Art of the Cut: Clue the Comedy in “Only Murders in the Building”
Today we’re speaking with JoAnne Yarrow and Matthew Barbato, editors for Only Murders in the Building. A third editor on the series, Julie Monroe, couldn’t join us for the interview.
JoAnne has edited TV series including Queen Sugar, Claws, American Crime, and three seasons of Vida for which she was nominated for a Hollywood Post Alliance Award.
Matthew has edited TV series including Dave, High Fidelity, Veep, The Kominsky Method, Claws, and The Good Place. Matthew was nominated for an Emmy for editing Trauma: Life in the E.R.
Check out the Art of the Cut podcast to listen to this interview, and stay up to date on all the latest episodes.
BARBATO: We should mention we’re missing one of our teammates, Julie Monroe, who’s a great editor. She came on first and did the first episode. She had worked with Dan Fogelman before, who is our EP [Executive Producer] on the show, and I think he brought her in to work on the show.
HULLFISH: So, that’s how she got on this show. How did the two of you lang this gig?
YARROW: For me, I heard about it through my agent. I had a job that I was supposed to do, but COVID had pushed forward my project so much into the new year that I decided to become available again and this thing popped up. They had already hired Julie and Matthew, and so I was the third one on and got to join them.
I had actually met John Hoffman before but I had never worked with him. I had heard about Jamie Babbit, but I had not worked with her either. I knew Matthew was already on it and so that was just an added perk that I already had a friend in the cutting room.
HULLFISH: You knew each other before?
YARROW: Yeah. We worked together on Claws a few years ago so it was nice to already have somebody.
BARBATO: I think I was speaking with JoAnne about it saying, “Oh I’m up for this job and I’m really excited about it.” She said, “What is it?” I said, “I can’t tell you. I don’t like to jinx things.” Then she just named it because it was just out on the radar and she got the interview for the next slot right after me.
For me, I just got a call for a meeting and I hadn’t worked with anybody on the team before. I wasn’t familiar with John Hoffman, but I was familiar with Jamie Babbit and I had always wanted to work with her. I’ve worked on series where she had directed other episodes and I was always looking forward to working with her on it, and I almost didn’t get to on this one. I almost kept missing her, but I finally did on my last episode and it was great.
I was actually on a show one time where there was a director/EP who directed every other episode and there were two editors, so I didn’t work with him at all out of about 20 episodes until the end when they switched it up and then I did get to work with him for one episode.
HULLFISH: To discuss style, I felt like there were a lot of two-shots and three-shots with the principal three characters because you want to see them interact. Does that sound right to you, JoAnne?
YARROW: Yeah, I think the show was most successful when it was our three characters all bantering together. So it makes sense that you would pick up on that.
HULLFISH: I also noticed that there’s some intercutting specifically when Steve Martin and Selena Gomez are sleuthing in the building while Martin Short’s character is off talking to his son at his house bringing him some presents. There are some pre-laps back and forth between them. Talk to me about the value of why you might pre-lap while intercutting with the dialogue going in and out of different scenes.
BARBATO: There’s a scene in one of the later episodes where I did that too. When you get into an intercutting situation sometimes you want to try and make the audience understand that each of the intercutting pieces are related to one another and are building towards a certain thing. One way you can do that is by starting to share dialogue under scenes together.
I found that really effective in one of the later episodes I did because we’re building to a climactic reveal and there are two sets of characters that are doing different things in completely different locations, but by blending the audio and leading you back and forth to each of the character’s storylines, you’re able to build a sense in the audience that they’re supposed to be paying attention to how these beats are working together.
“When you’re in a pinch and two things really don’t feel like they connect, you can do a pre-lap and it’s like magic.”
YARROW: I think what you’re referencing, Steve, is maybe episode one which was Julie’s episode. I know that section evolved in various different ways from how it was initially scripted, but it always just helps for transitions. When you’re in a pinch and two things really don’t feel like they connect, you can do a pre-lap and it’s like magic. It really unites those two pieces and it’s really great if what you’re hearing can comment on what you’re seeing visually.
I love pre-lapping. I actually didn’t do it in this series, or at least not much, but it’s great.
BARBATO: It also helps sometimes when the end of your scene isn’t as punchy as you need it to be and you’re basically drawing the audience’s attention. You’re pulling them into the next scene before they have a chance to realize that maybe it’s not quite as energetic or quite as final as you need it to be. You’re saying, “Okay, so we’re wrapping up here, but over here we want to tell you something else.”
