The Rough Cut: The Editors Who Found the Spirit of “Reservation Dogs”

The Reservation Dogs editing team of Varun Viswanath, ACE and Patrick Tuck have spent the last two of the show’s three seasons working together to close the loop on multiple, multi-generational stories. Considering that the focus was just on the four teens when Varun started the journey with the Season One pilot, this was no small feat. There was no roadmap as to how their lives and their stories would interconnect with the generations of “Rez Dogs” that came before.

Plot summary for Reservation Dogs

Reservation Dogs follows the exploits of four Indigenous teenagers in rural Oklahoma who steal, rob, and save in order to get to the exotic, mysterious, and faraway land of California. To succeed, they will have to save enough money, outmaneuver the meth heads at the junkyard on the edge of town, and survive a turf war against a much tougher rival gang.

In our discussion with the Reservation Dogs editing team, we talk about:

  • Overwriting the story by a half, so you can cut it down by a third
  • Taking tonal adventures
  • Stringing together “joke pods”
  • Drug tripping just enough to earn a visit from the aliens
  • The Quentin connection

Listen while you read…

Editing FX’s Reservation Dogs

Matt Feury: I want to start someplace where I don’t typically start with these questions, and that is your feelings about the show. I know what the critics love and I know what I love, but I want to hear from each of you. What is it you love and appreciate most about Reservation Dogs? Varun, why don’t we start with you?

Varun Viswanath, ACE: I have a very romantic idea about the sense of the sense of belonging. I’ve lived away from home longer than I’ve lived at home. I have lived in three different countries now, but I have the sense of wanting to belong somewhere and wanting people to belong to a place to belong to.

Going through this whole show, the arc of the characters finding their sense of belonging to their community, to their place, that really is what I enjoy the most, I feel like I bring that energy to it as much as possible. That’s another little layer of some connection back to your people. I think that’s the overarching theme that hooks me again and again.

MF: And Patrick, AKA Tuck, what’s your take?

Patrick Tuck: I didn’t work on season one. I was an actual fan of the show when it first aired. It reminded me of me and my buddies growing up, running around and just hijinks in general. That really reeled me in, and then on top of that, it had layers of something I’d never seen before on television. I’ve never seen this community. It’s unfamiliar to me and it’s really fun to experience how narratively they were laying it out. I had never seen anything like it before.

Then, to get the opportunity to work on season two was such a huge highlight. In fact, after season one had aired, I messaged Varun and said, “I love your work.” We had never talked before. I just messaged him and said, “I’m such a fan of your work. I really love the hunting episode.” It was my favorite episode at the time. To get the opportunity to work on season two was a big deal for me. I basically just went through the show hoping that I wasn’t going to ruin it.

Varun Viswanath: It was the best message I ever got. I thought, “Somebody likes my work! Who is this guy?” Lo and behold, a few months down the line, Patrick VandenBucche, who had worked with Patrick Tuck on Dave, came on board as our post producer. He brought Patrick in for an interview and the rest is history.

MF: Taking into consideration what you each said about Reservation Dogs, what do you each look for in a project at this stage of your careers? Film versus television, type of genre, type of working environment? What is it you look for most at a project right now?

Patrick Tuck: I tend to look for projects that aren’t going to pigeonhole me. I like to challenge myself and I like to do things I haven’t done before. The way to enjoy this job is to enjoy learning and I think that’s a huge aspect of editing and filmmaking in general.

The way to enjoy this job is to enjoy learning.

If you are constantly looking for things that allow you to expand your skill set, or even just your mentality of the world or your outlook, it’s extremely valuable and it’s extremely fun. I’m always looking for projects that are slightly different from what I’ve already done or are tackling a different genre than I’ve done before. Projects like Reservation Dogs allow themselves to be many things at once. They allow themselves to dip their toes in a lot of different things. I’m always looking for shows like that.

Varun Viswanath: I’m very much in line with what Tuck said. I gravitate towards stories that haven’t been told before by people who haven’t had the chance to tell these stories. That, and comedies with a strong dramatic spine. I think that encapsulates it. There are hour-long shows that slant towards comedy as well, so I’m not really restricting myself to a specific time format. I just want it to be a new story and not something that’s based on something prior.

MF: Varun, you’ve been on the show from the very beginning. Patrick joined in season two. How did you get this gig? Patrick was already a fan, so he knew what he was buying into. But Varun, when you take a gig, you have no idea how it’s going to pan out. How did you get it and what convinced you to take it?

