yeah, and so sometimes you do have to just make sure you’re on the same page with your agent in those cases and tell whoever’s calling you personally the same story. It does happen and I don’t know why, but I’m always surprised when it does.
KHODAI: Well, I think it’s a personal relationship with the studio. I had that problem. I had a producer call me saying, “Your agent is asking for too much money.” I thought, “Why are you calling me? That’s what the agent is for.”
BAKER: And you’re right. That is the point of the agent.
HULLFISH: Yep, that’s an interesting little discussion. I appreciate you guys taking that diversion with me.
Did you guys deliver the entire series as one big block, or was it individual?
WEBBER: Wasn’t it pretty much bi-weekly when we were really on our hardcore delivery?
KHODAI: I think we had set dates where we had to hit those dates and usually we finished on that exact date. If we could have taken a little bit more time, we would have, but we had to hit certain dates.
WEBBER: The only episode that had the extension, which was by seven days, was the finale.
HULLFISH: But you held all of the episodes long enough that you’re able to, as Nona was pointing out, that you were able to say, “Let’s go back into this episode and put a little foreshadowing or something in.”
BAKER: I wouldn’t say we held them. I mean, we knew exactly our air dates. I think the air dates were revealed to us maybe the same week as we found out when we were going back to shoot the rest of the show. We had a COVID interruption in production, so based on those dates everything sort of got back-timed because in the streaming world streaming requires a certain number of days to encode everything and prep everything for all international territories and all the foreign language dubbing.
WEBBER: Every format from iPhone to 60-inch television set is part of that.
BAKER: All of that takes a certain chunk of days from the air dates. So, as of that air date, all of those formats are released into the world at one time. So, back-timing from that, you’ve got that encoding period. So, we were backed up against that constantly. So, it’s on a floating thing by the episode air date.
WEBBER: Yet even with the encoding, we broke the rules on that too. We were told it was x amount of days, and as our schedules pushed they figured out how many days they can whittle off those encoding days to literally just come right to the wire to the point where it was crazy.
KHODAI: Barely made it.
BAKER: How far can we push it? Because we needed the time. As I mentioned, we had the COVID interruption in shooting, so Nona was front-loaded, I was back-loaded. I think I had my three episodes before we went into the last stage of shooting. I had maybe 30 percent of the material for all three of my episodes.
HULLFISH: Which is what you mean by back-loaded?
BAKER: Exactly, yeah. The show I’m on now, I’m front-loaded in which I’ve got practically 80 percent of the episodes that I’m doing now, and that was Nona’s case on WandaVision. She was front-loaded.
KHODAI: Tim was in the middle. Tim had a lot of his stuff too, but he got it sprinkled in very nicely.
WEBBER: The first episode, being the live audience, that one was in the can when we were in Atlanta, basically.
KHODAI: Except for the exterior portion of the main title. I think they shot that in LA because they were always going to shoot in LA. We were just going to shoot in April, and what ended up happening is that we pushed it all the way until we could shoot.
Then, with encoding, you have to understand it was also during the holidays that we were going to start doing it. So, we’d have to actually give them more time because of the holiday break, because certain regions and territories wouldn’t work during the holidays. Period. They won’t work. So, we had to deliver a couple of those episodes, especially the early ones, earlier than we wanted to probably because of that encoding process.
HULLFISH: What does it do for you good or bad when you’re front-loaded or back-loaded so heavily? Does it help to be front-loaded? Does it hurt?
KHODAI: I feel like it should have been balanced a little bit better. I wonder if we had changed certain episodes because I came in last because I was coming off of The Boys straight into Atlanta and was two weeks behind Tim and Zene. So, I had five days of dailies already sitting there for me from three of my episodes already. And I thought, “Shit.”
We wonder if maybe Zene shouldn’t have taken one of my episodes and I should have taken his, and then we would have had a little bit more of a balance and it would have been a little bit better schedule-wise for all of us in that sense.