HULLFISH: I was just talking to a guy that I’m doing some mentorship for and we were talking about keeping the energy between one scene and the next scene. You want to be able to have that energy flow throughout. You don’t want it to lull, but you want it to keep going through. That’s definitely a way to do it when a scene dies at the end but if you stick this pre-lap under, then the energy stays.
I was interested in the film grammar of a specific shot. There’s a character named Tim Kono—we won’t say what his role in the movie is at this point—but somebody says, “We’ve got to find out who knows Tim Kono,” and you cut to the character that does know Tim Kono and there’s this little push in. I thought that’s just such film grammar. If you’re an editor and you’re trying to figure out how to edit this, you see that push in and you know you have to use that. You’ve gotta go with it. It is also followed by a flashback showing what she’s thinking about.
YARROW: That was my episode. For me, it was that transition, just having that quiet moment into the flashback where we connect with her and get into her head for a second before we go into this flashback from when they’re younger about ten years ago. That was Jamie Babbit’s decision and she actually shot it that way. It felt very intentional and the very obvious choice, and it works.
HULLFISH: Yes, but you chose that shot. She shot it and gave you that but you could have been on a wide shot before the flashback dip, but that just would have been wrong, right? The wrong film grammar?
YARROW: Yes. I really wanted to hang with Selena’s character, Mabel, and see that moment of discomfort and clue you in that there’s something deeper going on here.
HULLFISH: By then the audience already knows that she knows, so it’s more about her feeling how she feels with the other two characters, right?
BARBATO: She’s hiding information, so she’s in a pickle.
HULLFISH: Throughout all the episodes there are cuts to black. Were you prepping it for advertisements or were they act breaks?
YARROW: We haven’t discussed this yet actually.
BARBATO: I haven’t actually watched it yet on streaming [laughs].
HULLFISH: Well, I’ll tell you that on HULU there are cuts to black every seven minutes or so.
“It was a thing where we were ready to deliver the shows and I remember having to remind the EP that we need commercial breaks in here.”
BARBATO: So, you clearly have the ad-free subscription [laughs]. For the first bunch of weeks, we were cutting this without any commercial breaks or act breaks and it was written without any commercial breaks or act breaks, but the Hulu streaming service provides commercials. For people who don’t have that, we had to plug them in. So, it was a thing where we were ready to deliver the shows and I remember having to remind the EP that we need commercial breaks in here. It was breaking his heart because he wanted it to play altogether. So, I just went through and said, “How about here, here, and here?” But I had no idea that it would appear for the ad-free version with a black hole.
YARROW: Nor did I.
HULLFISH: Did you guys have specific time lengths for the episodes?
YARROW: No, it was all over the place.
BARBATO: It was whatever worked and there were specifics for act breaks that we had to adhere to when we did apply them, which made it a little harder, but it wasn’t something we were thinking about the whole time.
YARROW: Right. For example, the first act couldn’t be less than two minutes or three minutes.
HULLFISH: So, you have both cut other television. Is that helpful to you that you don’t have to hit a time?
BARBATO: Yeah for sure. It’s a blessing and a curse sometimes because, with the advent of streaming, you have certain creators who will just run with it and put as much content on there. Sometimes there’s a benefit to having some limitations, especially in certain types of comedy that require a certain amount of pace. I’ve worked with producers, even in streaming, who arbitrarily said, “Our show will not be more than 27 minutes,” and we threw out great content because as you try and make that process happen you’re tightening and you’re creating a certain pace.
“Sometimes there’s a benefit to having some limitations, especially in certain types of comedy that require a certain amount of pace.”
This show is not the show with that pace, so it wouldn’t have been beneficial to it. Getting the story right and getting the character development right was more important here, but on the other show that I worked on—Veep—it was a rapid-fire style, so one of the ways they got there was to say, “We could have 35 minutes of amazing material, but we’re going to make a 27-minute show and really give it all the A jokes, tighten it up, and take all the air out.
HULLFISH: JoAnne, how were you able to make it be the right length since there was no assigned length?
YARROW: I had the opposite problem. My episodes were shorter than everybody else’s. Everybody else would have 33-minute, 35-minute episodes, and I would have a 26-minute episode, but that’s what it needed to be. That’s what felt right. It didn’t need to have more than that for sure. That was really just a process of figuring out what felt right with our showrunner, John [Hoffman], and making sure we didn’t have to stay in something just for the sake of hitting a runtime. I just went with what felt natural and, at first, I was wondering if I was just cutting stuff far too tight, but it was just the nature of those stories and those particular episodes. In the end, we were all over the place with our running times.