Varun Viswanath: I was working on What We Do in the Shadows season two when the announcement for the pilot came out. This was a couple of months before everything shut down in March of 2020. At that point of time, I wanted to put my hand up for it. I thought, “Wow, this is great. It’s a coming-of-age story. I’ve done those before and I like that. This is a new boy voice and Taika Waititi is involved, as he was in What We Do in the Shadows. So I was really excited about it.

Almost at the same time, Yana Gorskaya, the editor, who has been my mentor for a very long time, was literally in the other room. She emailed me, saying, “We should get you on this.” It all kind of serendipitously happened within the same five minutes. I walked over to Yana’s room and said, “I’m going to reach out to Garrett Bash, who was the producer that we shared between both of the shows.

Yana said, “We’ll put in a good word for you. You’re going to be on your way.” So, I put my hand up for the pilot, but, of course, the pilot didn’t go in February as it was supposed to. It got pushed later. Then, I was brought on to the pilot as one of the three editors in 2020 with the pitch to join the show if it went to series. I kind of got grandfathered into the pilot, but I did an interview with the co-creator, Sterlin Harjo, before he hired me for the series.

I was really nervous. I wanted to be ready to talk about a sense of belonging, all of that stuff. Then, as soon as I got on the call, Sterlin said, “Oh, you worked on the pilot, right? Cool. That’s great. Let’s just try it out.” Then, I had my questions about, “What are you thinking about for the rest of the season?” and so we just rambled on for about twenty minutes, made friends, and he said, “Ok, cool. Let’s go.” That’s how the beginning of Reservation Dogs was for me.

MF: Listeners should really pay attention to what Patrick did, which is, if you’re interested in a show and you are looking for a job, e-mail one of the editors on it and say, “I really love your work.” That’s not a bad way to start. Can we flesh that out a little more, Patrick? Tell me about getting that gig, who you interviewed with, and the connection with the show Dave.

Patrick Tuck: Sure, I had worked with a producer named Patrick VandenBussche, who has become a very close friend of mine. We worked on Dave season one. If anyone knows, the first season of a television show has a lot of growing pains. It’s a lot of figuring things out. Pat and I sort of found solace in each other for a very difficult first season, but one that paid off in a big way.

We worked on season two together as well, and then he got the opportunity to work on Reservation Dogs season two. The post producer wasn’t coming back and he had heard through conversations with Sterlin and the other showrunner that one of the editors wasn’t coming back. I think she had a scheduling conflict, Gina Sansom, who is also an incredible editor.

Patrick threw my name in the hat, which I am eternally grateful for, because it allowed me one of the greatest experiences of my life. I thank him all the time. He put my name in the hat, and Sterlin said, “Let’s go ahead and interview this guy.” We hopped on a Zoom call and it was really funny. Sterlin prefaced the call with, “Just so you know, I hate Zoom interviews, and I especially hate interviews with editors because I have no idea if this is going to work.”

It makes a lot of sense. How can you know if someone can edit based on what they’re talking about? Then said, “What do you think of the show?” I told him how I had messaged Varun and how much I love the show’s atmosphere and how it is able to tow the line of different tones. He was into that. We talked a little bit more about the show and our favorite episodes and favorite characters and whatnot. Then, Sterlin goes, “Well, I really don’t want to do one of these again, so screw it, you’re on. You seem like a nice guy.”

It sounds sort of like a lackadaisical approach by Sterlin, but I think it speaks more to his ability to trust people. He has a great gut that’s able to really understand what’s needed in any given situation and guide that in the right way. Luckily, it worked out. I did well, I think.

MF: Don’t discount exhaustion as a means of getting a job. There’s nothing wrong with them just being wiped out from talking to people. Take the gig.

This show could really just be a straightforward coming-of-age dramedy. It’s about four kids growing up, trying to figure out their way in the world. But it ended up being a lot more than that for a number of reasons. I want to go back to the pilot, Varun, and what you talked about with Sterlin, or Taika, or whoever was in the mix for the pilot. What made this show more than just a simple story about four kids growing up in rural America?

Varun Viswanath: There honestly wasn’t that much conversation that I was privy to about that. I think Sterlin and Taika had a lot of those conversations with FX. What’s in the pilot is very close to the script, with a lot of cut-downs. There was a lot of improv that we cut down.

As editors, we didn’t know what to expect. “What’s going to happen for the rest of the season?” My expectation was, “This is going to be about these four kids, right? That’s going to be a central theme.” It stayed that way for a couple of episodes until we got to that episode about Cheese (played by Lane Factor) and Big (Zahn McClarnon) with the Deer Lady (Kaniehtiio Horn). Then I was thinking, “Wow, this is more than just an ensemble.”