BAKER: It’s always a learning experience and it also depends on the show. For example, now if there’s a show that has heavy VFX or a certain number of those episodes have heavy VFX, then yeah, totally advantageous to try to get those shot first so all of that can go into the pipeline. The sooner the better, because there are so many stages to it. There’s the Look Dev, which is its own process. That’s when they take a certain number of select shots and start developing to see what things are going to look like in the VFX environment. So, It’s everything from what a character looks like to what a background might look like.
HULLFISH: What the wall surrounding the city looks like.
BAKER: Exactly. A lot of that depends as well. So, it’s just luck of the draw.
HULLFISH: You guys all had cut TV before this. Do you think that there was any thought of giving an episode to one of you or the other because you’d cut a show that was from that era? Obviously, none of you had cut a show like Lucille Ball or Dick Van Dyke.
KHODAI: Well, I didn’t come from comedy like Tim and Zene both come from comedy. Tim comes from Always Sunny and so I think obviously he would get the first episode just because Matt has worked with him before, and I have worked with Matt too but only on one episode. They have a multi-year, multi-episode relationship, and so I think he trusted Tim’s comedic instincts and I think that was probably really smart to have him do that first episode.
They’re both incredible at comedy, so it was great learning from both of these guys. That was really fun just to be part of it because comedy is hard. I don’t particularly love it as an editor [laughs], but it was really fun to be a part of it and learn from everyone on the team. I miss you guys. It’s been so sad not being on the same show.
HULLFISH: That’s so sweet.
BAKER: We’ve got to talk on a sidebar and swap stories.
KHODAI: Oh definitely. It’s hard when you come from a show where everyone’s so lovely and fantastic and we all work so well together. We didn’t really get a chance to be in the offices together at Disney, and those offices were like my favorite offices, guys. They were incredible and we didn’t get to spend more than two weeks in those offices. It’s so sad. Also, it was just really fun in Atlanta and I’m really glad we got to do all of that, but it’s also sad that we’re not all working together again. It was a really amazing experience then, and memorable because of COVID. We wouldn’t have been on the show as long as we were if COVID hadn’t happened. We were supposed to be done in September originally, I think.
WEBBER: It also allowed the show to become the magic that it was because not often do you get a year and a half to work on a six-episode television show. That’s generally delegated to a feature-length thing so that you can work your stuff out, and I think that really allowed WandaVision to exceed. It was always going to be something cool and different, but even exceed that idea of what it was. I think it’s one of the most honed shows I’ve ever seen.
HULLFISH: What was the break like? You said that there was a break, obviously, for COVID and you guys kept working through that, correct?
WEBBER: We were able to massage the footage for a year and a half.
BAKER: We were able to really talk about the stuff that had yet to be shot and fine-tune and plan for that, and really discuss what was necessary versus a diversion in the story. What was the story really about, and how do we hone it down to that? Of course, the rules of shooting had to change due to COVID. It was a whole thing.
I was laughing a second ago because I did a small Q&A with the school I graduated from, University of North Carolina School of Filmmaking. I talked to the graduating class and one of my friends, Michael Miller, he’s a professor there now, he opened it up to questions for the students. First question, right out of the gate: “I noticed that you cut the finale. Were you also disappointed by it?”
KHODAI: They didn’t say that [laughs].
BAKER: Right out of the gate, and I said, “No, I wasn’t disappointed by it.”
KHODAI: I mean, if we had more time. I wish we had more time.
BAKER: No matter what you’re always going to wish you had more time, but some people are just going to love it, and then some people are going to be disappointed.
KHODAI: What did they say? Why were they disappointed?
BAKER: I didn’t get into it.
HULLFISH: You said, “Well, really Nona edited that episode…”
KHODAI: You can say that. I don’t care.
BAKER: So, I thought, “Wow, ballsy question.”
HULLFISH: Ballsy question. I try not to ask questions like that.