BARBATO: JoAnne, were you thinking about your running time while you were cutting? Or just after the fact?
YARROW: Only after the fact.
HULLFISH: That’s the flip side of getting it tight enough is that if you don’t have to hit a certain time and you’re under it, you don’t have to pad it with crap that then screws up the pace of your show.
Did they ever switch scenes between episodes since you weren’t delivering all at once?
BARBATO: There were some reshoots and there were some script redos in-between the transitions between two episodes. It wasn’t wholesale. It was more about finding where we end the first episode and start the second episode. We shifted that moment a little bit, and then those scenes were reshot to make them fit better into the episodes.
YARROW: I had one particular episode that went back and forth between two different perspectives, the conceit of it being this Rashomon style. Then, at some point it became linear and that kept switching back and forth. That was the episode that I grabbed Matthew’s beginning and put it on the end of mine and was experimenting with that. Then, they rewrote it and reshot it and that became my new ending. We took pieces of what was in the opening scene of his episode.
HULLFISH: Which episode was that?
YARROW: That was episode five.
BARBATO: Between five and six.
HULLFISH: The show’s got a nice theme song and the music just felt right for the content. What did you temp with?
YARROW: We were able to temp with the composer’s work actually. Siddhartha Khosla was the composer and he had written a few pieces before we even started that we were able to listen to. It definitely set the tone. Then, once Julie had the editor’s cut for episode one, she started working with him. They started coming up with ideas and we worked really closely at a really early stage so that by the time cuts went to producers you had already worked on some music with him and he would turn it back around and give you some options.
From that, there were stems to work with and so we could break that down and give pauses where we needed to and build something to fit her scenes more uniquely. Then we could throw it back to him and he would make modifications. So, we were really working with the composer’s music from day one, which helped make everything feel cohesive, set the tone, and made it really easy to just feel like one unit.
HULLFISH: Did you both get a chance to watch the first episode before you did any cutting of your own?
BARBATO: I did. I don’t remember which version it was, but I definitely saw a cut of it.
HULLFISH: Did that help you make the show feel cohesive, making it feel like it was cut by one editor, or did you feel like you were getting the same feel from your dailies?
“The first episode of any season is usually a little bit heightened and it’s trying to balance all of the exposition and introduce you to the characters.”
BARBATO: I would say so. The first episode of any season is usually a little bit heightened and it’s trying to balance all of the exposition and introduce you to the characters. So, by the time I got to my episode, which was the third episode, we were settled into the story and so it was a little bit more standard footage-wise. There weren’t as many kinds of specialty shots and action sequences and things like that which I had seen in the first one.
I typically will watch some material that’s come before whatever I’m supposed to be working on, but I usually just defer to my dailies and let them dictate what it’s supposed to be. Obviously, if I have a sense of what the show is going to be, the writers, the director, and the actors all have a sense of what it’s going to be so they’re telling me through the dailies what it should be. It usually ends up fitting in really well.
HULLFISH: Did they cross-board or do anything like that? Or were they pretty much shooting it in the sequence of the episodes?
YARROW: It was technically cross-boarded I think, but the way it ended up falling was everything from one episode would pretty much come in first before it went to the other one. There might be some little pieces that they’d have to pick up later.
BARBATO: Technically, it was cross-boarded and we were prepared for that, but then when we got the schedule we would see that there’d be maybe a couple of days of cross-shooting, so we’d get maybe half the number of scenes. It was nice to be able to focus or do polishing while you’re waiting for your final scenes to come in before you had to turn it over. It gave us a little bit of breathing room.
As JoAnne said, ultimately, they tried to stick to each episode. Each director did two episodes at a time. That was their hope and I think they wanted to just maintain the continuity of the narrative in each episode.
YARROW: I think the biggest difference in terms of cohesion is that each director had a different vibe to them. I think that came across in their episodes, and the episodes themselves also have a pretty unique identity from one to the other so it also allowed us to have the freedom to do what felt right for that episode, which was nice.
“I love it when sometimes I’m watching a comedy and I kind of ask, “What did they say?” You catch something and it feels like this extra gift.”