This is more than just four high school kids growing up doing high school things. The show very clearly strayed away from the classic coming-of-age tropes like who’s hooking up with whom. It very decidedly expanded the world every episode. It said, “Here’s a new character, and they’re going to be around. Here’s another new character. Here’s a new space. That’s going to be around.” We accumulated more and more and built it out. This show is not about, “What did the gang do today?”

This show was always about character development, about how people handle grief, how people interface with their community.

There are plenty of shows that do that format really well. This show was always about character development, about how people handle grief, how people interface with their community. I think a lot of that happened organically. I wish I could take credit for some of it. But really, in season one, all we did was fine tune jokes, find improv things that balanced the generations out, and tried to create as much back-and-forth between intergenerational conversations as possible.

Honestly, there wasn’t any template. We just figured it out. It’s just the audacity of putting that up on screen, all completely dressed with Sterlin. We’re really happy. It worked out.

MF: It certainly did. There’s so much about Reservation Dogs that is so wonderfully authentic. It is the first series to feature all-indigenous writers and directors, along with an almost entirely indigenous North American cast and production team. It was filmed entirely in Oklahoma, which I think is interesting. That doesn’t happen very often. It reminded me of another show that I covered, The Righteous Gemstones. They shoot in South Carolina.

Back to that authentic part of it. I’m pretty sure you don’t, but I’m going to ask anyway: Did you cut in Oklahoma? If you had your preference, would you? Is there some value you could get out of being in that environment to leverage that authenticity?

Varun Viswanath: We didn’t cut in Oklahoma, although I did try to see if the production could have us on set for a little bit. Talking to Sterlin, we said, “It would be fun to cut while we’re shooting a couple of episodes in season three.” But our schedules didn’t work. We were overlapping with other shows, on the tail end of one as we started another one. That idea never really took off.

All three seasons were shot in Oklahoma. I think Sterlin really wanted to get the local feel and crew and not have to feel like he’s rebuilding something that is already so unique. The community that he grew up in already exists and that community that nurtured him and all the other artists who’ve had their piece in this show. Actors, directors, writers, musicians, local casting for all the guest stars and extras, everything.

I think almost everybody in Sterlin’s extended family has been an extra in one of the big group scenes, and it really shows. The interaction between people in the background is very natural, because that’s who he cast. I would have really liked to be there.

I feel like post production is the only one who is away from the community of production. That’s something that I wish we had a chance to access, so that we could pour the experience of feeling part of that community back into the show. We didn’t do the show any disservice, hopefully, but maybe we would have felt even better being with production, at least for a bit of it. What do you think, Tuck?

One of the shooting locations for Reservation Dogs.

Patrick Tuck: I think there’s always value in post being a part of the production process and being familiar with everyone involved. But, obviously, there are budgets involved. We have to take things like that into account and we have to abide by them.

I think the show also functioned really well with us being remote. We all made a great effort to make sure that the connection was felt between everyone. We had long conversations about what the show is, what our characters were doing, and I also felt like we were included in a lot of the production meetings and whatnot. That helped us establish tone and discuss how things were executed and why.

MF: Varun, you mentioned figuring things out as you went along. Reservation Dogs starts with the kids stealing a vehicle to eventually break away from their community, and it wraps up with them trying to steal a vehicle to help heal the rifts in their community. It feels like you guys had to know where things were going. When did you know the full arc of the narrative? How does knowing or not knowing that affect your ability to tell the story?

Varun Viswanath: The season three scripts really came down to the wire because we were up against the WGA strike deadline. I feel like we found out in real time as those scripts came in. I think the episode 309 and 310 scripts literally came in two days before the strike. That’s when we realized, “Oh, that’s where the 308 heist is going. It’s harkening back to the pilot. This is how Sterlin is choosing to bring all of it together.”

I really wish that we had more time to let that sink in. When we did find out, we were just running and gunning. We just had to get stuff done. Then, when I read the 308 script, I thought, “Man, I wish I was cutting this episode.” So I’ve been jealous of you about that, Tuck. Because you got to cut that heist.

When we did find out, we were just running and gunning. We just had to get stuff done.

Patrick Tuck: Yeah, that is probably my favorite episode I worked on. That editing experience was so fun. It’s such a rhythmic episode and that makes it really exciting.

To answer your question, “How important is it to know where it’s all going?” I think that it’s vital for you to know what reactions you’re showing at what point. What ulterior motives of a scene need to happen in order to continue the story along, outside of the story that’s happening within the episode? You need to know how you’re driving the big picture along.