WEBBER: With questions like that, you’ll go far real fast.
KHODAI: I want to say, “You try it.”
HULLFISH: That kid probably has a good chance of getting a studio job.
BAKER: Yes, I would imagine so.
HULLFISH: “You too could work for the studio with that kind of attitude. Congratulations. We have a place for you at our organization.”
You mentioned how hard comedy is to edit and that I’ve heard many times. What do you think is so hard? Is it just pacing and rhythm?
KHODAI: Yes, because I may have a different idea of what’s funny other than the average human being. So, I think honing in on the right kind of pace is really where it’s at because I don’t know if I have that internal clock. I think you learn it too by doing so many comedies over the years, you learn that that’s the right timing or not. I don’t necessarily know that yet, or have that ingrained into my system yet.
I do more action, drama, satire-y kind of stuff more than hitting a joke and having a payoff. That’s a completely different kind of editing, and there’s no sense of continuity or anything. You just gotta hit those moments, and you don’t care. That’s the thing about editing comedy, you just don’t care about that kind of stuff. You just need to hit the joke.
WEBBER: The other thing is there are different types of comedy, also. Fortunately, this was scripted comedy, so it’s a different thing than our background prior, which is improvisational comedy where it’s a weird hybrid of non-scripted and scripted storytelling. But either/or, it’s always based on that timing of when to hold, when not to hold, continuity be damned. If the continuity sucks and the joke lands, you have to get over that this doesn’t look right.
As one person pointed out to me a long time ago, “If you really want to sit there and learn about comedy, watch a Judd Apatow movie with the sound off because you will see editorially…”
HULLFISH: You’ll notice the continuity errors.
BAKER: Oh yeah. Big time. Which is ironic because I would cut a lot of Seth [Rogen’s] stuff with the dialogue down, and I still do, and I wasn’t cutting for continuity. I was just cutting for what I thought was a funny visual rhythm. Then, I’d go back and try to determine what they’re saying and ask, “Did I just totally screw this up? Is the dialogue going to work or isn’t it going to work?”
To Nona’s point, it’s, for lack of a better term, a muscle that you develop, and the more that you dabble in it, the more you pick things up. In between projects before WandaVision I was able to help out Bryan Fogel for a very brief amount of time. I can’t really say what that project was, but at the time he was working on The Dissident.
HULLFISH: Oh, yeah, the documentary.
BAKER: Fantastic guy. I discovered during that process, that’s a muscle. The documentary muscle is something I am way out of my element. I was going in there and struggling poorly and badly every day. I got a little depressed, and I shouldn’t have been so hard on myself. Bryan was extremely kind. It was also stressful because I was buying a house for the first time too. So, there was a lot going on at the time. That’s something that I discovered that I have incredible respect for. Those guys are amazing because I may have that skill if I devoted another 10 years to it, but I was so out of my element. All I could talk about was just big-picture story arcs, but then I was just so unskilled at that.
HULLFISH: Yeah, there are different types of storytelling for sure.
BAKER: Very much. Those guys are amazing.
HULLFISH: You mentioned, Zene, about finding a funny visual rhythm. In other words, choosing setups in an order that you think works with a rhythm to them. When you guys are cutting, are you consciously trying to decide on a series of setups that you think are going to build to where you want to go? Or is it all performance? Are you thinking, “I really need to be on the wide. I really needed to be on a two. This moment calls for this shot, instead of this moment calls for this performance”?
BAKER: It shifts, it really does. No two things are the same. A lot of that technique that I just talked about of cutting with no sound just stemmed from pure experimentation. It’s something that I carry with me on every project that I do. It doesn’t work all the time, but it’s sort of a new way to see these patterns. It’s just something that starts to become ingrained in your head. After a while, you pick up these patterns. Visual rhythms can be as funny as a typical setup, payoff jokes. So, if the visual rhythm of it is supporting these jokes, then all the better.