HULLFISH: One of the things that I love about comedy editing is the idea of using an edit as a punchline or as a rim shot. There were a couple of times when Martin Short would say a line and it always felt like just the perfect amount of time after the line when you cut away. Can you talk to me about trying to time the ends of scenes, or playing a cut very obviously after a punchline, because there’s something about it that helps the joke, right?
YARROW: For me, just instinctually to linger in is to nudge the audience, saying, “Get it?” Whereas you can also move on from it or even maybe slightly miss it. I love it when sometimes I’m watching a comedy and I kind of ask, “What did they say?” You catch something and it feels like this extra gift and you think, “I caught that little thing,” and it’s this huge reward. So, that’s the way I think about it. What about you, Matthew?
BARBATO: I think my experience is that all the different projects that you work on in comedy are on a different spectrum of broadness as far as how far they want to push the comedy or how grounded they want to be. Within each of those, there’s always the risk of the joke taking over the world of the characters and the story.
“As an editor, you never want to get caught telling a joke.”
As an editor, you never want to get caught telling a joke. So, by telling a joke when you know you’re just pushing the envelope on the believability of what the character may or may not say or when you are presenting and teeing up a joke—it goes back to the pre-lap thing—if you get out of it and distract by saying, “Hey look over here. We just told you a joke, but look over here,” then you can get away with it. People laugh and they don’t have time to think, “Wait a second. That didn’t make any sense.”
We try not to put in jokes like that too much, but the up-cut also is that it’s another surprise. A lot of what you’re going for with comedy is surprises and people saying surprising things. So, if you surprise them with a line and then jump away, you surprise them again and it helps double the comedy of the moment.
HULLFISH: Did you get to know the pace that people liked for those kinds of cuts while working on Veep?
BARBATO: I had been a big fan of Veep before I worked on it, so I was pretty familiar with the pace of it. Then, working with the dailies was like a dream come true because it’s a cast that is completely “on” all the time. You’d be trying to tell the story and you’d have side characters making faces, adding lines, and you’d just be overwhelmed with the amount of stuff you had. You would try and keep up with the pace of it.
Veep is an unusual situation because it’s essentially a half-hour show but they have a 60-page script and they shoot 60 minutes or more of material. What you’re really doing in large part in the editing room on Veep is finishing editing the script because they pack it with so much stuff and they’re still working on it the night before they shoot it. Then, the EP comes in and you’re just saying. “Okay, we want to take out that line and this line. We want to put that line in the front of the scene and behind the scene.” So, a lot of what you’re doing with that is trying to make visual sense of a re-edit of text and make it play coherently.
HULLFISH: There was something that was very interesting with a couple of the episodes—and maybe it was all of them—that they start with a voice that you’re not familiar with and you don’t prep it. Then, later on, you understand who’s speaking. It’s almost like the episode is narrated by a new character. Can you guys talk to me about the scripting of that with the editing and not losing the audience in those?
YARROW: I think it’s supposed to really add to this element of mystery. Everybody’s a suspect and maybe you don’t know who they are, wondering where it’s all going. I think it was all a vehicle for that to keep you guessing. Then, the layers get peeled back and you learn more and more about who that person is and what their contribution to the story is.
HULLFISH: Did you have any of those episodes, Matt?
BARBATO: I think most of them did. I can’t recall, but my last one had that for sure. I think one of the things that’s interesting about the series is you have this core group and they’re great, but then you’re introducing these new characters and you have certain episodes that are based on getting to know these different side characters, yet that’s all in the service of how the world of our three characters who are fairly isolated people are actually affected by these people that are in their orbit. So, rather than treat them like B characters who just pop in, give you some information, and leave, we get to know each of these B characters because they actually are a significant part of our trio’s world and life. The audience just hasn’t learned it yet.
There were a couple of times watching some of those episodes where I was a little concerned as a viewer thinking, “Are we going to lose our audience? Are they going to wonder what the heck is going on?” Ultimately, I think it works because the conceit is set up in the series so that once you get through it the first time and you’re a little confused, it’s not too long afterward that you’ve learned who it is, and then you realize that this is a thing that happens in this show and if you just have the patience and trust them, they’re not going to lose you.
HULLFISH: So often a conceit or style—like jump-cutting—that you want to use later has to be set up early so that it feels like part of the world.
One of the things I was curious about was a couple of reaction shots or looks from Mabel that I was trying to figure out if there were speed ramps on them like a slow Mo on a head turn?
“If I had to, I’d slow something down for sure, turn it around, flip it upside down, do whatever I have to do.”