Harjo’s experiences growing up in rural Oklahoma resonated with the nearly all-Indigenous cast and crew. Image © FX Productions
Harjo’s experiences growing up in rural Oklahoma resonated with Reservation Dogs’ Indigenous cast and crew. Image © FX Productions

We found out exactly where it was all ending up late in the process. But it felt like we knew these characters really well, and the scripts that we had already received were already sprinkled with details that allowed us to understand what was going on. That is a sign of great writing. This is a very intentional show with a very unique voice. That’s what makes it so special.

Varun Viswanath: How it ended up, where it had the most impact, at least plot-wise, was in the 1970s episode that we did in the middle of season three. We essentially introduced an entirely new main character. For that, it was very vital to know, “We’re going to have a heist where we have Elder Maximus (played by Graham Greene) but in this earlier episode we’re setting up him and his motivations and the motivations of his peer group.”

I’m glad that we had just that little bit of context to cut that episode. Otherwise, I feel like it magically falls into this ‘everything’s connected’ theme. It’s something that you just poo-poo and think, “Oh that’s just something writers do” but Sterlin really paid off on that. It came together in so many layered ways. This might actually be a better question for Sterlin, “How did you orchestrate this whole thing?” or “Did it just come out this way, from your brain?”

MF: One of the bigger challenges in doing a show is finding the right tone. In the first episode, you introduced a character known as “Spirit”, William Knifeman (played by Dallas Goldtooth) who only the character Bear can see. Then, throughout the series, you get into Bigfoot and aliens and this succubus-like character called the Deer Lady. It gets very fantastical at times. How hard is it to find and maintain that tone and define a tone when you could really go anywhere?

Varun Viswanath: I think that going anywhere is the point for me. I found the root of the show in how people converse with each other and the rhythm of conversation. The relationships aren’t overly paternalistic or prescriptive. There’s always an open dialogue in conversations. The rhythm of conversations between people is a root, but then with the introductions of new characters, we kind of take tonal adventures when we have a new character introduced.

It’s a great structure that the writers came up with, which I’m sure has been used in other ways, but it really came together in this show. “This is Big’s episode and Big tells you about the Deer Lady.” Then you get to take this punk rock excursion into a flashback where she’s out there getting justice for people that have been wronged. Then you introduce that tone. When you go out hunting, there’s the spookiness of what the unknown woods hold. There, you use that opportunity to introduce a different tone, one of meditative grip. How do you deal with that?

Putting people in different situations and introducing new characters becomes a foil for a new tonal adventure. By the end of season one, Sterlin gained the permission to say, “I could take the show anywhere.”

Patrick Tuck: For me, something I learned early on was that the show talks about community and tradition in a very respectful way, but also has an irreverence that undercuts it at times. It’s never disrespectful. It’s always more of a joke between everybody.

An example of that is season two, episode two, where Uncle Brownie (played by Gary Farmer) and Bucky (Wes Studi) are taking Cheese and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) to the river to dispel a curse. They say, “We have to sing an old song. It has to be an old song” and they start singing Tom Petty. But it also works! They dispel the curse in that moment.

A different problem arises later in the season, but I think it is that sort of balance, irreverence with respect, that is the tone of the show. That was what guided me through any joke or serious scene. It was, “How do we find both of those things?” I know Sterlin loves to have that kind of balancing act going on.

MF: Reservation Dogs deals with themes about community and connection between generations. Let’s pick a few episodes and explore some of those themes. You already talked about having standalone episodes to develop characters. These kids go on this journey of finding out who they really are, what their place is in the community, what their places in the world are.

The character Willie Jack goes to visit her aunt, who is in prison, looking for information, looking for answers. That episode kicks off a journey for her where she becomes sort of a healer, a medicine woman, within the community. Varun, I thought that would be a fun one for you to talk about. What did you do to make it work so well?

Varun Viswanath: That episode was an editorial beast. Sterlin had to shoot it in three days, instead of the usual four and a half, because he shared shooting time with the season two finale. They were on the road, they had to go to LA, so they needed more time for that.

Sterlin took a whole day. He put cameras on Paulina and Lily Gladstone and said, “Okay, you’re just going to say a bunch of stuff.” I remember Sterlin telling me, “I know it was all over the place, but there’s an episode in there. Just find it.” That’s how I came into that episode. He had ideas about, “Why don’t we use the same piece of music that we can bring back over and over again to underscore the patterns of this episode.”

I’m struggling. My friends are struggling.

That’s how I started that episode. There were other characters that we cut out in the prison while she was waiting. We were really trying to put Willie Jack in this place where she feels lost. She’s in a place where she is open to get anything from anywhere. Even the conversation she has with the old man cowboy in the waiting area, she was just open to getting wisdom from somewhere, anywhere. “I’m struggling. My friends are struggling.”