Sometimes that’s not the case. You need to get to that delivery of a line that was only delivered in this shot. Michael and I have done many Seth movies together and sometimes they will only get that line, that magical killer drop-dead funny line in one angle because they had run through so many iterations of, “Riff on this idea, riff on this idea,” and bam… there it is, a little piece.
So, if you can structure the building up around that in such a way that both visual and audio are supporting to get to that punchline, all the better. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t.
WEBBER: Sometimes when you get that magic tidbit that is really the funniest thing you’ve ever heard, you go down the rabbit hole of trying to get to it and you can’t get to it.
BAKER: Yeah. There was a lot of that too.
KHODAI: That’s just on the wide, right? Or it’s on the wrong angle.
WEBBER: Well, the other problem is that you won’t have the dialogue that will lead you to that joke. So, you have your set up and you’ve got your end game, but you’re missing the connective tissue where everyone is saying whatever they’re saying, and that’s where you might spend a day and a half to try to get to that joke.
HULLFISH: But that’s something you’re talking about that’s improvisational, not scripted?
BAKER: Yeah, mostly in improvisational. Yes, that always happens. For scripted, it’s a similar thing. Me personally, yeah, I want to see if I can build a visual rhythm up to that scripted line as well because there can be a funny rhythm in the dynamics between going close or far out. It’s hard to explain. It’s just a feel thing. Again, that’s my taste. Not everybody is going to have those same comedic tastes.
WEBBER: The way I go for the comedy is it’s more of an explorative thing where I know where we’re going to end, but I really don’t know the path that I take to get there. It’ll just be one thing will beget another, beget another, that will eventually lead to the end joke.
BAKER: And that’s why comedy is hard.
HULLFISH: Nona, when you are constructing a scene, how conscious are you of the specific setups?
“I also follow what the director has intended based on the camera moves. You can read what they’re intending based on how they’re shooting it.”
KHODAI: I look at everything and I pull selects of everything that I like. I do a select reel, and then I use that select reel to cut with. Sometimes I can use a lot of the shots and sometimes I can’t. Sometimes it just doesn’t work and some of the shots don’t quite work, but I also follow what the director has intended based on the camera moves. You can read what they’re intending based on how they’re shooting it.
HULLFISH: Absolutely. Yep.
KHODAI: I really try to follow that guide in a way and follow their direction. They are telling me without telling me that they want to push in on this shot. They pushed in on the shot with a close-up, and I need to use that shot in trying to mimic how they would cut it, basically, based on how they shot it. I really do follow that, and sometimes I veer off when things aren’t quite working in the way that they’re directing it, but most of the time that’s what I try to do and it’s for the most part worked for me.
I’m not one of those very cutty editors. I don’t really like to cut when you don’t need to cut. If a performance lands for me and I can stay on it as long as I can, I will just because I don’t like to break up the rhythm because you’re in it. When you’re in it and you cut, you think, “Ugh.” It needs to flow in a certain way. So, I really feel the footage and read what it’s telling me. It’s all really instinctual. I can’t really say what it is. You think, “cut,” in your head and you think, “That’s the cut.”
WEBBER: There’s also the awesome shot that you can’t use. The director gives you something so bitching and you’ll spend a day just trying to figure out how to make that shot work, and you know that the directors intended you to use it, and it’s not organic to the visual language of what you’re putting together.
KHODAI: I had that one time on the current show I’m on. The director had this beautiful shot and she asked, “Can we use this?” and I said, “Oh, I don’t know. It’s going to break up the rhythm.” Then, I figured it out. I found the right spot, but it took a whole day. Yeah, sometimes it’s really hard to find those places for those big cool shots.
HULLFISH: Oh, I love it. You guys are all so filled with great information that I want to go the rest of the day talking to you, but I know that you all have many other things to do. So, thank you all for joining us on Art of the Cut, and thank you for your wisdom and the things you had to say.
KHODAI: Thank you for having us.
BAKER: Thanks so much.