BARBATO: I don’t know that I had anything that would fit that description, but I will say that I am very aggressive in doing whatever I have to do to the footage to get what I need. I’ll replace heads or do split screens. If I had to, I’d slow something down for sure, turn it around, flip it upside down, do whatever I have to do. If I can’t get it close to believable then I usually don’t ask the VFX department to try because I feel like we don’t want to start creating sort of an uncanny valley situation, but sometimes you’re backed into a corner and you just have to find something to use.
HULLFISH: I love the idea of the split screens. That’s something that a lot of people do—especially in a show like this—where you’re trying to keep an entire ensemble on screen at the same time. Can you think of moments that you did a split-screen and why you did it?
YARROW: I did it in the elevator. Jamie (the director) was smart about that. She framed the shot so it was very easy to just split Steve and Marty in half. We’d tweak timing or have a completely different performance or use two takes. It made it really easy to come together. So, that was nice. I felt like that was thoughtful in the direction of it.
BARBATO: I certainly used it a lot for timing. There’s a particular scene in ours where they couldn’t have all the actors in the same room at the same time because of COVID issues, and so it was shot separately. It came together really well because the actors were concerned about how they were going to perform against stand-ins. When we had both sides of it and we put it together, no one could tell.
HULLFISH: There’s a deaf character in this series and there are some pretty extensive sections where you’re in a deaf POV where you don’t hear the sound of what people are hearing but you’re hearing a pulsing or almost the sound of blood rushing in your ears. Did either one of you cut a scene where you had to get in and out of the deaf POV?
“To be able to sustain huge scenes where it is not driven by dialogue while being a comedy is really hard.”
YARROW: That one episode that you’re probably talking about was Julie’s episode, and I know it was really challenging because you don’t have dialogue to help you along. To be able to sustain huge scenes where it is not driven by dialogue while being a comedy is really hard. So, she did a really great job with that.
Sound definitely helped lend her a hand in that. Ultimately, I think at first they weren’t even going to shoot audio with it and they decided to go ahead and grab it. So, she was able to play with that a little bit with an effect on it, but generally speaking, there’s no dialogue throughout that.
HULLFISH: Is it like getting in and out of slow-mo at the right moment when you get in and out of this deaf POV? You’re hearing it like the deaf character is hearing it, but you’ve got to get back to dialogue eventually. What’s that cut like? I guess none of you guys cut that episode, but I thought there were a couple of episodes that had that character introduced.
YARROW: Yeah, he was in a couple of episodes, but I don’t think we were with him or really got to know him enough to go to his perspective until that later episode.
HULLFISH: That makes sense. When you are in dailies, how do you have your assistant set up your bins? When you walk in with fresh dailies from yesterday, what’s your process?
YARROW: I use a KEM roll. I watch it down and I have a banner over it because I take notes from the couch and not be so connected to the Avid machine.
HULLFISH: So, the banner you’re talking about is burn-in time code?
YARROW: Yeah, they would just have the scene and take so that I could jot something down if I wanted to. I watch it beginning to end with everything and then I leave little locators or markers with notes. So, it could be a line, it could be reaction shots. Sometimes I do a different color for a reaction shot and say what the line is. I just go through as I’m watching and if anything stands out, I go with my initial instinct and jot it down right there.
Then, at the same time, I also have the assistant’s ScriptSync. I don’t assemble with it usually, but it’ll help me fill in missing pieces, especially if I have built it out and have those select pieces that I really liked. Then, I can go in and add some connective tissue, but I usually use that more later on in the process when I’m working with the director or producer.
HULLFISH: When you’re using your KEM roll, you’re not starting to cut down or you’re not pulling stuff out of it to put into another timeline yet, right?
YARROW: I don’t. I watch it all through like it’s one untouchable thing and make all my notes for the most part. It can be different sometimes. If it’s action or something, then sometimes I’ll grab pieces immediately. I don’t want to lose that piece or don’t want to forget about it and I don’t want to mark it and not realize that’s a good piece, and so I’ll build stuff a little bit differently in that way, but for dialogue, I watch it all down and then I cut directly from the KEM roll.
I just like to be able to scroll through everything where you’re repeatedly seeing all the footage over again so that it just refreshes you because you forget. You’ll see an angle and it reminds you each time. Instead of being so deliberate by just replacing one little piece, scrolling through—over and over—helps me become more familiar with all my options. To me, it also seems quicker for little reaction shots and stuff like that. I don’t know if it actually is faster, but it feels easier to be able to scroll through one big thing than open each individual clip.