So much of it is Paulina’s performance as Willie Jack. If you look back all the way through the beginning to the end, she really is the glue of her generation and, eventually, to the community. She is constantly reacting to everybody else. She’s constantly offering something in every conversation, whether or not she has a scripted line, whether or not she has a scripted purpose in that scene.

That’s really what came together in that episode for me. She’s out here. We don’t even know why her aunt is in prison. We still don’t know. We asked Sterlin and he said, “No, we’re not going to tell anybody. That’s just it. It just happens. Sometimes you have family in prison and you go and visit them. It doesn’t matter why they’re there, it just matters that they’re far away.”

She goes into the prison to reach out and lay out what seem to be minute issues about her immediate life, but she comes away with life lessons way beyond that. She comes away with purpose. How Sterlin tells the story kind of embodies indigenous teaching. You go in with one agenda, but, after a conversation, you come out with so much more, by design. Nobody is telling you how to solve this problem. They are telling you how to live life.

Then you glean your life lessons from there and decide how you want to apply it to this particular situation. Since you haven’t been given a prescription, you make it your own. That’s what every generation has done. They make it their own. That’s true. Do something in the core.

Willie Jack made it her own. She didn’t really say the prayer the same way when she was giving the letter to her friends, she didn’t really cook the meal very well, but it was the spirit of it. What was the intention of bringing people together? That brings her the outcome that she wants. She brought her crew back together.

The first cut of that prison visitation scene was twenty-six minutes long. I wondered, “How is this going to survive? It’s twenty-six minutes long! We really have to cut it down.” This is a common trend in our life-lesson scenes or wisdom scenes. They are generally overwritten on the page. I think Sterlin does that strategically to kind of give the actors a place to go. In the editing, we cut it down to about a third of the length. We leave it slightly open-ended, slightly vague and mysterious so that people can get their own perspective from what’s being said instead of it being spoon-fed to them.

Sterlin does that strategically to kind of give the actors a place to go.

I have my own fraught relationship with the spirituality and religiosity that I grew up with. When cutting this episode, I thought, “If I was taught spirituality and religiosity this way, I think I might have been a very different person.” This is the corniest thing to say, but I feel like I experienced my own spiritual healing while working on this show. As corny as that sounds, it really is true.

MF: Earlier, you mentioned improv. These are all terrific actors, but they’re young actors, and I would assume that there wouldn’t be a lot of improv. It sounds like that was not the case. How does that affect you as editors when you have a lot of improv to work with? How do you manage that?

Patrick Tuck: It’s only helpful for an editor. Yes, it can be challenging and you can think, “How do we get every joke that we like in here?” This show is always an embarrassment of riches. Watching the dailies, you can tell that the set is very comfortable and everyone is very familiar with each other. There’s just this energy of, “Shoot your shot” and if something’s not funny, we won’t cut it in. Everyone is taking cracks here and there at certain jokes.

It’s not every scene. I would say there are certain scenes, especially the ensemble scenes, where everyone is trying to get a joke in. That ends up being amazing to edit. You’re trying to get your favorite bits in and it turns into, “This is a game where I want to get all my favorite pieces in. Oh, Sterlin has favorite pieces too. Let’s make sure we get those in” and you’re trying to balance it out. Then you watch it and, of course, it’s too long. Then you have to say, “Well, this joke is actually not that funny next to this joke.” You’re constantly redoing the puzzle that is the scene.

I think it’s common for editors to have the mentality of, “Improv is so difficult.” But if you come at it with the attitude of, “Just take what’s funny and leave what’s not” then it’s really not that hard. When you’re watching the dailies, you’re the first audience for the scene. You’re able to just go, “That made me laugh” and, instinctually, you pull it.

In my workflow, I make these big long slick strings of everything.

In my workflow, I make these big long slick strings of everything. I group jokes up where I think they would belong in the scene, in these pods as it goes down the timeline. As I’m piecing the scene together, I can play through my selects for the first section and then keep moving through it. That stuff shifts around all the time, but I find that method to be the most helpful.

MF: We talked about finding yourself in the community like Willie Jack did. There’s also the connection between generations. There is this trauma that takes place between these different generations. How they help one another is something that very quietly but impactfully happens throughout this series.

One episode that is a really good example of that is “Frankfurter Sandwich”, which sounds pretty good cause I haven’t had lunch. It’s a scene of the uncles in the community breaking down, coming to grips with something that happened in their past. It’s an emotional scene, it’s a funny scene, and it’s very familiar and very relatable. I want to hear from you, Patrick, if you don’t mind. How did that all come together and what did you go through to make that episode work as beautifully as you did?

Patrick Tuck: First, I want to mention that I cut that episode with David Chang, who is normally my assistant editor. This season, we had a lot more opportunity to work together as co-editors. We had a great time with that episode. It has a lot of elements that I like. It’s very slow moving. It’s very character-focused, internally, on Cheese.

I think that’s why that scene at the end, sitting around talking to all of the uncles and them breaking down, has some so much impact. You spend the whole episode sitting with Cheese and his emotions, understanding them. You as the viewer are doing what the uncles are doing. You’re trying to get in and you’re trying to understand what he’s going through, because he’s been vague about it.

Then he opens up very casually at the start of the scene and forces everyone to do the same, except that they can’t be casual about it. They’re not in touch with the feelings that they’ve been feeling, so it just pours out.

Mark Schwartzbard, our DP, did an incredible job filming that scene. The camera is revolving around this circle. They had it on the dolly track and it’s revolving back and forth, which is a difficult thing to edit, surprisingly, because you want to feel that momentum constantly through it. You don’t want to feel like you’re suddenly jerked back the other direction.

It was tough to find the right reactions and the right takes to create that sense of movement.

It was tough to find the right reactions and the right takes to create that sense of movement. As you mentioned earlier, the show has a way of figuring itself out and it is very eloquently plotted.

It was really important for us in the edit to emphasize the impact that Cheese’s words are having on the elders in that scene. To do that, it really required us to be in specific POVs at specific times. When Uncle Brownie is brushing off the question and says that he’s a sex addict, and everyone laughs, the POV is wide. We’re feeling what everyone is feeling, feeling that laugh, but also knowing that he’s dodging the question. Then we get to Bucky, who does the same thing. Then we get to Officer Big, who can’t dodge it anymore. You know he’s in it. We’re in this long take of him, and he’s revealing all of these things that he’s been feeling.

The only time we cut to a reaction is with Cheese, who is taking it all in. He has a look of understanding. It’s that dynamic that we tried to keep throughout the scene, including when Bucky reveals that Cheese reminds him of Elder Maximus. It’s important to be close on Bucky for that and close on Cheese taking that in, in order to feel all of their emotions. That’s where our editing techniques came into play to make that scene work.

MF: There’s an episode that you mentioned earlier, Varun, “House Made of Bongs”. The name itself is just…. Come on. Where do you go from there? But it plays into the connection between the generations. That’s where you go back and visit with the oldest generation. It’s in a style that’s reminiscent, as the name would imply, of the film Dazed and Confused. It made me wonder if you actually talked about that film as a touchstone with Sterlin, or with that episode’s director, Blackhorse Lowe.

How did you put that episode together and what were you drawing from to create it? Because it has that great 70’s Dazed and Confused vibe. It really helped close the loop on a lot of things that were happening throughout the series.

Varun Viswanath: I feel like everybody internally always referred to it as the Dazed and Confused episode. The influence was loud and proud and early. Blackgorse Lowe is our go-to director for all these stoner things. He’s just wonderful at it. He has a lightness around his direction where he lets people go, especially in these kinds of drug-trippy episodes.

“House Made of Bongs” felt like cutting another pilot, and that was the most interesting dynamic in that episode. We had to steer what Maximus was doing to get our final results. The actor who played young Maximus, Isaac Arellanes, gave us a lot of range. Then we had to find out how that connected back to the pattern of the Reservation Dogs dynamic of teenagers and their high school lives. Patterning that in a common way, but also filling in the gaps of, “Oh, this is where Grandma Mabel and Grandma Irene and Uncle Brownie started.”

The casting and performances were just so fantastic. I spent that whole time thinking, “Okay, this is the best moment where we just hook in a Brownie and say, ‘That’s Brownie!’ We know who that is. That’s Bucky. We know who that is.” That was the adventure in that episode. Then, towards the end, it became a Close Encounters of the Third Kind inspiration, with the alien. To earn that, we had to have drug-tripped enough before. “Was that real? Was it not?”

We tried to stay in Maximus’s perspective and not give a verdict on whether it was real or not. It was very real to him and the rejection he faced from his friends was very real. You set up the starting point of, “This is where things fray between him and his friends.” That is a pattern of that generation. But in this current generation, when people start wandering away from the group, they pull them back, which is what we do in “Frankfurter Sandwich”. Cheese is starting to stray away from the group and the group pulls him back in.