“I think of it as like carving the totem pole out of the tree.”
BARBATO: I actually will put together a string out of all takes in basically whatever the cutting pattern is. As I’m going through and I’m stringing out, I’m making decisions about my initial cutting pattern and stringing out those sections. Then, I create a duplicate and I make a selects reel of that, and then I duplicate that again and I start to whittle it down. I think of it as like carving the totem pole out of the tree. It’s all in there and I just have to find the pieces that make it fit together.
As I go on and do more and more work in my life, I find that I want to do that part quicker and then go back in and look at it. I then look at all the material again to see if there’s something that I missed or things that I could apply to it, and then I’ll just polish to a finished scene with whatever goes in it. I also like to get perspective on it. I like to do a quick version of it, put it aside, work on more string-outs or more selects, and then go back to that assembled scene a day or two later and see it with fresh eyes. Oftentimes, at that point, I can very quickly shape it into what it needs to be and generally don’t need to work on it too much after that.
YARROW: I like that too. I read something recently from a writer who was saying, “Just write the first draft and it can be basic, but it’s so much easier to do a rewrite than to write a first draft.” Sometimes I feel like that with editing, especially if I’m stuck, I’ll tell myself to just put something together, walk away from it, and then look at it again and really see what it’s supposed to be. I think that’s really helpful.
BARBATO: Sometimes if you’re looking at a stack of takes and there’s not a lot of difference, but you’re critiquing them and trying to find the nuance or the thing that’s going to make me pick the right one, and you just drive yourself mad because essentially they’re mostly the same. At a certain point, you just have to pick one, put it in, see how it plays with the rest of the material, and if it’s still bugging you, you can always go back and try it by just plugging that in a bunch of times.
“At a certain point, you just have to pick one, put it in, see how it plays with the rest of the material.”
If I have continuity issues I’ll just put a marker reminding me that I have to figure out how to get from there to there at some point, but I’m going to do that later. If I were to try and do it in the moment when I’m juggling all the ideas of the whole scene, I can’t focus on it, but if I come back to it a day later, in five minutes I can say, “Oh, well, of course, I’m just going to go to this angle when I’m there.” You can just see it so quickly.
HULLFISH: Talk about the process of getting past your first cut that you do during dailies and then the refinement that happens as you start to lock an episode. What are some of the ways that the context of the whole episode affects your edits?
YARROW: It depends on the broad emotional journey or what is that arc for that character, especially in that episode. Maybe they’re a little too somber already and nothing’s really happened to them, so let’s save that for a moment later. It’s hard until you see the big picture. I really do need to see everything in its entirety to get a good understanding of what each individual scene needs. That’s why that rough assembly cut does help because as quickly as I can I’ll put everything together and just watch it. It could be terrible, but I would just watch the whole thing and quickly see what needs help. Then, I can go to those places first and work on them. It’s a process of watching the whole thing over and over again and seeing how to shave it a little bit better.
“In truth, it’s so much better to go back to that scene in the context of where it fits in with the other scenes.”
BARBATO: My favorite part is getting it together. I’m always ahead of myself where I think I should be in terms of plugging it into the act. I’m always thinking I should do a little more sound work on the scene and get it a little more polished because it’ll feel like I’ve accomplished something. But in truth, it’s so much better to go back to that scene in the context of where it fits in with the other scenes because you may have a hangup about a particular line, but it’ll be solved by seeing what came before and what’s coming after it. But it’s not always a conscious thought. It’s just more of a feeling of seeing that this line has to feel this certain way.
HULLFISH: Was this series similar to other TV shows that either one of you had done as far as working with a director for three or four days and then you’re off with the showrunner/producer after that?
YARROW: Yeah, it was really pretty straightforward that way. It’s surprising because working remotely definitely has its challenges and you don’t know how that’s going to go. The interaction that I’m used to having with a director is that chemistry that you have in a room together. So, it was interesting to be separated by a screen, but It worked really well. I can’t remember how many days we had for the director’s cut.
BARBATO: Two, but every once in a while a director will get an extension.
YARROW: The episodes came together pretty easily. It felt like everything was already in good shape and we had our music squared away. It felt like real shows by the time it got to producers even in that limited amount of time.
HULLFISH: For other TV shows that both of you have cut where you might be more experienced at the show than a director who comes for their first episode ever, are you able to help them? How much do you try to guide them to what you know the showrunner is going to want?