That generational trauma of, “We’ve now learned that we abandoned them when they needed us. We’re not going to let another one go” is what that pattern starts over there. I really loved leaving all those breadcrumbs in there for the later episodes to pick up. That was the coolest thing for me in working on “House Made of Bongs”. Drop all the crumbs. Pick up crumbs that other episodes left and then drop new ones for later episodes to pick up.

I really loved leaving all those breadcrumbs in there for the later episodes to pick up.

You don’t really know where it’s going. It’s so unpredictable. Nobody can ever tell, “What is going to happen to Maximus? Why are you showing me Maximus? But I’m in it for the ride.” That was my experience working on “House Made of Bongs”.

MF: I think it goes without saying, if you have a house made of bongs, there’s gotta be a lot of crumbs around. It just makes sense. I want to go back a season. I don’t know if Mr. Lowe directed episode eight in season two, “This Is Where the Plot Thickens”.

Varun Viswanath: He did.

MF: Well, there you go. You said he has a gift, aside from just stoner storytelling, for lightness. This is a really tricky episode to me because you have the drug-trippy stuff, which is funny and weird, but then there is also some serious, weird stuff going on in reality.

Patrick Tuck: That was episode eight, which is always the most difficult part of the season. You either don’t have enough episodes locked at that point, or you’re still trying to finish the rough cut of this eighth episode. That one especially took so much experimentation to figure out. “What is the right amount of trippiness? When do we get tired of that trippiness?”

We downloaded a lot of filters and we threw a lot of filters on a lot of clips and just messed around. David Chang helped me edit this episode. We were tweaking things to make them weird and bendy and surreal. Of course, the first cut went too far with it, but it was also a great basis for where it ended up. A lot of the trippy stuff we experimented with actually ended up being in the episode. On top of that, they also shot a few of the scenes with certain lenses. Some were kaleidoscope lenses, where they shot into the sun coming through the trees and it made super trippy effects.

We did a lot of overlaying and crossfades for that. They also shot with a lens where you could rotate it and it would make it wave naturally, which we loved. We wanted to augment that in other areas of the episodes, so we found a filter that sort of did something similar. But I would say, tonally, it was a challenge. At some point, you get tired of seeing someone tripping on acid. It’s not just acid, obviously. He’s on a crazy concoction that Kenny Boy (played by Kirk Fox) created. Black Horse and I were really trying to find that balance.

The key to it was figuring out, “How does this scene internally tell us what’s going on with Big?” We really focused on that. There were other scenes where Officer Big saw Teenie (played by Tamara Podemski) in the present day and she’s holding an alligator. There’s this whole extra meaning behind the seminal woman that he’s envisioning as Teenie. There were a lot of layers there.

We ended up pulling back on those things because it didn’t tell us so much about what Big was going through as much as it was relieving Big’s guilt, which we didn’t want to feel until the end of the episode. It was a massive balancing act of figuring out where, internally, we could read what Big was going through and then to have it all come out while he’s watching this catfish… cult, if you will.

Varun Viswanath: To put it lightly.

Patrick Tuck: That is just so fun, and such a great payoff after going down a crazy trip with him, you know.

MF: It wasn’t that long ago that I was speaking with Varun about another show, Blindspotting, and needle drops played a big part in that show. Same thing here. The needle drops in this series are so eclectic, but also so important to the narrative at times. You open the show with The Stooges “I Wanna Be Your Dog” playing, which is perfect as we’re meeting the Reservation Dogs for the first time, watching them steal a truck.

But then there are episodes where you literally have entire episodes built around a song, like Tom Petty’s “Free Falling” or Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love”. With those, I have to assume that’s baked into the script. But for the others, how are some of those more memorable needle drop choices made?

Varun Viswanath: Tiffany Anders, our music supervisor, surfaces so many amazing musicians and tracks across genres. We lean, punk rock, country rock, and also even towards the moody, ethereal stuff. Sterlin does a fantastic job of discovering and bringing in musicians who have otherwise not had a big presence on TV. He says, “Okay, Native musician, you now have a voice.” Whole episodes get tonally defined by that.

One of them was season two episode three, “Roofing”, the episode with Bear. Initially, when I temped that, it was a lot of Mato Standing Soldier, our music composer’s music from season one being like, “Okay, here is how we’re going to do it.” Then, Sterlin came in and said, “Man, I think we need something different.” He reached out to Samantha Crain, who is a indigenous artist from Oklahoma, and said, “Hey, do you have something?” Samantha sent us a bunch of demos that she was working on, and we loved it so much.

That became the bed of the spiritual, ethereal undertones that led to Bear having this intense but cathartic conversation with Daniel’s dad (played by Michael Spears) and both of them seeing this orb. I don’t think we would have earned the ending of that episode without that music.

The same thing happened in “Deer Lady”, episode 303. Tuck can tell you more about that, but the music for the show… There has always been stuff that I’ve temped in, but Sterlin always comes in and beats it. Tiffany always comes and beats it. Always. That’s been my experience on the show.

There was a point in time where they said, “You know this should be in the 90s. We got a note from higher up saying this should be a nostalgia track. Can we find something that’s 90s nostalgia?” That’s where Sterlin put his foot down and said, “No, this is 90s country nostalgia. It might not be the mainstream nostalgia that everybody else is used to, but I’m going to put my flag in the ground here for the country rock that I grew up with. I’m going to give it a presence.”

I’m going to put my flag in the ground here for the country rock that I grew up with.

MF: Tuck, you mentioned, David, your assistant getting additional editor duties, right? I think you did as well, Varun. I think Marcella Garcia worked with you on 305?

Varun Viswanath: That’s right.

MF: How do you know when to give your assistants editorial duties or additional editor credits? What is the threshold they have to cross, or what are the reasons for why you need to give them that?

Patrick Tuck: A big part of it, to be frank, is you’re trying to balance out the amount of work that you have and you want to get it all done in a timely manner. Part of that is having a helping hand. David and I had worked long enough together that I knew that our tastes were aligned. I had been throwing them scenes for a long time. Part of a “green flag” for me is if someone makes a point of trying to make a scene better without me mentioning something about it.

The way I like to do it is, I’ll delegate a scene and then he’ll pass it back and say, “What do you think of this?” and I’ll give notes and whatnot. Then, he will go back and do another pass with those notes in mind, but also looking at how to make it better in general. It’s those conversations that we have about, “I like how you did that. I’m curious, what inspired that? How did you get to that point?” It was really clear that his passion was there. It was really obvious with David and now he’s his own editor and is incredible.

Varun Viswanath: We are an apprenticeship-based profession, right? I benefited from having incredible mentorship from Yana Gorskaya and Dane McMaster, who are amazing, amazing editors. They brought me along on their adventure for a good five years before setting me up on my own. I credit my being able to work on this show to them.

They brought me along on their adventure for a good five years before setting me up on my own.

I’m trying to do my best to pass that on. This is the third season of TV that I’m working on with Marcella. She’s very hungry to cut scenes. She would always take a couple of scenes every episode and we would notes passes on it. For “House Made of Bongs”, she put her hand up very enthusiastically, saying, “You have a two week break coming up and I want to cut this episode.”

I was initially going to ask Tuck, “Hey can you get this started and I’ll come back and finish it?” But Marcella said, “I want to do it.” She took a full pass of that episode, which was an amazing feat to take on. Especially that episode, which was tonally different. We weren’t hooking straight back through to our series regulars. She did a really fantastic job. Then I spent around three days working on it before it went out. That’s how I want to pay it forward and give my assistants confidence.

In terms of credits, I try to hold myself to a certain standard. If the assistant editor is able to do at least one or two rounds of notes, either from the director, from the producer, or from the network, then I will fight for a co-editing credit. If the editor did first cuts and a couple of rounds of notes, but wasn’t able to participate in later rounds of notes, that’s when I would fight for at least an additional editor credit.

MF: The show is called Reservation Dogs. There’s a Reservoir Dogs poster in one character’s room, and then at one point you have a reference to Hattori Hanzo, the samurai sword maker from Kill Bill. What is with the Quentin Tarantino connection here? Am I making more of it than there is? Or is there something at play here?

Varun Viswanath: It is exactly what it is. It is paying homage to Quentin Tarantino’s style of filmmaking and his respect for pop culture and how that plays back into references, his unique choice of music. As Sterlin puts it, it’s a very catchy title. Taika and Sterlin came up with the idea of calling it Reservation Dogs as, of course, a play on Reservoir Dogs.

Also, that is the way that people in these small communities in rural America interface with pop culture. So much is through film and television. It is a nod to his own experience of growing up where he did. A lot of people say, “You work on Resservoir Dogs!?” I wish I worked on Reservoir Dogs, but I work on Reservation Dogs. But I’ll take it.

Patrick Tuck: It happens all the time.

MF: Well, listen, I don’t know if that’s the perfect last question to end on, but at least they didn’t ask you which character you relate to most. Be thankful for that.

Varun Viswanath: No Facebook quizzes. Thank you.

Matt Feury

Matt Feury is host and producer of The Rough Cut podcast, as well as the Sr. Director, Market Solutions – Video & Post for Avid.