YARROW: I try to keep the showrunner in mind, but I always try to honor the director in front of me. I think it’s important to honor everybody every step of the way so they feel like they have been heard and their vision has been put up there in the best way that they want. Then we can always make changes.
If you really do know the show, you build it knowing what the showrunner will probably want. I’ve been on shows where the showrunner actually wanted us to go through each shot with the director and talk about how it was shot, give feedback, and discuss everything. It was great because you knew how everything was going to be shot, and sometimes you’ve got to direct them in a different way.
BARBATO: TV directors are in a unique position because they come in for the week and then they’re on to a new series and they have to adapt to that style. There are different personalities and some people come in and they understand that the material is going to just be handed over to producers and they do their best to get the cut that they want and hand it off. Sometimes, other directors want to make a special imprint on the material, and you’ll mention to them that that’s not really the language of the show, but ultimately you want to try everything that they want to try because all experimentation could lead to something interesting, new, and different.
On shows that I’ve worked on there are producers who will look at both the director’s cut and the editor’s cut and say, “Okay, I like this. I like that.” They do trust that the editors who are on the show have a great handle on it.
HULLFISH: On a series where you don’t deliver every single week and you’re able to hold the episodes until you’re going to drop to the streamer, does that have an advantage for you? Did you guys watch the whole season and make individual changes to individual episodes?
YARROW: I didn’t do that.
BARBATO: The editorial department really didn’t do that. I think the EP’s probably did and carried that water for the series because we all worked remotely and it would have been nice to be in the same room and be able to sit down and look at each other’s things. I was always watching what JoAnne and Julie were doing and trying to keep up with it, but as things evolve and you’re trying to get your own work done, you can’t see every iteration of what someone else is working on and keep in mind what’s happening. So, I had to trust our EP, and he was on it and definitely intimate with each episode. He would be the one to guide us in terms of what needed to be massaged in an episode or not.
To go back to what JoAnne said before, the series was really solidly written. Other than that little bit of an issue with how one episode ended and the other ones started and where that point should be, everything pretty much went smoothly. They shot what they wrote, we put it together, and it all fell into place really nicely. Plus it’s Steve Martin and Martin Short. They’ve done it before. So it came out really well.
“They shot what they wrote, we put it together, and it all fell into place really nicely.”
YARROW: Obviously in the early days, we hadn’t read all the scripts yet, and one of my first episodes has this item in it that caught my attention and I paid attention to it, and I put it in the cut. I had no idea what it meant or where it was going, but it did come back around. For those little clues, it wasn’t like we had to go back through and make sure we plug this in and plug that in to make sure these things all add up. They were in the script already, and so we were able to just do our jobs and it ended up working out. In that respect, it was really quite easy in how it all fell together.
HULLFISH: There were a bunch of flashbacks in the series. Do you always treat those the same way?
YARROW: I had some flashbacks and we usually did some sort of audio pre-lap to get you in there to some degree. I think I just had some really quick ones. I had a flash and then I did another more elaborate one to a rooftop party and we pre-lapped and came in and out of it a little bit.
BARBATO: I only had a few flashbacks and there was no transitional treatment to them at all.
HULLFISH: Anything else that you guys want to talk about?
YARROW: I had to make a decision on whether to use Marty laugh-snorting or not because I had a snort in my first episode. I didn’t know how it was going to go over or how it was all gonna play out, and John liked it. I think Dan was on the fence and then it went back and forth. Then, recently watching three, I thought, “There’s snorts all over.” It was funny to me because it was this very serious discussion that we had early on asking if he was going to snort and if it’s okay for him to snort, and what is the snort about?
“It was this very serious discussion that we had early on asking if he was going to snort and if it’s okay for him to snort, and what is the snort about?”
HULLFISH: But that’s a performance issue. I talked to somebody who said an actress in one of their movies does this same thing with her lips and with her eyes every time she has to do this thing, and that’s fine, but you can only use it once because then it becomes this thing that makes you think, “There she goes with the thing with the lips and the eyes. What’s that?” As long as it’s once, it’s okay. If actors only knew how much we protected them.
BARBATO: JoAnne, we hadn’t talked about it because you dealt with a snort, and then I had the snort and I was looking at the footage and thought, “It’s so funny, but is it tipping? Is it too much? I’m going to leave it in and see what people say.” Then, the director came and said, “It’s great. Leave it in.” Then, in later episodes, I got into a situation where Marty snorted twice in a scene, and I didn’t think we could do it. Then, the mix came along and I said to our sound supervisor, “Just get this other sound like a grunt instead of a snort but just another sound because I want to show it to the EP’s.” I thought we couldn’t have two snorts in there. As funny as it is, it just takes away from it. It’s like you’re overdoing the gimmick.
YARROW: He also does the grunt clearing his throat.
I was so worried because it was January in New York pre-vaccine and with Selena being immunocompromised, it was nerve-wracking. Then, in the first episode, Jamie Babbit was exposed to the dog trainer I think, and had to direct from her hotel room remotely for some of it, but we made it through, considering all that was against us.
HULLFISH: Since you brought up editing during COVID, how did you cut remotely and how was the collaboration?
BARBATO: I had done a pilot in the fall and so I’d gotten a little bit warmed-up to the process and that helped. I also have an incredible assistant editor, Jack Cunningham, and he’s as solid as a rock. We had done remote editing before, but before COVID a little bit where we would do dailies at home for a couple of weeks before we had to go into an office and so we had worked out a system. Then, with new technology, I found it to be really easy and seamless. He was a great help in making sure everything was working really well.
I also want to point out that we talk a lot about what it’s like to be dealing with post in COVID, but one of the things we haven’t talked about is how it affected set and performance and how well they did to overcome the sense of lockdown that they had.
For the pilot that I did, there were some struggles to get the footage that they wanted and it was early in the fall, so it was really early in the process of trying to figure out how people are going to go back to it. There was just a lot of trepidation about how to move forward and they were able to get through it and do really well and get great performances, but it was certainly an added burden on this as well.
We had a couple of scares on our crew and we had to take precautions, but luckily those protocols all worked out and no one got really sick and we made it through and we made a great show.
YARROW: I did a pilot too and we had people kissing through plexiglass, which I did not use that shot [laughs], but it was a good idea. You gotta try things, so they tried it.
I think it was challenging at first. I had a new assistant that I wanted to work with and there wasn’t time for the learning curve. They sort of already had to know everything and be really experienced, so it was harder to mentor someone in that way. Then, we switched assistants and Olivia Lotz became my assistant who came on and helped me because I needed someone that was just a little bit more experienced and that made it a little bit easier, but we were still new getting to know each other as well, and so you really have to make everything very deliberate. Every question is an email or Zoom or a phone call, and you really start to track that stuff. You start to notice when people don’t know things as well. So, that makes it harder.
Between the editors, the great thing is Matthew and I already knew each other and Julie is just a warm, delightful person, so we immediately bonded. We were able to talk and discuss, and I think we texted constantly, so it was nice. I’ve done three shows working remotely, and I felt the most connected on this show with everybody. It was nice and it was easy.
I think the benefit for me too is also that I’m kind of an early worker, so I liked to get up and use those fresh ideas. So, it allowed me to get in really early and work a little, and then I could take a break in the afternoon when I’m really tired and go back after dinner and work some more. I didn’t feel like I was tied to the Avid. I felt like I was using my creativity when it felt the most potent, which was really nice. That was a really great added benefit of it.
HULLFISH: What technology were you using for collaborating or for working remotely? How were you getting footage?
YARROW: We used Amulet. Using Teradici we just remoted into our systems at Technicolor. I’m still on that system right now. Then, I think PostWorks in New York were doing our dailies and everything was dropped to the Aspera drive on one of the assistants’ computers and they could just divvy it up. It felt really seamless in that respect.
HULLFISH: How were you collaborating with directors, EPs, and showrunners?
YARROW: We used Clearview and Zoom, usually both at the same time. So you could send them a link and then you’d have zoom. That can get a little tricky when you’re turning off the audio and turning it on, and they forget to turn their stuff off, and then if you mute them they don’t know that they’re muted, so that’s a whole thing, but I think everybody got it down eventually.
BARBATO: The sync issues when you’re playing back to them off of Clearview can be seen by them on their monitor and it’s pretty close but it’s a frame out from what you’re seeing in your room, and then you have it playing back through zoom. So, you’ve got these three sources of the same audio. So, you have to come up with a system and I have headphones on and when I want to talk to him, I take the headphones off and I play it back, and then I mute them. It’s another step in the process.
HULLFISH: Love it. Thank you so much for joining me. It was really interesting to talk about this show and I can’t wait for the final two episodes, so I’m looking forward to it. Thank you both so much.
BARBATO: Thank you so much. Really appreciate it.
YARROW: Thank you.